Jun 4, 2017

The Shadow Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men... But it Takes Andy Helfer to Write a Funny Comic About It

By some circuitous route of mental off-ramps and scenic drives, which I could detail but will spare you from, I found myself recently thinking about some favorite old "Shadow" comics I've had for many years --- specifically, numbers 15 and 16 from the late '80s run by Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker. I'm still fascinated by them all these years later, and felt compelled to dig them out of deep storage once again, to revisit the Inquisitor character they depict. No description can do Baker's art here justice, but he gives us a grotesque powdered-wig wearing judge, pulled around in some sort of wheeled hackney by a little crowd of villainous riff-raff. This lunatic shouts orders, waves his gavel, and delivers swift "justice" on any unfortunates who cross his path. It was just as darkly comic and artfully drawn as I remembered.

Already coasting down these obscure backwaters, I further

wondered: Whatever happened to Andy Helfer anyway (I know what Baker's up to, more or less; I've kept up with his work off and on over the years)?

Wikipedia was not too helpful. Strange to find that his last writing credit is for what looks to be some sort of graphic hagiography of John McCain in 2008.

But a couple search results down was something much more promising: an article entitled "The Legend of Andy Helfer" at CBR.com. It turns out I'm not the only person who fondly remembers this comic (and others he wrote or edited, many of which I'm only vaguely familiar with).

The "Legend" adjective here is justified, I think. There is indeed something a bit curious about Helfer's legacy and (perhaps, for some of us) regrettable in that it was "the road not taken" by mainstream comics at large. As the CBR writer (Timothy Callahan) puts it:

There’s a parallel dimension out there somewhere, let’s call it Earth-AH, which is almost identical to our reality, except Andy Helfer successfully founded his own comic book imprint at DC and it became more successful than Vertigo. On Earth-AH, “mature readers” comics of the 1990s and 2000s weren’t heavily influenced by moody Brits and their fancy literary aspirations. On Earth-AH, mainstream comics are still arty and trashy and pulpy and strange. And viciously funny. Not ironic funny, but pie-to-the-face funny, and the pie is filled with hilarious razor blades.

That somewhat captures the sense I had when I discovered those two "Shadow" comics. They were a revelation of sorts, a radically different sensibility, very funny, but also serious and "mature." I tried to read some of the acclaimed comics of that era, and some had their merits no doubt, but none of them grabbed me like Helfer & Baker's "Shadow" --- a comic which seemed almost unknown to anyone else, anywhere in the world, as far as I could tell. It's often like that when you find something really, really good of course --- you can't believe that the whole world isn't on fire, shouting from the rooftops about this brilliant work of comic book genius, and boy doesn't the coloring complement the art well, and what about those whacky circular word balloons? and etc. Stupid world!

Back then, with my limited transportation and being constantly harried by school and homework and the like, I didn't even have the focus or know-how to get my hands on more issues. It seemed to come from a parallel universe indeed --- a "prestige" book DC might have called it (costing a whole $1.75! a fortune to me), probably only available at select comic shops.

Callahan's article gives a very useful overview of the highlights of Helfer's writing and editing career, including this take on the mind-unclouding series in question:

“The Shadow” wasn’t the first Andy Helfer-written series at DC, but t[sic] was the first and only great one, this two-year run followed the Howard Chaykin revamp of the character, and Helfer was joined by phenomenal artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker. Helfer’s series was far more manic, darkly humorous, and absurd than Chaykin’s retro-cool take, and it has remained unfinished after all these years, with the final issue ending on a cliffhanger and promising more. Still, it remains an astonishingly good run — a Shadow comic that transcends all other Shadow comics — and it showed what Helfer’s sensibility was all about, unfettered as it was in this series.

Helfer's sensibility, yes, what was going on there? To me, speculating, it seems like maybe he was influenced by comic novelists like Kurt Vonnegut or that sort of thing. I'm not really a Vonnegut fan, but there is that sense of manic comic energy, a large and chaotic cast and bizarre happenings. What's amazing is that Baker (a writer himself) was so perfect to capture that vision. Of course Sienkiewicz is a great cartoonist, but I don't think he was so in sync with the Helfer lunacy. Baker developed this very original cartoony minimalist style with elements of realism mixed in that just worked beautifully. Well, I'm sure it was a pastiche of '80s illustration influences and other things, but it was NOT like other comics on the stands (or today), and yet for my money head and shoulders above them.

I did eventually track down most of the other issues, and while great to have and look at from time to time, I can't say it still "spoke" to me quite like those original two issues did. But it may have suffered from reading too many too quickly. If read in monthly installments it might still deliver that original zing. Definitely recommended to at least check out. And see what you and everyone else in the world has been missing...

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