Shade, the Changing Man Vol. 1: The American Scream

Written by Peter Milligan
Penciled by Chris Bachalo
Inked by Mark Pennington
168 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

When the Vertigo line first began in 1993, there were six existing series that had blazed the trails to get there. The “youngest” of the six series was Peter Milligan’s and Chris Bachalo’s Shade, the Changing Man, created by two virtually unknown creators. Now, a decade later, both have gone onto greater fame on a variety of different projects, and Shade, the Changing Man tops far too many “series I’d like to see collected into trade paperbacks” list. With the release of Shade, the Changing Man: The American Scream earlier this year, it’s hopefully the first of many collected volumes of this classic series.

Kathy George has had better days. Her parents were murdered by psychopath Troy Grenzer, and then the police mistakenly killed her boyfriend when they thought he was responsible. As Troy Grenzer’s execution arrives, Kathy fears that she’s starting to truly go mad. Then Troy’s dead body gets inhabited by an alien named Shade from the planet Meta who claims to wield a “madness vest” and is here to defeat the American Scream, and that’s when Kathy understands it all. She is definitely going mad.

When Shade, the Changing Man first debuted back in 1990, it quickly gained a reputation as a series unafraid to tackle a subject. We’re not talking about just the little things like racism and violence. Shade hit the big sacred cows; in a day and age where Milligan’s current storyline in X-Statix had to be altered to no longer have Princess Diana come back from the dead, it’s pretty funny to see this older storyline involving the John F. Kennedy Sphinx materializing throughout Dallas with its riddle, “Who killed JFK?” asked over and over again. Even if you strip away the controversy, though, this collection of Shade is still an exceptionally strong offering. The ideas of the American Scream menacing Earth and the madness stream that Shade and Kathy ride along are good ones, and Milligan is careful to keep Shade from becoming a “weirdness of the week” book with its continuing storylines of the government tracking our heroes, the remnants of Troy’s personality still in his body, and the question of what’s really happening to Shade’s original body. Far cleverer than people remember, Shade, the Changing Man: The American Scream shows a younger Milligan’s writing already full of his now trademark intelligence and crazy ideas.

Bachalo’s pencils, coupled with Mark Pennington’s inks, look really nice here. Those who have only seen Bachalo’s most recent art on books like New X-Men and Steampunk might be surprised to find a much more controlled, precise artist on display. Bachalo and Pennington carefully create a group of characters that look realistic, defining their appearance in a pleasant, stylized but still normal way. Then when the madness finally hits, Bachalo’s allowed to really go berserk. It’s the little details that work so well, from the motion squiggles around Shade and Kathy as they lurch through the air in an attempt to fly, to the cacophony of JFK images in the background as Shade and Mary-Ann travel through the Kennedy Sphinx. Madness never looked so appealing. The only thing that makes this book look like it was produced thirteen years ago instead of just now is some of the computer-based coloring; with the technology still in its infancy, Danny Vozzo’s experiments didn’t always replicate on the page as well as he’d hoped, but before long you’ll have forgotten about it entirely.

With the first six issues collected into one volume, Shade, the Changing Man: The American Scream is a fantastic first step in what hopefully will be a continuing journey. Milligan and Bachalo alone stayed together through the first 50 issues, so there’s a lot more madness in store for readers. Even if this is the only collection, though, it’s a trip into the psyche of America that you’ll never regret.

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