VALIANT (all capitals, all the time) was a publisher that achieved success and some arguable notoriety in the early 90's as it rose and fell amid the speculator boom that destabilised much of the comic book industry. The superhero line it started under the guidance of luminaries such as Jim Shooter, Barry Windsor Smith, Bob Layton and many others - a mix of veteran and new talents alike - took a quite different approach to their major competitors.
The books read differently - the timeline was in real time so characters were aging in real time and they looked different, with a painted colour approach that only one other notable publisher had anything similar to (Milestone - a subject of future posts no doubt). The books were rooted in an initially defined pseudo-science. In all, they were not Marvel, DC or Image (the latter the young upstarts of the era). And of course I overlooked them. By the time I was aware of VALIANT, their back issues were going for vastly inflated prices (that speculator boom), which of course settled down after their demise as a business. The properties have since been acquired by VALIANT Entertainment Inc., but only 3 collections of recoloured old material (with some new supplementary material) have appeared - none of them Shadowman.
Cut to a few years ago and I chanced on a very cheap VALIANT back issue. Intrigued I picked up more and more, and in time discovered some real gems, the greatest revelation for me being Shadowman, the series about the travails of Jack Boniface as he faces up to the responsibilities and challenges that come with his acquired power. This is not the Shadowman of the later video-game; that was a connected character but a different take in many ways.
The initial art by David Lapham suited the book, and the stories I found intriguing, and certainly not typical superhero fayre. Reading that early stuff though made me feel that those responsible for the book knew they had a solid idea but didn't quite know what to do with it. That feeling was compounded for me by the myriad writers the book had. Between issues 1 and 6 there are 9 people given story or writing credits. Not the best way to find a 'voice'. To me the voice of a comic book is the tone, the rhythm of the storytelling, the dialogue, the pacing - all those things combined.
With the arrival of Bob Hall I think the book found it's voice. When Bob took on the art (especially with Tom Ryder's inking), the book takes off for me in terms of direction, story focus, character development, seeing the world(s) that Shadowman and Jack Boniface inhabit and so on. The cast grew and grew, with seemingly minor characters coming back time and again. A larger picture developed, but as it did so the style of the book changed subtly, as did the look of the titular hero going from a fairly straight spandex look to something more rooted in the 'real world' in some ways.
Pick an issue in the late teens and compare the art to the early 40's issues. The art becomes more expressive in the time between. The story increasingly highlights that Shadowman and Jack Boniface may share the one body, but they are not one and the same.
As the book progresses Shadowman (the character) becomes wilder, increasingly atavistic. We are guided through a nightmarish world of his fictionalised New Orleans with crazy voodoo mixing with vigilantism and Jack Boniface's gradually splintering and fragmenting sense of himself and his alter ego. It is a great, dark, ride. Silly at times, yes. Removed from the pseudo-science of the majority of the rest of the VALIANT line? Undoubtedly. But it feels true to the creative vision behind it, although I felt a sense of self-parody towards the end as issues hurtle along at break-neck pace until we are left with an amazing and unresolved cliffhanger.
I am still wondering what Bob Hall intended with this - to leave the audience wanting more? To send a message to the owners regarding the changes that had occurred at VALIANT? Had he written himself into a corner he felt unable to get out of? Was he poking fun at the '1999 prophecy' (whereby the title hero looked to have his days numbered) which effectively acted to limit any real sense of peril for the character? Was he trying to communicate an essential truth of the character of Jack Boniface as he (Hall) perceived him? To be honest, I don't know. All I can say is that it was an exhilarating ride. One which I can't wait to take again.
To anyone who likes to hunt out back issues of comics, you could do worse than give Shadowman a try, a series from one of my favourite Dead Universes, and most especially the Bob Hall tenure.
Characters and images are ™ , ® and © Valiant Entertainment