Shade the Changing Man #1-4
Plot and art by Steve Ditko
Dialogue by Michael Fleisher
Colored by Liz Berube (#1) & Jerry Serpe (#3)
Lettered by Bill Morse (#3)
In the parallel dimension known as Meta, the villanous Crimesters engineer a daring prison break that transports hundreds of Meta's most dangerous criminals into the "Zero-Zone" that lies between Meta and Earth. Among these criminals is ex-secret agent Rac Shade, who escapes to the Earth-zone to hunt down the criminals who framed him for treason. Unfortunately for Shade, the person in charge of tracking down the escaped criminals is the one person who hates him more than anything in the world - his ex-fiancee, Mellu Loron!
Shade is potentially an artist's dream - the "M-Vest" he wears warps your perception of him based on your emotional state. This is the sort of power that seems made for comics - a character whose very appearance warps from panel to panel in wild and unpredictable ways. In the hands of a virtuoso artist, Shade could be a killer book. Unfortunately, Steve Ditko is not a virtuoso artist. I love the guy's work, and he's a wonderful storyteller, but he really doesn't draw pictures that take your breath away. So Shade usually winds up looking like this...
He looks like he's wearing a Carnival costume with a giant papier-mache head. Not exactly a look that strikes terror into your enemies. It doesn't help that you can see his normal body under the distorted vision - it makes everything overly complicated and hard to decipher at times.1 The sad thing is, on the very next page Ditko demonstrates that he can draw a great freak-out...
Mellu's strange, fluid, and utterly disturbing transformation is some of Ditko's best drawing. He depict multiple forms of body anxiety in a single drawing - aging, teeth falling out, losing control of your own body - you name it, it's there. Even that initial image of Mellu's hands fluidly smooshing together is oddly disturbing. Unfortunately, all this does is underscore how badly Ditko dropped the ball with Shade himself.
As for the story, it's utterly pedestrian. Each issue a new criminal escapes from the Zero-Zone, Shade tries to take them down without running afoul of Mellu, and gathers tidbits of information that bring him one step closer to proving his innocence. It's a lot like The A-Team, if Mr. T wore spandex and turned into a giant baby whenever people were scared of him. Shade is a generic "outlaw" super-hero, Mellu's hatred makes her a rather one-dimensional character, and the villains are just there to be punching bags. There are some hints of something greater going on - for instance, the Supreme Decider of the Crimesters seems to have some sort of relationship with both Mellu and Shade - but nothing is given a chance to develop.
Overall, Shade the Changing Man is an interesting idea with a poor execution. Fortunately, fifteen years later Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo were able to create a much more interesting take on the premise for Vertigo...
- Note the way that Shade's left hand in the first panel lines up with his right hand in the second panel. This is usually a nice way to guide your eyes between panels, but here the correspondence is too exact - the index finger lines up with the shoulder, the other fingers with the forearm, etc. It's too pat and it draws attention to the gimmick rather than the transition.