Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Shadowline Saga: Before It's Time


A good friend of mine got me back into comics a few years ago, and after going to conventions with him and seeing his sketchbook of Punisher drawings by various artists, I started thinking that I might like a character sketchbook as well, but who to pick? I didn't have a favorite character really, I'd been a fan of Deadpool, but as he was on the rise in popularity, there were going to be a lot of sketches of him out there.
Then I remembered an old Marvel character from the 90s named Terror. Terror had the unusual ability of being able to graft various limbs onto his body, and gain their memories and abilities. A frequent application of his abilities was to take the ear and the eye of someone who was recently deceased, which would grant him the ability to see and hear the person's memories. Additionally he could use the hands of a locksmith to gain the ability to pick locks, or a helicopter pilot, and so on. His gimmick was interesting, but even better for the purposes of a sketchbook, his look was even more so. Terror's a perpetually rotting horror, with often mismatched pieces, and spines that extend a foot or so straight out to the sides of his head. He's typically wearing a suit, trench coat and fedora. In other words, he looks revoltingly awesome.
I figured that probably very few people are going to remember him, thus I would need some reference art, after looking around online, I discovered that comics, at least from that era, are stupidly cheap, and you can get just about every Terror appearance ever for about $50. In the process of this I found that Terror didn't actually originate in the Marvel universe proper, but in a shared universe of comics under the Epic imprint called the Shadowline Saga. Back then he was called Shrek (not the Disney ogre).
The Shadowline Saga started as three books, Doctor Zero, Powerline, and St. George, the original plan called for a interlaced arc of 12 issues for each title, but they were cancelled due to poor sales, and the plot was wrapped up in a combined title, Critical Mass. Eventually this universe was brought into the Marvel mutliverse, and Terror somehow managed to make the hop over to the main Marvel universe.
In the Shadowline universe there is a race of creatures called Shadows, that evolved parallel to humanity, extremely long lived and powerful, the Shadows seem to have the natural advantage of humanity, but they reproduce much less rapidly than mankind, and soon the sheer number of humans versus Shadows prevented them from being the dominant species. Rather than just dying out, they instead decided to live amongst humans, since most of them were able to at least appear human. Shadows have no limit to their natural life span, left to their own devices, they could live forever, however, once they have children, they lose that immortality, and live a human lifespan from that point on. Additionally, Shadows typically all posses some sort of special power, just like Mutants in the Marvel universe, the powers vary greatly, from being able to teleport entire cities around, to simply being able to turn one's hands to steel at will.
St. George - Follows an order of Shadows that have grouped together in a monastery, and believe in the power of the human spirit to over come "The Dragon of Injustice" also sometimes called the Draghinazzo (More on that later). The order crafts a suit of armor and a weapon, and endows a normal human with it, granting them abilities powered by their faith. The story mostly follows a Catholic priest that's started to lose his faith in the church and himself. I was really very impressed by the portrayal of faith in this title, it wasn't the simple heavy-handed "believe, because without belief, there's nothing" moral that I so often see in fiction. Rather the knight must find faith in himself, and his ability to tell right from wrong, true he's Catholic, but the order of St George has recruited knights from many religions, one of the more prominent knights was a buddhist. During his quest to right the wrongs that he sees, the Knight comes up against Shrek (Terror) and earn his enmity by making him look bad. Shrek hounds him through the rest of the storyline, trying to rebuild his reputation by putting the Knight in his place.
Powerline - Is a story about two Shadows with weak powers, one has the ability to slightly reduce her mass, allowing her to jump particularly high, and the other has a weak field which is barely strong enough to repulse light gunfire. Both of them are fairly young, and their families are wiped out by another family of Shadows that have become a sort of mafia type organization, selling drugs to make a living. When the two come in contact with each other, however, their powers both become greater, and are shared. So they both have forcefields that repel all damage, are able to fly, possess heightened strenght, and the ability to protect energy blasts. Most of the story involves them simultaneously trying to bring their families' murderers to justice, and to maintain a public persona as heroes, so that Shadows may one day be able to come out in the open.
Doctor Zero - I saved the most interesting for the last, Doctor Zero is the oldest Shadow on the planet, he was formed from the primordial ooze before mammalian life was even a thought. He's not invulnerable, but he's close, with an extremely dense musculature, he's able to fly, has super strength, can create bubbles of vacuum, then explode their contents, and manipulate the thoughts and memories of others. The interesting thing about Zero is that he's not a good person at all, he maintains a public persona as a hero, because it's useful for his goals, but he also sneaks around manipulates, or outright assassinates anyone that might cause him trouble. He aquires a tropical island home by simply erasing all knowledge of it from the family who owns it. In another age, Zero went by the name Draghinazzo, that's right the "dragon of injustice" that St. George is dedicated to eradicating. Every knight of St. George is charged with assassinating Zero, and a lot of them get killed by him, the few that succeed, only manage to injure him so much that he is forced for hibernate for a few centuries. Just because Zero is a selfish jerk though, doesn't mean that he's not working towards good things. His primary motivation is that he wants to live forever, and enjoy the Earth, so he's dedicated his considerable life to keeping the Earth inhabitable in the extremely long term. Everything he does, he does to make sure that he retains a way to stay alive, which is good for humanity, because it would be bad if the entire planet was reverted to a wasteland (which is the crisis that the series builds towards in Critical Mass).
I was very impressed with this series, for a 30 year old comic, it was surprisingly dark and mature, with some especially convincing moral struggles, even Powerline which seems like it should be pretty straightforward eventually delves into some questional situations. I would say it's worth a read, you can get the whole thing in back issues for about $30 I believe, and it's a worthy beginning to the character of Terror.

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