If you’re going to talk about Peter Milligan, it’s best to start with Shade The Changing Man. It’s not his first work, but it’s probably his best known, and certainly the book that put him on the map with North American readers.
Milligan’s series shares the name and basic concept of a short-lived Steve Ditko series from the late seventies. I’ve never read the original book, and am only familiar with the character through a few appearances in Suicide Squad (Has he appeared anywhere else?) It’s about, basically, a guy from another dimension who comes to earth to fight a madness monster.
But that’s not really the point. The point is that he needs to occupy a body in Earth’s dimension. The body he ends up in is that of a serial killer who’s just been executed. And the first person he meets upon escaping is the woman whose parents were murdered by that serial killer (which also resulted in the death of her boyfriend). And then they go on a road trip.
Sometimes Shade goes looking for Weird Shit. Sometimes, Weird Shit finds Shade. There’s a giant JFK Sphinx that wreaks havoc in Dallas, and a movie set gone crazy in Hollywood. The sixties come back to San Francisco, a man finds a way to maintain normalcy in his quiet suburb, and a bunch of fish go around judging people.
But at the centre of it all, Shade – at least for the first thirty issues or so – is about a woman who’s lost everything that’s important to her and is perpetually on the verge of checking out and never coming back, and the only thing keeping her even remotely sane is a crazy man from another dimension. Shade is what keeps the plot moving, but Kathy is the heart of the book.
She’s flawed, of course: She lies, she cheats, she’s not particularly faithful to Shade in any sense. Things only get more complicated with the addition of Lenny to the cast, an amoral bisexual bohemian with a sharp tongue and perhaps more sanity than Shade and Kathy put together. It’s Lenny’s addition to the cast that solidifies the book’s dynamic: She’s sane enough to help keep Kathy together, but strange enough to take Shade’s weirdness in stride.
How much weirdness? Well, Shade has some body issues. He occasionally loses control of the serial killer whose body he’s occupying. He turns into a woman for a while. He has an adventure with James Joyce and Ernest Hemmingway. He accidentally eavesdrops on a sensitive conversation while he’s turned himself into a bedsheet. Back in the day, Peter Milligan was every bit as weird as Grant Morrison. (Something that’s even more amply demonstrated in Animal Man) While Morrison may have made waves by meeting one of his characters, Milligan took it one step further and had sex with one of his.
But what keeps Shade from being one of those lame post-Morrison Vertigo books of the nineties is the Milligan touch. For all the madness, the book remains centered around the characters. There’s a method to Milligan’s madness most of the time, with Shade’s various transmutations and permutations functioning as ways to make the characters dance.
It’s also full of Milligan’s pet themes. The series starts off with a roadtrip across America, an exploration of the land of the free. JFK, Hollywood, the sixties, suburbia, and the Wild West. The iconography of American culture provides a nice foil for a character who can make thoughts reality, and it’s something Milligan will come back to on several occasions, most notably in Human Target.
Shade is also about identity, as almost everyone in the book struggles to figure out who they are at one point or another. For Shade, it’s an ongoing concern, complicated by multiple bodies and psychoses; for Kathy it’s life-threatening, and for Lenny, it’s more of a mild preoccupation brought on by excessive weirdness. That identity, for all three, is wound in another of Milligan’s themes – the outsider. It’s a fairly common thread for comic books, ever since Stan Lee decided to turn nerds and losers into superheroes, but Milligan’s characters are outside even those boundaries. Shade’s not even human, while Kathy and Lenny have chosen their own peculiar lots in life.
The publication status of Shade is more than a trifle unfortunate. DC collected the first six issues in trade paperback, but it didn’t seem to sell well enough to merit a second volume. On the one hand, one can’t really blame a publisher for not continuing with an unprofitable series, particularly given how patient Vertigo usually is with this sort of thing. But The American Scream probably isn’t the best introduction to Shade.
Like many Vertigo books, Shade took a little while to find its feet. While I think the first issue is tremendous, things get very dense and complicated after that. Lenny doesn’t make an appearance in this volume. And Chris Bachalo’s pencils don’t really look like the Chris Bachalo here; Bachalo employs a fairly standard style, barely recognizeable as the star he is today. Given a few more issues – maybe in a second volume, maybe just by making the first volume heavier – readers would have seen a more fluid story, the complete cast, and some more distinctive art.
So alas – if you want to read Shade, you’re probably going to have to track down back issues, though thankfully they aren’t too hard to find or too expensive. But you could buy American Scream anyway, and write angry letters to DC demanding more volumes.(Because that works sometimes? I don’t know. I’m a lousy activist.)
But however you do it, Shade is worth the read. It has some rough patches, and it doesn’t always make sense to a generally sane person, but it’s full of weirdness, fun, literary team-ups, and hot lesbian sex. It may not be Peter Milligan’s best work, but it’s perhaps the most quintessentially Milligan work you’re likely to find.