A Literal Death Trap (Book Three, Part 30: Milligan’s Batman, The Road, Shade the Changing Woman
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Of Milligan’s early DC work, it is his time writing Batman stories that exposed him to the largest audience.
“They make absolutely no sense. It’s a literal death trap. Riddler’s rules mean there’s no way to win this game.” -Kieron Gillen, “The Riddle”
Things began to settle down in Milligan’s next story, the two-part “The Golem of Gotham,” which uses the extended space to tell a moving and effective story of the long legacy of trauma in which a Holocaust survivor creates a golem to fight back against neo-nazi gangs and must them confront the golem going out of control. And his fourth, “Identity Crisis,” sees him merging his penchant for the bizarre and the grotesque with his obligatory upbringing on Future Shocks to create story about madness and delusion that resolves with appealing tidiness.
Milligan took a few issues off for Louise Simonson to do some issues after “Identity Crisis” before returning again for two more stories. One of these, “The Idiot,” was a four-part crossover with Batman that showed Milligan at his most undisciplined and excessive, but the other, “The Bomb,” was an effective little tragedy about a woman held prisoner by the military because she’s a living bomb in which Milligan shows a deft command of characterization and the emotional beats. Another break of a few issues followed before Milligan came back for one more, “The Library of Souls,” a serial killer mystery about a man with a radical idea for restructuring the Dewey Decimal System.
This last issue captures a strange sort of dualism. Milligan has by this point mastered a sort of simple directness—a renegade serial killer librarian is the sort of goofy nothing upon which literally hundreds of issues of Batman comics had been written before Milligan. His take is weird and has a dark undercurrent, but it’s still fundamentally a disposable piece of pop culture detritus meant to be consumed, smiled at, and forgotten in somebody’s longbox. A few months later he demonstrated his complete acclimation to the form with a forty-eight page one-shot called Catwoman Defiant that was at last utterly devoid of any spark, soul, or interest—a generic potboiler of no note whatsoever. Within the arc of a career that began with Milligan being rashly, defiantly difficult, this marks a strange and bitter sort of triumph.
But it also, in many ways, shows the fatal flaw of Milligan—the thing that would ultimately preclude him from the heights that Moore, Morrison, or Gaiman could and did reach. Where Morrison could also flex from the ambitious conceptualism of Bible John to a silly origin story of the Justice League’s home base, they were also capable of occupying spaces in between, as they did in much of Animal Man. Milligan, meanwhile, could only ever sit at the two extremes of the spectrum. He could pen difficult, unapproachable, but clearly brilliant comics or he could pen goofy, disposable, basically fun to read comics, but he could not combine the two—his growth at the latter came at the strange expense of his ability to incorporate the elements that had made his earlier work distinctive.
With the mammoth American Scream arc complete, Milligan offered a one-off Christmas issue in which Shade reminisces about the Metan equivalent of Christmas, a celebration of when a messiah figure dug up the dead to bring them back to life called the Day of Bones (“In older days folk would dig up the actual bones of relatives and hang them in their parlors festooned with garlands of flowers and tinsel. Nowadays the skeletons are plastic, usually filled with a special liquid that glows with bright colors. Sometimes the plastic skeletons play tunes. Some people think the Day of Bones is becoming too commercial. We’re forgetting the real meaning of digging up our ancestors’ skeletons.”) before confronting a madman who insists that he’s the new Messiah and therefore wants to kill him because he hates Christmas, ultimately escaping by unleashing the moral part of his personality that had previously assisted him against the Scream. This issue—the last to be included in any of DC’s trade paperback collections of the series—was everything a Christmas special should be: an engaging one-off introduction to the book’s virtues wrapped up in a delightful Jamie Hewlett cover.
The next six issues formed a short arc called “The Road” that sought to shake up the book’s status quo. Shade reunites with Kathy and Lenny, who have become lovers, and they embark on a road trip. Or at least, they attempt to. Instead they find themselves trapped along a single stretch of road, unable to drive away from a graveyard of automobiles and plagued by endless weird visions. Through all of this, Shade is troubled by memories of a night at a bar before he reunited with Kathy in which he allowed his amoral self to take control. The confined environment allows a steady ratcheting up of the tensions among the main characters as Shade’s amoral self becomes increasingly present and insistent, taking the name Hades and sleeping with Lenny. Eventually it emerges that the night Hades took over Shade’s body he got Shade killed, and that Shade has spent the preceding five issues using the madness to give himself form, resulting in all the weird events of the arc.
The result is an ironic arc. It is undoubtedly effective, demonstrating that the basic setup that Milligan has—Shade, Kathy, and Lenny going around having adventures—is a stable one that could tell lots of stories. But it also fundamentally disrupts that status quo, ensuring that the book won’t actually use this setup beyond this arc, even if it does keep its best feature, the delightful dynamic that exists among the three of them. The result is slightly self-defeating. But in many ways more notable is the way in which the arc forms a clear transition in Milligan’s career. Its third issue, Shade the Changing Man #22, marks his final collaboration with Brendan McCarthy, the artist he came up with in Sounds and worked with on the bulk of his breakout works in the UK market. McCarthy instead transitioned into Hollywood, becoming a designer for a myriad of films. He continued to provide Shade the Changing Man covers for another year or so, and Milligan adapted one of his ideas into a miniseries called The Extremist, but this was the end of their active collaborations. McCarthy would circle back to comics occasionally in the decades to follow, most obviously working with Al Ewing on some 2000 AD strips in the early 2010s, while Milligan would go on to have a career increasingly untethered by his roots in the British industry.
In the wake of “The Road” Milligan had an obvious narrative problem to solve, namely that his main character lacked a body and was gradually losing coherence and accidentally becoming furniture. After a much-needed interlude issue throwing the spotlight onto Lenny, Milligan deals with the problem when a car careens into the lake, allowing Shade the opportunity to take another about-to-die body. The complication comes when it turns out that the body is that of a woman, and more to the point that her psyche is pushing through in much the same way that Troy Grenzer’s had, demanding that Shade deal with the unresolved traumas of her life. This is the impetus for a short arc untangling them—it’s ultimately a bit of southern gothicism about a wealthy Senator who keeps his deformed child locked in a basement and who hired the twin sister of the woman Shade is possessing. But more to the point, while all of this is going on Shade is trapped in a feminine body.
This fact is conspicuously foregrounded. The first issue of the arc features a logo reworked to read “Shade the Changing Woman” in pinks and purples over a Brendan McCarthy portrait of Shade’s new form, breasts emphasized and with the word “hermaphrodite” hanging over the entire thing. The subsequent two issues of the arc also bear the “Shade the Changing Woman” title, and Milligan interpolates his busty portrait into all of three covers. All of this converges to make “Shade’s a woman now” the explicit and clear focus of the story. And that emphasis is heightened by the first page, which begins after Shade has already possessed the body before the story subsequently flashes back to explain how we got here. The first panel is a tight close-up of Shade’s eyes, usually green but now a soft amethyst, widened with a focus on the long, curled lashes. “In the dark, if I lay still, the difference was hardly noticeable,” Shade narrates. “But I could feel them, soft counter balances, moving when I moved. What was I supposed to say? That I went to bed with a penis and a flat chest and woke up with neither?” The focus on Shade’s new breasts returned when the scene was revisited a few pages later: “I felt giddy and strangely excited, a kind of pleasant ache in a part of my belly I never knew existed. And then I moved and I felt them, moving as I moved… and the weight of the bed-covers defined a new shape.”
There is, obviously, a slightly tawdry quality to this—one that continues throughout the arc. Shade, Kathy, and Lenny head out to investigate and try to understand what Shade’s body’s former occupant wants and Shade finds herself having to get information out of a dashing cop by flirting with him. (“Belly in, chest out, smile sweetly. His imagination will do the rest. Oh, and use your pout. I’ve known girls who would kill for your pout,” Lenny advises.) As Shade walks up, she reflects, “I hadn’t realized how a skirt made you feel. It was like having ropes tied around your legs. I couldn’t walk properly, not like I did before, when I was a man. I felt ridiculous… I felt horribly excited.” Later scenes highlight it hurting the first time she has sex, have a nice comedy sequence about Shade getting her period, and generally linger in this space of horrified pleasure.
It is impossible to talk about this without discussing the larger cultural presentation of transgender issues. Certainly this has become one of the things the book is known for, making it a mainstay on timelines of queer themes in comics. And Milligan leans into it—when Shade expresses horror at the prospect of being a woman, Lenny wryly comments, “a man trapped in a woman’s body, huh?” tacitly echoing the stock description of gender dysphoria. Later, Shade reflects, “what is a woman anyway? What’s the difference? Not just breasts and a few different pipes. Was I a woman because I had all the parts Without the experience of a life as a woman?” There’s even the standard scene in which Kathy (somewhat puzzlingly given her bisexuality) insists, “just stop talking about this. I just want this woman thing to be over” before abruptly vomiting, a plot point Milligan got to two months before The Crying Game and a year and a half before Ace Ventura: Pet Detective used the same exact trope (although to be fair, both of those films feature characters vomiting at the revelation of a trans character’s gender assigned at birth, thus rejecting the validity of their gender, while Kathy vomits precisely because she does accept that Shade is now a woman).
In one sense, all of this has the obvious hallmarks of a heterosexual cis man writing about trans characters. Shade’s body is fetishized and objectified, the act of transition fundamentally treated as taboo, its pleasures forbidden. Trans identities are fundamentally othered at every turn. There are worse fates, to be sure—for all that it makes use of some unpleasant tropes, the “Shade the Changing Woman” arc is fundamentally invested in empathizing with the trans perspective, or at least with a fantastical version of it. Its efforts are cack-handed, but its heart is in the right place even if its understanding of the trans experience is more fictional than observational.
Or is it? The final issue of the “Shade the Changing Woman” arc came out in September 1992. The next month the alt.transgendered group was established. This was a part of Usenet—a distributed discussion system that had existed since 1979 as part of the emerging Internet and, by the early 90s, was starting to become more prominent as an increasing number of university students gained access. The alt.transgendered group existed as an alternative to alt.sex.trans, whose place in the alt.sex hierarchy meant that it focused on more lurid content than on the trans community per se. In contrast, alt.transgendered was intended to be a place for more serious discussion of trans issues, and many of its earliest posts are sincere queries about the effects of HRT and how to go about navigating the process, which, in the early 1990s, was still dominated by gatekeeping procedures created to ensure the wrong sorts of trans woman didn’t get health care. [continued]
November 18, 2021 @ 2:23 am
Interesting. I completely missed the back half of Shade, for exactly the reason you pointed out last post — the Kathy rape scene. I’d been an occasional, pick-it-up reader up to that point; after that, it was a book I walked right past.
(It wasn’t just the nastiness of the rape scene, though that was certainly a thing. It was that it was telegraphed literally from the first issue. I remember reading that issue and thinking that was where this was going.)
Also, Shade was kind of obviously a writer stand-in. Like, the bit where he talks about the coat being the sort of thing he used to wear before he got old… Milligan was a decrepit 30 year old when he wrote that. More generally “alien as a commentary on the alienation and weirdness of American life” is a perfectly reasonable trope, even if it has been done a bajillion times. But somehow Shade felt, in his attitudes and his responses, specifically, like a thirtyish English dude.
Anyway: apparently I missed some interesting stuff, go figure. That said, Milligan is still a pretty minor character in the War compared to Gaiman, Ennis, Ellis, or (sigh) Millar.