Previously in The Last War in Albion: Midway through Peter Milligan’s run on Shade the Changing Man a number of British Invasion titles were rebranded under the new imprint Vertigo, which launched with some additional material harvested from Disney’s aborted Touchmark imprint including Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma.
“Pitiful. Cruel. Tyrant. Narcissist. No better than the man you possessed. I loved you and you killed me.” -Cecil Castellucci, Shade the Changing Woman
Milligan was helped here by Fegredo, who dialed back the McKean-esque excesses of Kid Eternity to a more straightforward line style, focusing on what Milligan’s script required, which was emotional and character-focused storytelling. Fegredo’s underlying aptitude at expressive weirdness, meanwhile, ensures that the grotesqueries of Enigma’s world hit with appropriate horror—the first issue, for instance, focuses on the Head, a serial killer with a lizard head who sucks people’s brains out through a metal straw, and Fegredo renders her as a horrifically demonic figure that forms a sharp rupture with the ordinary world. Aiding Fegredo in this is colorist Sherilyn van Valkenburgh, who, in contrast to Fegredo’s taste for bright and vivid colors in Kid Eternity, uses a muted palate of earth tones to ground and contrast Fegredo’s tendencies towards weirdness.
All of this adds up to a clear classic of the period. Nevertheless, it’s equally clear that it’s an underrated one. It got a trade paperback collection in 1995, but went in and out of print, eventually following Karen Berger from DC to Dark Horse when it got picked up by her Berger Books line, the second time an editor brought the project with them when the original line was shuttered. In spite of its obscurity, however, it is a clear case that Milligan, on his day, could produce a work that stood shoulder to shoulder with anyone of his generation.
As for Shade the Changing Man, it spent just over half of its run as a Vertigo book, continuing all the way into March of 1996. This latter half of the run, however, marks a constant battle of entropy—one that Milligan slowly but surely loses. If one is inclined towards a “jump the shark” model a clear inflection point exists past which the book consistently finds itself on the wrong side of the basic quality line, but the truer story is simply one of gradual deflation, the eternally present question of whether Milligan was a giant on the scale of Moore, Morrison, and Gaiman steadily resolving itself into a shrugged “guess not.”
Things began well enough, as they do with this sort of narrative. Milligan’s first arc for Vertigo was a three-parter entitled “Birth Pains” in which Shade gains yet another body, this time a catatonic person in a mental institution, and quickly finds himself having to save Kathy from a serial killer who views torture as an artistic medium granting access to a mythic realm called the Garden of Pain. The use of Kathy as a generic peril monkey is a bit frustrating, but on the whole it’s an effective bit of horror in what could now be called the Vertigo style.
Ominous signs lurked in the background, however. The proximate cause of Shade’s latest resurrection is an intervention by the previously unmentioned Angels, who apparently have some purpose in mind for him. It’s not a bad hook in and of itself, but the lack of any setup in the preceding issues makes it feel like a faintly desperate swerve. More to the point, nothing over the subsequent eighteen months would ever really give a sense that Milligan had a fully fledged idea; the introduction of angels is simply him on the hoof. This isn’t an inherent problem—improvisation can lead to great work just as easily as meticulous planning. Milligan is open about preferring to work this way, noting in an interview around this time that “ I like to be surprised by the characters. So when I write it, I know roughly where it’s going. Maybe one or two months in advance, but like, I know roughly, I’m not quite sure how they’re gonna get there. I like to keep it as loose as possible because I like the idea of being surprised by the characters. At the moment, because we’re working up to the fiftieth, the big fifty, I’ve worked out the next seven because we’re kind of working up to that one. But, this is as far ahead as I like to go, because if you work out too far in advance, you kind of — you’re dictating to these characters what they’re going to do.” But Milligan wasn’t just lacking a plan here—he was lacking any real clarity about what he wanted to do with the underlying ideas.
With Shade successfully resurrected, the comic assumed a new status quo starting in issue #36, which it would hold for the subsequent fifteen issues. In it Shade, Kathy, and Lenny arrive at a hotel only to discover that the guests have already been informed that they would be the new management—a contrivance by the mysterious Angels. This marks a return to something broadly like the initial setup of the comic—a stable situation from which Shade and company could encounter a progressive series of weirdnesses to untangle. But the comparison immediately highlights the way in which this is a more restrictive setup. The original American Scream setup of the comic allowed it to be a road trip, moving helter skelter across the country into a wide variety of situations. The hotel era, meanwhile, leaves the characters essentially passive, sitting around the hotel waiting for situations to come to them; there’s fundamentally a smaller set of stories you can tell in a single hotel than you can in the entire United States.
Restrictive as it may have been, however, this setup still provided an engine for another run of oddball supernatural horror. Shade and company ran into a mysterious child who amplified passions, a mysterious duplicate of Shade who traps the real one underneath a pond, a man consumed by guilt for hooking up with a girl who mistook him for Jim Morrison, and an animated statue, all of them inventive and spry stories. The pond one in particular featured a cute metafictional conceit in which the events turn out to be happening because of the writings of a hotel guest, Miles Laimling, who is eventually revealed to be the story’s narrator, and who ends by asserting he’ll write the events up as a comic book, using an anagram of his last name. It’s preeningly clever, but it has the goods to back it up, peppering the narration with observations like “As you turn to page twenty-one you realize that fictional time has moved on a little, and you are moving towards a kind of ‘wrap up’ scene…” that add a solid layer of metafictional humor to proceedings.
The most notable story of the period, however, came in issues 42-44, which offered a story guest starring John Constantine. This was not a crossover with Garth Ennis’s then-current run on Hellblazer, but instead featured a John Constantine from 1979, pulled suddenly through a pub toilet on the day of Thatcher’s first election and dumped in Hotel Shade while it’s in the midst of being pulled back in time by one of its guests to the 17th century. The main cast and Constantine then get themselves embroiled in the witch trials where they narrowly evade death.
This arc served several purposes, none of them broadly speaking good. From a publishing standpoint, Milligan explains the decision to do a Constantine arc straightforwardly: “For a long time, people were saying ‘why don’t you have a crossover? Shade and Doom Patrol, or Shade and Sandman, and Shade and Constantine?’ They’ve stopped saying it now, so as soon as they’ve stopped, I’m going to do it!” But beneath this story is a larger and bleaker truth: Shade was sitting firmly in the lower half of the Vertigo books in terms of sales and tangibly on the downward slope. The falling off of demand for a crossover was in part a sign that people simply didn’t care as much about the book anymore. As long as people were excited enough to clamor for a crossover Milligan could afford not to do one, but once the demand faded the need for some sort of sales-boosting stunt became more necessary.
In terms of content, meanwhile, this arc engaged with a larger plot in which Kathy was pregnant, with Shade as the father. The first issue opened with an extended argument in which Kathy asserts that she’s going to have an abortion, which provokes Shade into a furious opposition in which he repeatedly tells her that she’s “going to kill our baby,” actively refuting arguments that the decision has anything to do with Kathy’s right to bodily autonomy. All of this is setup for an arc in which the (literally) puritanical beliefs of the 16th century witch hunts become the occasion for Shade to change his mind, which he grudgingly does, only to have the next arc begin with Kathy deciding to keep it anyway, arguing that “I have the right to choose. I guess I only just realized that I can choose either way. That I can actually have this baby if I choose.” This is certainly a reasonable account of things on the face of it—obviously abortion rights include the right to carry a pregnancy to term. But coming off of giving the title character a lengthy scene in which he parrots various anti-abortion talking points it’s difficult not to feel as though Milligan has written a story that vindicates his position.
This feeling is made all the worse by the overall nature of that arc, a six-parter culminating in the oversized 50th issue. This arc attempted to resolve the whole Angels arc by having Shade create a convoluted scheme between them and the Devil (neither of whom, it’s revealed, are actual cosmic entities so much as “the product of millennia of human and Metan thoughts about images of angels”) that backfires utterly and results in Kathy’s death moments after she delivers the baby. It’s an ugly, bitter ending that tramples on much of what made the comic good and interesting in favor of tired tropes of violence against women.
This is, of course, hardly a surprising plot development in an American comic book. Indeed, Shade the Changing Man #50 came out in June of 1994, the same month as Green Lantern #54, in which the hero returns home to find out that his girlfriend has been murdered and shoved in the refrigerator, a development that led to the use of the term “fridging” for this sort of cynical killing of female characters just to provide angst for male ones. But if the development was unsurprising, it was also damning; for all that Shade the Changing Man was one of the launch titles and Peter Milligan one of the core talents of the Vertigo line, when it came time for the big anniversary issue the book it was most similar to was a midlist superhero title whose assistant editor would eventually be fired for sexual harassment.
The assistant editor on Shade the Changing Man, meanwhile, was Shelly Bond, then working under her maiden name of Shelly Roeberg, who stepped up to be the main editor on the book with issue #51. Bond would end up being one of the three most prominent editorial figures in Vertigo, along with Berger and future Marvel editor in chief Axel Alonso. For Milligan’s part, he notes in an interview, “Shelly Roeburg’s great. So put in ‘Shelly Roeburg’s excellent.’ I love her. What’s really great is that she loves Shade so much. And when you do an ongoing series, and you’ve been on it for awhile, you do need, sometimes, someone to come and love the book, because, you can start to get a bit dry after a bit.”
Unfortunately, by the time she came on to be main editor on the book it was in a terminal decline, with the final twenty issues being a largely forgettable deflation. Without Kathy the book’s supporting cast fragmented—Lenny remained, but with a rift between Shade and her. Shade’s child ended up having hyper-fast aging, allowing him to become a character in his own right, but ended up, in a weird reiteration of past tropes, getting stuck in the body of Lenny’s daughter, which also served to remove another female character. Milligan generated new supporting characters like Andrea Murdoch, a journalist tracking Shade, but nothing came close to filling the Kathy-shaped hole in the narrative. Milligan admitted as much, noting, “I wanted to stop it at #50. The big storyline leading up to Kathy dying was going to be the end of it. It perhaps should have been the end of it… In the episodes afterwards, I think that he was no longer actually Shade, and it took me a while to realize that. I was looking for other things to make up for that fact. I think the problem was that without Kathy, the book lost some meaning. The book was always about Kathy s much as it was about Shade… The first person we see in episode number one of Shade is Kathy, it’s Kathy’s voice we open up with,”
As the book wound down Milligan attempted to, if not fix the problem, at least provide a resolution that was broadly in keeping with his book’s early years. The comic’s final arc saw Shade and the gang with a time machine going back in time to try to save Kathy. As Milligan explained, “the last three episodes when it went back to Kathy addressed [the] problem. The fact that there was time-travel, I know there was some heavy symbolism there. It was psychologically the right thing to do, I think, for the last three episodes to address pre-Kathy-dying episodes… it wasn’t until the last three episodes, when the book became about that agin, that it found its voice.” And although that voice was little more than a symbolic return to the book’s heyday, it was at least the setup for a satisfying ending.
Ultimately they succeed in preventing her parents’ murder by Troy Grenzer, creating a new timeline in which she never met Kathy in the first place. The final issue ends with Shade presenting this new Kathy with a letter explaining himself and the original Kathy’s diary, imploring her to let him in, which she finally does as the comic cuts away, the actual reunion of the two characters whose relationship anchored the book left untold, beyond depiction. As endings go it works, but in a way that simultaneously required the lowered expectations of the previous three years and only managed to offer a sort of baseline adequacy in the face of them. For a comic that had started as one of the highlights of the wave of British creators, it was a decidedly inglorious end.
Shade the Changing Man marked a high point for Milligan’s career; he spent the year after it ended writing some of the most disposable superhero comics of his career, and while he attempted other ambitious pieces in the years to follow, including several other Vertigo series, nothing really broke through. His most notable later career work came with a bizarre but acclaimed version of X-Force coinciding with Morrison’s New X-Men run, but there’s little to nothing after 1996 that one would point to in making the case that he belongs in the same conversation as people like Moore and Morrison save for historical accident.
Perhaps inevitably, then, he eventually turned to Shade as a sort of greatest hits move. This began in 2010, a year and a half into his run on Hellblazer, which he took over for the last fifty issues of is original run—the longest single run on John Constantine anyone has ever had, albeit in an era where the book was long past its cultural heyday. And so Milligan did the same thing he did on Shade the Changing Man in 1994, only in reverse. He began subtly, having Constantine on a trip through hell run into Kathy George, who talks cryptically about how he can’t help her yet, a downplayed beat recognizable only to people familiar with the original material. Later, Milligan pays it off by having Constantine call upon Shade for help when he found himself trapped in an asylum. This is quickly followed by the return of Lenny (a schoolteacher now, and living a much more straight-laced life), while Shade attempts to persuade Constantine to resurrect Kathy, who he’s still pining over. (What happened to the reorganized timeline from the end of Shade the Changing Man is never explained.) Shade ends up being something of a villain here—an obsessive and possessive lover who kidnaps an associate of Constantine’s who he believes to secretly be Kathy.
Milligan circled to the material again the next year when he wrote the three-issue Secret Seven miniseries for DC’s Flashpoint crossover, where he used an alternate universe Shade as the main character for his take on the Seven Soldiers of Victory concept. And then in the New 52 relaunch that followed Flashpoint Milligan wrote the unconvincingly titled Justice League Dark for its first eight issues, again putting Shade on the team before reuniting him with a construct of Kathy in the Madness Zone. These attempts to merge Shade with the conventional DC superhero milieu had little to recommend them either as superhero stories or in terms of engaging with the character and his history. The endless focus on Shade’s grief for Kathy has the effect of rendering him a sort of pathological metaphor for Milligan’s own ambivalence over his decision making late in the comic, allowing him to endlessly relitigate the decision, or at least to give the illusion of doing so, since in practice he never actually rescues Kathy from the fate he wrote for her or makes any move to return to the dynamics with the character that worked.
But in many ways this stands as a metaphor for Milligan’s career. He is a figure of unquestionable talent—a brash and often brilliant writer who nevertheless failed to ever quite realize that potential and instead sank ineffectually into mediocrity punctuated by increasingly occasional flashes of his old talent. He stands, in many ways, as the alternative that clarifies what people like Moore, Morrison, and Gaiman achieved—the ways in which they balanced literary and populist instincts to create things that changed the world instead of impressing a few devoted aficionados. It would not have taken much for any of their careers to go differently—for Moore to be doing a sub-par return to Swamp Thing to make ends meet, or for Morrison to constantly be trotting out Buddy Baker to reflect on every new rewrite of DC continuity. The energies being harnessed in the War were subtle, temperamental things. It was not that one wrong move could send you tumbling, but rather that one immaculately perfect one was necessary to truly play at all. For all his talent, Milligan only ever came close. [continued]
Last War in Albion will return in two weeks.