This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 8, 2017.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why is The Shadow less popular than Batman?
So there are a couple of obvious paths to take with this one.
First, I know you’ve been digging the new Batman/Shadow mini-series and would probably love to hear someone vamp for it. That’s fair. Scott Snyder and Steve Orlando teaming up with artist Riley Rossmo to tell some vigilante tales is set up that actually deserves the moniker “dream team”. I’ve only read the first of two issues available, but it’s pretty good. However, I don’t know if it gets to the heart of the question you’re asking, at least not from my perspective.
Second, there’s the obvious and most historically truthful answer. It’s all a matter of time and place. The Shadow came a few years too early in the wrong medium. He was a pulp hero at a company that doesn’t exist anymore telling essentially the same tale that Batman would tell at DC Comics as it was preparing to explode. Like so many other things in art, the success of one particular project as opposed to another can honestly be chalked up to a matter of happenstance. That’s not a particularly exciting answer though and I’m not much in the mood for research.
So what else sets The Shadow and Batman apart that would make the latter more popular than the original from which he took so much?
The Shadow and Batman have a lot in common. Their both urban vigilantes who utilize fear and weaponry to investigate crime and beat up bad guys. They both have a great deal of wealth and spoopy costumes that only work in a heightened setting. They both come from a tradition of highly accessible entertainment during one of America’s darkest modern periods. They are both created by men who don’t get nearly enough credit: Bill Finger for Batman and Walter B. Gibson for The Shadow. And even then, when it’s so commonly accepted that Batman’s roots are so intertwined with those of The Shadow, they still feel incredibly different.
When I think about these two characters there is a key difference in spite of all their similarities though. It doesn’t have to do with their historical origins or how willing one is to kill as opposed to the other; it’s about how they are defined. Thinking about them as cultural icons with very similar origins and motifs, the stories told with these characters ask two very different questions. The Shadow’s stories ask “Why?”, while Batman’s stories ask “Why not?”
That distinction isn’t about any broader themes; it’s about the characters themselves. The Shadow is a very clearly defined character. Whether you’re looking at a reprint of a pulp from the 1930s, one of the various comics iterations from the past few decades, or even Batman/Shadow, The Shadow doesn’t seem to change much. His costume, modus operandi, and attitude are constant. He’s inextricably woven into a Great Depression setting and mentality that always seems to present in a very familiar manner. For some reason there have been no major changes to The Shadow over almost a century of existence. The Shadow is a constant and resists alteration by asking why any would be necessary.
Batman is quite the opposite. While his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 is not much different than The Shadow with funny ears, he quickly begins to alter his appearance and stories. Finger and other collaborators experimented a great deal within the first few years of Batman and Detective Comics, providing a sidekick, a memorable rogues gallery, and plenty of themed gear. Batman quickly grew beyond what he was initially and it was a result of looking at each new change or choice as a matter of why not.
There’s a temptation to look at these two questions and paths of existence as being in competition. The Shadow has remained a consistent vision easily traced to his creator. The Batman has become many things to many people connected almost entirely by details of plot or appearance, but with very little substance shared. While we can take a pulp book of The Shadow from 1938 and compare it with his most recent incarnations, comparing the Batman of 1939, 1966, and 2012 reveals dramatically different characters.
One isn’t better than the other though. These are just different approaches and neither of them are intrinsic to the characters themselves. The question of why not with Batman is most likely a result of that boring historical question I chose to ignore at the start of this week’s column. Batman is a very popular character whose continued popularity has benefitted a lot of people. The need to reinvent him and lack of creative ownership have ensured his consistent reimaginings. The Shadow’s popularity waned before it became necessary for him to receive a campy 60s television show or grim and gritty 90s successor.
No matter how you cut it, serialized characters like Batman and The Shadow are tied to their history. Even when you leave out the dry facts of who published what and what company owns whom, the popularity and trends of any given decade have a big impact on what happens to these characters as they continue existing. There’s only a few years between this pair of very similar characters, and just that has made all the difference.