Shades Volume 1: The Past Casts A Long Shadow
Created and written by David A J Berner. Art, colours and letters by Harsho Mohan Chattoraj.
Shades tells a very British sort of superhero story, where the action and adventure mixes with some very good characterisation and the superheroes have a British sensibility and history. And it’s all tied together using that familiar idea of using back-story to generate a historical perspective of past superhero glories reminiscent of many things; Watchmen, James Robinson’s Starman, Paul Grist’s Jack Staff and even Morrison’s Zenith.
I don’t really want to give away too much of the plot, as most of the enjoyment of Shades is in experiencing the various ways Berner and Chattoraj re-introduce the various heroes to the story.
But I will give you this – at the start of Shades, following too many tragedies, too many needless deaths, the super-powered heroes of a Britain long forgotten are scattered, and have retreated into other lives. This is the story of their return, brought together through a new threat, or possibly it’s merely the return of a very old adversary. Whatever it is, the various old and new superheroes we’re intoduced to during Volume 1 find themselves drawn into a new and dangerous adventure, whether they like it or not.
(Living out a quiet retirement, ex-superhero Spitfire entertains his tailor’s grandson with past glories. From Shades Volume 1 by Berner and Chattoraj.)
Quite rightly, these are not bright US style super-spandex types, these are very British superheroes, drawing from mythical British iconography and history – hence the WWII hero, the spirit of the ancient pagan faiths, and Boudicca dressed in mythic finery, a very British Wonder Woman.
But Shades’ main protagonist isn’t a hero, it’s retired tailor Stanley Miller, although it soon becomes obvious that Miller was a very unique and talented tailor – catering to the needs of the superhuman community that existed in Britain during and following the war.
Shades is his story, both as an observer of the superhero community and as a father trying to mend his broken relationship with his estranged daughter. The use of Miller as the everyman successfully grounds the story and gives us viewpoint we can empathise with throughout the early stages of Shades.
(Stanley Miller, not super-powered, but very much the heroic focus of this story. From Shades Volume 1, by Berner and Chattoraj.)
It’s well done, building up the back stories of the characters, establishing their histories well. The very best bits of Shades are all to do with the confident and interesting build up, the introductions of the various characters, the establishment of the generations long back-story.
This back-story is believable and intriguing, populated by real characters, responding as real people would. When the British air ace who becomes the near immortal and long-lived Spitfire sees too much horror he retreats from his superhero life, preferring to live a quiet life dominated by memories of former glories.
When Boudicca realises her role as protector of women can be better served by establishing a tower block that hides a massive and secret women’s refuge she quite naturally and easily adopts a new, low-key personna to best serve her people. This sort of interesting characterisation is scattered throughout the first half of Shades and it’s done very well indeed.
(What does Boudicca do when she finds the superhero style adventuring isn’t working? Quite logically here in Shades she retreats and works behind the scenes, doing more good in secret than ever she did in costume. But her isolation is ended with Miller’s appearance at her door. From Shades Volume 1 by Berner and Chattoraj.)
But the problems start when the story moves on, far too quickly in my view, from this setup. Suddenly the desire to drive the plot, the desire to bring in conflict and a good, old fashioned type of bad guy overtakes the previously perfect pace of the buildup and it all gets a little too rushed. It’s not terrible, by any means, and I still enjoyed reading Shades, but it didn’t have the ending I was hoping for.
The art, by Indian artist Harso Mohan Chattoraj is good, but never really great and towards the end, just as the story rushes ahead of itself and loses focus, so does Chattoraj’s art – too often the line becomes too loose, the page looks rushed and the early promise is lost. There’s good stuff in his art, just as there is in the story itself, and much to be praised, but it’s not perfect.
Shades began, and recently ended as a webcomic. The second (concluding) volume featuring art by E.C. Nickel is online and will be released in print soon. Despite my misgivings with the story and the pacing issues towards the end of Volume 1, it’s still intrigued me enough to know I’ll be looking out for that second volume, just to see where Berner takes his cast of characters next and whether he can give Shades the ending it deserves after such a good buildup.
Shades is available from the BVC Website.