Steve Ditko’s Shade: The First Changing Man

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Steve Ditko’s Bronze Age series Shade, The Changing Man has definitely been overshadowed by the later Vertigo reboot. That’s a shame — it’s easily my favorite of Ditko’s DC work.

Rac Shade is a former government agent on the other-dimensional world of Meta, separated from Earth by a dimensional gulf called the Zero Zone. At the start of the series Shade has been imprisoned as a double agent working for Meta’s “crimesters.” His big crime is that when Mellu’s parents began turning up too much information about the underworld, Rac bombed their house, crippling them. He’s innocent of course, but not even Mellu believes that.

In #1, the crimesters in Shade’s prison break out into the Zero Zone, from where they can cross to Earth (Meta has an established base there). Shade breaks out along with them and reaches Earth. Here he acquires the M-vest, a high-tech chestplate that generates a protective force-field. It also causes people’s perceptions of his appearance to shift in emotional situations such as combat, seeing him as a monster (hence the series title).

Ditko wasn’t into decompressed storytelling. In the eight issues before cancellation, Shade hunts down the crimesters on Earth as well as searching for whoever framed him as the bomber. He also has to duck his former colleagues, including Mellu, who want him back in jail. And Meta’s criminal overlord, the Supreme Decider, would like to see hm dead. Ditko also planted multiple seeds for future stories. For example, the M-Vest was designed as a weapon against a suspected alien threat penetrating the force field around Meta’s solar system (a natural feature, not artificial); I’m sure had the series lasted, Shade would have had to deal with that too.

Mellu makes for a good love interest. A competent cop, fully capable of taking down crimesters herself, she wants revenge on Rac Shade, but she still loves him, much as she’d rather not. She has no idea the bomb was actually planted by someone out to destroy her mom, who’s secretly the Supreme Decider.

The stories had some great bits. One of my favorite moments is when Mellu falls into the interdimensional Zone of Madness, which makes intruders so insane their heart eventually gives out from screaming. Only Rac Shade has ever entered the Zone and survived.Shade brings Mellu out of the Zone of Madness but her mind is already gone. With the help of a friendly scientist, Shade draws Mellu’s hallucinations into his own brain where he defeats them, barely, restoring his lover’s sanity. Watching this convinces one of his former colleagues Shade isn’t the villain they all imagine. Ditko’s art is, of course, perfectly suited to this kind of thing.

The series ended with Shade heading across the Zero Zone again to stop a group of crimesters from taking over Earth. This got wrapped up in Suicide Squad a decade later after which Shade worked with Task Force X until the Vertigo series laid claim to the name.

A shame Rac Shade didn’t have a longer run first.

#SFWApro. All images by Ditko.

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