The Shadowline Saga is one of the lost gems of 1980s comics.
I cut my comic book teeth on 80s Marvel comics, so it took me years to realize just how conservative those books were, particularly when compared to what Marvel had been publishing a decade earlier. Much of this was due to Jim Shooter’s influence, whipping Marvel into an actual business. But the vast majority of Marvel’s comics were targeted at the same demographic and followed specific storytelling rules.
Marvel had a place for it’s more mature fare: Epic Comics. The Epic line mostly consisted of creator owned books and was often a place for big name Marvel creators to try their hand at something different. It stayed away from corporately owned, shared universe superhero comics.
Until 1988, when Archie Goodwin introduced the Shadowline Saga.
The purpose of this line of comics was exactly what I mentioned above: a chance for Marvel to publish superhero books that pushed the limits of what superhero books could be. This would be, as was all the rage at the time, a realistic take on superheroes.
The concept itself was basically a take on the X-Men had mutants organized and been more proactive. The Shadows had evolved alongside mankind, but had developed abilities far beyond those of man. But their numbers were few and they had seen what humans would do when confronted with advanced beings, so they hid their abilities and tried to get by as normal humans.
The Shadows had agendas, though, as most groups do. While most of them simply wanted a good life for their family, others thought they should be in charge, given their supernatural abilities. Most were content to blend in.
The Shadowline Saga launched with three, bi-monthly titles, which in and of itself is unusual. Imagine a line of comics launching today with only 3 books, let alone 3 books that came out every other month — and not the same month, either. You were two books one month, one book the next and so on. While I applaud the patient approach, it’s hard to build much momentum with an audience when so few comics were coming out.
The three titles were steeped heavily in mythology, an obvious decision given that the Shadows had an alternate history that ran side by side with mankind. But the books, at least initially, also incorporated related comic book mythology. Doctor Zero was a superhero, yes, but Powerline added in professional wrestling and St. George brought in Christianity. Are there three greater mythologies in our society today? There certainly weren’t in the 80s.
All of the titles were edited by Goodwin, but written by Margaret Clark and DG Chichester who were editors at Epic. But they weren’t the moneymakers. No, the fantastic art teams that worked on these books is what made them so special.
The three books were:
Sweet fancy Moses. You really only need to know two things about the Doctor Zero book to know that you should track it down: penciled by Denys Cowan, inked by Bill Sienkiewicz. This book is stunning…for the first four issues, at least.
As with every book in the line, it was written by Margaret Clark and DG Chichester whose works elsewhere I am completely unfamiliar with. I think Chichester went on to write Daredevil for a bit in the 90s. I think he also wrote the Terror, Inc. series, which we’ll get to down the line.
Anyway, Zero is one of those Shadows who likes to manipulate humans for his own purposes. That’s kind of his thang. But now that we’re in the 80s, he’s realized he needs to take a more direct role and so he becomes the superhero known as Doctor Zero. This would be his public face while he continues to manipulate things behind the scenes.
As with each Shadowline series, Zero has one main villain, a nuclear physicist named Henry Clerk.
Doctor Zero launched with one of my favorite art teams of all time, Denys Cowan on pencils and Bill Sienkiewicz on inks. Their work together is unbelievable. It’s too bad they only work on the first 4 issues.
Victor Guillermos is the a member of a wealthy family of Shadows who have been engaged in a long war with another family, the Ravenscores. Lenore Castle’s father has dealings with the Ravenscores. Vic and Lenore ultimately lose members of their family because of the Ravenscores, but along the way they discover that they have a connection of some sort that allows their individual abilities to be amplified. Apart they are weak; together they are strong.
While Doctor Zero deals with how Shadows relate to humans, Powerline is about the battles that happen between the Shadows.
Vic and Lenore’s main villain is the current head of the Ravenscore family, Dirk, who forced his father to modify his body until he became a monster.
Dave Ross initially handles the pencils for this series (with rotating inkers) and while I like Ross’ work well enough, Powerline looks like a traditional superhero comic, placing it at odds with the rest of the Shadowline Saga. Like with Doctor Zero, however, the original artists leave after #4. Ross is replaced by Gray Morrow who perfectly pulls the book in line with the rest of the Shadowline comics.
Zero is often referred to as the Dragon and that’s mostly by the Order of St. George. The Order selects a human Knight to wear powerful armor to defeat the Dragon, but they have never succeeded; the Dragon still lives. The Order’s most recent pick is Michael Devlin, a Catholic priest.
St. George is set up as a nice counterpoint to Doctor Zero, not just because it’s about how humans relate to Shadows (the opposite of the Doctor Zero book), but because…wait for it…Doctor Zero is the Dragon.
Devlin’s main villain isn’t Zero, it’s a Shadow named Shreck (before the movies). Shreck would eventually become popular enough to get his own series in the mainstream Marvel U, years after the Shadowline Saga came to an end.
While the other two titles lost their original art teams after 4 issues, the artist on St. George sticks with the series through #6 and beyond (more on that in a minute). That artist is Klaus Janson and if you know anything about Janson you know that having him for six issues is a good thing. Janson’s work is fantastic and he gives St. George a look that is wholly its own.
Short But Sweet
None of the three books have consistent art teams after their initial creators depart, but that ends up being a moot point, as none of the comics makes it past issue #8.
Dan Spiegle and Gray Morrow do the lion’s share of the work, Spiegle drawing 2 issues of Doctor Zero and 1 issue of St. George, will Morrow does 3 of the last 4 issues of Powerline, establishing himself as the new “regular” artists for that book.
It’s interesting to note that the 8th issues of all of these books were fill-ins, more or less. None were written by Clarke and Chichester, none features art teams that had worked on the books before. Howard Mackie, Mike Manley, and Al Williamson handle Powerline #8. Chuck Dixon, Gary Kwapisz, and Don Hudson produce Doctor Zero #8. And a couple of creators you might have heard of worked on St. George #8: Dwayne McDuffie and Jim Lee.
While their individual titles would end after eight issues, the Shadowline Saga would continue in a prestige format limited series that would bring them all together…