The First 10: Shadowpact

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Ahoy-hoy, folks! Welcome back to The First Ten, a regular feature in which I take a look at the first ten issues of a long or short-running comic book to see how it all started. This one is a milestone for us, folks, as it’s our first DC comic book. We've done Excalibur, Nova, and Marvel Adventures Iron Man, but this week, we’re absolutely tackling DC's magic superhero comic book.  The series was spun out of Day of Vengeance, a mini-event that was both a prelude to Infinite Crisis and a sequel to Day of Judgment. The other big book to spin out of an Infinite Crisis prelude mini was Secret Six, and it rules incredibly hard, so this has a lot to live up to. Shadowpact ran 25 issues, beginning in July of 2006 and ending exactly two years later in July of 2008. We’re covering the first ten issues, starting with"¦


1. Death in a Small Town

Writer/Artist: Bill Willingham

Um, this is a first. Part of the deal with these First Tens is that I try to pick comics I've never read before, or haven't read in a long time. This way, I can keep things fresh and also have the perspective of being unfamiliar with the series as a whole. So, there's always a chance of something bad happening: I might not like the series. I've never been a Willingham fan, but I was really hoping this would turn me around. However…uh…this one was really not good.

In the story, a group of magic villains takes hold of a small town, and Superman and Phantom Stranger summon Shadowpact to deal with them. They enter the town and completely vanish for one year.

The writing isn't terrible from a plot perspective, but the dialogue’s atrocious. Most of the main cast sound alike, and it’s been a long time since I read an officially published Superman that was as bad as this one. Willingham's Man of Steel is about as bland and personality-free as he can get. We don't have enough time to get to know the main cast, and the book assumes a familiarity with them that I don’t have. I understand that this was spun off from Day of Vengeance, but this is your Issue Number One. Make way for new readers.

Willingham's art is painfully inconsistent and just lacking on a craft level, with a lot of hastily drawn faces and awkward layouts. I really hope this one turns me around by the end of the ten issues, but I don't know if that's gonna happen.


2. The Pentacle

Writer/Artist: Bill Willingham

Not turned around yet. Desperately want to be; still not happening.

Okay, let's start with something I liked. It’s nice that the villains acknowledge that each seems specifically chosen to mirror a Shadowpact member. If they do something with that, it'll be clever.

The issue is just the Shadowpact team going up against – and losing to – the evil magic superteam known as The Pentacle. A lot of the problems I had with the last issue are still present here. Willingham's art is better, but it's still wildly inconsistent, especially when it comes to faces. In addition, his "acting" (referring to the characters’ facial expressions and body language) is really sub-par. We learn way more about the villains than we do the heroes.

Here’s something that kind of drives me nuts: No one shuts up. All of the characters are talking all the time, whether they're alone, fighting, or actively focused on a task. They’re all chatterboxes. It's like Willingham doesn't trust the artist to be able to tell the story. BUT HE'S THE ARTIST, TOO. So frustrating.


3. The (Short) Year of Living Dangerously

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Cory Walker

Hey! This one’s better! Seriously, I enjoyed most of this issue.

As the story begins, The Pentacle has captured and imprisoned Shadowpact. Detective Chimp defeats his evil counterpart as Nightmaster's mirror universe buddy defects and frees the team. Working together, they take down The Pentacle and free themselves from the town.

As they do so, they skip forward a year and catch up with the rest of the DC universe. Cory Walker, the original artist for Invincible, came on board at this point, and showed great improvement. With better art to support him, Willingham's writing perked up a bit. We get actual characterization for some of the team members, especially Detective Chimp. Also, the dialogue is beginning to click, and the characters develop their own distinct voices.

I'm still not on board, but we’re improving greatly.


4. Blue Devil: A Night in the Life

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Steve Scott

After the last issue, I can safely say this series has firmly landed at"¦okay. It's okay. They're okay.

This issue spotlights Blue Devil as he attempts to get to a Shadowpact meeting, only to be distracted by some monster shenanigans.

The art is even better in this issue. I like Cory Walker, but Steve Scott's work is cleaner and more uniform. He’s doing a bit of the DC house style from that time, but it still looks good.

The first few pages are good for character development, but the rest of the issue really isn't. We get no real sense of what Blue Devil's life is like, because most of the issue is devoted to his fight with those two completely forgettable monsters. I'm a big Blue Devil guy, but I don't really feel his voice here. Most of Willingham's characters speak in writer-voice. They say things that a character needs to say, but there’s nothing unique that sets them apart. Pick any line from any issue so far, and there's almost zero chance that you'll be able to figure out who said it.


5. One Year Later

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Steve Scott

Oh, this is weird. This issue appears to take place immediately after Issue Three, whereas Issue Four’s action seems to happen some time later. It can't be a fill in, since the same writer and artist created both issues. It's just an odd transition, and it's super confusing.

This issue is just odd in general. It's a tie-in to DC's One Year Later event, which is pretty easy to explain. After Infinite Crisis, the whole DCU skips ahead one year, during which Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are all MIA. The maxi-series 52 fills in the gap, but the main books are subject to major changes in the status quo. This one deals with the missing year by having Shadowpact literally miss a year while they’re trapped in the town. But when they return, it's a huge deal. Why? Around this same time, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all resurface after being absent for a year. I'm sorry, but why does anyone care about Shadowpact?

Most of the issue is about the various team members trying to get back to their lives. Someone new owns Nightmaster's bar. Blue Devil has lost his apartment. Some random super-lady attacks Ragman, and he beats her up. End of issue.


6. The Wild Hunt

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Cory Walker

Well, we're moving right along with this arc, folks.

Some sort of mysterious baddie is apparently siccing random villains on Shadowpact. The previous issue had that anti-climactic fight with the moon-lady. This time, the Wild Huntsman attacks Ragman and The Enchantress right after they’ve arrested his cohort.

After he defeats them, he clips his dog collars around their necks and turns them into giant monster dogs. Nightshade and Blue Devil then appear and fight off The Huntsman. Once that’s done, they don't know what to do with their new dog-teammates.

This issue is stronger than the preceding ones in a number of ways. I prefer Scott's art a bit, but Walker is absolutely no slouch.

One thing that I’ve been forgetting to mention is that the humor is starting to click for me. About once an issue, there's a joke I like. That's good. Also, the few pages between Eddie and Nightmaster are good, even though it plays into the Shadowpact tradition of making side characters more interesting and fleshed-out than the main cast.


7. The Laws of Battle

Writer: Bill Willingham                                                                                                                                                        Artist: Tom Derenick

"Your disabilities are just the crutch you use to hide your profound selfishness."

Ooooooooooffffffffff. That might be the grossest thing I've seen a hero say in a while.

This issue is a deep step down in most ways. HOWEVER, Tom Derenick's artwork is great. He's next level on this book right now.

But Willingham's writing is at its worst since the first issue. It's deeply unpleasant. Remember how I said that Eddie was instantly more interesting and likable than the entire main cast? Yeah, having the team mock and insult him for being disabled DOES NOT help with that. As uttered by team leader Nightmaster, the line I quoted above is so upsetting that I had to set down the book for a second to type it up word for word. And it has nothing to do with the story.

In the story, the team is able to turn Enchantress and Ragman back into humans. Nightshade, Blue Devil, and Ragman set off to investigate, and run into The Congregation. As far as the plots go, this book is incredibly dated and mired in mediocre writing. Characters never stop stating what they're doing, they all sound alike, and there's no real overarching story to speak of. Look, if this were just mediocre comic booking, I could handle it, but the treatment Eddie experiences in this issue is inexcusable. I have not talked about Willingham's politics here, because that's not what this article is about, but if that first line isn't a banner for his beliefs, I don't know what is.


8. Rag Time

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Shawn McManus

Hey, another character focus piece. This time, it A: actually happens chronologically after the previous issue, and B: focuses on Ragman.

Artist Shawn McManus is great in this specific issue, and his style matches the story it tells. As for the plot…After  The Congregation beats up and blinds Ragman, Nightshade, and Blue Devil, Ragman ventures into his own subconscious. There, he meets one of the unfortunate souls who make up his rag suit. They discuss his powers and how they work, and then the soul helps Ragman unblind himself. Ragman beats up The Congregation, and Madame Xanadu helps him free the other two Shadowpact-ers from their blindness. As a reward for his help, the soul is freed from Ragman’s suit and ascends to DC Universe Heaven.

Again, this is a little better than the last couple of issues, mostly because we get to know Ragman a little bit. He's the descendant of Jewish Immigrants who had to take up the family tradition of dressing up in a rag suit and fighting crime. Good legacy. All my parents handed down to me was a pretty good Chili recipe.


9. Three Laws Safe: Part One of the Demon Triptych

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Tom Derenick

New Arc!!! The Demon Triptych introduces…well, The Demon. It seems that Etrigan has been promoted, which demons view as bad. He’s no longer of the rhyming class, so someone else has filled that slot.

But whoooooo could it beeeeeeee? Could it be Blue Devil? He rhymed once in the last issue, after which everyone else spent a full page talking about how weird that was. I mean, maybe, but what are the chances?

Anyway, Demon shows up and attacks Shadowpact. In the battle, he takes Blue Devil's trident and stabs Nightmaster through the chest with his own sword. Considering the only thing that Nightmaster has really done so far in this book is to verbally abuse a guy with a physical disability, I kinda hope he dies.

Also, Shadowpact unveils their three laws of superheroics. And they’re kinda dumb. Here’s the gist:

  1. Make sure civilians live.
  2. Make sure your fellow heroes live, as long as it doesn't conflict with Rule One.
  3. Make sure the villains live, as long as it doesn't conflict with Rule One and/or Rule Two.

Now, as much as these are nice in theory, it’s weird that they need to be verbalized and written down. Superheroes are SUPPOSED to do all three of those things. It's like if you go into a doctor's office for surgery, and he shows you a plaque on the wall that says Rule Number One: Do not purposely murder patients with the saw. I'd think, I'm glad that's your rule, but the fact that you have to write it down worries me greatly.


10. Cursed: Part Two of the Demon Triptych

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Tom Derenick

Final issue – of my look at Shadowpact, not the series as a whole. And I can't tell how self aware this series is. It's confusing. Remember how I mentioned how silly and obvious the Three Laws were in the last issue? Well, on the first page of this one, a reporter asks other superheroes about them, and all of them pretty much say what I said. In addition, Blue Devil makes another s****y comment about Eddie's disability, but Eddie responds how gross and rude it is this time.

So, either A: Willingham doesn't really think that these things in his book are bad, and he’s just paying lip service to the responses of people like me; or B: He DOES know that they’re artifacts of his bad writing, and he thinks that pointing them out puts a band-aid on it (it doesn't). Either way, it makes me feel like I'm wasting my time.

In this issue, Shadowpact is recuperating from the last issue’s loss to Etrigan. With most of the team down, Blue Devil and Nightshade are in a bar, recruiting three more heroes to go to hell and fight Etrigan. And with our heroes literally going to hell, that's where we have to end.

Needless to say, these first ten issues haven't inspired me to read a lot more. I own the entire series, so I’ll read "˜em, but so far it’s mostly just a huge disappointment. I was really hoping this book would give me a new love and appreciation for these characters, but they are nowhere near fleshed-out enough to do that. They’re all basically just bland, until the story needs them to be a**holes, in which case they become bland a**holes.

Hell, I already knew and loved Nightshade and Enchantress from Suicide Squad, but this series made me forget why for a bit. At best, these are mediocre mid-2000s DC comics that you don't need to read. At BEST. I'm really sad to have to write something this negative, because I was really excited about this, but here we are. I believe my next installment will be for another DC book, but one that I’m sure I’ll almost definitely like. I mean, me not liking it would be a MIRACLE, if you catch my drift (wink, wink).

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