Comic Book Review: Shadow Cabinet

Shadow Cabinet was part of Milestone Media’s second generation of comics, one of the two series introduced during the Milestone universe’s “Shadow War” crossover event. The Shadow Cabinet is a secret organization of superheroes thousands of years old. Its operatives, in constant rotation from mission to mission, have sworn to fulfill its mandate: “To save humanity from itself”, whether humanity wants it or not.

Shadow Cabinet was part of Milestone Media’s second generation of comics, one of the two series introduced during the Milestone universe’s “Shadow War” crossover event. The Shadow Cabinet is a secret organization of superheroes thousands of years old. Its operatives, in constant rotation from mission to mission, have sworn to fulfill its mandate: “To save humanity from itself”, whether humanity wants it or not.

With consistently excellent artwork and storytelling, Shadow Cabinet was, at the time, the best superhero comic book I knew. The best. Though the series rarely addressed social issues—unlike most other Milestone titles—writer Matt Wayne consistently delivered sharp dialogue, exciting and twisty plots, the occasional dash of humour, and great character development. I think this was Shadow Cabinet’s main strength: its diverse cast of interesting and three-dimensional characters. The best thing about these protagonists? more than half are women. And they’re realistically drawn—none of those huge, silicon-fed breasts, thank you very much. Though it meant a bit more to my politically-active self of ten years ago, I still think the gender balance and racial diversity is a very big deal. The simple fact that Shadow Cabinet features (a) just one white male main character and (b) more than a couple token women does make the series pretty damn unique. Especially when two of these women are a lesbian couple.

Here’s a list of the main characters:

Dharma, the Shadow Cabinet’s current leader. His power is to see the past and future of any object. Some time ago he foresaw a terrible catastrophe, “a day where everything ends in fire”. Without telling his operatives he has been desperately using the Cabinet to prevent this vision from coming true.

Iron Butterfly is the Cabinet’s field commander; she has the power to move and shape metal and metallic objects. In battle she wears medieval-style plate armor with huge angel-like wings.

The origin of her powers is unclear. She has given two somewhat contradictory accounts of her past, but the common element is that her family was murdered, and her life’s quest is to avenge that murder. Iron Butterfly is cold and aloof, ruthlessly efficient in combat, and apparently without any sense of humor. Near the end of the series it is revealed that she is also secretly in love with Dharma, even though he’s incapable of loving her back.

Plus is a normal-looking teenage girl, with the ability to fly and project a variety of force fields. The strange thing was, she occasionally talked to someone called “Narnie,” who only she could hear talking back! Was this “Narnie” real, or just a figment of her imagination? Eventually readers discovered that Narnie was an energy being, and the source of Plus’ powers. “I can manipulate her otherwise inert physical form and communicate with her consciousness.” A bit later, it was revealed that Narnie was Plus’ sister, and Dharma was their brother.

Sideshow used to be a photojournalist for the alternative media. At one point he stumbled onto an illegal animal research lab, “a real horror show”, and got careless. He was knocked out and dumped into a vat of biochemical waste products. Instead of killing him it remolded his genetic structure, allowing him transform his body, or parts of his body, into that of any animal. Dharma brought him into the Cabinet and taught him to control his powers.

Iota is a very rich widow with an apartment in Sydney, Australia. Her power is to shrink herself or any inanimate object down to almost microscopic size. An interesting side effect of this process is that it destroys organic tissue (except for her own body): shrunk objects are sterilized, and shrunk food becomes inedible. She seems to spend a lot of her free time stealing things, and carries around a truly astounding collection of vehicles, houses and all kinds of tools and knickknacks in her pockets, ready to be brought out and used at a moment’s notice.

Donner is apparently the granddaughter of a Nazi geneticist. This might explain her great strength (she can easily bench-press 3 tons) and near-invulnerability to physical attacks. There are some hints that she was involved with neo-nazi gangs when she was younger, but she has completely left behind that part of her life. About six feet six in height with a bodybuilder’s physique, Donner is a big sports fan, especially enjoying baseball and pro wrestling. She is currently studying at Medina University in Dakota (the fictional Midwestern city where all the Milestone series take place) with her lover, Blitzen.

Blitzen was a scientist who developed a serum that enables her to move and think at speeds far beyond the normal human range. (She once claimed to be able to play 307 games of Solitaire in 30 seconds). Nothing else is known of her past before she joined the Cabinet. When not on missions, Blitzen works as a teaching assistant at Medina U.

Starlight was a simple mathematics student until she wandered into the university’s stellar observatory. There she found a scientist standing in front of a “tachyon telescope,” being bombarded by huge amounts of radiation. She tried to push him out of the way, and got caught in the beam instead. This turned her into a living pulsar, with the ability to emit and absorb energies of many different kinds. Though she had planned to be with the Cabinet only until she learned to control her powers, Starlight has since decided to stay.

As much as I love my old life, I can’t have it back. Controlling my powers isn’t enough. I have to use them where they’re needed most. As much as I need the quiet life of a university mathematician, the world need heroes.

Right from the start, Shadow Cabinet showed its readers what it was made of. The first issue, entitled “A Handful of S.A.N.D.,” featured a Cabinet strike team (composed of Iron Butterfly, Donner, Plus and Sideshow) sent on a search-and-destroy (S.A.N.D.) mission. Their target was a super-powered mass murderer whom Dharma claimed was going to be recruited by the American government as an assassin. In the end—despite some hesitation on Sideshow’s part—the team completes its mission, very neatly making the death look accidental. “A Handful of S.A.N.D.” was a disturbing, provocative piece of work that generated a lot of praise from readers precisely because it dared to go where few comics had gone before. As Dharma himself said, to counter his operatives’ moral objections: “It was a dirty deed, but it kept dirtier deeds from being done.”

The next few issues were a bit tamer, exploring some the interpersonal relationships between Cabinet members and setting the tone of Dharma’s relationship with his operatives. The “Father’s Day” storyline (issues #3–4), especially, showed him to be a cold, manipulative bastard who used his operatives like pawns.

The “Red Death” storyline (#6–10) put a violent end to the status quo. After being abandoned in the middle of a mission in Antarctica, the team of Iron Butterfly, Donner, Blitzen, Sideshow and Iota vowed to somehow find Shadowspire (the Cabinet’s headquarters, accessed only via a teleportation device called the “shadowslide”) and kill Dharma—who, meanwhile, got busy making deals with S.Y.S.T.E.M., an international crime cartel. What was going on? Had Dharma turned bad and screwed the Cabinet? No: it turned out that he just wanted his best ops away from Shadowspire while he tricked S.Y.S.T.E.M. into squandering a major portion of their military might, thus restoring a fragile balance to the world.

When they finally returned to Shadowspire, all the operatives but Sideshow accepted Dharma’s explanation. Taking the seeming betrayal personally, Sideshow killed Dharma in a fit of rage. After being brought back to life by Red Dog, a powerful wizard who led the Shadow Cabinet at the turn of the century, Dharma decided to tell his favourite operatives the whole truth. Up until that point, only his sisters had known about his chronal sight.

Dharma’s new openness didn’t last long. Soon he began to withdraw information and manipulate his operatives again. And as the apocalypse of his visions drew ever closer, he slowly, methodically, took over every single S.Y.S.T.E.M. cell in the world. His former approach had been wrong, he reasoned: to have any chance of averting the catastrophe, he had to take a more active role.

My plan is simple. I will control everything. Nothing will happen without my approval. I know my Shadow Cabinet may disapprove, but they are in no position to judge.

Things completely fell apart in the 17th and last issue, which came out in October ’95. Enraged at his sisters’ recent disobedience (Plus, Starlight and several other Cabinet ops had helped stop a riot in Dakota, against Dharma’s explicit orders), Dharma attacked Plus and wrested control of Narnie from her. When Sideshow tried to intervene, he was killed. Dharma then summoned his operatives and announced that, from now on, they were to leave Shadowspire only for missions. Realizing that their leader had finally gone mad, Donner punched her way out of Shadowspire with Blitzen right behind, joined moments later by Iota flying a jet she had dug out of her pockets. The issue’s last panel shows the three of them rocketing away to freedom.

And so Shadow Cabinet ended. I suppose it was inevitable: the series just couldn’t last for very long with that kind of setup; and kudos to the creative team for not trying to stick to an easy status quo. Still… I hope we see the Cabinet again someday, with or without Dharma.

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