Comic Book Review: Shadows Fall

Seventeen years ago when he was a teenager, Warren Gale made a choice that cost him his soul. Never noticing its absence, Gale went on to have a perfectly safe, dull and predictable life, while his soul—a lonely, hungry shadow—drove hundreds of people to suicide. But now his soul wants to rejoin with him… and for the first time in a long while Warren’s life is about to become very interesting.

Seventeen years ago when he was a teenager, Warren Gale made a choice that cost him his soul. Never noticing its absence, Gale went on to have a perfectly safe, dull and predictable life, while his soul—a lonely, hungry shadow—drove hundreds of people to suicide. But now his soul wants to rejoin with him… and for the first time in a long while Warren’s life is about to become very interesting.

Shadows Fall is one comic that’s lost none of its awesome magic. In my original review I called it “one of the best comic books I’ve ever read,” and I feel it’s only gotten better in the intervening years. This 6-part Vertigo miniseries (published September ’94–February ’95) doesn’t try to deliver any Big Message, or get bogged down in pseudo-profound mysticism: only sweet, distilled horror that gives me chills to this day. Contributing to the unsettling atmosphere are John Ney Rieber’s writing, alternating between perfectly mundane, beautifully lyrical, and unspeakably creepy—especially the dialog for Gale’s soul, semi-structured jumbles of words that feel like blank verse—and John Van Fleet‘s harsh, grainy art, perfect for the run-down and depressing cityscapes.

The first character we meet is the soul’s latest victim: Renee, a homeless schizophrenic woman who believes she is a beloved queen, adored by all her subjects but also beset by unknown enemies, waiting for her “Prince Randy” to come and rescue her. A sort of humanoid shadow touches her… and without a word, she walks blankly onto the freeway to get killed. Cut to Warren Gale, a pretty nondescript man, in colourless nondescript clothes, neither ugly nor especially attractive, holding down a boring job, with a staggeringly dull routine, no strong emotions, no friends, no life… and no shadow. As we see that night, his soul occasionally visits him in his dreams to share the more interesting lives it has taken. He never remembers these dreams in the morning, and is in fact completely unaware of his serial killer shadow.

Here we learn the true horror of how the shadow kills. It doesn’t slash or bite or hurt its victims physically. All it does is tell them the truth: to rip apart the illusions and the lies, to make them see how small and pathetic their lives are, so they have no choice but to kill themselves. In Warren’s dream we see the world through Renee’s eyes, and it really was a beautiful world. The colours were richer, the people were prettier—Renee herself looking a bit like a younger Elizabeth II. She was happy, full of hope for the future and love for her subjects. But the truth was, few people in her “kingdom” even noticed her, and fewer cared. There was no Prince to come and make the world right; Randy was just some guy who knocked her up thirty years ago, then married another girl (who he’d also gotten pregnant, and with whom he’s still married) after Renee had an abortion. He moved on but it seems Renee never did; in the end she had nothing but her dreams and lies to sustain her—sweet, harmless lies that Gale’s shadow gleefully ripped away.

The shadow seems to mostly prey on people whose sense of self is weak, or are repressing a core of darkness. Yet the beauty of it is, they aren’t faceless victims. We get to know and empathize with them even as the shadow is dissecting their lives. As pitiful or evil as the victims are, they’re still human. And nobody deserves to die like that.

As morning comes the shadow leaves, with a promise.

So sweet brother
I wonder as I go
As you go about your day Gale
Do you ever miss your soul?
One day Gale
We will be one again

And as the shadow leaves, readers get their first look at Shen, a magician who knows more than he reveals (but less than he’d like to believe), and is dedicated to bringing down Gale’s soul by whatever means necessary. He abducts Gale and forcibly reveals the truth and cause of his fractured existence: a stupid choice that cost an innocent her life. As a teenager Gale held up a convenience store just as a cop happened to be outside. As he ran from the scene of the crime, the cop shot at him and hit Alice, a neighbourhood child. At that exact moment, Warren’s shadow was covering her hand. He kept running, but Alice held on to the shadow somehow. (The exact mechanics of this soulectomy are never explained, and that’s fine. It’s magic; I don’t need any more explanation than that. Alice was just some kid; she didn’t have any special powers, except for being Warren’s only real friend. So: guilt on one side, innocent friendship on the other, a violent death and a wild stroke of luck, all add up to a severed shadow? Works for me.)

Confused, disoriented and, for the first time, feeling guilt over Alice’s death, Warren goes to visit his old neighbourhood. Surprised at this unprecedented break in his routine, the shadow follows him and they separately reminisce about their childhood. Him, vaguely nostalgic, the memories distant and dusty: a toy store long gone, its window filled with all kinds of wonderful stuff; music playing the night of his holdup. The shadow, deeply bitter, remembering the bullying and parental beatings and fear that made the teenage Warren into what he was: a cocky, violent little punk who got off on hurting and dominating others, hating his family and neighbourhood and dreaming only of leaving them. All this was what the shadow became, and still is. Separate, both halves of Warren became unable to grow and change: the body is little more than an automaton going through the motions of having a life, while the soul runs only on hunger and cruelty, powerless to know anything else no matter how much it hates its existence.

You’d shed a tear if you could wouldn’t you Gale?
How maudlin of you to whimper sighs when all I’ve done is all you wished you could have
Your wish was my command and my command was Die
You’ve forgotten how you cursed the scum when we were someone they could spit on
Yesterday when we had no choice but to bear the brunt of their spite
Hollis isn’t about to call the cops because he smelled your reefer smoke
Or caught you on the fire escape watching his wife undress
Hollis is toast now
Sarah Lang will never laugh at you because you’ve asked her out
That bitch had her last laugh where nobody could hear
Danny Kirk won’t be threatening to grind you into the street
When Graden Chemical gave him the sack I gave him a hand with his resume
They’ve vacated the premises yes
But not much else has changed this is still home
I remember for both of us
There was no place like home

The shadow takes this opportunity to speak to Warren in the waking world, asking him to take it back, to let them both be real again. But Warren can’t hear it, and is still not ready to accept what’s happening to him, so he runs. The shadow wanders off to kill again and runs into Shen, who attacks but only manages to wound it. Terrified, it flees and goes on a brief killing spree, then catches up to Warren again. This time it’s much bolder and actually touches its “brother,” allowing him to hear its voice. But Warren, experiencing another new emotion—anger—categorically refuses to join with it. Desperate, the shadow possesses a nearby homeless man and makes him cut his own throat, threatening to keep killing like this until Warren takes it back. But the plan backfires as Warren, trying to help the dying man, gets accidentally stabbed in the gut, and passes out.

Unconscious in the hospital, Warren encounters his old friend Alice (a ghost? a memory? who knows?) and together they get to the truth about his childhood. It wasn’t all that great, but neither was it as bad as he remembered. Yes, his father did beat him—until his grandfather made him stop. Yes, things were hard for his family—partly through Warren’s own regular sabotaging of his father’s business. And there was beauty, and joy, and possibilities, which as a teenager he made himself forget.

Warren wakes up able to feel the full range of human emotions. The truth did not kill him; it gave him life, made him real again even without his soul. Intuitively sensing that the shadow needs to stay close, Warren decides to leave the city, hole up somewhere out of the way, and let the shadow starve. He knows there’s no coming back for him, either; but on the bright side, his rebirth gave him the ability to make choices and take control of his life, and face death with dignity. Settling in at an abandoned amusement park, Warren turns the tables on his shadow and somehow brings it inside himself, sharing his newly-recovered memories, making it remember the good things about their childhood and see how much of its hate was based on lies. And so the shadow also begins to experience positive emotions, and taste its old dreams again.

I won’t try to recap the final confrontation between Warren and his shadow, because there’s no way I could do it justice. Suffice to say they merge… and become something greater than the sum of its parts. Something which could only exist after they began to truly live apart from each other. Something totally new, just starting out in life, as full of dreams and possibilities as Warren used to be. And so this grim, dark story, full of death and destruction, ends on a note of hope.

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