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Comic Book / Shade, the Changing Man

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Shade in his armor on the cover of issue 60.

"At this point I started to lie. And as I lied, I realized I might be telling the truth. This often happens to me."
Shade, The Passion Child

Originally a short-lived series created by Steve Ditko, Shade ran from 1977-78 before its sudden cancellation. Like many other Silver Age heroes he got a thorough Continuity Reboot under DC Comics's Vertigo imprint; the alien fugitive with a technological gizmo was replaced by a soulful poet from a parallel Earth who could warp reality.

The reboot was written in 1990 under Britwave author Peter Milligan and then-fledgling artist Chris Bachalo. Like the work of previous British authors Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, the series was highly experimental, combining history, mythology, literary allusions, and genre deconstruction. The series would run seventy issues, reaching its conclusion in 1996.

The series focuses on Shade, a dimensional traveler with reality-altering powers. In the Vertigo title, he is unceremoniously dropped into our dimension, where he becomes involved in the life of a young woman named Kathy, still reeling from the brutal murder of her boyfriend and parents. He soon turns her life upside-down as he fights against physical manifestations of madness, of his own desires, and of the breakdown of American culture. He fights fire with fire by harnessing the power of Madness using the "Madness Vest" (the "M-Vest" in the Ditko era). However, things quickly turn more complicated...

The externalization of shifting ideas forms a central theme throughout the series, exploring belief, creation, madness, and the instability of identity. The focus of the series was usually on character interaction, psychological changes, and human relationships, even as the overarching plot grew increasingly climactic and fantastical. The series never shied away from controversy, dealing openly with transgender themes, homosexuality, murder, and interracial relationships.

The series has a cult following, but the complete series is difficult to find, with only the first nineteen issues having been republished as trades. DC is in the process of releasing individual issues digitally. In 2003, original author Peter Milligan teamed with Madman artist Mike Allred to write a one-off Shade story for Vertigo's tenth anniversary special; in 2011, Shade appeared in Flashpoint as the leader of the Secret Seven, and also appeared in the New 52 series Justice League Dark. In 2013 a one-shot short in the DC Nation block on Cartoon Network heralded his first animated appearance; this incarnation is often regarded by fans as being a (benevolent) Lord of Chaos.

In 2016, DC announced Shade, The Changing Girl, by writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Marley Zarcone, as one of the titles under Gerard Way's Young Animal imprint, featuring a female alien, Loma Shade, with the Madness Vest and hiding out in the body of a 16-year-old girl. After the "Milk Wars" crossover, it was relaunched as Shade, The Changing Woman.

Has no relation to the Golden Age Flash villain.

Shade, the Changing Man provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: A pretty big issue in Shade's and Kathy's relationship. While being separated from Shade, Kathy starts up a lesbian affair with their mutual friend Lenny. Shade himself feels guilty about falling out of love with girlfriend on his homeworld.
  • Affably Evil: The "Devil", who comes across as a civilized, cultured gentleman who eventually stabs him in the back. He is Satan, after all.
    Kathy: You haven't... given up your soul or anything?
    Shade: He's not interested in souls. And he's not really the Devil. And he's not as bad as you think. Quite easygoing, really.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: The Area of Madness in Shade, the Changing Man is part of a much larger and less easily defined place, where Shade meets the ghost of Roger, Kathy's dead ex-boyfriend, then the Angels and Devil. The Land of the Dead is the part of "The Area" described as 'the antechamber to the afterlife'.
  • Alternate Universe: Shade comes from a realm with very different dimensional properties called the Meta-Zone.
  • Another Dimension: Our hero's unusual provenance.
  • Ascended Fangirl: Basically the premise of Shade, The Changing Girl. A Shade fangirl on Meta got her hands on the Madness Vest and went to Earth like her idol.
  • Attractive Bent-Gender: When Shade became a woman, she was a stunningly beautiful one. Justified in that he was already such a Pretty Boy that he had masculinity issues with his image.
  • Author Avatar: Shade's cultural confusion in America echoed Peter Milligan's own sense of cultural alienation in America.
    • Not to mention the fact that Shade's reality altering powers are presented as an allegory for the authorial act of creation.
  • Ax-Crazy: Troy Grenzer, the man who kills Kathy's parents. Subverted when Shade takes over his body at the point of his execution in the first issue. So the hero of the comic has the face and body of a convicted killer! Though Troy dies in the first issue, his influence is felt throughout the series.
  • Back from the Dead: Shade at least once, but the distinction somewhat blurs after he begins making trips to the Land of the Dead regularly.
  • Beat Still, My Heart: Shade's heart is stolen by a squatter in his home after a battle. He embarks on a half-hearted rescue of it, and when he finally catches up to it, has a heart-to-heart talk with it. And then steps on it when he decides he's better off heartless. It appears from time to time, still beating, moving under its own power, and even has internal monologues.
  • Bitter Wedding Speech: Subverted: Lenny is invited to her uncle's wedding, years after he babysat her as a child, and masturbated while watching her sleep. She has everyone's attention when she gets onto the table in front of the married couple, expecting a speech. She simply unfastens her dress and lets it fall off her with a smirk on her face. The reception ended in family violence.
  • Brits Love Tea: The Affably Evil Devil is always drinking tea while smoking his pipe, and offered Shade some (with no other consequence.) After their deal went sour and Shade removed the source of his power, Shade punished him by banishing him to part of the Area of Madness where they only drank strong black coffee.
  • Burn the Witch!: Shade and his companions are nearly burnt at the stake when they travel back to Puritan New England, where the natives mistake the Madness for the Devil's own sorcery. It doesn't help when they find out Lenny's last name is Shapiro, calling her "filthy Jewess."
  • Canon Discontinuity: Shade's later appearance in Hellblazer seems to confirm that everything beyond Issue 50, the original intended ending, is such.
  • Celestial Paragons and Archangels: The angels are smug, brute-force manipulators who don't even bother attempting to appeal to morality or necessity. They brought Shade back to life but also made him crazier by taking a piece of his mind to control him with. They resurrected Kathy and withheld the Mind Rape memories so intense they killed her, then extorted her with them to make her keep Shade under control. They're such Jerkass Gods that they make a bargain with an Faux Affably Evil Devil seem sane by comparison.
  • Changed My Jumper: On the rare examples of time-travel, it was easily Hand Waved by Shade only appearing to personalities known to stay under the influence of substances, sometimes including hallucinogens. In one unique aversion, all of Hotel Shade and everything inside reverted gradually to earlier analogues and fashions, until they finally arrived in colonial Salem. Constantine mused on the fit of various underwear through history.
  • Continuity Nod: Meta's Ditkosian mythology referred to Steve Ditko's work on the title, largely thrown out of canon during Peter Milligan's run.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: A writer character has the ability to extract the abilities and characteristics of real people for use in his stories. When he bases one character on Lenny he takes away her unique and caustic wit, and when she realizes this she freaks out by scribbling "It just isn't funny anymore" in lipstick on the bathroom mirror before trying to kill herself.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: Shade traps a Celestial in a statue of the mythical Pandora (with box), and she comes to life. Kathy and Lenny find "Pandora's" box and give in to temptation by opening it. The box is empty, but it turns "Pandora" into dust.
  • Damaged Soul: Shade came back deranged, not due to the death, the resurrection, or even the hell of fighting in the Land of the Dead, but because the Angels took a part of his psyche in order to have a hook into him. Far from the worst example of the trope, as this was Shade's most entertaining incarnation.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lenny. This is such a defining characteristic of hers that when her ability to snark was stolen (along with her sex drive,) she attempted suicide.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Kathy's murdered boyfriend Roger returns as a ghost for awhile. He couldn't talk at first but eventually starts communicating.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Loma Shade in Shade, the Changing Girl.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Shade's earliest incarnation, called sweet and sensitive, faces disappointments with Kathy and abuse from Lenny.
  • Double Consciousness: Shade described this after the Angels returned him to Earth unpredictably deranged, claiming they had "stolen his ballast", and that he no longer knew who he was from moment to moment. The rebirth had integrated multiple facets of his personality, some previously repressed, and some that weren't even his to begin with.
  • Dream Land: The Area (originally 'The Area of Madness') is expanded to become the land of dreams, the land of the dead, the place where all human consciousness gravitates.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Played straight with some characters, subverted by other characters who are just trying to seem more interesting than their actual background would suggest, and inverted by others who come across perfectly stable in spite of having every reason to go mad.
  • Eldritch Location: The Area of Madness and the larger Area it is part of appears anywhere from vaguely surreal to incomprehensibly psychedelic, filled with creatures hostile to life, limb, and/or sensibilities, and more could be generated simply by entering the Area. Shade can create more localized versions around himself, but his apartment in the crack in the sidewalk of Times Square was the largest and most stable.
  • Emotionless Girl: The Passionchild, an androgynous pretty boy who incited emotion to the psychotic degree in everyone around him, but never expressed anything. He didn't even speak until Shade cracked into his inner world, and found nothing.
    Passionchild: I find nothing out there. I find nothing in here too, but it's my nothing.
  • Enemy Within: For Shade (thanks to the power of madness) Hades became an Enemy Without and an Ensemble Dark Horse in the same story arc. He also seemed to become less threatening and more helpful, so perhaps it's for the best that he vanished the scene before Spikeification set in.
  • Everybody Did It: Peter Milligan used this to avoid solving the mystery of "Who Shot JFK?", instead Hand Waving with a glancing look at every possible speculation, then concluding that Everybody Did It. Justified in that Shade is a stranger to American culture, and that he was dealing with a madman's obsession covering up for grieving his lost daughter.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Shade gets a new one every time he dies.
  • The Fair Folk: A late issue focuses on a group of actors filming the type of Disneyfied, Bowdlerized fairy tale made for children, shot on location in Ireland. They get together at a pub to express contempt for the film and the irresistible amounts of money that compelled them to take part in it, and the older Irish natives talk about the terror and brutality of the real fairy tales they grew up with. When Shade arrives and enters a Fairy Ring, his madness amplifies the effect across the entire country, with results deadly and deranging. The madstorm also wipes out the entire film production, to the relief of the surviving actors.
  • First Law of Gender Bending: Shade had to take over the body of a drowning woman in order to stay alive himself. Overnight, it reverted to female form and could not be changed back until he found the person responsible for the woman's death. Even after solving that mystery, his female features would re-emerge from time to time until he abandoned the body to fight death on its own terrain.
  • First Period Panic: Shade's consciousness leaps into the body of a recently murdered woman. Unfortunately, he's unable to alter her body to resemble his old one until he solves her murder and puts her soul at rest. This leads to various comical scenes with Shade experiencing the Male Gaze, his first period and sex as a woman.
  • Gender Bender: Shade's consciousness leaps into the body of a recently murdered woman. Unfortunately, he was unable to alter her body to resemble his old one until he solved her murder and put her soul at rest. This led to various comical scenes with Shade experiencing the Male Gaze, his first period and sex as a woman.
    • Shade writer Peter Milligan later wrote the second Infinity, Inc series, in which team member Fury involuntarily switches between genders.
  • Genre Savvy: Lenny, later the incarnation of Pandora.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: After Kathy reveals her pregnancy with Shade's child, she and Lenny immediately begin discussing abortion, and Shade surprises them by turning out to be pro-life:
    Shade: But're a good person!
    • Shade suggests many Applied Phlebotinum alternatives that would've turned this into a Space Whale Aesop had they been accepted. After several issues of Kathy and Lenny arguing on the principle of their right to choose (with Shade outnumbered and sulking,) Kathy ultimately chooses to keep the child.
  • Green Rocks: The Power of Madness. It can do anything.
  • Hell Hotel: Hotel Shade has this quality, as lampshaded by Kathy and Lenny before they knew they were doomed to fight madness there. It didn't help that the first living tenant was a serial torture-killer, or the second one appeared to be a raving lunatic (he explained that he was a writer; they weren't reassured.) Corpses animated from the nearby graveyard, because that was the only way the Angels could communicate with Shade, but no one had any idea what was animating the hotel staff.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: A male character claims if he doesn't have lots of sex his jaw will go out of whack.
  • Important Haircut:
    • Kathy's came after getting over the loss of Shade and becoming romantically attached to Lenny. The editor confessed in the letters page that she had also gone through several hairstyles of her own while getting over emotional pains. Kathy returned to long, natural hair while pregnant with Shade's child and since she was murdered not long after, that's how she's always remembered.
    • And then there's Shade himself, who gets a new haircut every time he dies.
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: "It runs on pure madness!" Things like Angel Catchers and Time Machines are built from unlikely whirlwinds of parts, arranged in implausible configurations, and powered by Shade's insane faith that they would work. For a time, even Shade's own body was formed and held together with madness.
  • Jump, I'll Catch You!: Played straight when Lenny says this to Lily, who's trying to escape a burning building.
  • Last Request: On her deathbed, Kathy in Shade, the Changing Man makes Shade promise to care for their baby.
  • Marked Change: The madder incarnation of Shade would have swirls and concentric circles appear on his face and hands when activating his madness powers.
  • Me's a Crowd: As fractured as Shade is on the inside, it was probably badly advised for him to split up physically. After generating an Evil Clone who escaped and attempted to supplant the original, Shade stopped deliberately duplicating himself.
  • Narrator All Along: Milligan kind of did this in one issue. The text is written in the second person, but in the end, one of the characters says that he'll write down what happened, but write it as a comic, put it in the second person, and put it under some weird pen name, like say, Peter Milligan.
  • Not Right in the Bed: Inverted when Shade possessed the body of a serial killer who murdered his girlfriend's parents and ex-boyfriend. Unfortunately the body still possesses the killer's mind, which is able to possess the body right back. Kathy isn't clued by Shade's performance in bed because they hadn't had sex before, but when they do, she remarks on how different and 'gentle' it is. She says, unconvincingly, "But this can still be good..."
  • Obsessively Normal: Joe Wright is a married man who chalks up anything that happens in his Wisconsin suburb that doesn't fall within his narrow idea of what's acceptable to sinister alien "Normalcy Invaders." He becomes both super-empowered and more insane when the American Scream uses him.
  • Oh Look, More Rooms!: When Shade moved into a crack in the pavement of Times Square, it was already Bigger on the Inside. New rooms appeared as the story required, and his son George spend months touring them.
  • Oireland: Lampshaded when Shade, the Changing Man Shade visits an American film production shot on location in Ireland. Only one of the cast is shown to be Irish, the rest hired from around England, but all of them scoff at the ridiculousness of the film and their roles.
  • Placebotinum Effect: The series is made of this. The madness vest does not work that way, until Shade wants it to, and after it integrates with him, he never mentions it again. His angel trap and similar machines are collections of clutter thrown together at random and shouldn't work, except that they're Crazy Enough to Work. The crack in the sidewalk in Times Square is nothing more than that until Shade decides to move in and explore it. And the "metang" Shade's hero suit is made of doesn't even exist until he decides to fashion such a suit, with the properties he supposes something like metang would have; he simply Ass Pulls it with the power of madness.
  • Plausible Deniability: In the 1987 Suicide Squad series, Shade told about an incredibly confusing conspiracy that was going on in his home dimension. When Shade and the Squad confronted the conspirators on Earth, one of the Squad members asked what to do when the police arrived. Shade replied to tell the police the truth and they would brush it off as a delusional fantasy.
  • Power Born of Madness: Prime example of the Reality Warper ("forge what you need on the smithy of your soul".) He began merely poetic, and therefore only insane to his native culture, so he was able to survive being flung through the Area of Madness relatively insane. With time on Earth, he got much madder.
  • Reality Warper: Shade
  • Ret-Gone: In the final issues of the series, Shade (and Milligan) attempted to invert this, and remove Kathy's tragic backstory and murder. It made for an anticlimactic ending, as Shade's personality had come full circle to the socially awkward idealist he was at the beginning, the final page left hanging on his clumsy attempts to reconcile with a woman who no longer had a history with him.
  • Rewriting Reality:
    • An arc from Shade the Changing Man featured an inversion. Anything that frustrated writer Miles Laimling wrote would be fictional, even if it were true before. Miles drew inspiration from personalities around him, and as their traits became more lifelike in his fiction, those traits would fade from the individuals they were inspired from.
    • Played straight at the end of the arc when Laimling types a passage that grants Shade his full size and powers back, not by negating the effects trapping him, but by affirming that he had them.
  • Salem Is Witch Country: In "History Lesson", when Shade, Lenny and Kathy go back to the witch trials, they end up taking John Constantine along with them. The three land in trouble, of course, both because of Shade's powers and local prejudice against Lenny's Jewishness.
  • Sarcasm Failure: Lenny is always good for a snark, no matter how dire the situation. Her Sarcasm Failure was a result of an author, an unwitting personality plunderer, who had written her into his book, and shocked her enough to drive her to a suicide attempt.
  • Sarcastic Confession: This was how the Metans operated in Ditko's version of Shade, the Changing Man: their outpost on Earth was disguised as a conspiracy theory insisting Metans were among us.
  • Second-Person Narration: Shade starts doing this after waking up the day after Kathy's death.
  • Series Fauxnale: The intended finale of Milligan's series was supposed to be a Downer Ending, at the end of the "A Season In Hell" arc. Executive Meddling forced the creator's hand, and what followed may have made a better story under a different title (as Milligan probably intended.)
  • Shoot the Dog: Shade is forced to kill an enemy that can't be reasoned with or contained.
    "I can't defend it. It was probably wrong... but... things aren't always black and white, are they? Sometimes I guess things get so gray you can't do what's right... only what's going to be least wrong."
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The series ends with Shade rewriting history so that none of the events of the comic ever happened, leaving one character (who had gone back in time with him) missing, his son trapped permanently in a female body and he himself unable to reconnect with his lost love. There is a slightly upbeat moment in the last panel, but if you think about it, it's unlikely to have worked out the way he wanted it to... This is actually an improvement over the intended ending in issue 50, which would have ended the series with Kathy and Shade's child dead and the rest of the cast either dead, leaving, or permanently estranged from Shade.
  • Split Personality: Peter Milligan's reboot has this in droves, with Shade, his heart, his suit, his skin, his alter-ego Hades, and others all forming, taking control, leaving, and rejoining the hero.
  • Standard '50s Father: Shade once encountered a cult led by a man who was obsessed with normalcy, which to him meant forcibly turning everyone in the neighbourhood into '50s nuclear family stereotypes. Wearing a suit and tie and smoking a pipe was mandatory for men.
  • Stepford Suburbia: One issue featured a Stepford Suburbia run by a man who had created a madness-powered machine that turned people "normal."note  He started as a Heteronormative Crusader with mild racism and an inablility to understand young people, but as his madness increased, his definition of "normal" grew even narrower ("You take milk in your coffee, right, Joe?")
  • Stop, or I Will Shoot!:
    • In the first issue, the cops don't even finish the sentence when they see Roger (Kathy's black boyfriend who she brought to the Deep South to meet her parents) wrestling with Trent (white serial killer who had just knifed Kathy's parents to death) on the lawn; they shoot Roger. They were both covered in the same blood during the struggle, though Trent was more blood-splattered for good reason. Trent lampshades the injustice by mockingly complaining about the discrimination shown against himself.
    • In a later issue, two cops question Shade while he's carting the bodies of a pair of hookers out of Times Square in a steamer trunk. The bodies turn out to be mannequins, but the cops find severed human fingers among the parts. When Shade tries to flee, they open fire before they've finished yelling the trope.
  • Superpower Lottery: Shade can create hallucinations, he can create physical objects, he can change himself, he can change others, he can bring himself back from the dead, teleport, make and grow interdimensional spaces, and even travel through time itself! A few reasons why this worked: Firstly, it's a non-heroic comic book. That means all other characters get no gimmicks, so their character development have to be focused on character. And so you had purely normal, believable personalities who were at least as interesting as the guy with the powers, or moreso. Secondly, Shade's powers are just as often the plaything of his own issue-riddled subconscious. And the more adept Shade gets at using his powers, the more colossally his fucked-up mind can fashion a Mind Screw.
  • Surreal Horror: Shade's first villain was the American Scream, and the blend of Surreal Horror with Primal Fear recurred throughout the series.
  • The Trope without a Title: Shade himself doesn't know what the Area of Madness is. When he asks about it, the most conclusive answer is "The Area of Madness is just one part of The Area."
  • Think Nothing of It: Played for laughs, when Hooker with a Heart of Gold Pandora is implied to have exchanged a sexual favor to a doctor for his examining a pregnant Kathy:
  • Too Kinky to Torture: In Peter Milligan's reboot of Shade, the Changing Man, version 3 of Shade is driven mad by his previous death and afterlife. When he finds out he's about to be tortured, he expresses enthusiasm for the idea, as long as it's being done by an expert.
  • True Meaning of Christmas: Parodied in the Christmas Issue of Shade, the Changing Man, in which Meta's You Mean "Xmas" is the Day of Bones, originally celebrated by bringing the skeletons of their ancestors into the house and decorating them, but now celebrated with plastic skeletons that glow and play tunes. Some Metans think this is too commercial, and people are "forgetting the real meaning of digging up our ancestors' skeletons".
  • Two First Names: Kathy George.
  • Unmoving Plaid: Shade's coat in this animated short, although not usually in the original comics. Of course, the idea that Shade's coat might be a cloth-based wormhole to a patterned universe actually fits the character perfectly.
  • The Walrus Was Paul: Want to know what the series is actually about? According to Milligan: "hair". The worrying thing is that there's some evidence (Shade goes through a few Expository Hairstyle Changes, and Kathy has an Important Haircut) to support this, and he did also write a comic called Hewligan's Haircut with Gorillaz cofounder Jamie Hewlett...
  • Weirdness Magnet: Shade and his crew end up living in 'Hotel Shade', which the Angels told him would "draw madness to it like a magnet." Even John Constantine paid a visit.
  • Whodunnit to Me?: Story Arc 'The Road'.
  • Who Shot JFK?: The second and third issue give us a Sphinx with JFK's head that asks people this question and eats them when they're unable to answer. The JFK-Sphinx's madness is fueled by a Kennedy admirer-turned conspiracy theorist. In the end, he's forced to ask the question, and says we're all responsible, for letting the President's death overshadow his life, but the real truth is confronting the manifestation of his obsession allows him to come to terms with the death of his young daughter, which he can only blame on life's unfairness.
  • Who Would Want to Watch Us?: In the final issues of Peter Milligan's series after DC had decided to cancel, Lenny is describing Shade to her father.
    Lenny's father: What is he, Superman?
    Lenny: If he were, his comic would probably be canceled.
    (both look out of panel)
  • Whodunnit to Me?: The story arc 'The Road' becomes an inverse murder mystery.
  • You Just Ruined the Shot: Author Avatar Miles Laimling is introduced bellowing death threats behind a closed door. When Shade bursts in, he's yelling at an empty chair, testing out lines for a scene in the novel he's writing.
  • You Mean "Xmas": The Metan counterpart of Christmas is called the Day of Bones, and celebrates the day, 2500 years ago, when a "prophet, or son of the Godhead, or whatever you want to call him" dug up the bones of the dead and brought them back to life.