Sometimes a creator’s different instincts and plans don’t always play nice with each other. For example, a costumed-hero story has certain standard tropes: the hero can always leave the bad guys tied up with a nice note for the authorities and the reader knows that means justice has and will be done.
But if the same creator wants to do a story about corrupt cops in what seems to be a deeply corrupt city, tying up those cops will not have the same expected result: it just means their compatriots will untie them, maybe make fun of them, maybe get angry on their behalf. Frankly, it would just annoy Certain People even more: that’s an event for the middle of the story, not the end.
So I’m not as happy with Ben Sears’s new graphic novel Young Shadow as I was with the last book of his I read, House of the Black Spot . Black Spot had villains who could be dealt with by mostly offstage Forces of Justice, and heroes whose modus operandi was a bit more complex and nuanced than the costumed-hero standard of “run around the city at night, asking people if there’s any trouble, and then get into fights with people whose look you don’t like.” That’s very close to Young Shadow’s exact words: he’s the hero, so the book says he’s right to do so, but his actions are exactly those of a bully or criminal gang: find someone doing something you object to (in this case, “rebel against your rich parents by drinking in the park and not bathing”), use violence on him.
If I were being reductionist, I’d say Young Shadow is “the Jason Todd Robin in an ACAB world.” We don’t know what Young Shadow’s real name is, or his history: we meet him on patrol, in Bolt City. He’s in tactical gear, with a domino mask, and he’s good at violence but signposted to be on the side of righteousness – the first time we see him fight, it’s to help a maltreated dog. Sears’s rounded, clean art style isn’t great at communicating this, though: Shadow says the dog is malnourished and dehydrated, but Sears draws him exactly the same then as later in the story, or like any other dog, just with his eyes closed most of the time.
Shadow doesn’t appear to have any real home. Maybe a bolt hole or three where he sleeps, or stashes gear, or keeps whatever other stuff he has. It’s not a “this guy is homeless” situation; it’s just not important. What he does is patrol as Young Shadow. What he does is protect the city. Anything else he does is not even secondary.
Shadow has a network of friends, or maybe informants. They’re the people of this neighborhood, or maybe multiple Bolt City neighborhoods. A number seem to be the owners of small businesses: a “lantern shop,” places that look a lot like bodegas, an animal shelter. They would tell Shadow about miscreants in their areas, we think – but, in this book, they don’t talk about nuts dressed up like wombats planning elaborate wombat-themed crimes, but instead about the night shift of the Bolt City Police Department. Those cops are acting suspicious, searching for things in a more furtive way than usual for cops. It’s not super-clear if there are elements of the BCPD, or any aspect of Bolt City governance, that is generally trusted by the populace. My guess is no. There is definitely some generalized “never talk to the cops about anything” advice, as with similar communities in the real world.
We do get some scenes from outside Shadow’s point of view, to learn that there are Sinister Forces, and that they encompass both the young malcontents Shadow beat up in the early pages and those crooked cops. (Well, maybe not crooked: they’re not soliciting bribes. We don’t even see them beat up or harass anyone. It’s just that Young Shadow is set in a world with people who totally mistrust cops for reasons which are too fundamental to even be mentioned.) There is an Evil Corporation, as there must be, and both a villain with a face and a higher-up Faceless Villain. Their goals are pretty penny-ante for an Evil Corporation: get back a big cache of crowd-control weapons and tools, get some more pollution done quickly before the law changes.
Shadow spends a lot of time wandering around looking for these people. I’m not sure if Sears is trying to make the point that this is not a useful tactic, or that Shadow is good at the violence stuff, but not so much at the finding-appropriate-avenues-for-violence stuff. I thought he did make those points, deliberately or not. Eventually, another vigilante appears: Spiral Scratch. (At first in a closed helmet, which I was sure meant it would be a character we’d seen before. But nope.) The flap copy calls SS the sidekick of Shadow, but the opposite is closer to the truth: Scratch is more organized and planful, and Shadow wouldn’t get much done alone.
In the end, our two forces of righteous violence find the thing the Forces of Evil are searching for, and dispose of it with the aid of an order of robot nuns. (I do enjoy the odd bits of Sears’s worldbuilding.) And they tie up some of the henchmen, which, as I mentioned way up top, will probably not lead to anything like punishment for them.
So I’m left wondering if there’s going to be a sequel: it feels like this story isn’t really over, that our vigilante heroes haven’t actually solved any underlying problem by punching a few people. And I also think I like Sears when his characters are detecting and talking rather than punching. But I like that in general, so that’s no surprise. People who like more punching in their comics may have a different opinion, and God knows they’re very common – if you’re one of them, give Young Shadow a look.