Shade the Changing Girl, published under the Young Animal imprint of DC Comics, derives from an original comic idea about madness, and dives into a new approach to madness when a female alien being, Loma, uses a “madness jacket” belonging to a famous poet, Rac Shade, to travel to earth and take up residence in the body of a comatose teenage girl.
If you think that sounds strange, it should. In fiction writing, we’ve long known that taking a character we know and connect with, and placing them in an entirely alien environment can make for effective and dramatic storytelling. We’ve also known for quite some time that taking an outsider, someone totally foreign to a given environment, and placing them within a setting readers recognize and know, and watching their reactions, can be a very enlightening form of storytelling too. The former is often about creating a sense of wonder or horror. The latter is, at times, used as a very pointed form of critique. We get a chance to take a stab at our hangups, obsessions, or backwardness through the eyes of an outsider, and it does us some good to see things through their eyes.
Shade has been showing us that perspective for ten issues now, though our new storyline is only a couple of issues in, when Shade heads to Gotham City, leaving her back-stabbing, but rather agonizingly conflicted, friends behind. Written by rocker and author Cecil Castellucci and drawn by Marley Zarcone with inks by Ande Parks, and remarkably innovative colors by Kelly Fitzpatrick, the series has been a festival of the strange so far. We’ve seen what an acid-trip nightmare high school can be, but we’ve also learned a lot about madness and Loma’s own history. We know safe things are rarely compelling, and dangerous things are often illuminating, and feelings, particularly deep emotions, are their own form of madness.
Though we’ve had some social critique all the way through, reminding us what nonsensical barbarians humans can be, issues #9 and #10 really home in on a couple of key areas of human madness to discuss, and we’re likely to keep getting more to think about. There’s the madness of nostalgia in the face of changing times in issue #9 when Shade attends a concert for a band she grew to love through the 1950’s Earth sitcom “Life with Honey”, and when she finds them aged, we get some deep emotional reactions from her.
Shade hauls out expletives and can’t comprehend until she re-thinks the laws of spacetime and breaks out some madness magic to bring youth back to those seeking to recapture the past. There are some truly moving phrases in there from Castellucci about “hearing with old ears, seeing with young eyes” when it comes to nostalgia. Shade, being over-literal, sets a gang of regressed teens loose on Gotham City to help them out.
Is nostalgia a form of madness? Certainly it can be, when taken to extremes, and it’s a peculiarly human madness. Even animals miss each other intensely, but humans can construct whole frameworks of memory to live in when their lives have taken turns they wouldn’t have wished for. Shade seems to intuitively grasp what nostalgia is as soon as she’s introduced to it, but for her it’s a very direct longing for something she can’t really get close to–the past.
While the comic’s take on the madness of nostalgia is somewhat sweet, its look at the madness of nuclear war is far less sugar-coated. We’ve been heading toward this discussion all along through the back-up stories from “Life with Honey” in several issues of the comic, a sit-com set in Los Alamos about a housewife married one of the (if not the most prominent) scientists working on nuclear bombs during the early Cold War. Now, Shade actually journeys to Los Alamos to try to find the actress who played Honey to save her from illness and death in her old age.
But because her ordinary life is punctuated by the extraordinary, Shade is able to move into a kind of madness bubble where she glimpses elements of the past. She can “feel the madness” at White Sands, and even interact with scientists, presumably Oppenheimer, at the moment of the first bomb test. In the same issue, we get a double-page spread from Zarcone, Parks, and Fitzpatrick that lays out a boardgame tracking the trials of the atomic bomb.
And, added to all this, our “Life with Honey” backup, this time drawn by Leila del Duca, is specifically about the uncertainties of surviving, even in a fallout shelter, should a bomb drop.
Lastly, there’s an interesting thematic connection made between anger–both Shade’s, and the anger of the alien scientists searching for her on earth to get their jacket back–and the explosion of the bomb. The comic reminds us a couple of times that Shade, wearing the madness jacket, is now a weapon, and the second time, Shade herself says it before going “nuclear” in rage.
Interestingly, the comic hasn’t really explored anger yet as a form of madness, despite smaller blips like Shade’s friend’s turning on her due to past mistreatment. This is a different approach and tone–taking on a bigger subject. Perhaps one of breaking points. Shade has been pushed and pulled, and now she’s being directly attacked, by those trying to recover their property. What exactly can an avatar of madness do when they are pushed beyond their generally quite pacifist limits?
All of this has human implications, too, though we’re seeing it through the cipher of an alien being in our world. How far do we take things? Why do we seemingly have an endless ability to go too far as human beings?
Shade The Changing Girl has a lot to offer in terms of concepts to consider, but there’s no doubt that the conflicts in the comic are getting more intense and turning an even keener lens on human activities as the series progresses through its second arc.
Shade the Changing Girl issues #9 and #10 are currently in shops. Issue #11 arrives on August 2nd, 2017.