The Shadow

The Shadow makes his mark on the world with invisibility. His central achievement is making his achievements unknown–disappearing from consciousness and awareness. His greatest accomplishment is that there’s no way to tell if he was ever there. He would be pleased with his own status in pop culture: Indelible, influential, lurking around every corner, but cheerfully vanished from direct visibility.

The Shadow first appeared in a radio series sponsored by Street & Smith Publications to sell their detective magazines. He was just the narrator–a mysterious figure cloaked in darkness–who introduced stories and implored the listener to buy pulp magazines. Eventually, people liked him better than the stories and he became a real character with his own pulps and radio show.

I haven’t read the pulps. I don’t have a problem with pulp writing, but the radio show had a primal appeal: I liked that I could listen to it while walking the streets, that I could envelop myself in the world of the Shadow at any time–while cooking, cleaning or lying in bed at night–feeling one with him. 

In the pulps, the Shadow was Kent Allard, an aviator lost in the Pacific who gained all sorts of otherworldly training and insight. Once home, he used his newfound abilities to create a vast network of crime-busting vigilantes he could control and manipulate.  Like Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo, he maintained a series of different identities. For the radio things were simplified; the different identities settled on a single alter ego, billionaire playboy Lamont Cranston and the many agents became just one, girlfriendMargo Lane. It amplified the experience by making every listener an agent.  Being swept up into the Shadow’s world means you can’t help but be recruited.

Once I started listening to the Shadow’s radio serials, I could see him everywhere: He had talked to me my whole life without my knowledge. As if I were one of Lamont Cranston’s own cases–manipulated and used throughout; influenced by pop cultural without my knowledge. I met him first in Batman, as the scientist and detective who lived a double life. Rich buffoon and dark vigilante wrapped up in one. I knew I was neither, but there was an appeal, a coolness, to both.

But being cool isn’t what the Shadow is about. Even Batman has to impress–has to have his own car and his own plane and his own everything else, customized. The Shadow drives whatever gets him from point A to point B. Hell, he might not even drive; we never see it. He’s where he needs to be, and where he doesn’t need to be, he’d never be.

That’s what made The Shadow immediately feel like a character I’d known all my life when I started listening. Not just because of his presence in pop culture, but also because of his presence in life. I’d been trying to disappear–to find the corners and the shadows and the darkness where I’d be unnoticed, where I could disappear and observe. The problem is that observation is useless without replication and analysis and repetition. Standing in the corner at every party just out of the edge of the circle of the group was fine, good-enough, but it was always missing something. It was missing the Shadow.

The Shadow is the same way. Lamont Cranston may be the center of attention, but the Shadow is the weirdo in the corner, the shy one out of the corner of your eye that you dismiss without a second thought. I knew the Shadow, because I’d seen him a hundred times in culture and in life. I’d seen him on screens and in the mirror. All at once I saw a series of connections that made me see him within myself–see how I could use my natural skills and exploit my own invisibility. Why hide, why run, when you can take back the power from those who had had it all this time? Why worry about getting attention when not getting it gave you everything you need?

I started to think about how it would work. I listened to the early episodes from 1938 — the same year Superman first appeared, with his own love interest with the last name “Lane” — and waited eagerly for Orson Welles’ sonorous voice to start blessing me. I realized he was the same age as I am now when he was doing these performances, a struggling actor and frustrated genius taking a gig and reaching the biggest audience he could.

After listening to Welles as the Shadow, I listened to the 1951 radio series The Lives of Harry Lime, a series Welles did in England in which he played his character from the film The Third Man. Harry Lime was a charmer, a rogue, and a social climber who would do just about anything so long as it benefited himself — more Lamont Cranston than Shadow, but I still found something appealing even in a character of such loose morality.

Because there is a dark side. Lime has power, he has charm, he has all the benefits that I would ascribe to my enemies, to blame them for my failures. Charm and charisma were the special abilities of those that I would snipe from my shadow perch in the antisocial corner of the world, but he also has exactly what I want. People know his name. He isn’t mysterious. He commands attention when he needs it, and deflects it when he doesn’t. There’s no struggle. No thought. No fear. Is he evil? Maybe. But so is Gendo Ikari, from the Japanese animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion. So is Walter White, from Breaking Bad. So is Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis. Arguably, so was Charles Foster Kane, another Welles character from not too long after he stopped being the Shadow. Across media and across culture there are these figures that appeal to us, and more to the point, to me, because they have control and they’re active, obvious and central. It’s a fantasy. It’s easy to watch the morally stained characters being in complete control and resign myself to my normal state of invisibility, powerlessness, nothingness.

The Shadow is the answer to all that: Justice and science and power and control and invisibility–an existence behind the eye, out of sight, and mostly out of mind, until the time comes when you need to be helped or you need to be punished. The Shadow hasn’t been on the radio for over six decades, but his voice crackles and burns behind every silent party guest and the hidden bodies that we walk past, never the wiser.
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