Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Shade The Changing Girl #4. Written by Cecil Castellucci (The P.L.A.I.N. Janes, Stone In The Sky), with art by Marley Zarcone (Effigy, Forgetless), inker Ande Parks (The Lone Ranger, Slash & Burn), and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick (Bitch Planet, DC Bombshells), with a back-up written by Magdalene Visaggio (Kim & Kim) and Paulina Ganucheau (Zodiac Starforce, Another Castle), this issue is a striking example of the remarkable work being done by DC Comics’ Young Animal imprint. (This review reveals major plot points.)
DC’s new Young Animal imprint is one of the most fascinating comics projects in recent history. Spearheaded by Gerard Way, former frontman of the rock band My Chemical Romance and sometime comics writer, Young Animal essentially serves the same purpose as classic Vertigo, offering fresh interpretations of established DC concepts with titles intended for mature reader. The Vertigo imprint still exists, but for the last few years it has felt like a testing ground for properties that could be adapted for film or TV, rather than a place for exciting titles that take full advantage of the creative opportunities available in comics.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any impressive new Vertigo series (Clean Room and Sheriff Of Babylon were two of The A.V. Club’s Best Comics Of 2016), but recent attempts to launch new Vertigo series have had more misses than hits. The Vertigo name doesn’t mean what it used to, and hasn’t since executive editor Karen Berger left the imprint in 2013. Young Animal feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of those early Vertigo days when it put out genuinely surprising, forward-thinking work. And Young Animal has succeeded.
The imprint’s four launch titles have all been released, and they’re all engrossing, complex reads. The two Young Animal titles with overt connections to former Vertigo books, Doom Patrol and Shade The Changing Girl, are reverent of past incarnations while taking their core concepts in unique directions. Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic are doing what those first Vertigo books did, mining DC Comics history to develop compelling new properties that will ideally resonate with readers outside the typical superhero audience. It’s been a refreshingly contained and confident launch; each book makes a strong statement from the very start, and there’s a sense that everyone involved creatively and editorially is genuinely passionate about their respective projects.
Shade The Changing Girl was the second Young Animal title to hit stands. Over the course of four issues, it has established itself as one of the trippiest, most provocative comics available. Written by Cecil Castellucci with art by Marley Zarcone, occasional inker Ande Parks, and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, STCG is an ambitious psychedelic sci-fi exploration of adolescence and nostalgia, following an adult alien from the planet Meta who seeks to escape her disappointing life by possessing the body of a comatose mean girl on Earth. The emotions on Earth are much bigger than what Loma Shade is used to, and the M-Vest that made the possession possible is driving her mad while altering the world around her in unpredictable, unsettling ways. This allows for some beautifully bizarre and inventive page layouts and panel compositions from Zarcone, and that bold experimentation carries through to Fitzpatrick’s coloring, which uses a huge range of palettes, patterns, and textures to evoke different sensations and moods.
Cecil Castellucci is primarily known for her novels, but she made a noteworthy comics debut with her 2007 graphic novel The P.L.A.I.N. Janes, a YA drama published through DC’s defunct Minx imprint. Castellucci empathizes with the adolescent experience and knows how to create multi-dimensional teenage characters, a skill that enriches the story of Shade’s journey into the life of an American high school student. Whereas The P.L.A.I.N. Janes was a grounded coming-of-age tale, STCG is a very heightened, otherworldly narrative, looking at the adolescent experience through a surreal fantasy lens. Castellucci is also delving into more than just teenage issues in this series, and while Shade’s actual age isn’t specified, she’s an adult unhappy with her professional and personal life, in considerable debt, and desperate for a way to escape her current situation.
Shade’s knowledge of Earth comes from the Earth media she absorbs, primarily an I Love Lucy-style black-and-white sitcom called Life With Honey that gives her an idealized, very outdated view of American life. Shade is nostalgic for a time she never experienced, and it’s one that never really existed in the first place. She views Earth as an escape route into a more simplistic state of being, but she quickly discovers that while some aspects of human life are more primitive, Earth is far more complicated and overwhelming than she expected. It doesn’t help that Shade is inhabiting a person hated by everyone around her. Megan Boyer was vile and manipulative before the betrayal that left her comatose, and Shade has to deal with the consequences of Megan’s behavior in order to have a more pleasant experience in Megan’s body.
This week’s STCG #4 has Shade making some major forward movement by repairing Megan’s broken relationships, realizing that the best way to expel her negative feelings is by apologizing for all the horrible things Megan has done (a lesson learned from Life With Honey) and showing appreciation for the people that she used to regularly abuse. It’s a major revelation for Shade, and in her short time on Earth she’s experienced the kind of maturation that eluded Megan, who acted like an entitled brat at all times. Shade is weird and flighty, but she’s a lot better than Megan, and those around her are realizing that this new person is a big improvement. Even Megan’s parents prefer Shade, and they’re encouraging this personality change because they don’t want to deal with their old daughter.
While Shade is acclimating to life in Megan’s body, the consciousness of the actual Megan is soaring through the cosmos, taking advantage of her non-corporeal form to travel the universe and gather knowledge that only intensifies her heartlessness. There’s also a subplot involving Shade’s boyfriend, Lepuck, on Meta as he tries to get Shade back while being investigated by officials searching for the missing M-Vest. Castellucci weaves all these disparate threads together in a way that keeps the reader on their toes. The pacing can be a bit chaotic, but that’s ultimately part of the appeal, providing readers with the same overstimulation that both Shade and Megan are experiencing in their new circumstances.
The art in STCG #4 isn’t quite as experimental as last month’s issue, because the story doesn’t call for it as heavily. But it continues to effectively accentuate the emotional elements of the script through bold visual choices. The opening page of Megan flying through various solar systems has vibrant, saturated colors, dynamic panel compositions, and strange designs that accentuate Megan’s distance from what’s happening on Earth, but the volume is turned down considerably when the action jumps to Shade. Back on Earth, Zarcone gets to showcase her deep understanding of facial expressions and body language; while the unconventional visual moments are captivating, that attention to detail in the characterizations helps give the book a strong emotional foundation.
Shade is trying to contain the flood of sensations while interacting with Megan’s parents at the beginning of the issue. But once she’s alone, Shade is again taken over by the madness of the M-Vest, captured in a splash page of Shade collapsed on her bed, slowly being absorbed by the rain-colored pools of her mercurial clothing item. The coloring is severely dulled when the story flashes back to Megan’s drowning five months ago, and the grayness is directly tied to Shade’s inability to piece together the complete narrative of these fractured memories. Shade finally connects the pieces in the final pages, and the coloring foreshadows that moment of discovery by pumping up the pink, the color associated with Megan throughout the book.
Letterer Saida Temofonte plays an integral role in the storytelling on this book, providing clarity for the multiple narrating voices and helping to guide the reader through Zarcone’s more complicated layouts. The connection between Megan and Shade is subtly reinforced by their narration captions, which share the same border but are colored differently (pink for Megan, blue for Shade). The poetry that eases Shade’s mind is presented in rainbow-colored captions with wavering borders, emphasizing the alien nature of the text while making the poetry pop whenever it appears on the page.
In terms of leading readers through the artwork, sometimes Temofonte takes a smooth path, and sometimes she intentionally disorients the reader to reflect Shade’s confusion. In the spread of Shade trying to return to Meta, the lettering follows a downward arc across the top half of the page, but when Shade hits the barrier around Earth, the path of the lettering is broken. Is the reader supposed to go the closest balloon and read from right to left? Is the reader supposed to jump to the left side of the page and read in the usual direction? The narration can be read in either direction and still make sense, and that brief moment of confusion enhances the feelings Shade is experiencing in that moment as she wonders why she can’t get back home.
STCG also features back-up stories bringing in up-and-coming creators to tackle obscure DC characters and concepts like Space Ranger, Ornitho and Beast Boy, Dial H For Hero, and, in this week’s issue, Element Girl. Magdalene Visaggio, writer of the delightful Kim & Kim miniseries, and artist Paulina Ganucheau make their DC Comics debuts with “Real Life,” a heartbreaking three-page story about the life Urania Blackwell dreamed of before she was transformed into a superhuman who can control the elements. The team condenses a lot of story and emotion in this tight page count, revealing a tortured soul trapped by her old expectations for the future, which are now unattainable because of who she’s become.
“Real Life” is a nice complement to the main story dealing with similar themes of identity and life aspirations. The quality of these shorts suggests that it might not be a bad idea to have editors Jamie S. Rich and Molly Mahan working with Gerard Way on a Young Animal anthology that continues to bring in new voices to revitalize old IP. The comics talent pool is ever-expanding, and there are plenty of creators who would benefit from having DC work on their resume; these back-ups are nice, but it would be great to see these promising names become the future face of Young Animal. As it is, the imprint is responsible for some of the best books at DC Comics, but there’s always room to continue broadening horizons and find more creators eager to push the boundaries of what superhero comics can accomplish.