By DG Chichester, Margaret Clark. Art by Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz.
Doctor Zero [ 1 ] is just one series in an interlocked line of comics, called Shadowline. It’s a bit difficult to understand what’s going on in the first issue. The story follows several disparate events, a US bombing raid in Libya, nuclear terrorists on the Empire State Building, a missile attack on World Economic Forum in Davos. The common thread is Doctor Zero, who seems to be orchestrating the events from behind the scenes. He sets the wheels in motion, only to show up—last minute—and save the day. In a way, this is the most obvious way to be a superhero in the world. The idea of ‘patrolling’ the streets seems impossible. How do you patrol the streets of a city of millions? Even the police can’t keep up! By manufacturing events in advance, Doctor Zero can easily ‘superhero’ them. He knows what’s coming, and he prepares, not only for the event but the media frenzy that follows.
He’s got all the trappings of a superhero: costume and powers; but Doc Zero seems to have an agenda all his own. Being a superhero seems to be part of some kind of nefarious plan he’s been concocting from the ‘shadows.’ Apparently, he, and ones like him, have been living in the shadows for a long time. They appear to be a parallel race of humans that have a variety of powers; sort of like Marvel’s mutants or Inhumans. Anyway, as Doc Zero is engineering another superhero event in Africa, he is ambushed by St. George—another one of these shadow beings. Doc Zero kills St. George and appears to suck out her energy. Maybe he’s an energy vampire? Hard to tell. We’ll have to find out in the next issue.
As the series continues, Doc Zero is revealed to be an immortal (or at least very ancient) roaming the planet since before humanity evolved. In fact, in one caption, he says he walked on Gondwana, which would make him several hundred million years old(!!!). Maybe ‘zero’ means he’s the oldest of the Shadowline beings? Are his Machiavellian machinations some kind of god-like need to intervene in human affairs? Humans need saving, for they know not what we do. These kinds of ruminations are frequent with Doc Zero. He clearly has a god complex.
Occasionally there are hints of something else. For example, Doc Zero also swims with dolphins. He seems to be a good friend of dolphin-kind, who, according to him, “flaunt their abilities openly.” What does that mean? No explanation. Of the dolphins, he says, “I’ve reminded them of my offer to take them with me when I go…” Go where? Is Doc Zero, and by extension, all Shadowline characters, alien? Or is this just another way to play with his godhood? It’s never explained in the five issues I read.
Art by Denys Cowan is awesome. These pages look a bit like his work in The Question, on which he was working at the same time. In fact, Doc Zero is a dead ringer for Vic Sage. The whole package seems to be lifted from DC Comics. DC had a number of titles packaged in a similar way: premium paper, painted covers by Bill Sienkiewicz, and mature content inside. The Question, The Shadow, etc. [ 2 ] In other words, The Shadowline books appear to be conceptualized around the successes DC was having with anti-heroes and ‘real-world’ superheroes. In a way, this is also a more mature-readers parallel to Marvel’s New Universe, which strived towards more “realistic” stories. New Universe was a conscious effort to start a “new” Marvel superhero universe, but with one extra constraint: everything that happened in New Universe became ‘real, and unchanging history.’ It was a new Marvel universe, but with consistency and constrained by ‘reality’ in a way that the main Marvel Universe never was. [ 3 ]
All issues (except #5) are drawn by Denys Cowan and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz. Each issue has a different cover artist. Apparently, Shadowline used the same cover artist across the line each month. It gave the titles a nice visual unity on the stands.
As mentioned above, Cowan and Sienkiewicz were also working together on The Question at the same time. Through this ongoing collaboration, they developed a strong rapport. The finishes on Cowan’s art are really remarkable. Sienkiewicz zeroes in on the strongest parts of the image unerringly. His black spotting is key. Once the basic blacks are spotted, and composition is secure, the rest can be whatever flights of fancy he deems right for the moment. He just goes balls out using all kinds of tools and techniques with occasional odd choices. A messy perfection that never disrespects Cowan’s pencils.
Just look at that weird white-out mustache on the last panel of the left side of the spread!
[ 1 ] A version of this post originally appeared on the Ink Slingers Tumblr. It has been re-edited and slightly expanded.
[ 2 ] Eventually these various mature readers-oriented efforts would coalesce into DC’s Vertigo imprint in 1993.
[ 3 ] It’s not a coincidence that New Universe began during the time of narrative “crisis” in both Marvel & DC fictional Universes. The “white event” that instantiates the New Universe can be seen as an emanation from the Crisis of Infinite Earths or Secret Wars. It was a spark that reboots reality and sets a new consistent Universe consistent with rules first outlined in Omniverse magazine. Big event series like Crisis of Infinite Earths attempted to reboot the massive inconsistent superhero histories that accrued over decades. New Universe was doing the same thing but from scratch.
- Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar 7-8 (1982)
- Mutants, Supermen, New Soviet Men, and Homo Superior: Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John
- Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse: Adalbert Arcane’s Notes and Theories to 976 SQ. FT.
- Dreadstar #5-6 (1982)
- Will Eisner’s Narrative Architecture; Notes on The Contract With God Trilogy