Garth Ennis and Aaron Campbell's take on The Shadow has been a very interesting one so far, managing to balance the easy charm of Lamont Cranston with the deadly dark nature of his mission as the punisher of evil men. In The Shadow #4, things get heavy, as we learn the dark history of Cranston's life through the perspective of the oddly casual criminal mastermind Kondo, and Cranston's crew discovers the horrors unleashed by Kondo and his allies, the burly stinkbag Buffalo Wong and the honor-obsessed hypocrite General Akamutsu.
Kondo relates to Akamutsu the story of Kent Allard, a mysterious American on the Shanghai waterfront some fifteen years prior – "a sneaking, backstabbing, two-faced shit of unusual wit and cunning." WIth surgical precision, he learned everything there was to know about the underworld there, and killed some jerks. Profits soared for Kondo in the two years since, and then suddenly Allard vanished, returning as this impossible force of vengeance, killing "every criminal of rank" in one night. Even the unflappable Kondo is shaken a bit at retelling the tale. "Sorry, General. My finely-honed cynicism deserts me at times like these," he admits, before letting us know he's made the connection between Allard, The Shadow and Lamont Cranston.
Lest we forget due to his smooth and somewhat affable manner, Kondo is a ruthless bastard. Wong is an ex-slave runner and current bastard, and Akamutsu is a stuffy prick deriding the honorless Chinese barbarians he's working with and claiming the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" will be benevolence incarnate, but he's also a pedophile, and thus a bastard. The interplay between their personalities is engaging, but make no mistake, we want these bastards dead.
There's no better bastard-killer than The Shadow, and Cranston is with his crew on Kondo's trail. However, their boat comes across a burnt village, and any sense of whismy we get from Cranston's manipulation of his slow-witted American handler Finnegan is gone. Instead, he insists that Finnegan and the lovely Margo Lane depart the boat and see with their own eyes the massacre that has been wrought. They hate him for it, but he insists that exposing them to this gruesome horror will shatter any illusions they have and make them realize the rising danger of what's ahead of them – the emergence of the Axis powers. "A great evil. A thing that has to be confronted. It will not be outwitted or outmanuevered, or split into factions that reliably consume each other. It cannot be tricked, like the devil in some children's fable. It must be pulverized. Burnt out."
That heavy weight settles onto us just as Cranston's crew catches up with Kondo's boat. The general panics, Kondo remains cool, and baits the overzealous Finnegan into making another dumb mistake – but this time, it's going to cost them dearly.
Ennis is a great storyteller, especially when telling stories within stories. When he's exercising restraint, he's one of the best out there (and hell, even when he's going hogwild, he can be fun), and that's the take he's bringing to The Shadow – historical fiction steeped in historical fact, peppering it with pulp fun but using it to underscore the real-life nightmares of the world. Campbell's art is solid as well – a little murky for my tastes, but that certainly serves the tales being told in issue #4.
The Shadow is a series that may be better read in trade form, but it's only four issues in – you shouldn't have a hard time hunting down the previous three, and I would recommend that you do.