You are your top 5 Shadow agents
I don’t talk about the Agents as much as I should, even though I constantly try to stress their importance, because I’m working on essays for them individually. To be honest, I think about the Agents practically every day to the point I have a hard time separating my headcanons from the actual canon material, but I have to stay true to it, and the lack of material regarding them means that the only way I can truly talk about their characterization is by diving deep into the novels and taking notes, which I don’t have much time to do, and then finding the right books or moments to talk about, which is even more difficult.
This by no means constitutes my big thinkpiece on them, but it’s a start, and ultimately narrowing it down was a lot harder than I expected. This order is by no means final, if you asked me this question next week or next month I’d probably have a different answer, but it’s the 5 that I find myself thinking on the most.
Honorable mentions: Jericho Druke and Myra Reldon, who are incredibly awesome characters conceptually and who have great moments each, and whom I definitely think deserve big turns on the spotlight if the Agents ever get put on the spotlight again, but are held back by issues with their presentation and lack of prominence. Margo Lane, whom only just narrowly missed the cut because, as much as I like her and think she gets an underseved bad rep and definitely has great things going for her, I sadly have to concede isn’t as consistently great or well-written as she should be. Clyde Burke, whom I definitely like a lot based on what I’ve read and consider an integral part of the line-up, but haven’t read enough of the novels he’s in to really solidify him as one of my favorites just yet. And Slade Farrow, who is a bit too complicated to talk about superficially.
Allright, so here they are
Number 5: Burbank
As the center of all communications within The Shadow’s network and the only character in the series who is even more mysterious and elusive than The Shadow himself, Burbank is fascinating and the kind of character who simultaneously seems to be both begging for an in-depth exploration and yet who also should be dead last on the list of mysteries about the series we want spoiled, because nobody wants the mystery ruined. He’s a bit of cipher personality-wise compared to the other agents, but he kind of has to be, and I think it helps to illustrate the many forms the agents of The Shadow can and should take, that one of them is this total mystery whom we know nothing about and yet is so vital to the whole thing. And it’s interesting also because, for all the many variations we’ve had on The Shadow’s life and thoughts and feelings and etc over the years, Burbank has stayed more or less the same. Whatever variations he’s had in design aside, Burbank just is.
The pulps did often have moments where we would get to see moments that told us a little more about Burbank, gestures he did, capabilities he had and didn’t have, little details Gibson would sprinkle in to keep people fascinated. Several scenes with Burbank are almost presented like you’re watching a movie, in the way Gibson keeps describing his face being mysteriously blocked from view by objects or lighting, like not even in your mind you are supposed to know what he is. And it’s all the more fascinating because, unlike The Shadow, as far as we know, Burbank is just some guy who’s good with tech, who was only recruited in the 2nd story but apparently knows The Shadow from before it, and whom The Shadow entrusted with virtually every secret necessary to keep his operations running.
It’s kind of a sign as to how utterly neglected the agents are that, to this day, few writers who’ve ever touched The Shadow has ever come close to giving us any sort of explanation or backstory or anything on Burbank, and I refuse to believe these people had that much self-control. Of course I have my own ideas for Burbank, but even I would hesitate to put them on a story, because Burbank epitomizes that double-edged sword that comes with a solid narrative mystery. Burbank just is, and hopefully he will stay that way.
Number 4: Dr Roy Tam
Mention of Dr. Tam meant much to Sayre. He was acquainted with Roy Tam, the Chinese physician. He knew that Tam was a power in Chinatown; one who worked for good
Unrolling a map, Tam showed the entire Manhattan area, studded with tiny dots in districts quite remote from Chinatown.
"These represent my outposts," he said soberly. "They are places, owned by Chinese - restaurants, laundries, curio shops, other places of business. In each of these places, I have a friend."
The Shadow understood. Dr. Tam was the motivating factor among the Chinese who adapted themselves to American ways. His mission was to create good will among races, to put an end to prejudice and superstition.
A newer and more sober spirit had replaced the old and dangerous festivities. Feuds in Chinatown were a thing of the forgotten past. Dr. Tam and his associates had done much to bring about the present sentiment; but there were persons - even among that group - who felt regret at the passing of old traditions.
Dr Tam is a remarkably layered character for one that only appears in about ten stories, and he’s one of the agents I’m most eager to discuss in-depth. He’s another one of those agents that Gibson introduced by tricking you into seeing him as a villain, as a Yellow Peril cliche, until he is revealed to be in fact a good man. Not just good, Roy Tam is presented as a powerful, influential and cunning Chinese man with a lot of assistants secretly working for him, and who is consistently presented as a progressive, pacifistic, benevolent civic leader and ally, even friend, of The Shadow.
Tam is very much westernized and the stories paint that mostly as a good thing, and this is one of the areas that I think could very much result in an interesting story that looks at the ramifications of his role, because of course not everyone is going to agree with his viewpoints, of course him being an advocate against superstition and tradition isn’t necessarily a good thing (and it’s not how Yat Soon, The Shadow’s other major Chinese ally, works, which puts the two at odds), and of course it’s a complicated situation, but the fact that Tam invites this kind of debate at all I think is something very interesting
Largely because of the movie, Dr Tam is one of the few agents of The Shadow who’s managed to sustain appearences in modern stories, and none of them have ever really went with his original angle as a powerful civic leader. Instead he’s been largely painted as either a scientist, like in the movie, a general practitioner, and a psychiatrist, and his age has been all over the board.
I prefer him in his original form but I also very much like the idea of Roy Tam being, like the Chinese supervillains he was created to be a subversion of, an incredible genius who’s got skills in all fields that can fit under the “Dr” part of his job and is also an incredibly capable leader able to unify splintered communities under a cause of unity and cooperation, someone who absolutely could be the adventuring genius so many other pulp heroes are, except he dedicates himself wholesale to his community and the fight against prejudice and the betterment of lives, even if he’s misguided or wrong at some of the causes he takes up. I really think this character could partake in really great stories if ever brought back.
Number 3: Cliff Marsland
(Fan-art by @cryptixcreations)
Cliff may have actually been the first agent I really fell in love with based on concept alone, even before I read the stories he was a part of and started loving all of the others. He’s one of the few agents who has prior history with The Shadow and we get ever so tantalizing hints at his background that we ultimately never get to learn about in full. He’s the resident tough guy and underworld contact of The Shadow, which in any other series might have made him the biggest badass and a loner action hero who’s too cool for things like thinking and relying on others for help. But here, trying to be that only gets Cliff into trouble, and circumstances gradually morph him into the series equivalent of a Team Dad.
He was one of the agents who we got to see develop as a character. As he appears more frequently past his introduction, he grows from a headstrong, careless jackass, mostly interested in the action parts of the job, who “resigned himself to an adventurous career with violent death as its inevitable termination”, into one of the most reliable and capable agents, taking the lead during action scenes but otherwise fully defering leadership to Harry, and being the agent most likely to partake in gunfights and rescue The Shadow out of trouble, joining in missions like infiltrating circuses or high-society clubs and forming very strong friendships with Harry, Clyde & Hawkeye, who almost kills a man with his bare hands when he thinks Harry’s been killed. He’s the hardass, square-jawed ex-con who plays the reputation of a brutal killer, and is in reality a great friend, ally and husband (Arline has sadly only been mentioned in three stories), on top of being an invaluable fighter and secret agent.
Cliff could have easily been the protagonist of a long-running series all his own and that’s one of my favorite aspects of The Shadow’s agents. They are people with agency, goals and dreams and relationships and lives beyond the roles they play, they all have strengths and weaknesses and faults and positives that bring them much closer to us than The Shadow could ever be, with no end to the variety of roles they can take, and Cliff in particular is a character I’m very attached to.
I do hope that he eventually found peace in a quiet life with Arline once his business with The Shadow was over.
Number 2: Harry Vincent
The Shadow as a franchise has been vastly worse off as a result of Harry Vincent being completely sidelined and mischaracterized in virtually every adaptation since, and the sheer love that Shadow fans hold for Harry purely may be the closest thing to a true universal opinion in the fandom.
Harry is a lot of things: the audience surrogate, the protagonist of much of the early stories, the leader of the agents in field duty, the dude in distress who gets kidnapped far more than even Margo, a hopeless romantic, an action hero, the one who gets sent to recruit agents because all The Shadow has to do is send Harry on an assignment and wait for him to come back with a new friend. He is a competent, resourceful, strong, extremely kind ball of sunshine who's got the potential for greatness, even if he can't see it.
And for this post I’m going to highlight this: Harry is, on top of all that, the ultimate embodiment of what The Shadow strives to protect, help and uplift. He is the living proof that The Shadow's mission has a good, positive effect in the world, long after criminals are brought to justice and plots are failed and victims are rescued, purely by the fact that he’s alive and helping others who were once like him. Someone who, despite having so much to offer, could have easily been swept away by the world’s callousness and cruelty, if The Shadow wasn’t there to rescue him and uplift him.
I liked The Shadow pretty much at first sight after seeing the character’s design and listening to episodes of the radio show, and my appreciation for the character grew after reading The Shadow’s Shadow, but it wasn’t until I encountered @oldschoolcrimefighters and her brilliantly informative writings on The Shadow and Harry that I not only fell in love with the series, but decided to do everything in my power to try and get other people to love it too and see the potential it has. I think a lot more people should at least be aware of why Harry matters.
Number 1: Moe Shrevnitz
I was honestly a bit surprised when I rounded up all of the agents to make this list and Shrevy here ended up in Number One, but in hindsight, it may have been obvious all along.
My reasonings as to why Shrevy is my favorite agent do get a bit too personal, especially because of something that happened to me as I was writing this post, so I’m putting it on a separate post here.
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