Shadowline: How Marvel's First Forgotten Adult Comics Universe Failed – CBR – Comic Book Resources

Shadowline was a series of darker superhero books by Marvel that repackaged classic concepts like secret superhuman races for an older audience.
Over its many decades in operation, Marvel Comics has had several different imprints over the years that offer different content than their more mainstream superhero books. These have included the Ultimate Universe books, the mature audiences MAX books and the failed horror-themed Razorline books. Another less than successful line tried to combine some of these elements into its own shared universe.
Shadowline was a series of darker superhero books published by Marvel that repackaged classic concepts like secret superhuman races for an older audience. Unfortunately, the line was probably a few years ahead of its time, quickly disintegrating in less than three years of publication. Here’s a look back at the failed imprint of Marvel and how it sunk into the shadows.
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Beginning publication in 1988, the Shadowline books were based around a species called the Shadow Dwellers that were in many ways indistinguishable from humanity. Their main differences were their incredible biological longevity and their many superhuman powers. Despite this, they did not have the numbers of normal humans, leading to their hiding in secrecy as a shadow race. This made them similar to Marvel Comics concepts such as the mutants, the Eternals and even the Inhumans.
The rise of humanity’s potential for destruction, however, made the disparate Shadow Dwellers feel that it was time to make their presence known and move the planet away from imminent destruction. Some of them acted, or simply masqueraded as heroes, while others acted in more selfish ways, but none of the stories or the characters within were run of the mill superhero comics like the mainstream Marvel Universe.
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The Shadowline books were comprised of Doctor ZeroPower Line and St. George, with the protagonist of the former book being ubiquitous throughout the line’s continuity. Doctor Zero only pretended to be a traditional superhero and was far more interested in conniving the world to follow his every whim and manipulation. The heroes of Power Line were true heroes that attempted to act against him, while the human hero of St. George was determined to fight Doctor Zero and other wayward Shadows like him.
The line was created by longtime Marvel employee Archie Goodwin, who published them through Marvel’s larger Epic Comics imprint. This was a line of creator-owned books outside of Marvel’s mainstream superhero titles that were removed from the controlling auspices of the Comics Code Authority. Though the Shadowline books were published through Epic Comics, they weren’t connected to any of its other titles and were more of an attempt to do a darker, more mature variant of Marvel’s mainstream content.
This moody atmosphere was accentuated by the work of such acclaimed artists as Bill Sienkiewicz, adding an air of prestige to Shadowline. Unfortunately, this didn’t help it take off, with the initial three books ultimately being cancelled after only eight issues due to low sales. The books’ next arc was wrapped up as the limited series Critical Mass, with the protagonists of each Shadowline book teaming up to defeat a mad scientist’s nuclear threat.
Since then, none of the characters or concepts have reappeared in any major way in a Marvel book outside of a minor cameo in the 2015 event Secret Wars. Part of the line’s failure could be attributed to the fact that Marvel’s promotion of their Epic Comics books was less than spectacular, a fact backed up by how few of the titles are still remembered. Ironically, these darker and more artistic takes on super heroics would be very similar to what would be published in the early days of Image Comics, with books like Spawn and Savage Dragon being distant cousins of sort. These books would appear on retailers’ shelves just a few years after the 1990 collapse of Shadowline, so it would seem that Marvel was just a few years too early to get in on the grim and gritty “independent” boom.
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Timothy Blake Donohoo is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he majored in Communication and minored in Creative Writing. A professional freelance writer and marketing expert, he’s written marketing copy and retail listings for companies such as Viatek. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, playing video games, watching documentaries and catching up on the latest Vaporwave and Electro-Swing musical releases.


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