Short Take: "Shadowplay: The Secret Team," Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz
This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s 1989 collaboration “Shadowplay: The Secret Team” is one of the more unusual efforts of the comics renaissance of the 1980s and ‘90s. The strip was created as part of Brought to Light, a comics album that also featured material by Paul Mavrides and the team of Joyce Brabner and Tom Yeates. The book was intended to support and spotlight an ultimately failed lawsuit against various members of the U. S. intelligence community. Moore and Sienkiewicz’s contribution is a history of illicit CIA and CIA-related operations between World War II and the Iran-Contra affair. Their treatment of this material is anything but dry. Moore and Sienkiewicz were, respectively, perhaps the most accomplished scriptwriter and illustrator working in mainstream comics during an especially creative time. They bring all the artfulness they can muster to this account of corruption, terror, and intrigue. The narrator is an anthropomorphized bald eagle in a gaudy pink suit, and Moore gives him the voice of a crazed, jingoistic blowhard. And while this grotesque’s tale is all but certain to leave a bitter taste, the monologue’s rhythms are fast, and the reader is carried along. Moore also comes up with some effective tropes to convey the obscenity of the intelligence community’s actions. The most powerful is the icon of a blood-filled swimming pool, which the strip uses as a tally for those killed. (There are eight pools by the strip’s end, signifying approximately 160,000 people.) Sienkiewicz complements the text with a barrage of wildly imaginative (and painted) editorial-cartoon imagery. The treatments of Richard Nixon, Oliver North, and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are inspired. The wittiest is probably the depiction of Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder. Unfortunately, the collaborators’ handling of the material is ultimately too rich for the strip’s 30-page length. It feels congested, and the density becomes numbing. Moore and Sienkiewicz are fighting the first rule of agitprop--keep things simple and accessible--and they don’t quite pull it off. As impressive as select moments are, “Shadowplay” doesn’t come together as an effective whole.