By Steve Morris

Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!

There’s an argument that Shako fits in alongside some of the first slasher movies, which came to popularity here around the 1970s: Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were all actually released after Shako, in fact. But I’d argue that the film which perhaps has most in common with Shako is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released a few years before. Much like Shako, TCM has a big hulking monster with razor-sharp teeth, who never speaks a word. The killer’s actions do the talking instead, allowing viewers to witness a singular force of nature slowly pick off victims one by one, playing them against one another and using the unfamiliar environment against them.

Leatherface doesn’t have much in the way of personality, but he’s clearly been brought up by his family to be a relentless sociopath. His horrific acts are shocking because they seem so out-of-place and unnatural by human standards. By contrast, Shako is never anything other than a polar bear, doing the things a polar bear is wont to do. He chases around with other polar bears, he swats down seals to eat, and he lives the natural life of his species. He’s not a wide-eyed innocent, but nor is he animalistic rage and fury brought to life. Shako is presented as simply… a polar bear. Who are humans to decide what is right or wrong for a polar bear to do? We might not like seeing him play with a seal he’s caught before he kills and eats it, but that’s nature, right? A simple fact of the natural world.

That’s why the serial becomes so brutal as it starts to move forward and things escalate: Shako is not a natural antagonist, but is provoked at every turn to fight back against the relentless swarm of Americans who want to kill him. He’d happily walk off to his typical bear life if he were simply left alone, and nobody would need to die. Yet the Americans keep returning, determined to punish the bear for defying them. In the process, they escalate a continuing problem and make things worse for themselves through underestimating their enemy. The more they try to ramp things up, the higher the body count rises. And it’s all meaningless, ultimately.

The Vietnam War ended a few years before this story came out, in 1975. Is that a fair comparison to make? Writers Pat Mills and John Wagner would certainly be very aware of the conflict when they wrote this story, being particularly tuned in to the American mindset of the time.

The story very quickly turns into a revenge narrative for Shako, who merely reacts to the aggressive manoeuvring against him by a much stronger enemy. At no point do we get given any reason to feel sorry for the humans who appear here, most of whom are back-stabbing, cruel, and glory-hogging. Their incompetence allows Shako to repeatedly gain the upper hand, with the serial revelling in the bear’s capacity to outwit what should be a much more powerful and technologically-advanced army. And at any point, the humans could just give up and retreat from this battle they’ve created for themselves. Their pride stops them from admitting defeat. It all sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?

In the first story Shako eats a capsule containing a virus, which is given as the reason why so many people are willing to waste their time and resources trying to kill him – so they can retrieve it. Over time, however, it becomes clear that the capsule is merely a convenient excuse: the Americans are just annoyed that something, anything, has dared to question their exceptionalism. Early on Shako bites off the arm of one human in particular, Falmuth, who swears revenge for the attack. Falmuth is always dotted somewhere around the periphery of every subsequent Shako story, the nemesis of our story. 

When he and Shako do have their final meeting, it seems indicative of Shako’s narrative as a whole. Falmouth and his colleague are caught in a snowstorm and flee into a nearby cave – Shako’s cave. Shako literally watches them run into his home as they seek some kind of refuge, meaning all he has to do is stroll back in and leave them trapped inside. With two delicious humans essentially kept in cold storage, ready to eat later, he goes for a nap. Falmuth then attacks his colleague so Shako will eat the other man first. When there’s no other option, he snaps off an icicle and stabs Shako in the back.

He literally wakes up the sleeping bear.

When Falmuth goes for his gun, he finds it covered up in the snow, leaving him defenceless for when a wounded Shako turns to him. 

“Shako was angry. The man had hurt him. And he must die!”

It’s simple animal nature. Readers have had to watch Falmuth puff himself up for several stories in a row, but when it comes down to it, he provokes his own death. His insistence on being superior is what leads him to his humbling and violent death, far from home. It’s satisfying to see the character die – he’s unbearable throughout the serial – but it’s also satisfying to see Shako survive against him. Unlike the hulking villain of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we’ve spent time seeing Shako’s simple animal nature, and had the chance to empathise with him. He lives his life away from the moral boundaries which humans consider to be important: that’s simply what’s natural for him, who are we to try and impose boundaries on the way he lives his life?

It’s telling that one of Shako’s most consistent ways of killing his enemies is to trap them. In previous stories Shako buries one guard alive in the snow, freezing him to death. In another, Shako chases someone into a hollow pipe. Unable to follow, Shako instead piles up snow against the only escape, which quickly freezes over and traps the man inside. When he comes up against Falmuth, the man traps himself in the cave, leaving Shako only too happy to block off the entrance and go for a nap. It’s a lovely ironic twist from the creative team, who have a delightful time thinking of ways to trap the trappers. 

Despite all of this, there’s really only one way Shako could end. And that ending comes surprisingly quickly, as the injured Shako finds himself confronted by Buck Dollar, the last human to oppose him. Dollar is the most reasonable of all the soldiers, a half-Inuit man who uses his “native” approach to attack Shako – harpooning the bear in the chest. It should be mentioned that the Shako serial repeatedly uses dated and offensive wording around Dollar, and I’m not going to repeat it here. But Dollar’s approach is the first to really pay off, his knowledge of the surroundings proving to be the key to stopping the bear once and for all. Although he gets mauled, he knows Shako is going to leave to clean his wound before finishing the job. Dollar sets a trap for Shako, asking to be buried in the snow – essentially trapping himself in order to trap Shako.

When Shako does return, he gets ambushed by Dollar, who finally kills the only bear on the C.I.A. death list. The final moments of the story, as a reader, are a thrilling conclusion. Shako is killed but as he dies he falls onto the human… “crushing the last breath out of Buck Dollar”.

As artist Lopez Vera zooms out from the scene, we see Shako and Dollar together in death, all the threads of the story tied off forever. A huge narrative caption is shown within the panel, which states possibly the most magnificent and satisfying ending to the story imaginable:

A recurring theme in 2000AD is that the people are ultimately powerless against the crushing systems which are in place against them. Shako was never going to be able to hold off the technologically-advanced humans forever (although he did show up a few decades later to fight Judge Dredd, weirdly enough). He got his revenge, though, and made sure he took his oppressors with him. There’s something satisfying about that, even as we see that not even he can last forever in his great fight.

Without getting too over-emotional about what is essentially just a big polar bear at the end of the day, Shako lived and died without altering his own essential nature: that’s a victory any of us could aspire to.


2000AD Prog 35 “Shako”
Script: Pat Mills and John Wagner
Art: Lopez Vera

Letterer: John Aldrich


Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.


This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!