The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows!
Much to my surprise, I actually got a reply from them - saying "we're working on it." And they were.
(Originally posted on Channel Awesome on September 7, 2015)
The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows!
Most people who have heard of The Shadow probably associate him with the radio series, particularly the era when Orson Welles played the title role, or maybe the 1994 movie starring Alec Baldwin. However, it was in the pages of the pulps that The Shadow began his war on crime and his role in the crafting of American pop culture. At one point, the pulp magazine was the most popular form of mass entertainment in this country, and The Shadow was one of the most popular pulp heroes. His exploits would be adapted to radio, comic books, an atrocious serial (which I may or may not review at some point), and various movies besides the one from 1994. However, it's the pulp series where he was born that I want to focus on today.
Although pulp magazines are typically associated with the 1930s, their history goes back to the 19th Century, evolving from dime novels and the so-called "penny dreadfuls." In 1896, after an unsuccessful attempt at publishing a children's fiction periodical, publisher Frank Munsey launched Argosy Magazine, targeted towards adult readers. Argosy was a huge success, and recognizing this, Street & Smith followed suit in 1903 with The Popular Magazine. Printed on cheap paper made from wood pulp (which is where they got their name), they were cheap to produce (as even the best writers were paid very little for their work) and cheap to buy at ten cents, meaning most working class people could afford to buy them regularly, even during the Great Depression. The most common pulp genres included westerns, detective stories, science fiction, horror, and spicy romance or adventure stories. Pulp magazines were especially renowned for their vivid painted covers, often depicting M FOR MANLY hero types taking on subhuman villains who were threatening gorgeous women in various states of peril and/or undress. Despite their sordid reputations, the list of famous authors who wrote for the pulps include H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, and Dashiell Hammett. And it's not just authors - still-famous characters such as Zorro, Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian, Sam Spade, and H.P. Lovecraft's eldritch abominations were all born in the pages of the pulps.
The impetus for The Shadow's creation, however, was a rather amusing misunderstanding. The Shadow began as nothing more than a radio gimmick as a means of advertising Street & Smith's pulp series Detective Story Magazine. Listeners thought that The Shadow (portrayed by Frank Readick), who narrated the radio adaptations of the magazine stories, was an actual pulp character, and bombarded Street & Smith with letters inquiring about where they could get the non-existent Shadow Magazine. The folks at Street & Smith, recognizing the obvious opportunity, decided to give the public what they wanted, and then it was just a question of deciding what kind of character The Shadow was going to be. The job of actually creating The Shadow went to Walter Gibson, a newspaper writer and stage magician who was a personal friend of (and ghost writer for) the likes of acclaimed magicians Joseph Dunninger, Harry Houdini, and Blackstone. Gibson had an idea for a character with villainous traits, but who was actually on the side of the law. Originally conscripted for merely the first four stories, Gibson went on to write not only the vast majority of the pulp series, but also episodes of the radio series (which began in 1937), Street & Smith's Shadow Comics, and the Shadow newspaper strip.
This new, heroic Shadow made his debut in his own magazine in April, 1931, and the series would last for 325 issues, 282 of which were written by Gibson at a remarkably fast rate. At one point, Gibson was churning them out so quickly that there was a two-year backlog between when a story was written and when it was published. Over two dozen were written by Theodore Tinsley, which tended to be pulpier in style, and fifteen were written by George Elliott, who really didn't get the character at all. Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage, wrote a single Shadow pulp, The Golden Vulture, which wasn't printed until years after it was written due to the excessive backlog of already-written stories in the queue. (According to Paul Malmont's novel The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, Gibson had Dent's story killed out of jealousy - I haven't found any real-life accounts to indicate this was the case.) All of the authors wrote under the pen name of Maxwell Grant, a common practice among pulp publishers to prevent any authors from getting too "greedy." The Shadow pulps were written with the conceit that Maxwell Grant was the chronicler of The Shadow's "real-life" exploits, similar to what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulled with his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Naturally, countless imitations sprang up in the pulps - The Spider, The Phantom Detective, and The Black Bat - not to mention the comic book superheroes The Shadow inspired such as Batman (and much more recently, Francesco Francavilla's Black Beetle, which I highly recommend). However, none of these lasted as long as The Shadow himself - The Shadow Magazine was uncontested as the longest running pulp hero series in history. His closest competition, Doc Savage, lasted for 181 issues in his own magazine, and The Phantom Detective only made it to 170. Even the Lone Wolf, hero of the Western pulp Texas Rangers, only made it to 212 stories.
The Shadow of the pulps was a nebulous figure who remained unknown even to readers for the early years of his run. Although he used numerous disguises - businessman Henry Arnaud, millionaire explorer Lamont Cranston, and a janitor at police headquarters - his true identity and origin would not be revealed until the 131st Shadow story, The Shadow Unmasks (August 1937). Former flying ace and spy Kent Allard, seeking new adventure after the end of World War I, faked his death in a plane crash and returned to America to embark on a new cause: a war on crime. What drove him to this, and what his life was like before this was never revealed, and his pre-Shadow World War I exploits were only hinted at. Unlike the radio series, The Shadow had no power to cloud men's minds, instead dressing in a black cloak and slouch hat to blend into darkness and hide himself from his enemies. He did, however, use numerous gadgets and specialized vehicles during his cases, and was a master of disguises. (Early stories hinted that a war injury left him without a true face, making it easier for him to disguise himself.) Like most pulp heroes, The Shadow had no compunctions about taking the lives of his enemies. He regularly carried twin .45 automatics, and would not hesitate to use them to lethal effect in his earlier appearances (although after a while, it became pretty common for him to merely wound the main villain, leaving it to the police to finish him off). Most of The Shadow's exploits took place in New York City, but many stories took him not only all over the country, but even around the world.
Stylistically, The Shadow was never as lurid as other pulp series could get (except when Tinsley was writing them - and even then, his stories were tamer than what you'd find in the likes of The Spider or G-8 & His Battle Aces). As with most pulps, character depth was minimal, and portrayals of various ethnic groups and minorities made use of various unflattering stereotypes, although there were lots of exceptions to the latter. Stories varied from straight-up mysteries and crime dramas to fast-paced action-adventure romps, which prevented things from becoming overly formulaic. A small handful of stories were about people who managed to turn away from a life of crime with The Shadow's aid.
One constant, however, was how delightfully moody and atmospheric the pulp stories could be. Part of the reason for this is that we never really get to know The Shadow. Aside from his analytical process, the writers never let us inside The Shadow's head to let us know what he's feeling, and he never reveals such things to his underlings. There's no anger, grief, or bitterness in him - we occasionally get snippets of his thrill of battle, disappointment in losing a lead, or boredom in his Cranston guise, but that's about it. He's more of a force than an actual character in his own right, described as emerging from the darkness, with burning eyes and a whispery voice. The nebulous sense of mystery about him is what makes him such an interesting and compelling character. It's only the rare occasions he's seriously injured or overpowered that we're reminded he is, after all, an ordinary human and not a supernatural force of some kind. In fact, particularly in the early pulps, The Shadow isn't even the main character in some stories. We're introduced early on to a proxy hero who finds himself ensnared in the villain's schemes, and The Shadow repeatedly swoops in and saves him (occasionally her) from doom at the hands of the bad guys. It's the proxy hero we end up following, along with The Shadow's extensive network of agents who gather information and occasionally do some dirty work.
While most pulp heroes had a small handful of aides and assistants, The Shadow had an entire network at his disposal to collect information or infiltrate enemy strongholds. (It wasn't an uncommon trick for Gibson to introduce a new agent as a possible suspect for the mystery villain's identity.) The most frequently used agent was Harry Vincent, an affable young man The Shadow saved from committing suicide in The Living Shadow, the very first Shadow novel. Vincent's most frequent duty was getting close to people likely to be targeted by criminals (or likely criminals themselves.) Other key agents included Clyde Burke, a reporter for the New York Classic, and Cliff Marsland, a wrongly convicted ex-con who had a reputation as a hardened gunsel that allowed him access to criminal haunts. Moe Shrevnitz was a taxi driver who sometimes shuttled The Shadow where he needed to go. (Shrevnitz was the only agent to make it into the radio series, under the name "Shreevy.") Claude Fellows collected and passed along information sent to him by field agents, and he was the only agent to ever be killed in the series (in the fifth Shadow novel, Gangdom's Doom). Fellows was immediately replaced by Rutledge Mann, who served the same purpose and even had similar characterization. Margo Lane, who debuted in the radio series, was forcibly worked into the pulps, and Gibson wrote her as a bungler and nuisance. I'm guessing Margo was imposed on him, even though he'd already created a female agent for The Shadow - Myra Reldon, with the awkward ability to perfectly disguise herself as a Chinese woman. Yeah. (Remember, this was the 1930s - ethnic stereotypes and yellow-facing were unfortunately all too common in pop culture at this time.) Tinsley, however, depicted Margo as a capable agent. The enigmatic Burbank served as the contact between The Shadow and his vast network of agents. However, not even his closest aides got to know the true Shadow - probably not even psychologist Slade Farrow, the only man The Shadow ever revealed his true Kent Allard identity to.
Another way the pulp heroes inspired their comic book successors was the use of supervillains, criminals with ominous aliases and sometimes using signature weapons, calling cards, or death-dealing devices. While The Shadow fought plenty of ordinary criminals and spies, he racked up an impressive rogues gallery. Most of these were one shots who usually didn't survive their initial encounters with The Shadow, given his tendency to use lethal force (or the police to do likewise): The Black Falcon, Monstradamus, Silver Skull, The Cobra, The Condor, The Red Envoy, and Five-Face, to name but a few. He also battled criminal organizations such as The Golden Masks, The Hooded Circle, and The Hydra. Still, there were a few villains that took more effort (and more than one book) to put down for good. The first of these was Dr. Rodil Mocquino, AKA The Voodoo Master, the first Shadow villain to make a reappearance after seeming death. The Voodoo Master lasted for three stories, meeting his final end in the third.
However, The Shadow's most dangerous and popular enemy was The Golden Master - better known as Shiwan Khan, the last descendant of Genghis Khan, who took on The Shadow in four Shadow stories. Not only was Khan powerful and a credible threat, but also unusually ambitions (for a Shadow foe, at least). Most of The Shadow's enemies were driven simply by greed, and Khan was a rare villain who wanted to conquer the world. Khan not only made his way to multiple comic book adaptations of The Shadow, but was chosen to be the villain of the 1994 movie, played by John Lone. (The movie pulled a lot from the four Khan novels, but the Golden Master alias was never mentioned, although he sometimes wore the gold-cloth robes that inspired the name.) Theodore Tinsley came up with another recurring for The Shadow - Benedict Stark, the self-styled Prince of Evil, an uber-wealthy criminal mastermind who simply enjoys being evil, and who also stuck around for four installments. A less successful attempt at another recurring villain was The Wasp, who only lasted for two stories. A five-part series pit The Shadow against a quintet of racket leaders known as The Hand, who operated separately across the United States.
For a long time, the Shadow pulps were my personal Holy Grail of pop culture. I was introduced to The Shadow as a kid when I saw the movie, and I thought the character was awesome. Not long after, my dad got me some cassette tapes of the radio series (a collection of which I've built up substantially over the years), and then I learned about the pulps - and the more I learned about them, the more I wanted to read them. However, unlike Golden Age comic books and movies, the pulps hadn't been reprinted. (There had been some paperbacks, similar to what was done with Doc Savage, but these were hard to find, they didn't cover the entire series, and I later found out they were edited and abridged.) Text versions were available via fan sites online, but Condé Nast, which owns the copyright to The Shadow, had them yanked. This spurred Shadow fans to ask Condé Nast to republish the pulps, saying we'd gladly buy legal versions of them if they'd only make them available to us. After all, what was the point of owning the rights if they weren't going to make them available to sell, especially when there was clearly a market for them? At least that's what I said in my email to Condé Nast - I can't speak for what anyone else did.
Much to my surprise, I actually got a reply from them - saying "we're working on it." And they were.
Beginning in 2006, pulp historian Anthony Tollin secured the rights to reprint the original Shadow pulps, uncut and unedited (except for correcting typographical errors, which I'm fine with), and he's been going at it ever since with the goal of reprinting all 325 pulp stories. Each monthly volume reprints two complete Shadow pulps (occasionally including one of George Elliott's as a bonus third story), including the original illustrations. In between each story or at the end of the volume is a wealth of supplemental material by either Tollin or Will Murray, another pulp expert. These include behind the scenes details about each story, as well as a lot more about the evolution of the characters and the series as a whole and more information on the writers and artists (which is why I didn't talk about them that much here). Sometimes they even have short stories that were originally supplemental materials in other pulp magazines, or scripts from the Shadow radio series. Even better, the reprints are designed to look like actual pulp magazines, and the covers feature one of the covers from the pulp story being reprinted, as my Trusty Research Assistant will now demonstrate:
Rather than going in the order they were printed, each volume has its own focus, such as particular aspects of The Shadow's development, comparisons of different types of Shadow stories, highlighting the ways The Shadow inspired Batman, all-villain issues, stuff like that. Personally, I prefer it this way. Not only does this mean not having to wait for later stories, but it also adds an extra level of excitement as I eagerly wait to see what future volumes will contain. As of the time I'm writing this, they're reaching 100 volumes of reprints, so they're more than halfway done reprinting the entire series. Normally, if I was going to spotlight a series, I'd wait to read the whole thing, but it'll be years before all of the Shadow pulps are reprinted, and who knows if the INCspotlight will last that long?
The Shadow's not the only pulp series being reprinted by Sanctum Books. They've been reprinting Doc Savage since 2006, right at the same time they began the Shadow reprints (with choices between the original pulp covers or the James Bama artwork from the paperbacks), and more recently, The Avenger, The Phantom Detective, The Spider, and numerous others - the list gets bigger all the time. In fact, there seems to have been a pulp renaissance this past decade as pulp reprints become even more common, and other publishers are getting in on the pulp reprint act. The Shadow and Doc Savage pulp reprints used to be sold at Borders book stores, but they can be ordered directly from their publishers or online stores that specialize in pulp reprints. Even online comic stores such as Lone Star Comics carry them. The Pulp Coming Attractions website has the entire list of all of Sanctum Books's pulp series, including The Shadow. Clicking on any cover on the list will take you to the listing of every volume of that series.
So now for the big question: why should you read them? For one thing, they're enjoyable and entertaining, and the enigmatic nature of The Shadow makes him a cool character to read about. (Especially in the earlier stories, when he's only rarely seen; every moment he's on the page just crackles with energy.) There are plenty of action scenes, if you like that sort of thing, although some books have less of this than others, depending on the kind of story being told. More importantly, though, The Shadow helped codify and solidify many of the tropes and traits of superhero fiction we know and love today. It's a shame that a character that was once so much a part of our culture has been almost forgotten except by a handful of fans, and I'm glad to see he's getting more recognition, both through the pulp reprints and Dynamite Entertainment's recent Shadow comic book series. So for being good stories and for being such a crucial part of American cultural history, these stories deserve to be read and enjoyed by a new generation of readers like us, now that we have the opportunity to do so. I'd love to pick out a few of these to spotlight in this review, but I just wouldn't know where to start. Just about all of the ones I've read so far have been well-written, exciting, and atmospheric, with maybe a tiny handful of clunkers.
In all his incarnations, they say The Shadow knows. Check out the pulp novels and get to know The Shadow a bit more.
The INCspotlight, formerly hosted on the website Channel Awesome, now has a new home on my own website! Putting the spotlight on classics that deserve to be remembered!