Gore, Mayhem and Violence, by Mike Gold
Unless you’re new to or you’ve been avoiding our online comics (hey, c’mon, they’re FREE!) or our comments sections (where the real action is), you’ve probably figured out that I am among a number of cultural recidivists who hang out in this corner of the ether. Mark Wheatley, Andrew Pepoy, John Ostrander… well, damn, most of us, now that I think of it.
So it will come as no surprise that I’ve been reading Girasol Collectibles’ Pulp Doubles series (orderable at your friendly neighborhood comics shop and dozens of other online sources), featuring the original Master of Men, The Spider. The real one. The original. The man who best typifies pulp virtues, where the extreme is commonplace and New York City is destroyed every month.
It’s Jim Steranko’s fault. In the first volume of his History of Comics (and, yes, I, too, have been waiting patiently for volume three for over 35 years), he started off writing about the various costumed pulp heroes who influenced (or, in some cases, were blatantly ripped off by) sundry comic book creations. I had never heard of The Spider before, but Jim praised it as being so purple it would make a French king wince in pain.
Instead of filling space telling you what that means, I will instead tell you some of the plot points in The Spider #49, “The City That Dared Not Eat.” It’s one of my favorites, and it’s in Girasol’s Pulp Doubles #1. I don’t know how you can better that title, but, damn, author Wayne Rogers (no relation to Trapper John) certainly beats it to a pulp. Here’s just a few of the story’s highpoints:
• In the very first chapter, our hero, Richard Wentworth, is framed for several murders by, of all people, The Spider. But he’s The Spider! And he’s boxed in so tight Karnack The Magnificent could store answers in him.
• By chapter two, his secret identity is uncovered by his friend, Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick, his socialite fiancée Nita Van Slone brazenly affects his escape, and he’s framed for a few more murders.
• The bad guys blow up a bunch of restaurants in and around Times Square during the height of the dinner rush, killing hundreds if not thousands.
• The public is made to believe The Spider is behind it all as the guy taking credit for it all looks, sounds and acts exactly like The Spider. His minions start poisoning the city’s milk supply, murdering thousands more citizens… mostly tiny babies. And this is 1937; almost 20 years before La Leche League was founded!
• Untold numbers of restaurants, lunch counters and catered events are poisoned, killing thousands more. Among those poisoned: Kirkpatrick and a disguised Van Sloan… and there’s nothing the real Spider can do about it!
I’ve got to tell you, in all the annuals of heroic fiction, there aren’t a hell of a lot of stories in which thousands of babies are murdered in a single night. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg!
The cover reproduction (above) is typical of The Spider pulps: gaudy, horrific and violent, but basically irrelevant to the story. The scene doesn’t take place in the story and the villains don’t look like wrestlers at a Victorian masquerade ball. More important, The Spider doesn’t look at all like the guy on the cover. The real thing looks more like Lon Chaney Senior on a bender. He only appeared on, I believe, four of the 118 Spider covers. It didn’t matter: The Spider was among the best-selling and most long-lived of the pulp heroes.
As a reader, this stuff is great fun. As a comics editor, I’m jealous as all hell. Today, it’s hard to get away with a story where all of the bad guys are totally evil to the bone without any psychological hoo-hah to explain away their psychoses. It’s even harder to get away with a story where all of the good guys – plus Nita Van Slone, who takes a backseat to no one when it comes to the tough stuff – can amass their own massive, retaliatory body count.
As much blood is spilled in an average Spider story as in a typical week in Baghdad. Except, of course, The Spider is the stuff of cathartic fantasy. I prefer the latter.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.