Ed Catto: The Golden Age Batman v. Superman – The Sinister Shadow
It’s still amazing to me that we live in a world where rumors about the trailers for the Batman v. Superman movie are reported in Forbes magazine. On the other hand, as Forbes signed on my pal Rob Salkowitz, an expert on comic-cons and pop culture, as a columnist, it’s apparent they understand the power of Geek Culture and I shouldn’t be so surprised.
Combining two franchises into a movie like Batman v. Superman isn’t a fresh idea, but it sure is a fun one. So as Hollywood and Warner Bros look to combine the quintessential dark hero with his counterpart, I thought it would be interesting to see how it was done with their prototypes.
The Shadow and Doc Savage were created for the pulps and clearly inspired Batman and Superman. In fact, many argue that it’s less inspiring and more outright copycatting. For example, the very first Batman story was a rip-off of a Shadow adventure. Krypton’s favorite son borrowed many elements of the Doc Savage mythology, from his civilian name to his Fortress of Solitude.
“Let’s not bicker and argue…” is a Monty Python line that’s probably appropriate here. I enjoy them all and perhaps you do too. This summer I thoroughly enjoyed the new book, The Sinister Shadow by Will Murray, published by Altus Press. So I reached out to Will to learn more, and especially to compare and contrast his book to the upcoming Batman v. Superman movie.
Ed Catto: In your recent novel, The Sinister Shadow, you’ve created a Doc Savage vs. Shadow adventure. How did this all come about?
Will Murray: I’ve wanted to write a Doc Savage meets The Shadow novel since my Bantam Books days. The rights were never available. When Conde Nast okayed the project, I decided to pit The Shadow against Doc Savage in a way that acknowledged that while they both were dedicated toward the ends of justice, they also worked very different sides of the street. Like Superman and Batman, they are not natural allies, since their methods run counter to one another’s philosophies. But I felt they could become uneasy allies if joined in common cause.
This is a crime-suspense story set in 1933, when both heroes are at the start of their careers. I’ve had this plot in mind for several years, but imagine my surprise and delight when looking through the manuscript for (Doc Savage creator/writer) Lester Dent’s only Shadow novel, The Golden Vulture, I discovered approximately 20 chapters of unused material. How wonderful it would be if I could make my first Shadow novel a collaboration with Lester! So I acquired those rights, and the rest is history. I’m really proud of this book, because between me and Lester Dent’s 1932 prose, we really evoke The Shadow of the early Depression, as well as Doc in his early career.
EC: You’re very respectful to the source material. In fact, this novel seems like a “masters class” for pulp readers. The reader really has to be on his or her toes. Can you discuss your authentic and respectful approach to these characters? And how do you feel it’s received by fans?
WM: When I write Doc Savage, or for that matter The Shadow or Tarzan, any other such character, I try to write in the tone, style and mindset of the original author. That I often succeed is one of my gifts. The mind trick I use is not to write a story set in the past, to pen a contemporary pulp novel as if I were living in the timeframe in which the story is set. That way I don’t place too much emphasis on period details – just enough to evoke the era.
Comments received so far on The Sinister Shadow say it is not only one of the best novels I’ve ever written, but it’s an uncannily authentic replication of those characters in their rightful time. Readers just love this book! And I loved writing it.
EC: While this is officially another entry in your Wild Adventures of Doc Savage series, isn’t this really a Shadow novel? Or is that my own bias?
WM: I have been fascinated by the reviews, some of which say this is a great Doc Savage novel guest-starring The Shadow, while others insist it’s really a Shadow novel in disguise. The truth is that The Sinister Shadow is a Doc Savage novel set in the gritty Great Depression world of The Shadow, with the characters adjusted accordingly. Late in the book, it shifts to being a full-blown Shadow novel, but that was driven by the Lester Dent material, not by my choice. I will say that the book nicely balances out, so that both heroes and their subordinate characters get their full measure of respect and participation in the action.
Also, this is Lester Dent’s take on The Shadow. He’s mysteriously creepy and uses a lot of tools and gadgets (Shadow creator/writer) Walter Gibson never dreamed of.
EC: I was impressed by how you deal with some of the historical, yet cringe-worthy elements of each characters’ mythology. You certainly didn’t ignore or gloss over these dated ideas. I could almost feel both Doc and The Shadow squirming at different times during the story. Can you explain your thoughts on these elements? How do you think today’s audiences respond to them?
WM: I’m just as attracted to Doc Savage’s humane approach to fighting crime as I am The Shadow’s avenging angel punishment mindset. Both work for me. Of course, The Shadow was the forerunner of characters ranging from the Executioner to Dirty Harry. The formula is with us today. The enlightened Doc Savage approach is less common, hence its appeal as an alternative to the avenger-style hero.
Believe it or not, Doc Savage’s surgical approach to curing crime was considered very progressive for the 1930s. For me, the appeal of pitting these characters against one another was to explore their radically diverse crimefighting approaches. Therein lies the essential tension and drama of The Sinister Shadow. After one of Doc’s men and the real Lamont Cranston are kidnapped, that draws both heroes in. And when Doc unwittingly captures one of The Shadow’s agents and ships him off to his Crime College for corrective surgery, things really start to pop.
Having them team up comic-book style to fight a great menace wasn’t my approach because it isn’t the best way to introduce these characters to one another. I wanted the villain to be a catalyst, not the central antagonist. Having set up their difficult working relationship, I can now throw them against a super-villain down the road if future circumstances permit it.
EC: You’ve developed a great antagonist for this story. Without spoiling any surprises, can you explain your creation of the Funeral Director?
WM: The Sinister Shadow is an extended chess game between Doc and The Shadow, who are after the same bad guy. I chose a villain who brought them into open conflict, without overshadowing the storyline.
The Funeral Director is a mysterious enemy who tangled with The Shadow before under another name. He’s been hiding from The Shadow’s vengeance ever since; hence he’s adopted an alias for one last big score.
I‘ve always wanted to tie up the unresolved loose threads of the early Walter Gibson Shadow novels, and in this story I tied up a ton of them. Shadow readers have been ecstatic.
EC: The cover art has become an integral part of any pulp adventure. Who’s your cover artist for this story and were you happy with the result?
WM: Joe DeVito is my cover artist, and has been since the days when I wrote Doc Savage for Bantam Books back in the 1990s. Thanks to the kindness of acclaimed artist James Bama, we’re working with original photos he took of model Steve Holland posing as Doc Savage back in the 1960s. We found a great one depicting Doc standing in a challenging position, looking like a literal Man of Bronze. This gave us a start. To this Joe added a nebulous looking Shadow opening fire on Doc. The scene is set in The Shadow’s secret sanctum. For the hardcover edition, we have a bonus back cover – a great graveyard scene of Doc and Monk wearing infrared goggles, while The Shadow crouches atop the Cranston family mausoleum. It’s hard to say which is the better image.
EC: What’s next for Doc Savage?
WM: Next, we jump ahead in time to the middle of World War II. Monk and Ham become embroiled in wartime intrigue that takes them to the Caribbean Sea, and a gang of pirates intent upon controlling The Secret of Satan’s Spine. That’s the title of the book. More than that I don’t want to give away. But expect some surprise cameos featuring characters who previously appeared in earlier Doc novels. Beyond that, I have ideas for an adventure set in Chicago at the height of the great gang wars, another that takes us to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and then a return to the Valley of the Vanished where Doc Savage’s career began back in 1933.
EC: And I understand you’ll also be creating new adventures for The Shadow?
WM: While there has been some discussion about The Shadow, and I would love to take a swing at a new Shadow novel, I would prefer to do another Doc Savage-Shadow encounter next, preferably going after The Shadow’s great enemy, Shiwan Khan. Many readers had asked me to pit Doc against Fu Manchu, but I think the Street & Smith version would be more compelling.
EC: Are there other pulp team-ups and/or crossovers are you working on?
WM: I just released my first Tarzan novel, the well-received Return to Pal-ul-don. It’s a sequel to Tarzan the Terrible, and takes place when John Clayton is an RAF fighter pilot during WWII. I’m in discussions to write another Tarzan, but this one will be a crossover. I can’t yet say who the other character is, but I can hint at it. It’s a big hairy deal. This will be a major crossover that has been long dreamed of going back to 1935, but never executed due to rights issues. I’m also thinking of writing a Spider novel in which he teams up with Jimmy Christopher, the star of Operator #5 magazine, as well as G-8 of World War I fame.
I have mixed feelings about crossovers. We’re seeing a lot of them now, but for my money, they have to be extremely well realized to live up to reader expectations.
EC: What advice would you give to the folks making the Batman v. Superman movie?
WM: Far be it from me as a pulp novelist to give Hollywood filmmakers any advice, except the obvious: If you’re going to have two major properties meet, both must be equally respected and interact in ways that are true to their essential natures. A crossover for its own sake is a mere novelty. A crossover that explores both characters in new ways is an event. I think everybody’s more interested in big events than in entertaining novelties. Too many crossovers are just circulation stunts.
I do find it interesting that the core approach of Batman v. Superman – that is, antagonistic heroes who presumably work out their differences – is so similar to The Sinister Shadow, which I first plotted almost 10 years ago….
EC: Thanks for your time and insights, Will!