I was in what must have been a vast desert. I pivoted in the sand and looked in every direction. Nothing but sand – sand and overhead a brutal, merciless sun. Was I lost or stranded? And how did I get here?
“Hi, handsome,” a throaty female voice said from behind my left shoulder, I turned and stared and… sand. An endless vista of shimmering yellow sand.
“You gonna stand there and stare all day?” the voice said, and now I recognized it.
“Aunt Scarlet?” I rasped.
“Granny told me that sometimes you turned invisible”
“Whenever I feel like it”
“You’ve come to rescue me?”
“Not really. But as long as I’m in the neighborhood… hop in.”
And here we take our leave of the story above, which shouldn’t disappoint you too much, since it doesn’t have an ending anyway. “Silly” is probably its last word, one you’ll have to admit is appropriate, unless someone decides to continue it. Ask me if I care.
Now ask me why I’m expending bandwidth on a comic strip character who first appeared in the nation’s newspapers in 1940 and ended her run in 1956. Is a last name that’s identical to mine enough? That’s for you guys to argue. We’ll offer a kinda-sorta answer soon. Meanwhile, let’s take a brief look at…invisibility. (Yeah, I did that deliberately. Sue me.)
Invisibility has been a trope in both mythology and fiction for a long time – at least since the Greeks. You doubt? Then Google the Grecian helm (or cap) of invisibility and the brothers Grimm’s tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In the market for something a bit fresher? Well, there’s H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man and The Hollow Man, a movie starring Kevin Bacon. Then, in no particular order… a television series, comics’s Sue Storm, The Invisible Girl (later Woman) and… golly, what am I forgetting? Oh, sure. Harry Potter! You may recall that in one of the novels/movies, the boy wizard dons a cloak of invisibility and…I dunno – skulks?
There are more.
But for now, we come to the gent who is arguably the best known (and maybe just the best) invisibiler, The Shadow, of course. He began fighting crime on the radio in the mid-30’s and ended his broadcast career in 1954. While he was active he appeared in virtually every mass medium: radio, film, novels, newspaper strips. On the novels, films and comics, he wasn’t exactly invisible. He used a technique similar to that of Batman and your friendly neighborhood ninja, using dark clothing to blend into the – yes! – shadows.
In the early comic books and on the radio he was really, truly invisible.
He was an approximate contemporary of Scarlet O’Neil’s and if you’ve sampled any of the Shadow reprints, hey, maybe you’ d like to sample some of The Shadow’s comrade in invisibility.
So good news. Your comics retailer should be able to sell you a copy of Invisible Scarlet O’Neil: The Official History of America’s First Female Superheroine. And coming soon: Invisible Scarlet O’Neil Returns, an original graphic novel.
Every college freshman learns about price elasticity in Economics 101. Price elasticity simply means that consumers will be more accepting of price changes for some products than for others. And as I’ve been watching the CW’s new Riverdale television series, I’m translating this economic concept to Geek Culture. Specifically, I’m mesmerized how some fans embrace changes to pop culture properties with a Geek Culture Elasticity and others just can’t embrace changes.
Long-time Archie fans – he is, after all, celebrating his 75th anniversary this year – are wrapping their heads around this latest television incarnation. The new Riverdale show is a steamy and creepy manifestation of beloved characters that ostensibly represent Americana. Unlike their traditional comic counterparts, these versions of the characters were driven by dark and base motivations that are a part of real people (albeit gorgeous and glamorous versions of real people).
I really liked the show. But then again – I like Gotham and that’s not really like the traditional Batman comic books, and I like the current Silver Surfer comics, and they aren’t like the traditional Silver Surfer comic books either.
We should be used to twisted versions of the Archie gang by now. Long ago, the publisher realized the characters had great elasticity and created Lil’ Archie, miniature versions of the teenagers. More recently, the various Archie comics have been boldly publishing non-traditional versions of their characters in series like Afterlife With Archie (the zombie version), The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (creepy Gaimen-esque witch stories) and Life with Archie (The Archie gang grows up and becomes thirtysomething).
The entire line of Archie comics was recently refreshed with Mark Waid’s new Archie series. Jughead, Adam Hughes’ Betty and Veronica and the new Josie and Pussycats soon followed. Long-time Archie writer (for former Marvel editor-in-chief) Tom DeFalco just started up Reggie and Me in the same universe.
There have always been twisted Archie versions percolating about. One of my favorite stories in recent years was Brubaker and Phillip’s The Last of the Innocent series from 2011. Doppelgangers of Archie and his gang were thrust into their very own crime noir story. It was deliciously wicked.
But taking a step back and looking at the entire Geek Culture landscape, it’s easy to see that while some fans welcome changes, others are furious.
Kelly Thompson is the writer of Marvel’s new Hawkeye series, and has some thoughts about fan outrage that illustrates some fans’ In-elasticity when it comes to beloved to icons. In the Marvel Comics mythology, the original Hawkeye, Clint Barton, has been very comfortable with sharing his heroic mantle with a young upstart, Kate Bishop. And this new series puts Kate center stage as Hawkeye.
Thompson recently told a story on Graphic Policy’s BlogTalkRadio about how one fan was outraged that “Hawkeye wasn’t a dude anymore.” And this fan claimed to be the greatest Hawkeye fan, which seems incongruous when you realize that Kate Bishop has been Hawkeye in the ongoing comics universe for over a decade.
It’s easy for some fans to shake their fists in rage when creators, or corporations, change or alter their characters. And it’s just as easy for other fans to embrace new takes on old characters, like a female Captain Marvel or a black Captain America.
It’s not just the lunkheads who have trouble with changes. That’s too simplistic an analysis.
The proof is in the sales numbers. Many retailers, as well as fans, feel that Marvel has pushed the pendulum of change too far, and these wide swings have resulted in softer sales. The Marvel heroes might not have the Geek Elasticity that senior management had planned on.
Longtime fans tend to take change in stride. They are confident that any character reboot will eventually bounce back. They don’t get upset when Captain America is revealed to be an evil double agent because they’d seen it before and they know that the status quo will eventually bounce back.
I am also impressed how Geek Culture can easily keep track of all the different versions of their favorite characters.
For example, Flash fans know the Flash’s pre-Crisis mythology, his post Crisis-mythology, his new 52 mythology, his television mythology and his Rebirth mythology. And if you don’t know what all those terms means – don’t worry. You may be better off.
A big character like Batman can support many versions.
Batman is dark and brooding and in the movies, while his television is young and growing while his comic book self, ostensibly his true self is… well, I guess that changes a lot too.
Pop Culture today gets more complicated than ever, some versions, like the video game mythologies offer another take on the characters. The popular Batman: Arkham video game series, by Rocksteady has created its own darker version of Batman and his villains. Developers Rock Steady and WB Games Montreal has cleverly invited longtime Batman contributors like Paul Dini and Kevin Conroy to lend their creative talents to these efforts, further blurring the lines.
You know, it’s always been this way. Back in the in the 30s and the 40s a big hero had two competing mythologies that were both tops in their respective media.
The Shadow of the pulp novels was a mysterious crime fighter, with dark mysterious history, many identities and an intricate organization full of nuanced operatives.
The radio adventures of the character featured a ubiquitous millionaire playboy, who was often quite bumbling and less-than-competent. And when he assumed the identity of the Shadow, he became invisible.
The Shadow Comics confused things even more. In those comics he looked like the pulp version of the Shadow, but became invisible like the radio version. And then the comics introduced new characters not in the pulps or the radio show. Most memorable was Valda Rune. She was an enthralling femme fatale. I hope either Dynamite Entertainment or pulpmaster Will Murray will revive her very soon!
But nobody seemed to have an issue with enjoying two, or three, versions of a top heroic character like the Shadow. Maybe fans were more comfortable with the Elasticity of Pop Culture Icons back then. Or maybe they were better at just keeping it all in perspective.
And when it comes to the Archie, Veronica and gang in Riverdale…hey, who really knows who they are in high school?
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.
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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….
Regular readers of this space know my first true love is the city of Chicago, and that I’ll use any excuse to cop a visit to my fatherland. That’s where I was this past week, and I did not need an excuse. The 15th annual Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention was in town, and, therefore, so was I.
It’s a great chance to meet up with old friends and make a couple new ones, all the while gawking at ancient publications printed on ever-deteriorating paper, more permanent facsimile reprints of same, and brand new efforts that replicate the mood, techniques and often the characters of those thrilling days of yesteryear. As my pal Jim Wisniewski says, the comradery echoes the days when comic book conventions were social occasions accessible to all… and were actually about comic books.
For the few of you who may be unaware – and who have yet to obtain the first volume of Jim Steranko’s History of Comics – comic books characters and comic book publishers got their start in those sense-of-wonder inspiring lurid tales of adventure. The Shadow, Doc Savage, John Carter of Mars, Nick Carter and The Spider, among many others, begat super-hero comics. Archie, DC Comics, and Marvel Comics, among many others that did not survive Fredric Wertham et al, got their start by publishing pulp magazines. It’s our roots.
And it’s slipping away. Paper was not meant to last forever, and pulpwood paper wasn’t meant to survive more than a month. That’s why I am so supportive of all the reprint projects. Yes, one man – another old pal, Anthony Tollin – has the lion’s share of the most popular characters but he is hardly alone in these endeavors. He’s already reprinted half of all The Shadow stories.
I am equally amazed and pleased to see so many small-press publishers (defining “small-press” as, say, not as large as Abrams and Simon and Shuster and their pals) doing “new pulp.” This is exactly what it sounds like: new stories written in the style of the classic pulps. Many of the new pulp authors are comic book veterans: Chuck Dixon, Martin Powell, CJ Henderson, Ron Fortier, John Ostrander, Paul Kupperberg, Will Murray, David Michelinie, Rob Davis… the list is as long as the long arm of the law. And it appears that I’ll be joining that stalwart group.
JimWiz laments the days when conventions were social occasions, and he’s most certainly not alone. Way back in those days, comics fans enjoyed more than comics, television and new movies. We enjoyed the pulps, sure, and we enjoyed newspaper comic strips, science fiction, mysteries, dramatic radio, illustration art… all kinds of stuff. We had a well-rounded education in America’s popular culture.
I’m not saying today’s comics fans avoid these important and closely related media, but you can’t ascertain their interest from going to shows such as this weekend’s C2E2 or the New York Comicon or the San Diego Comic-Con. Indeed, if you walk around these megashows and their ilk, you’d have a hard time ascertaining the level of interest in comic books. These shows have very little to do with comic books per se, and some of these convention organizers (note I said “some” and not “all”) clearly could not care less.
So when I go to shows such as the Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention – and there are many others; check out Pulp Coming Attractions for all the news in the pulp world, including these shows.
This stuff has little to do with nostalgia. It’s all about our cultural heritage.
And the folks doing the new stuff, the reprints, and the conventions are true cultural warriors.
One would think that because the roots of comic book heroes are deeply planted in the forest of pulp heroes, adapting such characters to the four-color medium should be a snap. Despite the superlative efforts of such talents as Garth Ennis, Frank Robbins, Eduardo Barreto, ComicMix’s own Denny O’Neil and a handful of others, this is not the case.
Let us politely say that, overall, pulp heroes have enjoyed a mixed reception. Some good, some bad, some wonderful, some insipid. Sturgeon’s Revelation remains in complete control.
In making the transition, some people resort to measures that put these characters in modern times. Usually, that trick doesn’t work: The Shadow, The Spider et al are creatures of their own times. Sometimes they become something different – in the 1960s Archie Comics turned The Shadow into a routine, and boring, costumed superhero. At least the guy who wrote most of it, Jerry Siegel, knew something about capes.
These days most of the pulp hero resurrections are being handled by Dynamite Comics, and by and large they’re doing a fine job. I didn’t care for their approach to The Spider, but I was surprised that their putting Doc Savage in the modern era while maintaining his past actually works. Their Shadow is mostly terrific; there’s a lot of it so some is better than others.
It’s hard to go wrong with Gail Simone, and she fits Red Sonja like it’s her second skin. Probably has something to do with the red hair. Zorro has been in fine hands, particularly the stories by Matt Wagner and then even more particularly those stories drawn by John K. Snyder III. The idea of team-up up Zorro with Django is nothing short of brilliant, and Quentin Tarantino teamed up with Wagner to provide the story.
Because The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Avenger are all owned and licensed by Advance Publications (better known as Condé Nast, which is one of their divisions), it was inevitable that these three would share their own mini-series. Any fan with an appreciation for history felt his spider-sense a-tingling when Dynamite announced they had all three licenses. The concept is akin to skating on thin ice.
Not to worry. This just-completed mini-series, Justice Inc., was written by Michael Uslan, and Michael knows his stuff.
Now, you might be asking “Geez, Mike, what the hell are you talking about?” In fact, you might have been asking this question for several years now, but I’ll just assume you’re referring to Mr. Uslan’s far greater notoriety as a Hollywood producer who specializes in bringing comic book characters to the screen. You know, like all those Batman movies. And the forthcoming Doc Savage movie, the one IMDB says is starring Chris Hemsworth (maybe) and is to be directed by Shane Black. Yep, that’s the guy.
However, he’s also written quite a few comic books. In fact, I regard him as one of our best writers – I will read any comic book with his name on it, and I just might even pay for it. (I heard the phrase “hey, kid, this ain’t a library” so often I salivate at each utterance). And he’s done some truly innovative stuff: he’s the guy who married Archie Andrews off to both Betty and Veronica – sadly, separately – and now he’s got Betty and Veronica out of Riverdale for a year in Europe. He’s written Batman, THUNDER Agents, The Spirit, The Shadow / Green Hornet crossover “Dark Nights,” the revived Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip, Beowulf, and an issue of DC’s original Shadow run. And other stuff.
Joining Uslan on Justice Inc. is artist Giovanni Timpano, who is quite up for the challenge of drawing such a character-heavy story in period. Covers – well, there are a lot of them by a lot of good people. Dynamite tends to approach variant covers the way a 16-year old boy approaches an orgy. But, yes, Alex Ross has one over ever of the six issues.
Since we’ve got at least three heroes and sometimes their associates, I should note the villains are two of the pulp classics: Doc Savage’s arch enemy John Sunshine and The Shadow’s persistent creep Dr. Rodil Mocquino, a/k/a The Voodoo Master. These are choices that might be obvious to the hard-core, but they are so for a good reason: they are solid villains right out of the best pulp traditions.
Even though Michael and I have yet to work together, he avoids violating one of my great many cardinal rules: he keeps the in-jokes accessible to the knowing without getting in the way of those that don’t know. Indeed, in-jokes abound in Justice Inc, ranging from very cute to quite clever. He takes some extremely minor liberties with the characters: Doc Savage is a bit more sarcastic than in the pulps, The Shadow seems a bit more OCD given the fact that he’s hardly a team player (unless it’s his team), and The Avenger’s origin story is bent slightly to accommodate this being set at the very beginning of his career.
You might ask why I’m plugging this mini-series after its conclusion last week. Outside of the fact that I’m absurd, it is possible that your friendly neighborhood comics store has a run left, and you should always support your local friendly neighborhood comics store. Aside from that, the trade paperback collection comes out in mid-May and is available for advance orderfrom Amazon.
I doubt Uslan is going to give up his day job in order to churn out more great comics. That’s just a guess, but, damn, I can hope.
Last week, I taunted you with visions of ancient superhero movies – serials, as they were called back then. Today we’d call them really low-budget webcasts. Here’s a few more worthy of your consideration, and this time we’re delving into a trio of iconic heroes from the pulps and newspaper strips – and now, of course, comic books.
The Shadow is the best-known of all the classic pulp heroes, and for a very good reason: many of the more than 300 stories published were quite good. Walter B. Gibson created something magical – a series with a lead character who had plenty of secrets but no secret identity, aided and abetted by a slew of agents who had no idea who their master was. The character’s popularity was enhanced massively by a highly successful radio series, one that gave The Shadow an alter-ego and a female companion and took away most of his agents.
Sadly, The Shadow didn’t fare as well on the silver screen. I don’t think the sundry producers could ever reconcile the differences between the pulp stories and the radio show, and they certainly were restricted in the deployment of violent action. But there is one major exception, the 15-chapter Columbia serial from 1940. Whereas they did a decent job of using three agents (including Margo Lane), the real beauty of this production was the man who played the lead, Victor Jory. A talented and accomplished actor (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Miracle Worker), Jory had the additional benefit of actually looking like The Shadow and his adopted form of Lamont Cranston, as portrayed in the pulps. Serials generally lacked verisimilitude; The Shadow had it in spades. And it’s a damn fine actioner, by serial standards.
If you found The Shadow pulps to be lacking in action, The Spider made up for it and then some. Every plot revolved around a madman’s quest to destroy humanity. New York City got trashed more often than a Thing vs. Hulk fightfest. The death count in your average Spider story was at least in triple digits. The books should have been published in red ink.
Obviously, they couldn’t duplicate that degree of violence in the movie serials. But they got the flavor and the spirit right, giving the Spider a real costume (he didn’t have one in the pulps), keeping his cast of associates intact, and using Warren Hull, who played the lead, in the various disguises typical to the pulp hero. There were two Spider serials: The Spider’s Web and The Spider Returns, and both are quite worthy.
I’ve left the best for last. The one series of serials I would recommend even to people who don’t like serials or kids who can’t handle black and white and cheesy special effects.
The Flash Gordon serials, Space Soldiers, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, are blessed with a cast that, by and large, looks as though they were designed by Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond. All three follow the spirit and direction of the classic newspaper strip, and the first serial is as close to a literal transition from comics to film as I’ve ever seen. Whereas Buster Crabbe is impeccable as Flash and his relative inexperience as an actor inures to the benefit of this part, it is Charles Middleton as Ming who steals the show, as well as the popcorn off your lap.
In my jaded worldview, Middleton’s Ming is the best villain on film, period. He’s evil, he’s imperial, he’s a warrior, he’s a master scientist. He is everything Fu Manchu wanted to be. Middleton pulls it off with style and aplomb without overacting – which, in serials, is unique. The only actor who comes close was Roger Delgado as the original Master in Doctor Who. Even when Ming is being cooperative with our heroes, he doesn’t have a shred of sympathy to draw upon. Ming’s nobility works hand-in-glove with his position as Emperor of all he sees.
These serials are generally available from the usual sources – you might have to Google around for The Spider, but the Flash Gordon trio is easily available. Much of it all is on Hulu, YouTube, and sundry other streaming services.
These are the characters that provided the budding comic book medium with its backbone. It set the standard for all future heroic fantasy films. Check a few out.
You can tell when the year is coming to an end when media outlets start offering their various and sundry “best of” lists. We here at ComicMix are no exception, so for the third consecutive year, here’s mine.
I’ve changed from “Top 9” to my top comics pulls. This is because we no longer live in a world where any one character occupies only one title – yeah, I’m talking to you, Wolverine – and sometimes I want to note a series of character-related titles. Of the five I’m listing for 2013, three cover multiple titles. This doesn’t mean I won’t change back next year. Consistency is the hobgoblin on a small cerebral cortex.
I operate under the following self-imposed rules: I’m only listing series that either were ongoing or ran six or more issues. I’m not listing graphic novels or reprints as both compete under different criteria. I should do this as a separate piece, but I seem to have forgotten where I’ve put my memory pills. And, as always, I’m not covering Internet-only projects as I’d be yanking the rug out from under my pal Glenn Hauman, as you’ll see once again this March.
So, without further ado, my top comics pulls of the year.
Sex: Writer – Joe Casey, Artist – Piotr Kowalski, Publisher – Image Comics. I like Sex. I know lots of people who like Sex. Sex is good. Sex is great. O.K., I’m done now. This is a somewhat futuristic story about a rich semi-has-been living in Saturn City, and it’s another architecturally-driven series (hello, Mister X!). The protagonist is driven by his past who’s trying to get his act together and deal with a society that is quite unlike anything we’ve seen on this Earth. His antagonist is an ancient mobster with an unending sex life, one that gets our hero in trouble. Sitting squarely in the middle is the madam of a sex club that would have put the real Hellfire Club to shame. It’s a great journey, with the creators letting out the plot on a need-to-know basis. Ambitious stuff that actually pays off.
Hawkeye: Writer – Matt Fraction, Artists – David Aja and Annie Wu, Publisher – Marvel Comics. Our returning champion, this is about as far from a Marvel superhero title as one gets. It’s all about Clint Barton when he’s not working as an Avenger. It turns out his life is as screwed up as anybody’s in the Marvel Universe, but he’s not quite mature or grounded enough to pull his ashes out of the fire. He’s also got something of an estranged relationship with the female Hawkeye, a former Young Avenger. There’s plenty of action here, but this series is all about the characters and the issue of what, when he’s not on duty, is “normal” for a superhero.
Archie: Various writers and artists, Publisher – Archie Comics. While Marvel and DC are boring us to tears with endless reboots and mindless universe-changing highly contrived “events,” Archie Comics has been quietly taking their well-known characters on an evolutionary trip that, I think, would frighten the company’s founders. Archie Andrews is less interested in Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge and has been spending a lot of time with Valerie Smith of Josie and the Pussycats. That’s a very big deal; for the better part of 75 years the Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle has been as sacrosanct as the Clark Kent-Lois Lane-Superman triangle. Jughead left home for about a year’s worth of issues. The cast continues to expand… and they continue to launch new titles, including Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla’s Afterlife With Archie, which may very well be the only storyline involving zombies that I enjoy any more.
Sex Criminals: Writer – Matt Fraction, Artist – Chip Zdarsky, Publisher – Image Comics. Well, lookie here. Another Image Comic with the word SEX in the title. And, damn, another good one too. This one is actually sexier than Sex, probably a bit funnier, and exceptionally compelling. Great character work, science fictiony in the classic sense, and pretty much capeless. Plus, it’s got the best recap page ever.
The Shadow: Various writers and artists, Publisher – Dynamite Comics. When I learned how much this license was going for, I figured whomever got it would have to publish multiple titles each month in order to pay the freight. I was right, but I didn’t predict most of them would be really damn good. My favorite of the bunch is Shadow Year One, by Matt Wagner and Wilfredo Torres. There is also Chris Roberson and Andrea Mutti’s The Shadow, offering traditional 1930s-era stories, and The Shadow Now by David Liss and Colton Worley and set in contemporary times. These books do not contradict each other. There’s also a mini-series or two that usually involves other pulp heroes, legendary and original, which dominate Dynamite’s expanding line.
Batman Li’l Gotham: Story and art – Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs, Publisher – DC Comics. I’ve waxed on and on about how much I like DC’s original online comics, and most of them are quickly reprinted in traditional comic book format. Batman Li’l Gotham is my favorite of the bunch. Unlike what one might expect from the name of the book and from the artist approach, my friends at Aw Yeah! Comics have no fear of competition here. The characters are… little… and the approach is kid-friendly, but the stories are clever, entertaining and involving, and the stories aren’t padded out like most superhero books these days. The whole BatCast is featured, as are plenty of other DC Universe characters. All are unburdened by whichever version of the Official Continuity that DC may or may not be following these days.
There are plenty of other titles I would recommend, but these are the ones I pick as the ones you should check out tomorrow. Of course, your mileage may vary but, damn, finding good new stuff is why we’re comics fans in the first place.
The Shadow, the template for most of comic books’ mystery men, captured America’s imagination in radio and pulp magazines for decades. His paperback revival in the 1960s and 1970s (the latter with spectacular covers from Steranko) led to his brilliant portrayal by Denny O’Neil and Michael William Kaluta in the short-lived DC Comics adaptation. Currently, he’s cutting down the weed of crime for Dynamite Entertainment but this overlooked gem of a film is worth a look. Here are the official details:
Who knows what evil lurks in the shadow of men? The Shadow knows! Adapted from the long-running classic radio program and Walter B. Gibson’s popular pulp fiction, legendary crime-fighting superhero The Shadow comes to life in the 1994 film adaptation THE SHADOW, starring Alec Baldwin (30 Rock) from visionary filmmaker Russell Mulcahy (Resident Evil: Extinction, Highlander). Brimming with non-stop action and suspense, this wildly entertaining cinematic adventure also stars John Lone (The Last Emperor), Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way), Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond), Ian McKellen (X-Men), Jonathan Winters (The Smurfs) and Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show). On February 25, 2014, Shout! Factory will release THE SHADOW: COLLECTOR’S EDITION Blu-ray™, featuring new high definition transfer of this cult classic and all-new interviews with filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Ann Miller and more. A must-have for movie collectors and pop culture enthusiasts to complete their entertainment library, this definitive collector’s edition Blu-ray release of THE SHADOW is priced to own at $29.93 SRP.
Alec Baldwin stars with Penelope Ann Miller as the legendary crime-fighting superhero in “The wittiest action-adventure since Indiana Jones!” (NBC News). Donning his sweeping black cape and disguise, The Shadow takes on his most dangerous nemesis yet: the last descendant of the great Genghis Khan whose weapon of choice is an atomic bomb. With the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, they square off for a spectacular battle in a dazzling mixture of mind-blowing special effects, humor and a dose of the macabre that will hold you spellbound!
UNIVERSAL PICTURES presents A BREGMAN/BAER Production. A Film by RUSSELL MULCAHY
ALEC BALDWIN, JOHN LONE, PENELOPE ANN MILLER “THE SHADOW”
PETER BOYLE, IAN McKELLEN, JONATHAN WINTERS and TIM CURRY
Music by JERRY GOLDSMITH, Music Supervisor JELLYBEAN BENITEZ, Co-Executive Producer STAN WESTON,
Costume Designer BOB RINGWOOD, Edited by PETER HONESS, Production Designer JOSEPH NEMEC, III.
Director of Photography STEPHEN H. BURUM A.S.C., Executive Producers LOUIS A. STROLLER, ROLF DEYHLE,
Written by DAVID KOEPP, Produced by MARTIN BREGMAN, WILLI BÄR, MICHAEL S. BREGMAN
Directed by RUSSELL MULCAHY, A UNIVERSAL RELEASE
New interviews with Director Russell Mulcahy, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Ann Miller, Production Designer Joseph Nemec, III., Director Of Photography Stephen H. Burum and Writer David Koepp
1080p High-Definition Widescreen (1.85:1)/DTS Master Audio 5.1/1994/Color/108 minutes/Subtitles: English
Over a decade ago the head of what was then called Tribune Media Services told me that as far as the producer of the Little Orphan Annie musicals was concerned, he did not need the comic strip around in order to keep his Annie franchise successful. I responded, “Well, somebody’s figured out what Disney’s been up to.”
Walt Disney used to say that he always reminded people that the whole thing started out with a mouse. And to this very day – the 85th anniversary of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was last Monday – Mickey has remained the (usually silent) Disney spokesmouse. So… riddle me this, Mousemen. Outside of a few direct-to-DVDs and a couple teevee shots, how many Mickey Mouse cartoons were made in the past 60 years?
There was not a single Mickey Mouse cartoon produced between 1953 and 1983. There’s been maybe four true Mickey cartoons produced since then, plus the short-lived House of Mouse show, some video games and a few cameos.
And tons of merchandising which, obviously, was not dependent upon the character’s presence on the large or the small screen.
Two of the biggest superhero characters of the 1930s through 1950s were The Shadow and The Lone Ranger. Both remain icons, but neither are vital forces in our cultural marketplace – despite what seems to have been a contest to see who could produce the worst Lone Ranger feature film. If this were, say, 1940, I suspect most people would say these guys would remain strong in one form or another for a long, long time. In The Shadow’s case, that would be until his radio show was cancelled on December 26, 1954. The Lone Ranger lasted on teevee until September 12, 1957; there was an animated series that ran for 28 episodes in the mid-60s.
So, I ask you: as a comic book, how long will Superman last? Or Spider-Man, or Batman, or the X-Men… you get the idea. In the 1940s, Superman was successful in comic books but even more successful as a radio series and a newspaper comic strip. The comic books were kept alive by the success of the Superman television series in the 1950s. National Periodical Publications, predecessor to DC Comics, didn’t need comic books to make a profit. In fact, if they didn’t own their own distribution network they might have canned the print operation when sales plummeted during the mid-50s.
Warner Bros. (DC comics) and Disney (Marvel comics) do not need the comic books in order to sell merchandising and produce movies and television shows, although producing good movies and teevee shows is always challenging.
The good folks at DC’s New York City office – including the vast majority of their editorial departments – have but a few more weeks to decide if they are going to move to Los Angeles in the spring of 2015. It’s a tough decision.
As a member of DC’s historical family, indulge me as I offer this piece of advise. If you want to move to Los Angeles, do so. But as soon as you get there, keep an eye out for other jobs. Warner Bros. and Disney do not need to publish comic books in order to keep their stockholders happy.
The Shadow Fan returns for his 45th episode! This week Barry Reese takes a look at the three villains to bear the name The Light before jumping into reviews of Death’s Bright Finger (May 15, 1942) and The Shadow # 16 (Dynamite Comics). There’s also talk about Dynamite’s November offerings and their newest series — Noir, which will feature the return of The Black Sparrow.
If you love pulp’s greatest crimefighter, then this is the podcast for you!