The smoking guns

Just about a year ago, Steve Long and I concluded a series of posts about comics vigilante heroes, and I’ve realized what we left out: the Shadow and the Spider. I plead two things: the usual blindness of comics readers regarding anything but what passed directly under their noses as customers, and conversely, the overwhelming prevalence of the characters such that we regarded them more as the surrounding air than as something you see or talk about. (the posts are available through the vigilante tag)

For me to summarize either in pretense of scholarship is absurd. Very briefly, and only for those who aren’t familiar with them, the Shadow began as a radio voice just for a crime/mystery show’s inter-episode narration and branding in 1930, quickly becoming a pulp character in 1931 and getting his own show in 1937, eventually becoming a comics character too or rather, a newspaper strip, in the 1940s. Technically his first comics appearances were Kurtzman parodies in Mad, but as far as newsstand comics titles go, it starts with a DC title by Denny O’Neil and Mike Kaluta in the early 1970s, which seems to me part and parcel of re-instating “the” to Batman. The Shadow stayed with comics hard, getting rebooted and redefined three (3) times in the late 1980s, including the famous Chaykin run, and yet again in the 1990s.

The Spider began as a pulp knockoff or more politely, rival to the Shadow during the 1930s, and I think he stayed in the prose realm. It’s probably obvious why neither of them became comics considering the moral crackdown after WWII, which had several phases, not just the Wertham events of 1954. I’m surprised to learn that he didn’t get a comics version, by Tim Truman, until the 1990s.

Here are the key points which all fuel the “comics vigilante hero” absolutely directly.

  1. Multiple disguises bleeding into multiple identities behind the iconic identity; these guys are not “becoming the mask,” that’s already happened. You can see it in the 1970s Batman, and it’s ramped up hard for Moon Knight, and again for the Badger. As a related point, although they don’t wear masks, their faces are not quite real faces in terms of portrayal, often portrayed mysteriously and appearing/re-appearing in depictions.
  2. One of the identities is wealthy, leisurely, and perceived as a playboy and sybarite; the extent to which this is sincere on the character’s part depends greatly on the creator of the moment. In the case of the Shadow, Lamont Cranston is merely a pose in the pulp stories (and sometimes even an actual other guy!), but in the radio show, that’s who he “really” is. The Spider is similar to the latter case. Bruce Wayne is right in this zone and one of the Badger’s personalities is Max Swell, charming useless playboy.
  3. Both of them are masters of recondite knowledge, most directly in their powers of clouding men’s minds for effective invisibility (the Shadow) or commanding obedience with a special voice (the Spider), and more generally in connecting with tons of weird people, weird insights, and weird back-stories. Their lethality is tied to this mastery as well, thematically and literally.
  4. They both double-wield big-ass .45s, and blazing guns + mounds of corpses are generally common plot events. The removal of guns from such characters in the newsstand comics must be seen as an artifact, and all the more so during the early 1970s when “Batman does not kill,” “Batman is traumatized by a gun,” had to get justified with “Batman is the terrifying avenger of the night.” When I say “had to,” that may be a psychological and literary question, as obviously O’Neil and the others could just as well have ignored it and carried on.
  • The Shadow tended less toward flat-out riddling his foes with lead, preferring to drive them to suicide and to killing one another. The Spider was, to put it generously, unflinchingly homicidal.
  • When guns came back into the comics hero arena in the 1980s, they did seem to fit pretty naturally, right? Most obviously with the Punisher, adding a nod to protagonizing Deadshot, and by the 1990s, becoming more standard rather than exceptional, e.g. the Black Hood, Ghost, that guy in the Wildcats line, et cetera. I call your attention to the first, edgy years of Batman, when the utility belt included a holstered pistol.
  1. Their adversaries are too spread across too many versions to summarize easily, but to take it back to the pulps, think “the mob,” but also and significantly, conspiracies against “the country,” “our nation,” with very nasty foreigners behind them. As a related point, each often worked in tandem to the police, considering themselves to be allies of law enforcement, but were often also antagonistic with them (Spider-Man’s frequent evasion of police gunfire in the 1970s harks back to a lot of Spider scenes.) The Gordon connection for Batman and to a lesser extent, the Stacey connection for Spider-Man, come straight out of here.
  • What I’m seeing here is that the tension within the hero between law/lawless and outlaw/patriot is a fixed and seminal feature, not a result of separate, conflicting, mashed-up other features such as you see for many of the costumed hero comics versions. That’s also why I am bringing up Spider-Man all of a sudden, who in retrospect, and thinking strictly of 1963-1975, is far more of a vigilante than one might think today.
  • There’s one significant difference between the two in that the Shadow minimized the evil-orientalism, perhaps uniquely in the pulps, whereas the Spider gleefully ramped it way up.
  1. Then there’s sanity, or at least, how well-aligned the hinges may be. Given the vagaries of different versions, and unless I’m plain mistaken, the Shadow is generally not crazy. Weird as bugfuck, yes, scary, well duh, but the multiple identities are merely tools and he’s not prone to odd rantings or beliefs. Whereas here’s where the Spider comes into his own as a character rather than an imitation, in that he’s not only physically more grotesque than the Shadow, or at least his disguises are, he’s also – at least going by one of the more long-running and seminal authors – a dangerously paranoid whacko. The array of vigilante comics heroes and semi-heroes running from 1970 through 1995 are practically an academic thesis on the compare-and-contrast of this one variable.

Finally, apologies again for continuing to nurse the Two villains post, but this is our second weekend of our move to Sweden. I’m here in the house now, surrounded by renovation and a still-boxed kitchen, and time for research and image-finding is pretty short. I’ll get proper links, a few images, and a little more historical referencing into this one as soon as possible.

Next column (maybe): Two villains (June 4)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on May 28, 2017, in Heroics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Hey Ron, I’ve learned a lot of things about the history of comic books reading your posts, just figured I’d say thanks! Quality material.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Santiago Verón

    I’m loving this. If the next week you apologize for not having Two Villains ready and giving us a mini-essay on Spider-Man As Vigilante instead, I won’t complain at all.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. To be fair to us, while there were Shadow and Spider comics being published then, those are really Pulp characters, not Seventies and Eighties vigilantes. But in the interest of (relative) completeness, I’m glad you tackled the topic! Your observations are spot-on and more or less exactly what I’d’ve said.

    For my money, the best Shadow comics adaptation I’ve seen was THE SHADOW STRIKES, from the mid-late Eighties, written by Gerard Jones and frequently illustrated with loving, lavish care by Eduardo Barreto. Two smoking automatics up!

    On Orientalism in the Shadow: given that the Shadow got some of his learning in “the mysterious Orient,” and Walter Gibson’s interest in the subject, it definitely gets better treatment than in many pulps. One of the Shadow’s few recurring villains — one clever and tough enough to escape death the first time and return to menace the Shadow later — is Shiwan Khan, a “yellow peril” villain to be sure, but one presented as a comparatively well-rounded character, not a two-dimensional Asian villain. Jones put him to great use in The Shadow Strikes — only to ruin the story and the character with a ridiculously politicized “big reveal” at the end of the tale.

    The Shadow is certainly no stranger to deadly gunplay, but you’re right that he’s not the homicide machine that the Spider is. Though to be fair to the Spider, the fact that he was written by multiple authors (unlike the Shadow, who had Gibson writing him, two novels a month, for 250-some stories) means he’s not exactly presented with 100% consistency.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. (There is a point to this!)

    The Phantom was an interesting intermediate point between the pulps and the comics.

    He had the mask, costume and secret identity (kind of), including the secondary identity of the commander of the Jungle Patrol. He had lots of dubious Tarzan-like colonial/racist elements too.

    And, most importantly for our purposes, he carried a pair of pistols.

    Supposedly, he used them to kill in some early strips, but generally speaking he didn’t. He certainly didn’t leave behind big piles of corpses. In this respect he was something of a precursor of the “code versus killing” type superheroes.

    His origins were in comic strips, rather than comic books, but he made the transition pretty early on, and has remained continuously published ever since.

    He has also been published in a bunch of different countries, with different local variations, like the Disney characters discussed in the Ron’s previous post. Of relevance to me, this includes Australia.

    And this brings me to my point, which is that he was one of the main influences on early Australian comic book superheroes. A whole lot of the characters that weren’t basically Captain Marvel/Superman ripoffs were Phantom ripoffs instead.

    And that included carrying guns, but not using them to kill people.

    At the same time, often in the same (anthology) books, non-superhero protagonists were shooting people all over the place. Codes versus killing seem to have been attached to superheroes, while being absent in other genres. (Aside from comedy, naturally.)

    Subsequent censorship affected that, but with the net effect of helping eliminate the entire Australian comic industry.

    I see Steve Long has posted, so I feel I can get away with finishing with a Champions comment. 🙂

    It’s actually a nuisance that so many of the now public domain Australian superheroes carried guns. They just aren’t that effective when converted for use in a Champions game. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am all about the Phantom without knowing enough, or hardly any. Every history of comics acknowledges his role, especially the remarkable independence between [mask + costume] and [powers]. A lot of the original newspaper strips I’ve read display amazing, jaw-dropping mastery of art and story. It turns out, too, that his Swedish version has been running independently for a very long time and is widely loved here, so I’m looking forward to getting educated both in the original and in the local spin.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s nice to see these two characters, (or two sides of one character in a sense), appear here. I feel you covered the concepts well given the purpose and length of the post.

    As Steven Long notes above, the Spider’s representation is much less consistent over time than that of the Shadow. Each writer had their own take on how to deliver on the violence and psychological warfare tactics of the character and not all of them were capable (or had the time to) come to grips with it. The Shadow on the other hand, was developed over a very long period of time, layer by layer, and grew both in mystery and complexity despite the way the magazine and the radio shows diverged (and sometimes were realigned). I suppose given the character’s spread across the mainstream media of the day, even some… interesting…films, that it is this character which had the larger influence on the characters which followed. Well, that and the less-homicidal nature, of course~

    As an aside, an artifact (should you ever have the time and interest) to look at for the Spider is The Black Police Trilogy, currently easily available as ‘The Spider versus the Empire State’.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post a lot. I grew up reading these characters, and others from that period and how they have been lost or turned into things they were not saddens me somewhat. It is rare and refreshing, outside of historical sites devoted to pulp heroes, to find a treatment of who they were as characters and how those core concepts and conceits fed and informed the next generation of heroes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kind words and many thanks! I want to focus a little bit toward the post’s topic.

      The general context of the interplay among the pulps, the newspaper strips, the radio, and the comics is common knowledge among comics readers … (he said, hopefully)? One of my most fortuitous comics artifacts was and is Volume 1 of Steranko’s History of Comics, bought for me by an older sibling, which clued me in early. Its first chapter, THE BLOODY PULPS, is a great introduction to how the Shadow et cetera played into the newsstand material.

      My and Steve’s specific topic is the 1980s vigilante heroes, which are rooted in the mad moments of 1970 DC, when several creators tried to recover Batman from the Go Go comics and from the TV show. This is what I referred to with adding or re-instating “the” to the character’s name, which was the code for this effort at the time. Most of our writings concerned how this effort played out, steadily if sparsely until the mid-80s, then booming into prominence and, as I perceived it, self-parody and distintegration.

      However, although it jars me, I’m forced to admit that the eventual result (what Steve called the Big Bang, 1986) of semi-sane, over-written, indulgent, bizarre-politics, pistol-brandishing “avengers of the night” characters … weren’t a specific one-off of the late Reagan years, or a deviation of any kind at all. They actually recaptured the roots more thoroughly and accurately than O’Neil’s The Batman ever did. The deviation, as it were, began with the in-house DC Code of 1940 (“heroes never kill”), and the breaking of the Code (in this case the larger CCA, which was pretty much just the DC Code anyway) in the early 1970s was only a partial correction, to use that word without judgment. I could more accurately, if unkindly, point to the entire Weisinger era of DC Comics as the artifact, with the Flash/JLA of 1958 and its subset of the Fantastic Four/Spider-Man of 1961+ as a subroutine.

      I’m not an originalist, so it’s not my point to say that the whole ethical-superhero, struggle vs. ethics/violence guy is less pure or less important. My terms “pure,” “deviation” and “artifact” can be used and read without that kind of loading. I’ll be first to say that The Batman and, e.g., Spider-Man, Daredevil, Moon Knight, et al., even the better-written moments of the Punisher, are better stories than yet another cackling mow-down of America’s enemies. But I’m also saying that a lot of the pulp stuff is good on its own, and at the very least, thought-provoking and revealing about both society and the human mind, begging to be recovered and revamped and re-used and re-interpreted. And that’s what the Big Bang brought us. Dumb or messed-up as, e.g., Ghost or Grifter may be, this is American lit in a long-standing and very pure form.

      [editing this in: it only makes perfect, perfect sense that the missing piece from the DC effort was Mack Bolan’s Executioner, which Gerry Conway immediately supplied with the Punisher]

      Liked by 1 person

  6. One of the things that keeps bringing me back to this blog is how personally resonant it is, DESPITE the fact that I’ve read very few comics. I hadn’t much thought about the Shadow in … forever, but the (guessing) 30ish hours of rebroadcast radio serials I listened to as a kid, and the way the character himself influenced so much I read and saw down through the years – it turns out, stopping to think about him tells me a little something about myself. The tag line “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knoows”, the cackle that follows it – it’s baked into me somewhere/somehow.

    Over (probably) interpreting that text … what a key ability for the vigilante! Somehow, unreasonably, perhaps supernaturally, the Shadow knows evil when he sees it. His insight can be trusted. His vengeance, or the vengeance he … facilitates, is justified. Always, by my limited experience/memory.

    And I believed it more from him than from an army of Dirty Harry clones, even when that clone was Dirty Harry himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1. Are you familiar with Harlan Ellison’s story “The New York Review of Bird”? It was originally written for Byron Preiss’ Weird Heroes series I posted about a while ago, but was probably more widely read in his collection Strange Wine..

      2. The senses thing … I’m interested to know how it played into the Shadow’s plots, which probably varied all over the place. It’s right in there, perhaps one of the big codifiers, of the stuff I wrote about in Sense, coincidence, nonsense, and consequence. It’s related to my points about the film Unbreakable too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve got Strange Wine in a box (ha! Strange Wine in a box!) somewhere, and I remember the oddly-referential protagonist Cordwainer Bird, but … I’ll hunt it down, or maybe trust to some interwebs comments to remind me. But in general, I remember reading a good amount of pulp-referential sf (Phillip Jose Farmer, e.g.), where some of the references skipped past me – but some didn’t.

        Senses – yeah, you nailed a lot in that link, and the details of how “that which the Shadow Knows” shows up in plots will matter a lot (in ways and for reasons that we annoyingly have no really good way to talk about). I’m kinda interested in how the impression that it’s even possible for him to Know is cultivated, but that may not be the important part of the equation.


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