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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)