The era of the pulps is a source of fascination for me. In a time before television, when everyone read for pleasure (tabloid newspapers, cheap magazines and paperbacks) the pulps were a major source of the common man’s entertainment! Named for the low-grade wood-pulp paper they were printed on, the pulps were disposable mass-market thrills, sensational and exciting adventure stories banged out overnight and during lost weekends by chain-smoking workhorse writers for pennies per word. They laid the groundwork for the entire comic-book medium and developed the framework for the superhero and the modern antihero. Their heyday was post-World War I and through the Great Depression — it was the Golden Age of Comics and the Paperback Revolution in the late 40s when comic books and paperbacks eventually supplanted the function of pulp magazines.
Of the pulp-magazine heroes that survive today, The Spider is a little less famous than his brethren The Shadow, Doc Savage or The Green Hornet, but that’s only because he never crossed over into major (modern) media. The Shadow easily added other media to his printed exploits, blessed with Orson Welles’ depthless talent and a red-hot radio thriller, adding film shorts and full-length features as recently as the 1994 Alec Baldwin movie and the abandoned Sam Raimi film project in the ‘00s. Doc Savage was less hugely successful off of the printed page but still viable enough to be considered for film adaptations just about every decade since 1975’s Ron Ely-helmed Doc Savage movie. Green Hornet has had TV and films, plus the added legend of being central in Bruce Lee’s mythic movie-star origin story.
The Spider, like The Avenger, The Whisperer and so many others, never quite broke out as entertainment formats evolved. He did have two early-40s movie serials, but bupkus since. I wonder if his inconsistent visual appearance has played a part? I was in a brief conversation on social media recently with some Spider fans and it was remarked that on some story covers and illustrations he looks like a savage Mr. Hyde type and on others he’s a classic fedora-wearing and domino-masked (and largely unremarkable) ‘mystery man’ type. In the film serial they gave him a cowl and cape with wonderful contrasting webbing design, and we’ve seen variations of that look adapted for some of the Dynamite Comics featuring the antihero. Maybe this visual update was too little to properly distinguish him from competing film serials featuring The Shadow?
To be bluntly honest, there is not a lot to distinguish The Spider from The Shadow, or many of his contemporaries; he’s an obvious composite of successful bits from other characters. He has the bog-standard alter ego; wealthy member of the upper social register, great pals with the police commissioner. (If that sounds familiar, yes — that’s Bruce Wayne, Wesley Dodds and a host of others too.) He’s got a chauffeur and a butler and his fierce ‘Hindu’ (now ‘Sikh’) manservant Ram Singh, he sports some quasi-mystical attributes and hypnotic abilities, a “calling card” of sorts left with defeated foes, a signature totem ring and of course, a pair of barking .45s.
That I recognize that he’s essentially a survey of the pulp vigilante character traits should not be taken to disparage The Spider and his legacy. The resultant character is a kind of distilled essence of pulp, a super-group doing stadium rock. This shows even in the scope of his stories, crashing against vast criminal networks threatening the city, the nation and the world with larger-than-life super-weapons. The casualty rate is excessive even for what’s already considered a bloody genre.
Confession time; I have not previously read The Spider! I know quite a bit about the character through my introduction to the more well-known pulps and I’ve encountered his Dynamite Comics iteration a few times. I have on my bookshelf several nice volumes of classic (and as yet, unread) Spider novels and I just bought another beauty that collects some books Moonstone did back when they had the license. (It’s new prose stories, illustrated on almost every page.)
I consider myself a fan of The Spider even though Will Murray’s newly-told tale THE SPIDER: THE DOOM LEGION (The Wild Adventures of The Spider, Volume 1) is my first full-length solo adventure. I know this sounds like heresy, but hear me out; I have read thousands of pages of stories about the core characters and concepts from which The Spider is drawn. I know the voice of these writers and this kind of pulp.
I also know Will Murray’s work well, from a number of his other Wild Adventures of… books. I am especially fond of the crossovers! Doc Savage met The Shadow (twice!) and then Doc encountered King Kong, then it was Kong versus Tarzan! I splurged recently and ordered a hardcover copy of MASTER OF MYSTERY: THE RISE OF THE SHADOW, Will Murray’s biography of The Shadow, then I grabbed an e-copy of THE DOOM LEGION. I dove in deep and surfaced excited to write about it - it’s then that I wrestled with the idea of reviewing a license-approved continuation of the character without previously owning a firmer foundation in the original material. Aw, crap. Is it even ethical?
The Lovely and Talented Missus saved me in the end. She usually does. In this case she reasoned that my experience with the genre and my freshness to the character gives me a unique perspective; I was flattered but not completely sold. She further pointed out that it was my damn column and I could make my own rules, which I’d evidently just done by deciding I had to read the entire frikkin’ bibliography of Norvell Page before I could write a thousand words on the subject.
I’d stopped really listening by then, knowing that she was right, because she’s always right. I guess I just needed the journey. And yes, I am fully aware that I’m in trouble when she reads this. I give you radical truth here, despite the personal cost!
THE DOOM LEGION’s name immediately reflects classic Spider titles like The Pain Emperor, The Robot Titans of Gotham or Satan’s Murder Machines. The cover art introduces a new-to-me variant of the clean-appearance domino-mask version of The Shadow, though the mask itself is molded-looking as if inspired by modern superhero-movie masks. Back-to-back against a horde of glowing-eyed zombies, he stands with I know not yet who, rapier-carrying and with a skull-and-bones watch fob?! Shrouded in mist, a helmeted and damsel-clutching Titan looms menacingly, promising a thrilling eventual showdown, lit with the eerie green glow of a meteor flaming overhead. I am sold and I want to read this book! Job well done, cover!
The artist for that cover is Joe DeVito, enjoying a long and successful career with a focus on pulp characters. Joe is also a writer and pulp authority in his own right, with a seeming specialty in King Kong. These guys know their business and just with this package so far; this title, cover and these credentials - I am in!
So, did I like it? Boy howdy, did I! This has been tremendously entertaining and a pulp education, to boot! I learned who those figures on the cover are and also find myself reading another crossover! That fella on the cover with the skull-and-bones watch fob, that’s none other than Secret Service Operator No. 5, another name I have run across many times in my pulp reading. That looming monster in the helmet? None other than the villain Stahlmaske from the the WW1-era adventures of G-8 and His Battle Aces — and before you ask, also appearing in these pages is G-8 himself!
This is too much cool for one adventure, pals! Like The Spider, I knew of but had never read Operator 5 or G-8. Yet Will Murray’s handling of the characters make me feel as if I’ve been reading them forever. There’s a necessary element in that classic pulp style that Murray excels at, where every character gets properly introduced and explained to the reader, no prior knowledge required. I was never left feeling lost or left out.
The Spider himself spends the first half of the book in his daytime identity of Richard Wentworth, and much of that in a Robin Hood costume! It’s Halloween and Wentworth is attending a high-society costume ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a glowing green meteor crashes in Central Park! As good adventure yarns and bad luck would have it, attending that same party are two notorious pulp-era villains with schemes of their own that grow to incorporate the deadly meteor, which is transforming innocent people into mindless zombies! The unholy alliance is of WWI menace and frequent G-8 foe, Stahlmaske, and underworld manipulator and nemesis to The Spider; Count Calypsa, aka The Dictator. As these villains seek to use the terrible meteor to wreak greater havoc, Secret Service Operator 5 and Battle Ace G-8 become involved as the casualty count rises.
I absolutely adore the moment when Wentworth comes across Intelligence Services greats G-8 and Operator 5. He’s had a rough night running around Central Park, engaging villains Stahlmaske and Count Claypsa, not to mention a flaming-eyed zombie. He’s thrilled at what he sees as peers, reinforcements. Forgetting himself for a moment… aw, check this out, I love this bit.
Sticking his head out of the cockpit cabin, the goggled pilot barked, “G-8 belongs to the past. Captain George Gate is the name I use now.”
“You see?” cried Wentworth. “I was correct. Think of it! We could be the modern Musketeers!“ Christopher regarded him coldly, saying, “You have no official standing, Wentworth. A cloud of suspicion hangs over your motives.
Stung, Wentworth returned with equal coldness, “Very well. I will handle this damnable menace in my own fashion.”
Excerpt From The Spider: The Doom Legion, by Will Murray
That rebuke really ticks Wentworth off but he doesn’t dare to risk revealing his crime-busting identity, so he sucks it up and tackles the problem in his way while Operator 5 and G-8 do the dutiful government agent thing and consult with their superiors for orders. Whether or not The Spider would have been a team player is a question unanswered for now, and the story careens forward, now juggling three primary points of focus — to Murray’s credit, with ease.
The stakes are high! The city is in peril! This is excitement!
The story races at a breakneck pace, never letting up with two-fisted action (frequently those fists are filled with smoking .45 automatics!), improbable plot developments, grand schemes, grim declarations and hotly sworn oaths. The body count climbs dramatically over the course of the story as the stakes are raised, doubled, then raised again and again. All of our heroes are given ample chances to shine and the villains reveal the fathomless depths of their evil.
One particularly gripping sequence has The Spider tightrope-walking dozens of stories above Fifth Avenue. This goes awry and the hero must make a snap pistol shot to sever his cable, then catch himself on the loose end and swing the rest of the way across, before crashing through a window to gain entrance. It’s a classic comic-book moment but author Will Murray’s use of it here serves to remind the reader that these Mystery Men originated the whole idea of roof-running and web-swinging. In true pulp style, Murray is careful to warn that such a landing would have broken the neck of a lesser man, and only The Spider’s great skill and special neck brace saved him.
These offhand explanations of the mechanisms of things is another charming characteristic of classic pulp storytelling that Murray captures. We weren’t expected to blindly accept the outlandish in the original era; some care was put into crafting quasi-logical surface explanations for the truly spectacular or bizarre things we encountered. Specially treated fabrics, special chemical compositions and ingenious gadgets sub in for superpowers, with the idea of Eastern mysticism and little-defined ‘hypnotic gazes’ doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s a charming device and tremendous fun in the hands of a lively storyteller skilled at painting visual pictures.
There’s also a scene on the observation deck of the Vertex Building (I think this is the Chrysler Building?) with Operator 5 and his superior officer, Z-7. They believe they are moments from death and seem to be trying to outdo one another in stoic displays.
Choking back his emotions, the Intelligence Chief said thickly, “I imagine at this ultimate juncture that it would not be a betrayal of my oath of secrecy to reveal my first name, although my sense of duty constrains me from divulging my paternal name.”
They released one another’s hands.
“I appreciate that, sir,” returned James. “But let us not deviate from our duty, even in the face of death. Let us go out, not as men, but loyal and faithful numbers in the Intelligence Service of the United States of America….”
“I bow to your superior sentiment, Operator 5,” breathed Z-7.
Excerpt From The Spider: The Doom Legion, by Will Murray
Goddamn, I just eat that stuff up, don’t you? I yearn for simpler times that never were, and I am not alone! I have Will Murray, friends.
THE SPIDER: THE DOOM LEGION is a don’t-miss selection for your e-reader or bookshelf (available in softcover and hardcover wherever you buy books) and would make an excellent gift if you have someone in your life that’s a fan of the pulps, or just might enjoy this particular shade of amazing. You can’t go wrong with Bud’s Art Books, a great resource in general but especially for things pulp.
Will Murray has had an amazing writing career and shows no sign of slowing down! Check him out at Fantastic Fiction for greater detail about stuff he does, and follow him on Twitter and say hi!
Until next time, chums! As Dumas said, “All for one, one for all, that is our device!”
Plenty of Pulp, by Max Cage
Simultaneously posted at Here We Are Now, Entertain Us and The Wednesday Pull List