Nah, i’m not ready to move on from pulp icons quite yet. One of the most famous and popular characters of the pulp era who is now fading into complete obscurity is The Shadow.
The Shadow was a sensation during the 1930s and into the 40s and was, unarguably, the precursor and inspiration for Batman (Bob Kane and Bill Finger have said so quite clearly.) Dressed in black, including a black suit and cape, dark, violent, mercilessly unsympathetic to criminals and operating mostly by night (sound like anybody you know?) and usually depicted two fisting two .45 revolvers, he was featuring in over 300 pulp books the vast majority of which was written by one man, Walter Gibson. Gibson wrote a novel length story twice a month for almost 20 years.
And of course there is the famous radio drama. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows….. hahahahahAHAHAHAHA”
In 1931 the publishers of Detective Story Magazine decided to produce a radio drama series called Detective Story Hour, featuring their print characters in order to boost declining sales. It was decided there should a mysterious and sinister sounding narrator named… you know, something like…. The Inspector…. no…. The Sleuth! …..Noooo…. not mysterious enough… Oh! The Shadow! Yeah….
However, instead of boosting sales of the magazine, a flood of requests poured in for adventures of this awesome Shadow guy. So, not being idiots, the publishers hired Walter Gibson to start churning out Shadow yarns, which he did and subsequently rocketed the character to super star status.
The Shadow was a badass. He went after his criminal prey mercilessly, making sure to drive them to the point of utter terror before finally gunning them down. He had a string of secret identities (of which wealthy playboy Lamont Cranston was only one, and NOT his actual alter ego) and gradually built up an astonishing rogues gallery of fiendish villains, secret identities and various subtle “super powers” all just before the age of superheroes.
The Shadow could become any personality he wished to be and sell it flawlessly. He could manipulate minds, seeming to appear a few feet away from where he was actually standing and then laughing maniacally at some poor bastard while they shot at what they thought was him. He had a network of colorful agents spanning the globe. Over the course of over Gibson’s 282 book run he created an extensive mythos that far outpaced Batman until probably the 1970s version of The Dark Knight and beyond.
Gibson was a story producing machine. For the very first book, the journalist had no idea how to set the book up, how long to make the chapters, stuff like that, so he pulled a book by Horatio Alger off the shelf and used it as an exact template, the template all books from then on would also follow. 6 chapters in he paused to make sure was doing all right and went in to show his new bosses. They were pleased, but since they had no idea if this new book would sell at all, they had decided to go with an unused cover they had sitting around, featured a stereotypical sinister Oriental villain. Gibson had no such character anywhere in his plot, but only half way through, he easily went back home and threw one in while he wrote the second half.
Gibson wrote a 60,000 word novel EVERY TWO WEEKS FOR OVER 10 YEARS. Even Philip K Dick who would write a book at a time in one massive amphetamine sitting never came close He made the Shadow into a mega pulp star and did it with a prolificness nearly unimaginable.
Introduced in 1931, in 1937 The Shadow took another great leap in fame when The Shadow radio drama premiered. It to was a smash hit and odds are, if you know actually know the character you know the radio show.
The radio show obviously watered down every aspect of the character. The Shadow had a single “power”, he turned invisible, a female sidekick. Margo Lane, and a formula most episodes followed, much like every other made for kid drama of its day
I first discovered The Shadow when i found a book in my Junior High School library that was nothing but Shadow radio scripts. I grabbed it, took it home immediately, and would act out the scripts into a cheap tape recorder, complete with items for sound effects and music for the beginning, commercial breaks and ends. I would change rooms according to what fit the necessary “sound space”. I had a blast.
Finally, at some point later i started hearing the actual show and from there formed warm relationship with many old radio dramas. It’s a lost art, really, which could be something really special and which as far as i know, only BBC radio has really kept alive and going.
There were movies, of course, almost all of which during the character’s 1930s and 40’s heyday (and a 1994 version). But some things make it and some don’t. Pulp gave way to comics and television and unlike say Tarzan or Conan, The Shadow simply didn’t make the transition.
In 1946 Gibson, whose unmatched productivity and creativity made the character, was in a contract dispute over ownership rights when he got a new editor, Babette Rosemund, who disliked pulps altogether. She fired him and got some other shmuck to take over writing the books. However, she dictated they should be like the simplistic radio drama and so out went 15 years of built mythos in favor of an idiotic formula similar to Dragnet. The books plummeted. Rosemund was eventually fired and the new editor went pleading back to Gibson, but it was too late. The character had lost credibility and later attempts never succeeded. One of the great pulp dynasties was over.
For those of you who might like to listen to one of the radio dramas for old time’s sake, there’s an episode here.