Before comic books, after the penny dreadfuls, were the pulps. From the beginning of the 20 century they rose in popularity and from the 1920s to the 1940s they dominated the fantastical and the imagination of youth.
Many of the famous characters of the pulp days are gone to one degree or another, although a few have name recognition that remains today. Here are 7 of the most popular whose adventures inspired the heroes, comic character and fantastical stories which came after.
7 Operator #5:
Operator #5 was a pre James Bond secret agent with wild adventures who was very popular in the 30s. However what really sets him as notable was that when writer Emile Tepperman took over in book 21, he took the possibilities of the pulps further then anyone else in the industry.
Tepperman was responsible for the 13 interconnected novels (starting with #26) that make up The Purple Invasion, a series in which the Purple Empire (an unnamed European power which is a thinly veiled Germany) conquers the United States after conquering the rest of the world. Operator #5 leads the insurgency against them. The saga is often looked upon as the War and Peace of pulps.
In a rare bit of continuity for the pulp magazines, America did not find itself fully recovered in the first novel following the end of the Purple Invasion. Instead, America was still reeling from the bloody war, and found itself vulnerable to yet other would-be conquerors. A new serial dealt with the invasion of the US by an oriental power, obviously Japan, led by the “Yellow Vulture.”
Jimmy Christopher was a secret agent, codename “Operator No. 5” for the United States Intelligence in a series of fast paced stories about America’s enemies who pledged war, death and bloody destruction in their efforts to take over America. The enemies were many, but often from countries with fictional names.
Christopher had two trademarks: a skull ring and a rapier which was kept curled inside his belt. He was aided by a number of people in the various wars: Diane Elliot, his girlfriend; Tim Donovan, who quickly grew from a youngster to a two fisted young man; Nan Christopher, his twin sister; John Christopher, his father who was a retired operative known as Q-6; Chief of Intelligence Z-7; and friend “Slips” McGuire, among many others, some of whom gave their lives for America.
G-8 was a heroic aviator and spy during WWI. He had 110 books published during the 30s and early 40s.
His stories were often outlandish, with many supernatural or science fiction elements. G-8’s true identity was never revealed. He had a girlfriend, a nurse who aided his group, and her name as well was never revealed. He had an English manservant named Battle and two wing-men, the short Nippy Weston, who flew an aircraft numbered 13, and the tall and muscular but superstitious Bull Martin, whose aircraft was numbered 7. Both of them were Americans. His adventures entailed fighting against the lethal super technology that was constantly created by the Kaiser’s mad scientists. Reoccurring villains included Herr Doktor Krueger, the Steel Mask, and Grun.
5. The Spider
The Spider: Created to capitalize on the success of The Shadow, and stated by Stan Lee to be one of his inspirations for Spider Man, The Spider was huge during the 30s and early 40s.
Similar to the character of The Shadow, the Spider was in actuality millionaire playboy Richard Wentworth (who had been a Major in World War One), living in New York and unaffected by the Great Depression. It should be noted that beginning in the 30s ALL the heros of pulps were secretly millionaires. Interesting, no? I’m sure in the depths of the Great Depression there was some wish fulfillment in there. Anyway, Wentworth fought crime by donning a black cape, slouch hat. Later came vampiric makeup or face mask and a hunchback figure with grizzled hair to terrorize the criminal underworld with extreme prejudice and his own brand of vigilante justice.
The stories often involved a bizarre menace and a criminal conspiracy and were often extremely violent, with the villains engaging in wanton slaughter of literally thousands as part of sometimes nationwide crimes.
4. The Phantom
The Phantom: While some vague name recognition still echoes down today, a crappy newspaper comic and REALLY crappy movie or two, it may come as a surprise that back in the day The Phantom was a two fisted detective bad ass and immensely popular, rocking the pulps for 20 years. First published in 1933 he was the very second pulp hero published.
The Phantom is actually the wealthy Richard Curtis Van Loan. In the first few issues of the title, The Phantom is introduced as a world-famous detective, whose true identity is only known by one man — Frank Havens, the publisher of the Clarion newspaper. Richard Curtis Van Loan is orphaned at an early age, but inherits wealth. Before WWI, he leads the life of an idle playboy, but during the war he becomes a pilot and downs many German planes.
After the war, Van Sloan has a difficult time returning to his old life. At the suggestion of his father’s friend, Havens, he sets out to solve a crime that had stumped the police. After solving it, he decides he has found his calling.
He trains himself in all facets of detection and forensics, and becomes a master of disguise and escape. He makes a name for himself as the Phantom, whom all police agencies around the world know and respect. When dealing with law enforcement officials he carries a platinum badge in the shape of a domino mask as proof of his true identity. The initial stories were less about a detective than an adventurer using disguise and lucky escapes to conclude his cases.
3. Buck Rogers
Buck Rogers: Begun in 1928, Buck Rogers invented the space hero. INVENTED him. Without Buck there is no Flash Gordon, no Star Wars… the idea would of course have come through someone else had Buck never been born, but because of his success it is he who is the inspiration for all that came afterwards.
Buck Rogers first appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928 in a story called Armageddon 2419 A.D. The character blew up and soon grew out of the pulps and into just about every other media there was: Serial films series, comics, radio (in 1932 the first science fiction radio program in the states) a TV series in the 50s and another movie and TV series in the 1970s. He isn’t listed higher simply because his stay in the pulp fiction books was very short lived. He is most known through other mediums.
The character first appeared as Anthony Rogers, the central character of Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. Born in 1898, Rogers is a veteran of the Great War (World War I) and by 1927 is working for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation investigating reports of unusual phenomena reported in abandoned coal mines near Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. On December 15, there is a cave-in while he is in one of the lower levels of a mine. Exposed to radioactive gas, Rogers falls into “a state of suspended animation, free from the ravages of catabolic processes, and without any apparent effect on physical or mental faculties.” Rogers remains in suspended animation for 492 years.
Rogers awakens in 2419. Thinking that he has been asleep for just several hours, he wanders for a few days in unfamiliar forests (what had been Pennsylvania almost five centuries before). He notices someone clad in strange clothes, who is under attack. He defends the person, Wilma Deering, killing one of the attackers and scaring off the rest. On “air patrol”, Deering was attacked by an enemy gang, the Bad Bloods, presumed to have allied themselves with the Hans.
Wilma takes Rogers to her camp, where he meets the bosses of her gang. He is invited to stay with them or leave and visit other gangs. They hope that Rogers’ experience and knowledge he gained fighting in the First World War may be useful in their struggle with the Hans who rule North America from 15 great cities they established across the continent. They ignored the Americans who were left to fend for themselves in the forests and mountains as their advanced technology prevented the need for slave labor.
2. Doc Savage
Doc Savage. Popular beyond compare in his heyday, dominating the pulps for 16 years (from 1933 to 1949)
Doc Savage’s real name was Clark Savage Jr. He was a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher, and a musician. A team of scientists assembled by his father deliberately trained his mind and body to near superhuman abilities almost from birth, giving him great strength and endurance, a photographic memory a mastery of the martial arts, and vast knowledge of the sciences. Doc is also a master of disguise and an excellent imitator of voices. “He rights wrongs and punishes evildoers.” He’s described as a mix of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive abilities, Tarzan’s outstanding physical abilities, Craig Kennedy’s scientific education, and Abraham Lincoln’s goodness. His character and world-view is displayed in his oath:
Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
His office is on the 86th floor of a New York City skyscraper, implicitly the Empire State Building, reached by Doc’s private high-speed elevator. Doc owns a fleet of cars, trucks, aircraft, and boats which he stores at a secret hangar on the Hudosn River, under the name The Hidalgo Trading Company, which is linked to his office by a pneumatic-tube system nicknamed the “flea run.” He sometimes retreats to his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic — which pre-dates Superman’s similar hideout of the same name.
1. The Shadow.
The Shadow. The Shadow dominates them all. For one thing he was the first pulp hero. Secondly, EVERYONE after was trying to piggy back on his success. Almost every character mentioned was begun to capitalize on The Shadow. Begun as the Narrator for a radio show featuring detective stories, listeners began asking for magazines featuring this mysterious voice.
“The Shadow’s real name was Kent Allard, a famed aviator who fought for the French during WWI. He became known by the alias of The Black Eagle but after the war, decides to wage war on criminals. Allard fakes his death in the South American jungles, then returns to the United States. Arriving in New York City, he adopts numerous identities to conceal his existence.
One of these identities—indeed, the best known—is Lamont Cranston, a “wealthy young man about town.” In the pulps, Cranston is a separate character; Allard frequently disguises himself as Cranston and adopts his identity (“The Shadow Laughs,” 1931). While Cranston travels the world, Allard assumes his identity in New York. Unlike the later superhero comics, the violence was much more pronounced and The Shadow held two pistols with which he would blow away his adversaries.