Thursday, April 3, 2008

They aren't real--but, by golly, they should be: Part 2: The Shadow & Batman

art by George Rozen


In 1930, the major outlets for popular entertainment (pulp magazines, movies, radio) were constantly cross-pollinating one another. Ideas, genres or characters created in one medium would soon appear in one or both of the others.

The Shadow is perhaps the best example of this. He started on radio as a narrator, jumped to the pulps as a definable character, then jumped back to radio in yet another new version.

What happened was this: Street and Smith Publications (who published a zillion different pulp magazines) sponsored a radio show called Detective Story Hour. It was meant to advertise a magazine called Detective Story Magazine.

The show used a creepy narrator called “The Shadow,” voiced by James LaCurto and, later, Frank Readick. This narrator proved so popular that people were asking at the newsstands for the magazine with The Shadow in it.

The honchos at Street and Smith quickly realized they needed to actually have a magazine with the Shadow in it. So they hired writer Walter Gibson to come up with something.

The result was one of the coolest characters ever. Gibson came up with the idea of a mysterious vigilante. Cloaked in a dark cape and slouch hat and armed with a pair of .45 automatic, the Shadow hunted criminals through the mean streets of New York (with not infrequent ventures elsewhere). He was a master of disguise, sleight-of-hand and magician tricks. He was an expert marksman and hand-to-hand combatant. He could blend into any patch of shadow or darkness, becoming effectively invisible. His intelligence and deductive reasoning skills usually kept him one step ahead of the bad guys. He didn't just pop out of the shadows and shoot people--he used his brains as well as his guns.

And then there were his agents: man-about-town Harry Vincent, cab driver Moe Shrevnitz, ex-con Cliff Marsland, reporter Clyde Burke and many others. The Shadow would put them to work gathering information, protecting potential victims or tailing crooks--all doing their part in the unending battle against evil.

The Shadow Magazine ran from 1931 to 1949, with a total of 325 issues. The incredibly prolific Walter Gibson wrote 283 of these. The individual stories were almost always wonderful adventure tales, full of well-described action, death traps, escapes, hordes of evil minions and some great plot twists.

The Shadow’s opponents are always interesting and appropriately dangerous. Gangland’s Doom found the Shadow in Chicago, breaking up the mob that was responsible for the death of one of his agents. In Hands in the Dark, he matched wits with a gang of crooks who were following obscure clues to a cache of hidden loot. The Romanoff Jewels took him to the Soviet Union, battling spies and traitors. The Black Hush is one of several novels with a science fiction element: the villains are robbing banks with the help of a ray that creates pitch darkness. Zemba is set in Paris, where the Shadow and a master spy plot and counterplot against one another, leading up to what may be the single best twist ending ever. Tales such as The Voodoo Master or Cobra featured super-criminals who seemed to be as skilled and dangerous as the Shadow himself.

When the Shadow returned to radio in 1937, he was changed quite a bit to adapt him back to that medium. The radio Shadow, though, is still a pretty cool guy. But for now, we’ll remain concentrated on his pulp counterpart—one of the most influential and exciting products of the halcyon days of pulp fiction.


There is, by the way, an online documentary about the Shadow available here:


The Shadow Knows


Writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane never denied that their most famous creation—the Batman—was heavily influenced by the Shadow. But a recent reprint of the 1936 Shadow novel Partners in Peril reveals just how much of an influence the Shadow was.

Bill Finger actually lifted the plot from Partners in Peril wholesale for the first Batman story (which appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939). But, of course, the two characters are very similar. Both are wealthy men who take on scary identities in order to battle bad guys. They share the same ambience; the same type of urban setting; the same tendency to run across bizarre super-criminals.

But there are differences. The Shadow leaves a trail of dead thugs behind him wherever he goes, while Batman (after some early stories in which he did use lethal force) always took villains alive if possible, disdaining the use of firearms. The addition of Robin, the Boy Wonder, also distanced Batman from the Shadow. (It’s difficult to imagine the Shadow with a "Shadow Jr." tagging along after him.) Robin was the proto-typical young sidekick, added to the Batman mythos because the readers of comic books were on average younger than the readers of pulps.

But whatever his similarities or differences with the Shadow, the Batman soon became equally cool. Finger and other writers produced some of the best-constructed and strongest comic book scripts of that era. Kane’s unique art complemented the stories perfectly. Bizarre and visually striking villains (most notably the Joker) soon gave Batman one of the best personal Rogue’s Galleries ever.

Both the Shadow and the Batman are still around today. A series of reprints of the original Shadow pulps are currently coming out on a monthly basis. Batman's comic book run--despite some creatively weak periods--is still going strong after nearly 70 years. Both characters seem likely to stay around for some time to come.

The Shadow and Batman—They aren’t real, but by golly, they oughta be.

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