P.J. Farmer, Grand Master Award winner in 2000, launched a popular string of novels and essays postulating that a meteorite that landed in Wold Newton, England, in 1795 radiated a band of nearby travelers, whose mutated genes formed the basis for the birth of all the heroes and villains who populated the pages, film, and radio waves of during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Whether you are a Wold Newton follower little matters. It is a matter of documented fact that during the year 1933, publishers detonated a population bomb that eventually lit the fuse that exploded the Wold Newton notion in Farmer’s imagination.
In 1933, Street & Smith published the first issue of Doc Savage Magazine, cover dated for March. Following Doc’s appearance on the newsstands, pulp magazines featuring The Phantom Detective, The Spider, The Avenger, Thunder Jim Wade, Jim Anthony, The Whisperer, and a host of others began to swarm the racks that once had been dominated by general fiction publications like Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book, and a few others.
However, while Doc Savage’s initial appearance seemed to open the pulp hero flood gates, Doc was not the first on the scene.
In 1930, S&S sponsored a radio show that read a story from the most recent issue of the publisher’s Detective Story Magazine. The sepulchral voice of the narrator, called The Shadow, led folks to ask their newsdealers for “that Shadow magazine.” When S&S learned about this demand, the publisher immediately jumped to meet the demand. The Shadow magazine was born with the April 1931 issue.
S&S publisher Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic launched the magazine on a quarterly schedule. However, sales were so successful, they quickly moved the magazine to bimonthly, then monthly, and eventually to twice a month.
Based on such dramatic success, S&S decided to revisit its dime novel history. Its Nick Carter detective series of novels had once been wildly popular. Ralston and Nanovic decided an updated version of the character might perform well. The result: Doc Savage. Adventurer, genius inventor, brilliant surgeon, physical marvel trained from birth to battle evil — Doc’s first issue introduced his five friends (scrappy adventurers loyal to the death) and described how he gained a treasure from a lost valley in a Central American country. This trove ensured his lifelong battle against world-conquering villains would be solidly funded.
A cornucopia of heroes soon abounded. The Phantom Detective — whose description in prose never matched his depiction on the magazine covers — actually appeared one month before Doc Savage, from Thrilling (also known as Standard) publishing. While the character’s initial appearance was influenced by The Shadow, its hero’s longevity (the magazine was published until 1953 — four years after S&S ended Doc Savage’s run) was probably due to Doc Savage in many ways. Wealthy newspaper publisher in public, mysterious detective in private.
The Spider, fueled by murderous psychoses to destroy utterly the equally psychotic murderous villains intent on enslaving civilization, appeared from Popular Publications in his eponymous magazine cover dated October 1933. The Spider wore a slouch hat, fright wig and fangs; when not fighting criminals, he was wealthy and morbidly melancholic playboy Richard Wentworth. The Spider had more in common with the Shadow than with Doc Savage, although The Spider would arguably leave behind a greater body count in a single novel than the Shadow could account for in a year.
The dichotomy between The Shadow/Spider and Doc Savage provides evidence that the two ends of the heroic spectrum did not begin with Batman and Superman: the dark knight, creature of vengeance, stalking the brooding streets of Gotham compared to the bright, solar-powered sun god, Kal-el, soaring over golden Metropolis.
The Shadow operates in the darkness, plays on the fears of criminals, and moves his agents through their paces in the light of day. The Master of Darkness, the Shadow, moves in for the coup de grace with the evil mastermind at the climax of each plot. The Shadow’s origins are murky at the beginning of the series; they slowly are revealed during the years, one persona replacing another as time goes by.
On the other hand, readers of Doc Savage knew from the first chapters of issue one that he had been trained by specialists his entire life to battle evildoers. He operates in the open, is recognized by cops on the beat, carries a card signed by the commissioner of police that identifies him as a special agent in good standing, rides the running board of his souped-up coupe through the Manhattan streets. The location of his headquarters — the 86th floor of (ostensibly) the Empire State Building (never named in the series) — is known throughout the land, and he operates his mission to fight villains like a bronze god from atop Olympus. (Of course, even Doc Savage has to get away from the public eye occasionally — to a blue dome in the Arctic, named his Fortress of Solitude, a very likely candidate for influencing Superman’s eventual uberman cave.)
The level of vileness demonstrated by The Spider’s adversaries seemed greater than that of the desperadoes faced by the Shadow, which may be said to justify The Spider’s bloodthirstiness. The Shadow encountered a number of mob bosses and white collar criminals. The Spider battled mass poisoners, terrorists, masters of rebellious militias, plague geniuses and even fascist armies. When facing such masters of mass calamity, The Spider’s rationale clearly was “the end justifies the means.”
By comparison, Doc Savage never fought dirty. The Doc Savage Code might have made Lord Baden-Powell envious:
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.
Doc continually rolled out new crime-fighting gadgets, revealing fresh ways to investigate crimes, track down criminals, and subdue rogues and villains. Although the bad guys frequently met deadly ends as a result of their own actions, Doc’s war against evil frequently involved much cleaner battlefields than that of The Spider.
Thus the Shadow and Doc Savage set the two types for heroic pulp characters, dark and light. Most of the subsequent heroic characters released by S&S and other publishers displayed some of the traits of one of these two heroes, with some other idiosyncrasy introduced in an attempt to make the character stand out from the crowd. For example, the Green Lama was a master of mystic arts. The Black Bat was apparently blind. G-8 was a World War 1 spy who was a master of disguise (a skill demonstrated by both the Shadow and Doc Savage, among many other pulp heroes). Capt. Philip Strange was another WW1 aviator-spy with a gift for disguise and mysterious mental powers. Pete Rice was a cowboy described as a Doc Savage of the Wild West.
As Mike Chomko states, “Following [The Shadow Magazine’s] astounding success, the leading pulp magazine publishers launched seven new titles in 1933—The Phantom Detective, Nick Carter, Doc Savage, The Lone Eagle, G-8 and His Battle Aces, The Spider, and Pete Rice Magazine—what we now call the ‘hero pulp explosion of 1933.’ These eight titles would, by and large, serve as the foundation for over fifty more titles released over nearly two decades.”
Another example from S&S: looking to replicate its success with the Shadow and Doc Savage, the publisher launched The Avenger magazine, about a wealthy inventor/crime-fighting master of disguise with a band of loyal agents. Interesting traits from both the Shadow and Doc were borrowed to create this character — who, rather than ending up a pale imitation, turned out to be quite interesting in the hands of writer Paul Ernst.
But The Avenger didn’t arrive on the newsstands until 1939. A lot of costumed and colorfully titled competition existed already by then.
Eighty years ago, the pulp explosion ignited. You don’t have to be an octogenarian to enjoy birthday cake to commemorate the event. The pulp fandom community has been celebrating the 80th anniversary of the hero pulp explosion all this year. The Windy City show, PulpFest, blogs by various writers, fanzine articles — they’re all looking to 1933 as the source of so many heroes we’ve all come to love over the years. Feel free to crash to party. You’re bound to be welcomed.