“Walter Gibson believed in hard work,” notes Neil McGinness in his new book, Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street & Smith Universe. Indeed, writing under the pen name Maxwell Grant, Gibson produced 300 Shadow novels for pulp magazines in just 18 years; in a span of 10 months, during the 1930s, he minted 1,440,000 words on his trusty Smith Corona – a feat that resulted in life-size advertising signs from the pulp word maker with the tool of his craft displayed in store windows all over New York. McGinness writes that Gibson’s process was “like riding a mighty train with his author’s hand on the accelerator. Once he had built a background, outline and chapter synopsis, his train could leave the station as he then focused on “watching the signals flash into view, so you could stay on the track until the end of the race”.
The mysterious Shadow roamed the streets of Depression-era Gotham, often with a blazing .45 automatic in each hand, the better to fight his way through gangsters, blackmailers, foreign spies, extortionists, captors and disbelievers of all persuasions who tormented. the teeming metropolis. As McGinness points out in this oversized, rapturously illustrated tome, The Shadow and Doc Savage — the other pulp magazine icon featured in the hundreds of two-fisted boards animating virtually every broadcast — both worked with teams of agents versatile, skilled in everything from chemistry and physics to martial arts and stunts, to foil the nefarious plans of grandiose gangsters at home and abroad.
If The Shadow’s wealthy alter ego Lamont Cranston set a pattern for the playboy facade that Bruce Wayne conjured up to mask his Batman exploits, Doc Savage and his band of brawling sidekicks foreshadowed a who’s who of superstars in the comic later.
The Shadow was a multimedia pasta, comic book, radio star (22-year-old stage prodigy Orson Welles voiced the character – “The Shadow Knows” – for $85 a week, in 1937) and the big screen. A marketing juggernaut, Shadow sponsors included a salt company, an insulation supplier and, most prominently, the Blue Coal Company, whose gimmick was just that – adding blue dye to separate their product from the standard black anthracite fare of coal. Like a promotional Shadow calendar bragged, “Try a ton of ‘Blue Coal’ – We’ll give you the fastest, cleanest delivery in town.”
Publishing house Street & Smith has commissioned cover paintings and interior line art from many stalwarts of the genre, including George Rosen, Graves Gladneyand EverettRaymond Kinstler. Kinstler started in the business when he was 16 and went on to paint portraits of presidents, judges and influencers across the entertainment spectrum. On four-color covers and in black-and-white illustrations, The Shadow moves through a black urban grid: looms behind the Empire State Building to survey a gang war; supporting a manhole cover as a bulletproof shield; hitting crooks with a sledgehammer; swinging from gargoyles and jousting with skeletons, ghosts and other manifestations of the strange.
If The Shadow’s wealthy alter ego Lamont Cranston set a pattern for the playboy facade that Bruce Wayne conjured up to mask his Batman exploits, Doc Savage and his band of brawling sidekicks foreshadowed a who’s who of superstars in the comic later. Examining Savage’s team of scientific, technical and legal experts, who first appeared in 1933, Marvel Comics mastermind Stan Lee, who is not known to always give his due credit , observe in batter power, “Doc Savage and his oddly assorted team could be considered the ancestors of today’s Fantastic Four and many other superhero teams.” Duane “The Rock” Johnson also chimes in on Doc: “Comic book fans everywhere know that Doc Savage is Superman’s inspiration. loneliness” in the Arctic. An obvious fan, Johnson then focuses on the genre’s inherent nerdy appeal: “Doc Savage has no social grace… so every interaction he has with someone is uncomfortable and incredibly hilarious.” Add to that that Savage bequeathed a gold mine from his murdered father and is headquartered on the 86th floor of a New York City skyscraper that looks a lot like the Empire State Building, and parallels to the fortune inherited from Bruce Wayne orphaned by murder and to the palatial excavations are also essential.
Street & Smith published Doc Savage from 1933 to 1949, with Lester Dent (under the house name Kenneth Robeson) writing 161 of the novels during that 16-year period. Among other death-defying feats, cover artists imagined Savage parachuting with a gallant lady in his arms, aboard a ship battering dagger-wielding pirates, and going bare-knuckle against a polar bear ( although in the pencil of George Rozen, reproduced on the opposite page the printed cover of 1949, Doc carries a rifle without chivalry).
Dent once exposed the secret to his storytelling success:
first 1500 words:
1—Front line, or as close as possible, introduce the hero and crush him with a handful of problems.… 3—Introduce ALL other characters ASAP. Take them into action…. SO FAR: Is there any SUSPENSION? Is there a THREAT to the hero? Does everything happen logically?
Second 1500 words:
1—Send more grief to the hero…. 3—Another physical conflict. 4—A surprising twist to complete the 1500 words. NOW: Does Part 2 have SUSPENSE? Is the THREAT growing like a dark cloud? Does the hero take it by the neck?
The advice continues to cover thousands more words, until we get to:
The snapper, the punch line to end it.
A: Did the SUSPENSE hold until the last line? Did the MENACE hold out until the end? Has everything been explained? Everything happened logically? Is the punchline enough to leave the reader with this WARM FELLING? Did God kick the wicked? Or the hero?
The Doc Savage pasta folded a few years after the end of World War II, but the stories would get a second life in paperback form in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks in large part to artist James Bama creating a look that fit perfectly with the aesthetics of the lava lamp of the time. In Merchants of Disaster, Bama imagined Doc’s bronze skin melting into midnight blue shadows cut by azure lightning, as if the hyperrealistic painting was actually a solarized photograph. Bama’s two-tone palettes – red and black for devil on the moonorange ocher and sumptuous umber for The Majii– radiated from pocket spinner racks, and sales have increased through the millions. Around the same time, famed comic book artist Jim Steranko made covers for paperback books reprinting the adventures of The Shadow. “My sensitivity to storytelling was formed by the greatest directors: Orson Welles, Hitchcock, John Ford”, says Steranko in batter power. “On every page, I could create a million dollar set.”
Therein lies the charm of these exuberant adventures, which were originally printed on the cheapest of woodpulp papers: the narrative possibilities were – and remain – limitless. ❖
Tonight, Wednesday, September 7, the Society of Illustrators will feature a virtual event with Neil McGinness. Tomorrow, Thursday, September 8, McGinness will be joined by comic book maestro Frank Miller and former DC Comics editor Dan DiDio for an in-person discussion.
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