Top 10: Pulp Magazine Heroes by Jerry Whitworth
Before comic books, there was pulp magazines. Pulps were magazines with prose short fiction stories peppered with illustrations which was in many ways the step just before the advent of American comic books (along with comic strips, science fiction tales, and radio serials). Pulps often told stories of crime drama and exotic adventure with bold, powerful heroes and scandalous women (what back then would likely be called harlots, feminists, or femme fatales would be strong and independent women today). With heroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage inspiring comic book heroes like Superman, Batman, Sandman, and the Spirit, the pulps offered a rich transition that brought us the American superhero. Pulp heroes continue to see print today, be it from the efforts of the likes of Moonstone Books or Dynamite Entertainment, or even new heroes like Jim Beard’s Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker. Lets examine which pulp heroes stand above the rest.
Stranded after a plane crash in the Congo jungle, David Rand and his parents survive this disaster. However, his parents would meet their demise in the jungle, his mother from disease and father at the hands of the corrupt Paul de Kraft. Saved by the lion Zar, David believes himself the beast’s brother and thus takes the name Ka-Zar (brother of Zar). With a thirst for revenge, Ka-Zar and Zar hunt down de Kraft and eventually kill him for his crimes. Ka-Zar is a character in the vein of the Jungle Book‘s Mowgli or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan in that he is a wild man at home in the jungle who is a kindred spirit of the animals that reside there while having little contact with the outside world and fellow men. Despite a short span in the magazines (three issues), Ka-Zar would be serialized in Timely Comics’ line of books and would inspire Marvel Comics’ character Ka-Zar (with Zabu a nod to Zar and Sheena to Fiction House’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, who was the first female star of a comic book with her comic being one of Fiction House’s, largely a pulp magazine publisher, early forays into comic books).
9. THE SPIDER
Millionaire playboy Richard Wentworth with his fiance Nita Van Sloan and their servants staged a bloody war on crime, against mad men willing to slaughter thousands in their bids for wealth and power, with Wentworth taking on the guise of the Spider, Master of Men. Draped in a cape and adorned with a slouch hat and vampiric make-up, the Spider murdered New York’s criminal underworld with a pair of .45 pistols, leaving a red spider of the forehead of those he slew. However, what the Spider is most known for is his ability to use his voice to command men to do his bidding and capability to mimic the voices of others to create misdirection. Some of his rogues included the Fly, MUNRO, Living Pharaoh, Death Fiddler, Cholera King, and the Master and his Black Police. Created to capitalize on the success of the Shadow, Spider enjoyed his own success (including two film serial series, the latter written by L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame). In May 2012, the Spider was revived in an ongoing comic book series by Dynamite Entertainment, written by David Liss (though, Moonstone Books has published prose stories and comic books with the Spider since 2007).
8. BLACK BAT
Introduced around the same time as Batman, the Black Bat was district attorney Anthony Quinn until he was blinded and disfigured by acid. Salvation would come later when Carol Baldwin offered the eyes of her dying father, a policeman who wished to see Quinn return to his duties, only for Quinn to discover afterward he can now see in both light and darkness with equal ability. Partnered with his other four senses which became enhanced during his time blind, Quinn decided to not only return to his former job (letting others to still believe him to be blind) but as the costumed Black Bat to take down criminals who slip through the cracks. Aided by Carol and several other allies, the Black Bat battled mobsters, arsonists, thieves, and murderers, working as a sleuth and crime fighter. Published in Black Book Detective, the Black Bat would be featured in 2010 in an ongoing comic book series from Moonstone Books and in 2011 by Clockwork Comics.
7. THE PHANTOM
Along with the Shadow and Doc Savage, the Phantom is one of the earliest pulp heroes to reach print. A wealthy, international renowned sleuth, Richard Curtis Van Loan was known the world over simply as the Phantom, his secret identity known only to one other person in Clarion Newspaper publisher Frank Havens (who suggested Van Loan investigate solving crime after returning from World War I as a successful fighter pilot). A master of disguise, escape artist, and expert in forensic science, Phantom trotted around the globe in his capacity as a crime solver with a platinum badge in the shape of a domino mask to identify himself to police agencies. Aided by a small group of allies, including Havens who had a red beacon installed above the Clarion building to summon the Phantom, the masked adventurer starred in the third most pulp stories of his age, just behind Shadow and Savage, in his series Phantom Detective and was featured in Nedor’s Thrilling Comics. In 2006, the Phantom returned in Robert Reginald’s novel The Phantom’s Phantom and his pulp tales have been republished in recent years by Adventure House.
6. THE AVENGER
Published in a self-titled pulp magazine series, the Avenger is Richard Henry Benson, self-made millionaire, scientific genius, former mercenary for hire, and full-time adventurer. Despite his rather young age, he married and had a daughter until a fateful airplane ride saw them kidnapped and Benson driven mad. The shock turned his hair white and paralyzed the muscles of his face making it pliable as putty (offering the ability to alter his face’s appearance). Uncovering the location of his wife and daughter and bringing the villains involved to justice, Benson discovered his family murdered and resolved to become a champion of righteousness (albeit with a death wish) to form Justice Inc, an agency that would be a great boon to law enforcement as the criminal underworld dubbed Benson the Avenger. He would have one rule: never to take the life of a criminal, no matter how low or how vile. New adventures of the Avenger would be published recently by Moonstone Books in 2008 and in 2009 as part of DC Comics’ First Wave line.
5. DOMINO LADY
Los Angeles socialite (and college graduate) Ellen Patrick took to the identity of Domino Lady after her district attorney father was murdered. Wearing a domino mask and backless dress, Domino Lady employed her sex appeal as a potent weapon to rob from criminals, supporting her lifestyle but mostly donating to charity. Her arsenal in this manner was complimented by a .45 pistol and syringe of knockout serum. Published in Saucy Romantic Adventures, Domino Lady was a “spicy pulp,” so-called for being semi-pornographic and generally sold under the counter, and set the stage for comic book characters like Phantom Lady, Miss Masque, and Lady Satan. In 2009, the adventures of Domino Lady were continued by Moonstone Books in the form of a short-story anthology and comic book series.
4. BUCK ROGERS
An updated concept of a stranger in a strange land, Anthony Rogers was a soldier in World War I that through suspended animation awoke in the 25th century to became a champion of the abandoned remnants of America as the technologically advanced Huns ruled the ruins of the United States through their fifteen great cities. The character would prove to be a great success, evolving into Buck Rogers in stories told in Amazing Stories and featured in his own comic strip (in turn inspiring the creation of Flash Gordon). This gave birth to a media franchise across virtually every platform which maybe most fondly remembered today for a television series adaptation that ran in the late 1970s/early 1980s in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. In 2009, Buck Rogers was adapted into an ongoing comic book series by Dynamite Entertainment.
3. EL ZORRO
Don Diego de la Vega witnessed first hand the blight of his people at the hands of corrupt officials and so employed the skills, resources, and knowledge afforded him from his wealth and noble upbringing to fight for the common man as El Zorro (“the fox”). Operating from his secret lair in a hidden cave, Zorro rides his steed Toronado into battle, aided by his deaf mute servant Bernardo and Fray Felipe, wielding a whip and rapier, the latter he employs to leave a carved “Z” as his calling card. His most frequent adversary would be Captain Ramon and Zorro loved the noblewoman Lolita Pulido (who observed Zorro as a true hero and his alternate identity Diego a buffoon in a manner not unlike the relationship between Lois Lane and Superman). Zorro has been adapted to virtually every media that has existed since his introduction, going strong even today likely known best for the 1998 blockbuster The Mask of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas as the inheritor of the hero’s mantle and more recently in 2008 under the pen of Matt Wagner and in 2011 teamed with the Lone Ranger for a mini-series for Dynamite Entertainment.
2. THE SHADOW
An interesting genesis, the Shadow actually started as a mysterious, sinister narrator for serial radio adaptations for Street and Smith Publications that proved to be popular with listeners (so much so, listeners actively sought a Shadow magazine only for it to not even exist). This prompted the magazine publisher to have a character based on this voice made as a pulp character, viewed by many as the first pulp superhero. So-called Lamont Cranston (most notable of several aliases), wealthy playboy and man about town, held a dark secret. Making his fortune as a mercenary and becoming involved in many less-than-reputable enterprises around the globe, Kent Allard grew tired of his adventures, observing no challenge in his various operations, ultimately decides to remake himself by faking his death and beginning a new life. This life would be to develop a life of many identities, to be several people, in a bid to wage war on crime itself (likely the most monumental challenge to any thrill seeker), setting his base of operations in New York City. Often this meant Allard to assume the identity of Cranston (the real Cranston often traveling the world leaving his home and persona free for Allard to adopt), but more often than naught as the Shadow. Having trained in the martial arts and mental disciplines of Eastern Asia, as well as the experience as a soldier of fortune and former military intelligence and fighter pilot, Allard was uniquely qualified to become a one man force against evil sporting a pair of .45 pistols. He wore a black slouch hat, black business suit, and black cloak with a red interior, the Shadow was notorious for the way he played with his adversaries. Likely inspired from his roots on the radio as a narrator, the Shadow enjoyed taunting and scaring criminals with his voice, often leaving villains manically looking for its origin. Inspiring the creation of several characters, some notable examples of those who borrowed in part from the Shadow include the Spider, the Whisperer, Green Hornet, Batman, and Darkwing Duck. The Shadow has translated over many several media, likely most known for a 1994 film featuring him with Alec Baldwin portraying the character and, in 2012, Dynamite Entertainment began an ongoing comic book series for the Shadow.
1. DOC SAVAGE
Along with the Shadow and the Phantom, Doc Savage was one of the earliest pulp heroes (created based on the success of the Shadow in a similar fashion Batman grew out of Superman). Born Clark Savage Jr, he was prepared since birth by scientists and leading experts in the world to become the epitome of humanity under the guidance of his father. A doctorate with many disciplines in fields like science and medicine, near superhuman physical capability, an expert in the martial arts, a survivalist and sleuth, the man nicknamed Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, became a living superman. Aided by the Fabulous Five and headquartered on the 86th floor of a New York skyscraper (accessible via high-speed elevator), an early adventure funded Savage’s mission with a vast supply of Mayan gold as he tries to stomp out evil worldwide. Doc Savage has served as inspiration to many heroes especially in comic books, most notably Superman (Savage originated the so-called Fortress of Solitude concept). Savage has been featured in many different mediums, most recently as part of DC Comics’ First Wave line of books (starring Savage, Batman, and the Spirit).
Honorable Mentions: Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, G-8, Captain Future, Moon Man, Operator No. 5, and the Whisperer.