With Doctor Strange, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and probably a few dozen other comic-based movies coming out, I’d like to remind everyone of a few less-well-known characters from the superhero genre. It’s easy to forget just how old some of the characters from the new movies are. Dr. Strange first debuted in 1963. Batman hails from 1939. Wonder Woman comes to us from 1941. Thor, the comic character, is from 1962. Thor, the God of Thunder, first put hammer to skull over a thousand years ago, but we’re less interested in his exploits even though it could be reasonably argued he and the rest of his pantheon are some seriously old-school superheroes.
But if you step back in time a bit further, or just dig around a bit in the 1930s and 1940s, there are some other heroes that prototyped the current flock of tights-wearing adventurers. Doc Savage first popped up in 1933. The Phantom in 1936. The Spirit first saved his city in 1940. And The Shadow fought against the sinister Shiwan Khan as far back as 1930.
The 1930s and 1940s were a golden age of smashing criminals. It was a simpler time, and the characters had less up their sleeves in terms of superpowers, but they made their mark on the underworld nonetheless. And, for the most part, they did all that smashing without the benefit of super powers. It’s also interesting to note that all of these characters have had movies that basically flopped and at least one of them, Doc Savage, may have a new movie of his own at some point in the future.
So, without further ado, let’s take a quick look at some of the forgotten heroes of the golden age.
Of the four of the heroes, arguably the best known is The Shadow. He’s been around in one incarnation or another for nearly a hundred years now. He’s also the only character in the list that has what could be considered a super power: the ability to cloud men’s minds through his mastery of hypnosis. The character of The Shadow started out as a narrator for a radio show (Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?). It was Walter Gibson who transformed him from a simple narrative device into the cultural phenomenon he is today.
Real Name: Depends. In the pulps his real name was Kent Allard. For the radio dramas and the movie with Alec Baldwin, his name was Lamont Cranston. The Allard/Cranston name change probably stems from the fact that, in the pulps, Allard would sometimes impersonate Lamont Cranston when the latter was jet-setting around the world. To be fair, it got a bit on the confusing side.
Super powers: Ability to cloud men’s minds. Master hypnotist. Intelligent.
To read the early Shadow novels is to take a step back to a time when there were no flying superheroes, the criminals were mostly mob guys, and Asia was a mystical place full of magic (kind of like it is now). The Shadow is considered the prototype for many other modern heroes including the venerable Batman. Of the group, The Shadow comes the closest to being a classical anti-hero; he has little compunction about threatening Lamont Cranston to keep his big yap shut, shooting his enemies, or breaking rules to do what he feels needs to be done.
Fun fact: The early Shadow pulps were written by Walter Gibson. To handle the demand for his stories, he wrote one book a month for years, often writing up to 10,000 words a day on a manual typewriter.
Next on the hit parade is the first character to come complete with what would be considered a standard superhero costume – tights:
Real Name: Kit Walker.
Superpower: Strength, intelligence, looks good in tights. Rich.
The current Phantom is the 21st in a line of Phantoms stretching all the way back to 1536 when the first Phantom dedicated his life to fighting crime. Due to the ongoing tradition of one Phantom handing the title and tights off to the next, the Phantom has developed a lore of immortality. He traditionally wears two rings, one a skull ring that he uses to mark his enemies and the other consists of four sabers that he uses to mark his friends.
The Phantom, which was made into a semi-okay movie starring Billy Zane back in the 90s, started his life in newspaper comic strips drawn by Lee Falk. Over the sixty three years that Falk drew the character, The Phantom fought crime all over the world. He’s unique for his time in that he was depicted in purple tights and had a family.
Also known as “The ghost who walks”, “The man who cannot die”, and “The guardian of the Eastern Dark”, The Phantom lived in the Skull Cave like all the Phantoms that had come before him. Although most of the Phantoms since the 1530 have been men, the when the 17th Phantom was laid up, his twin sister donned the costume and took out a band of pirates.
Fun fact: The Phantom is considered a transitional hero for combining the traditional elements of the pulp heroes of his day as well as having characteristics of more modern characters (like tights).
Next up is a lesser know character who might have faded completely into obscurity were it not for an ill-conceived movie in 2008.
Real Name: Denny Colt
Powers and Abilities: None.
Denny Colt, in the comic strips, faked his death so he could fight crime. Interestingly, the name Denny Colt is only mentioned very early on in the narrative. After that initial point, he’s never really mentioned again. Denny Colt became The Spirit and allowed his old identity to die off Now based under the tombstone of his fake grave, he strikes at the heart of corruption and injustice.
Much like The Shadow, The Spirit’s costume consists of a suit, tie, and a basic way of covering his face. Unlike The Shadow, The Spirit is often depicted in a rumpled suit and is considerably less sure of himself than The Shadow. He has a thing for beautiful women, but is often confused and tongue tied by their presence. Created by Will Eisner as a way to capitalize on the burgeoning pulp superhero trend, The Spirit is a tough as nails character who relies on his wits and skills to fight bad guys. He reflected Eisner’s own experiences growing up in New York.
Fun Fact: Eisner considered the character of The Spirit to be incidental. He was more interested in telling the stories of New York in the 1940s and, in some of the stories, the character of The Spirit only briefly appears. The look and feel of the comic went on to contribute to the noir films of the 1940s.
Last, and certainly not least, comes one of the greats
Doc, like The Shadow, is still a fairly well-known character, even if he doesn’t have the following of any of the modern superheroes. He was created by Henry Ralston, John Nanovic, and Lester Dent to capitalize on the success of The Shadow.
Real name: Clark Savage Jr.
Powers and abilities: Rich, Extremely smart, extremely strong. Has a team that is almost, but not quite, as smart and strong as he is.
At the time they were written, the Doc Savage stories featured gadgets that seemed out of this world. He had a plane that could go nearly 200 mph. He had a way of communicating without wires. There were even hints at early forms of radar. By today’s standards, his plane would be pathetically slow and everyone has a way of communicating without wires that we keep in our pockets and play games on. But Doc’s world was the America between World War I and World War II and, at that time, those gadgets were mind-blowing.
Like the other pulp adventurers, Doc spent a lot of time in exotic locations fighting evil in all its forms. Unlike the others, Doc had a code he followed to the letter, something which would be replicated in later superheroes to some degree or another.
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.
Fun fact: Stan Lee has called Doc Savage the forerunner to the first modern superheroes. There are also hints of a new Doc Savage movie in the works.
All these characters have something very interesting in common. Aside from the fact that were are rich and smart, they were also all human. There were no powered suits or laser eyes or hammers forged by the gods. These were just people who pushed themselves and then decided to take on crime and corruption wherever they found it. It could be argued that their stories, much like modern comic book heroes, were a form of escapism from the brutalities of the first world war or the desire to mold the world into something where regular people could affect a change in the world around them.
At any rate, if you can find their stories, they’re definitely worth a read. I found a couple of the original Shadow novels at a library sale and have come across a few of the original Doc Savage books here and there. All the characters have somewhat modern comics available as well.
Do you have any favorite pulp heroes that time has forgotten.