Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? (Hint: The guy dresses up in a cape and runs around at night. And it’s not Batman.)
The Shadow still knows — as do Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet and other heroes of 1930s and ’40s radio shows, pulp magazines and movie serials.
These good guys are making a comeback, though mainly in comics and feature-length movies. Next month, The Shadow receives a comics reboot courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment, which also publishes ongoing series starring Flash Gordon and Green Hornet plus a new title with pulp hero The Spider that’s due in May.
On the big screen, a masked Seth Rogen stung bad guys in last year’s The Green Hornet. And in The Lone Ranger, in production for release in 2013, Armie Hammer rides tall as the title cowboy with Johnny Depp as his sidekick Tonto. Baby Boomers grew up watching the Clayton Moore TV series in the ’50s, although the saga began as a 1933 radio show in Detroit.
Though these characters may not be as well known as today’s comic-book superheroes or the Star Wars and Harry Potter clans, they were the bee’s knees for a generation that was decades away from the Internet and iPods.
Before Batman, there was the alter ego Lamont Cranston donning the shadowy mask and hat while haunting radio waves as The Shadow, voiced by Orson Welles in the late ’30s.
And before Superman and Captain America there was Flash Gordon, an all-American space adventurer who tussled with planetary tyrant Ming the Merciless in sci-fi comic strips by Alex Raymond and serial films starring Buster Crabbe.
“The ’20s and ’30s are seen as a very romantic age, with the criminal underworld of urban America and high adventure of exotic foreign locations providing a bit of an edge,” says Garth Ennis, who is writing the new Shadow comic. “The reality, I’m sure, would have been mostly a lot more mundane and occasionally quite grim.”
He’s crafting The Shadow as a dangerous champion of law and order with a flair for the dramatic, and he is embracing one of the vigilante’s oldest and most famous traits: his habit of laughing as he consigns his enemies to their doom.
“I decided to be fairly sparing with it,” Ennis says. “If he started howling every time he threw a punch or fired a shot, it would get old fast. So I decided to preserve the laugh for moments of deep, dark, extreme humor.”
His take on The Shadow comic is a bloody affair, where the mysterious figure dispatches bad guys with violent aplomb. More than 70 years ago, though, audiences had to visualize with their imagination what was going on during the radio-show exploits.
The popularity of the old Shadow and Green Hornet radio shows and their ilk in their heyday is best compared to programs children flock to today, such as Hannah Montana and Dora the Explorer, says Martin Grams Jr., a radio-show historian and author.
Back then, kids and adults would read books, pulps and comics because they were a cheap form of entertainment, and radio was an even bigger medium because it was free.
Some adaptations tank
While movies measure success with box-office receipts, commercial sponsors would gauge ratings of radio shows based on the number of giveaway premiums offered during the commercial breaks — such as various Lone Ranger rings and badges. They were then used to persuade sponsors to stick around because of a large listener base.
It wasn’t just kids, either. Housebound and disabled people “who couldn’t go visit their local movie theater had the opportunity to enjoy action and adventure with the turn of their dial,” Grams says.
“The business of pop culture was defined during the 1930s and 1940s when movie producers snatched up the screen rights to popular radio programs and produced motion pictures, serials and film shorts based on the properties.”
Since then, movie studios, TV networks and comics publishers have attempted adaptations of those characters, with varying results.
The Lone Ranger TV series began in 1949, ran eight seasons and defined the character for many. Flash Gordon sped off to space with live-action and animated shows, and a 1980 film became a cult classic with Sam Jones clad in a white shirt bearing the word “Flash.”
But two more recent movies, The Shadow (1994) with Alec Baldwin and the 1996 Billy Zane vehicle The Phantom (based on the comic strip from the ’30s), were not exactly heroic at the box office. And Disney’s new big-budget John Carter, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp sci-fi hero, has thus far tanked.
“My theory is that modern audiences have a hard time accepting un-ironic heroism unless it’s presented just right,” says Eric Trautmann, writer of Dynamite’s Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist series. (A devotee of the era, Trautmann has a Maltese Falcon on his desk, a statue of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, a Buck Rogers blaster and a replica 1930s radio.)
He concedes that pulp is difficult to write because it requires a certain innocence. Nazis show up in his series, but when they’re the evil-doers du jour, modern audiences can’t help but think of the Holocaust, “a sort of demise of innocence for the Western world.” That makes it a lot harder to take the proceedings seriously.
‘We’re all geeks in a way’
“The obvious inclination is to keep things a little more self-referential and cartoony, tongue firmly in cheek,” Trautmann says, “and that kind of thing really works against the story, the character, and readers’ and viewers’ embracing the tale.”
Those characters of yesteryear, however, remain important in the history of pop-culture heroes, says comic-book artist Alex Ross, one of the creative spearheads of Dynamite’s pulp series.
“Seeing how a character like The Shadow would influence every other flamboyant costumed hero in history was very interesting to me,” he says. “A load of the earliest superhero fashions came from the artists swiping from Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon.”
Heroic fiction draws from a lot of the same wells. Without John Carter in 1917, Trautmann feels we probably don’t get Flash Gordon in 1934, a quintessentially American protagonist whose “unflappable ‘can do’ attitude and unshakable optimism would resonate in almost any era.” Without Flash, there’s no Luke Skywalker or Han Solo in Star Wars, and without that, we don’t get Avatar.
“Even Star Trek owes a debt to period literature —Captain Kirk as Horatio Hornblower in space,” Trautmann says. “Heroic fiction shares those archetypes and themes, so that influence is probably so ingrained now that a modern practitioner might not even be aware of what influenced the sources he or she is drawing inspiration from.”
Affection for heroic pulp specifically — as with old-school sci-fi, fantasy and mystery stories — seems to be cyclical, Trautmann says. But the resurgence of these characters is also being helped by an overall nostalgia for the early- to mid-20th century, from Boardwalk Empire to Mad Men.
“It’s been a rough decade or two,” he says. “Looking back on what seems to be a simpler, less complicated time is certainly appealing.”
Curiosity and a drive to seek knowledge are probably the main reasons people like to revisit historic pop culture, Grams says.
“We’re all geeks in a way, trying to intake all the information we can on a comic-book character or movie, then digest, then recollect to friends to show how much more we know than they do.”
The historian enjoys seeing kids introduced to heroes that were a seminal part of their grandparents’ lives. He says it’s a good bet they know tons more about The Hunger Games and Twilight than old Shadow magazine tales, and have no idea of the existence of Lone Ranger radio shows of yore.
“In my experience,” Ennis says, “these characters tend to be pretty strong to begin with: They go through periods of revival, then slump due to overindulgence, then lie dormant, then undergo the next revival. But they always come back.”
And, Grams notes, “the oldies are still the goodies.”