Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Shadow of the pulps

Yesterday I talked about the Shadow, as depicted in his weekly radio program (from 1937-1954). As popular as the Shadow's radio persona was, it represented only a small part of what Walter B. Gibson envisioned (although this prolific author also worked on the radio scripts).

Gibson was given the assignment in 1931 to create the lead novel in a new Street and Smith magazine based on their popular radio character. But at the time, no one knew anything about the Shadow. The character merely introduced detective stories on his radio program in a mysterious voice. Walter Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, virtually invented the character, and everything else found in the Shadow's fictional Manhattan.

Being a practicing magician, Gibson knew when -- and how much -- to reveal to the audience at any given time. In his initial appearance ("The Living Shadow"), the Shadow remains offstage for most of the time, relying on his organization of agents to do most of the work. And that trend continued throughout the first year or two of the magazine's run. Occasionally, the reader received some hints about the Shadow and his mysterious past. In "The Shadow's Shadow," the villain, Felix Zubian remarks,

"During the War, I learned of the existence of a most remarkable person... he became a secret agent within the enemy lines. His final coup came when he located and mapped out an enemy air base, escaping at the last moment in a plane of the German air squadron, flying safely back to the American lines."
It remained an untold story of the Shadow.

And in the story, "The Romanov Jewels," it's revealed that the Shadow's blood-red girasol ring was a present from Czar Nicholas II for services to the Russian monarchy.

So who was the Shadow (according to Gibson's writings)? First off, he was NOT Lamont Cranston. The Shadow's long, thin features let him impersonate the millionaire playboy with ease, but they were two different people. Cranston spent a lot of time traveling to remote areas, which is when the Shadow would take his identity. Initially, Cranston had no idea this impersonation was taking place, but in time he met the Shadow and they came to an understanding.

In "The Shadow Unmasks," Gibson summed up most of the clues he had scattered throughout the magazine's run and let the Shadow tell his own story. He reveals his identity to criminologist Slade Fallow. The Shadow is, in fact, famed aviator Kent Allard who was believed lost in the Yucatan for the past twelve years. During the First World War, Allard was an air ace and a master spy. He became known as the Dark Eagle for his preference for night flying. As Allard explained:

"The war ended. I found that aviation offered part of the life I found I needed; but it provided neither the action of battle, nor the keen work of the secret agent...

I saw such necessity in a field that others had neglected. Crime was becoming rampant in America and elsewhere. Underworlds were organized, with their own hidden battle lines. Only a lone foe could pierce that cordon; One inside, he would have to move by stealth, and strike with power and suddeness. I chose that mission."
Funded by gold provided him by the lost tribe of Xinca Indians he had discovered in the Yucatan, the Shadow built up an extensive network of operatives that did his bidding.

The Shadow's preferred weapons were "two automatics" (presumably Colt .45's -- that's what many artists drew), although he was an accomplished hand-to-hand fighter as well. He didn't "cloud men's minds," though -- the Shadow simply operated late at night in black clothes, a black cape, and large, black slouch hat. Poor lighting plus dark clothes let him blend into the background as he glided through the underworld.

But perhaps the Shadow's greatest appeal (which Gibson instinctively knew) was the air of mystery about him. The Shadow was never depicted "in civilian clothes." If he wasn't in disguise, then he was dressed in his black outfit.

We never see Kent Allard relaxing after a hard day's work. We never know where the Shadow lives -- although his sanctum was an oft-depicted location. But it's simply a single room where the Shadow goes to receive reports, issue orders, and then leaves.

And the Shadow, as any good spymaster should, is very seldom is front and center throughout the story. Most of the action is told from the point of view of his agents, which can through the reader off balance. Is that old man just a passerby, or the Shadow in disguise? What about the janitor mopping the floor at police headquarters as two detectives discuss a case? Did that dark blot in the corner of the room move, or was it just the crook's imagination? Gibson doesn't always give the same answer every time.

So who is the Shadow? Well, one has to read almost every adventure to get a truly accurate picture. And that cumulative discovery is, in my opinion, part of the fun.

Tomorrow: the rest of the story -- the Shadow's agents!

- Ralph

Day 144 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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