Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Shadow's Agents

Yesterday I wrote about the character of the Shadow as Walter B. Gibson depicted him in the pulp magazines, and how very different it was from the radio version of the character. The genius of Gibson was how he set about telling the Shadow's story. Unlike other masked heroes of the same era, such as the Lone Ranger, or Zorro, the reader didn't find out everything there was to know about the hero at the start.

And unlike most other masked heroes, the Shadow didn't work alone -- he was at the center of an elaborate crime fighting network. For Gibson, it gave him the freedom to tell his stories in different ways. Gibson often described the action from an agent's viewpoint -- it kept the Shadow's appearance to a minimum, which helped maintain his air of mystery.

And it left the reader wanting more. Which is perhaps why the Shadow enjoyed such a long magazine run. The Shadow's magazine premiered in 1931, and was one of the first masked hero pulps. It lasted until 1949, outliving virtually all of its rivals.

And the Shadow's network was a vast one, indeed.

Burbank served as the Shadow's communications expert. Through radio and telephone he sent and received messages from the agents. Throughout the series, Burbank remained mostly a voice at the other end of the phone. His actual location was seldom specified. Even his first name remains a mystery.

Rutledge Mann was a stock broker ruined by the Crash and rescued by the Shadow. He serves as a clipping bureau for the Shadow, sending newspaper articles and other information to his boss. Mann also briefed agents on behalf of the Shadow and dispensed money to the agents as needed.

Harry Vincent was the Shadow's foremost field agent, and the very first character introduced int he series. An affable young man from the Midwest, he lands on hard times when he moves to New York. Broke and despondent, he's prevented from jumping off a bridge and committing suicide by the Shadow in the first chapter of "The Living Shadow." His rescuer offers him a choice:

"Your life, said the stranger's voice slowly, "is no longer your own. It belongs to me now.

"What good is my life, now? What will you do with it?"

"I shall improve it," replied the voice from the darkness, "I shall make it more useful. But I shall riske it, too. Perhaps I shall lose it, for I have lost lives, just as I have saved them. This is my promise: life, with enjoyment, with danger, with excitement, and -- with money. Life, above all, with honor. But if I give it, I demand obedience. Absolute obedience. You may accept my terms, or you may refuse."
Vincent accepted, of course, and did indeed lead a life of adventure.

Cliff Marsland also accepted the Shadow's offer. Marsland served time for a crime he didn't commit. Recruited by the Shadow, he circulated among the underworld, posing as a criminal. His prison time gave him "street cred" no one doubted.

Clive Burke was a crime reporter who also reported to the Shadow, and sometimes got involved along with Marsland and Vincent) in the rough-and-tumble action.

Moe Shrevnetz was the Shadow's personal cabbie. The Shadow could stash his signature slouch hat, cape and automatics in a secret panel in the cab's seat. Shrevnetz often chauffeured other agents as well.

Margo Lane originally appeared only in the radio series, but eventually found her way into the magazine. At no time was she any kind of romantic interest for the Shadow. She was just another agent, and often teamed with Harry Vincent, so the two could pose as a couple.

And there were other agents and associates as well. Detective Joe Cardona was one of the few policemen who knew the Shadow was real -- and often received help from him. Police Commissioner Ralph Weston knew he was a myth, as he often told his club member Lamont Cranston (who frequently was the Shadow in disguise). And there was Hawkeye, another member of the underworld who was an adept tracker. And Dr. Roy Tam, the Shadow's connection in Chinatown, and Inspector Delka of Scotland Yard, and much more besides.

The Shadow's world was populated by a rich and diverse cast of characters, which made it a place readers wanted to visit again and again. And that's really the genius of Walter B. Gibson. He wrote for hire, he wrote a lot, and he wrote quickly. But he also consistently wrote quality fiction that captured the imagination and lives on even today.

The Shadow knows.

- Ralph

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