Before the Bat, there was the Spider


If I asked you to think of a masked comic book hero, the alter ego of a wealthy multimillionaire, who wore a costume chosen to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, and who had a battery of gadgets he used to foil crime, who would you think of? Batman? WRONG! It’s…the SPIDER, Master of Men!

Yeah, I never heard of him either.

That’s rather interesting, actually, because he was a phenomenally popular character in pulp novels of the 1930s and later. He was in several movie serials, and published in multiple novels over the decades. Apparently he was revived for some comic book series in the 1990s and 2000s, too. Before there were superheroes with magic powers, there was a collection of mysterious detectives in the popular literature — the Shadow, the Green Hornet, Doc Savage, and of course, the Spider — who were all eventually eaten by the Bat who now dominates comic books and movies.

The only thing that seems to distinguish the Spider from the Batman is that the Spider relied on the two pistols he was always running around with, and which he used to straight-out murder his foes. I wonder if the Batman’s evolutionary success, since he was always portrayed as avoiding killing, was a product of Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code Authority, which made publishers leery of excessive violence? The gunslinger heroes seem to have faded away, to be replaced with overpowered superheroes who don’t carry guns, but can raze whole city blocks with a punch. Maybe the Spider needs a Zack Snyder movie? (No, he does not. No one deserves that.)

Here’s a video with some clips from the old Spider serials.

I’m a sucker for that old pulp fiction graphic style, but I have zero interest in watching any of the old serials or reading the pulp novels of the time, and I’m not going to mourn the absence of the Spider from modern movies. What I find interesting is that this one successful, popular franchise could so thoroughly disappear over time, and not even occupy any space in my memory. It gives me hope for the future, it does. I can look at the current glut of comic book movies and tell myself that this too shall pass.

Or that they’ll be replaced with a different glut of franchised fantasies.

Comments

  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    Before there were superheroes with magic powers, there was a collection of mysterious detectives in the popular literature — the Shadow…

    The Shadow had the ability to “cloud men’s minds” with a bunch of racist, Orientalist clap-trap.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    The late SF author Philip Jose Farmer was fascinated by Doc Savage, whose stories had an early environmental message. Doc Savage was active in both urban and jungle habitats.
    Farmer wrote several pastiches of both Tarzan and Doc Savage.
    .
    The most infamous one is “A Feast Unknown”- Farmer struck out to explore themes that were taboo in ordinary literature and had the novel published in Playboy Press.
    The double novel “Lord of the Trees/The Mad Goblin ” is a sequel that went easier on the sex, so he could have it published theough ordinary SF publishers.
    .
    The narrative universe is a conspiracy theory where The Nine clandestinely control the world. Not growing old through an immortality elixir, they have controlled the world since the paleolithic.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    “The Shadow”- a characher in the European MTV rival “Super Channel” used to spoof the pulp magazine character while choosing music videos. His show went on late nught/early morning and he was filmed so his face was always in the dark.
    (Is there any other European here who remembers “Music Box” and its successor “Super Channel” from the 1980s? The early satellite channels were not afraid to experiment)

  4. Artor says

    The Spider is new to me, but I grew up listening to the Midnight Radio Theater playing old Shadow radio shows. He kind of had a super power: the ability to cloud men’s minds so they couldn’t see him, apparently something he picked up from those mysterious Eastern mystics. They’re very inscrutable, dontcha know?

  5. consciousness razor says

    Before there were superheroes with magic powers, there was a collection of mysterious detectives in the popular literature — the Shadow, the Green Hornet, Doc Savage, and of course, the Spider — who were all eventually eaten by the Bat who now dominates comic books and movies.

    Dick Tracy is another that comes to mind. Also, since “vigilante” is usually more accurate than “detective,” you could add ones like Zorro and The Lone Ranger, maybe also Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon if we stretch the concept just a bit more….

    Tarzan, perhaps? I’m not sure how much it’s supposed to be about “no superpowers.” You could also say we’ve had superheroes for much longer anyway, if we’re counting mythological characters and such. These sorts of ideas are very flexible.

    I wonder if the Batman’s evolutionary success, since he was always portrayed as avoiding killing, was a product of Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code Authority, which made publishers leery of excessive violence?

    These things are often full of continuity issues anyway, so would that really matter?

    I don’t know…. Maybe people just liked the costume more.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Alexander Leslie Scott wrote a lot of pulpy stories about Walt Slade, Texas Ranger, published under the pseudonym Bradford Scott until his death in 1974. He has been reassuringly forgotten since. The life of the author seems much more interesting than his literary character.

  7. says

    Moriarty “sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.” The Final Problem (1893), Arthur Conan-Doyle.

  8. microraptor says

    Batman originally killed his foes just like the Spider, the Shadow, and the other such heroes. It actually took a while before he got his no killing code, and the reasoning behind it was that having the villain survive meant that they didn’t have to come up with a new villain every time.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    “The Shadow had the ability to “cloud men’s minds” with a bunch of racist, Orientalist clap-trap.”
    That was the radio Shadow, the pulp Shadow had no such powers. Apparently, the CMM stuff was invented because what the Shadow did mostly in the books, hiding in dark corners and observing his antagonists silently or breaking into buildings, again silently would have meant a whole lotta dead air on the radio, or would have entailed too much descriptive narration to make a fast paced story.
    The very earliest Shadow pulps were a lot of fun, they had an arc where characters would appear and disappear sometimes over a span of several issues. They feel more true to life (as much as such fantasy can be). Later on, the stories became pretty much all stand-alones and the baddies seemed to always be Asians, so they are pretty unpleasant to read today.
    I have a few Spider reprints, and they seem to be pretty poor ripoffs of the Shadow.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    Italy had a Futurist pulp story series in the 1920s about a detective tracking down a supervillain, but it was the villain that was the central character, spreading death and destruction for its own sake.

  11. gijoel says

    There was a super hero with Spider powers who’s gimmick was that he was constantly henpecked by his wife. I think it was called the Web, but my google fu has failed me.

  12. Akira MacKenzie says

    I confess I have a guilty love about the old pulps as well. Especially Lovecraft and Sword & Sorcery/Sword & Planet fantasy. Yes, I know about the racism and sexism, that’s why it’s a guilty love.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    The video makes a passing mention, but fails to raise the question of whether Stan Lee committed plagiarism.

  14. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 9

    That was the radio Shadow, the pulp Shadow had no such powers.

    Ahhhhhhh… My exposure to The Shadow was via the old radio show and the Alec Baldwin movie. So, I stand corrected.

  15. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 9

    That was the radio Shadow, the pulp Shadow had no such powers.

    Ahhhhhhh… My exposure to The Shadow was via the old radio show and the Alec Baldwin movie. So, I stand corrected.

  16. cgm3 says

    Popular fiction comes and goes and sometimes returns. Does anybody here recall “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy”, or Tom Swift and his plethora of inventions? (The latter just go a TV show, but, alas, it failed miserably in my eyes. I have no problem with Tom being a gay black guy, or even a privately funded mission to Saturn using a miraculous rocket fuel developed by the boy genius… but radio communication from Earth to Saturn and back without any time lag strains my credulity too far.)

  17. brightmoon says

    We used to listen to some old radio plays in the 70s but I don’t ever remember hearing the superhero /detective ones! I don’t even remember which station put on the plays

  18. vorjack says

    Ah, The Spider!
    The Spider was Batman if Bruce Wayne went off his meds. Or maybe if the writers went off theirs. Most of the early written pulp stuff was pretty down to earth, and our ideas of “pulpy” have more to do with the lurid covers and the blurbs. But not the Spider! His adventures were over-the-top with a massive body count. They were also frequently just weird.
    One of my favorite moments is from the “Cholera King,” where the villain has infected New York City’s water supply and The Spider leads 3 million people out of the city – Moses-like – and into the Catskills.

  19. unclefrogy says

    years ago I picked up a book collection of novels of “The Saint”. Knowing only “The Saint” from the TV I was shocked when in the first story in the first part he shot a “bad guy” dead from inside a rack of clothes in a store and escaped to his car, I think he left his calling card on the body. wow it was a different time makes ‘Dirty Harry” seem almost tame

  20. birgerjohansson says

    Unclefrogy @ 20
    He did not even have a SAAB!
    And he never came close to Loch Ness.

  21. wobbly says

    Eh, mainstream popular culture certainly moves in waves, but if you’re hoping that modern superheroes will eventually go the way of The Spider or other similar pulp heroes, I’d say dont hold your breath. The modern Cape-hero as defined primarily by Marvel and DC have thus far proven to have a far greater shelf life than any of the early prototypes from which they descended.

    The Spider lasted for a scant ten years. Even the Marvel heroes, the relative new kids on the block, having largely been going strong since the early sixties. Their cache in the mainstream box office may wane, but I highly doubt these characters are going anywhere, anytime soon.

  22. says

    Some of the Spider stories were reprinted in the ’70s, with edits to make them appear to take place in the modern era. Whoever did it didn’t do a very good job, as the changes were haphazard, and it was obvious the stories were written decades earlier.

    Leslie Charteris, he creator of the Saint, was an interesting man. His real name was Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, and his father was Chinese, his mother English. This caused him problems when he moved to America in the ’30s to write for Hollywood, as he was subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and for years had to renew his residency status every 6 months.

    Charteris was the sole writer for the Saint books from the character’s debut in 1928 until 1963. After that ghost writers took up the job, with Charteris retaining editorial control and story input. Vincent Price was the first Saint in a series of radio plays. Charteris even had a cameo appearance in the short lived late ’70s series The Return of the Saint. He died in 1993 at the age of 85.

  23. 1loydcooke1 says

    “Pierce R. Butler /
    The video makes a passing mention, but fails to raise the question of whether Stan Lee committed plagiarism.”
    No, he did not. Spider-Man is nothing like The Spider.

Leave a Reply