I “discovered” The Spider a few months ago when I suddenly got hot and heavy into the old pulp heroes, and pretty quickly whizzed through the first five adventures in order because they are available as free downloads through Munsey's via the Stanza eBook app. (I put “discovered” in quotes because I've always been aware of the character but knew little more than that he existed.) The Spider has the reputation of being the bloodiest and most violent of the hero pulps, and that reputation is not undeserved as far as I can tell. From the beginning, which drops you right into the first adventure when Richard Wentworth has already for some time been a vigilante crime fighter in New York City, wearing a simple black cloak, mask, and fedora, under the guise of The Spider, who leaves his crimson spider mark on the foreheads of his criminous victoms, the violence doesn't let up. It just gets more and more epic. At first he's fighting more or less simple gangsters. By the third novel it's a plot to hold the city ransom by unleashing pigeons carrying bubonic plague. In the fifth there is a conspiracy to hold the entire nation ransom or whole cities' populations will die screaming, eaten alive by some kind of acidic green gas (some do, including part of Washington DC). I think part of the draw of the series had to have been just coming back next month to see how much more outrageous the story could get. Whatever, it worked for more about a decade and almost 120 issues.
Since the 1960s pulp revival there have been a number of reprints of Spider stories in a variety of formats. Currently, since 2007 I believe, Girasol Collectibles is issuing them in two different formats. First there is the facsimile series, basically reprinting the old pulp magazines complete and in order on much better paper and at a price considerably more than the original ten cents apiece ($35); second, there's the more affordable Pulp Doubles series, throwing two adventures together for about $15 per volume, retypeset but preserving the original illustrations and magazine format (but again on much better paper so it's essentially a large trade paperback). The Pulp Doubles come out quarterly and are up to about #19; I'm not sure about the facsimiles. My main quibble with the Pulp Doubles is that they are not being published in any discernable order. (I have the same complaint about the Doc Savage and Shadow reprint series from Sanctum Books.) I've started getting The Spider Doubles at about #18 but have availed myself of a couple of sales through Radio Archives to pick up earlier numbers, such as this #2 – which reprints the original #14, Death's Crimson Juggernaut, alongside #64, Claws of the Golden Dragon.
Generally, The Spider stories follow a set formula – throw our hero against seemingly insurmountable odds against ruthless criminals willing to kill large numbers of innocents (and they do), but let The Spider go to town on them in turn, guns ablazing. Throughout he is playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with his good friend the NYPD Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick who knows on some level that Dick Wentworth is The Spider and who is sworn to bring him to justice if ever he can prove it. Wentworth is supported by his lover Nita Van Sloan, her dog Apollo, Wentworth's valet the Sikh Ram Singh, and so forth. Many times in each story some or all of these will seem to face certain death, but so far they all emerge un- (or little-) harmed. So far in my little reading there have been several instances of the criminal world putting forward their own false Spider in an attempt to bring the real Spider into disrepute. And I've gotten pretty good with the last one with predicting who the master villain will turn out to be – just look at the most unlikely candidate outside the main cast.
There was, however, some change, perceptible just in my own jump from the fifth to the fourteenth original novel. In the beginning, as mentioned above, Wentworth wore a simple mask, cloak, and hat … by “now” he's also sporting sallow makeup, a lank-haired wig, a hunched back, a prominent hooked nose, and a set of false fangs to make his visage even more frightening to the criminal world.
There's no way to properly summarize a Spider adventure - there's just too much happening on every page … here's the back cover blurb for Death's Crimson Juggernaut to give you a taste: Horror stalks the city as helpless victims are found brutally murdered … by crucifixion! Whole buildings are burned to the ground to further a mad scheme, and no crime is too terrible for the Torture Killers. Richard Wentworth joins the fray as the Spider, and finds himself blinded! Can a sightless Spider hope to win against these odds? Of course he can, but I lost track of the body count early on.
Is it great literature? Heck no, it's pulp! But like most pulp writers Norvell Page (who wrote most of The Spider stories) wrote with a driving purple prose that made it almost impossible to put down. And there's always the question – How will he top this?
* * *Besides the Girasol Collectibles site linked above, you can find out more about The Spider at Chris Kalb's site, The Spider Returns.
And if you too want to dive into the world of the pulps, Radio Archives (also linked above), generally runs a "Treasure Chest" sale every Tuesday in which you can get a pulp reprint (of their choice, usually The Shadow or Doc Savage) for 99 cents thrown in with a $35 purchase.