Saturday, March 10

The Spider #19: Slaves of the Crime Master (Apr 1935)

By Grant Stockbridge (= Norvell Page), most recently (2012) reissued as part of the series, Will Murray's Pulp Classics: A eBook, available here.

You know, of the three main 1930s pulp heroes whose adventures I've read – Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Spider – I have to say truthfully that I've decided I like the Spider best. It's not because this series is any better written than the others. I'd have to say that it's not. I'd be hard pressed to say whether I thought Lester Dent's Doc Savage or Walter Gibson's Shadow, either of which generally have better developed, better thought out overall plots than Norvell Page's Spider, would be the best written of the three. As I often proclaim, “I'm not a lit-critter” (my old drunken mentor's term for literary critics). But I find that for my own admittedly peculiar sensibilities – well, mainly for me as a life-long comic-book fan who, despite dabbling mainly in Doc Savage back during the 1970s, has only recently jumped onto the pulp bandwagon – the adventures of Richard Wentworth, the Spider, the “Master of Men” (where does that appellation come from, anyway, other than the covers of the pulps?) provide the most satisfying, comic-bookish reading experience. Perhaps more than either of the others, the Spider is pure comic-book goodness, albeit in prose.

Coincidentally, I've just been able to plug the Spider in just such a context in a Facebook comment responding to host Blake Petit's call on the 2-in-1 Showcase Fighting Fitness Fraternity group page for suggestions as he prepares a podcast episode devoted to superheroes who originated outside the medium of comics. As part of his post of Tuesday last, Petit defines a “superhero”:

[A] superhero shall be categorized as a character who fights evil and injustice AND meets at least two of the following three criteria:
1. Has superhuman powers or enhancements ("enhancements" being armor, weapons, or other doodads that allow him to simulate super powers).
2. Has a distinct costume, uniform, or permanently modified appearance (such as the Thing) by which he is identified.
3. Has a second identity by which he is known. (This second identity does NOT have to be secret. Everyone knows the Human Torch is Johnny Storm, but he's still got a second name.)

Most definitely the Spider fits that model! (By the way, the heroes of Person of Interest do not, but I still think the overall feel of that show has a lot in common with comic book heroes.) Fights evil and injustice? - check! Has a distinct costume? – check!, especially after about a year into the series when a simple silk domino mask is supplemented with makeup and a wig to create a more frightening visage that was never accurately portrayed on the pulp magazine covers. Has a second identity? – check! The only thing the Spider lacks is superhuman powers or enhancements, but in that he's no different from Batman. Furthermore, like the Caped Crusader, the Spider has a side-kick or aide of sorts – actually several: Ram Singh, Nita van Sloan, and so forth. He even has his own Ace the Bat-Hound! And finally, there's his relationship with New York City Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick. Well, that relationship is different from Batman and Jim Gordon's in that Kirk is bound by a sense of duty to bring the Spider down for the crimes he perpetrates in his violent dispensation of justice, but he bends over backwards not to admit the obvious, that his good friend and ally, the wealthy “amateur” detective Dick Wentworth, is indeed the masked vigilante.

Furthermore, the Spider's adventures are so outrageous. I have to pity poor old Norvell Page and his driving need to top himself month after month, but he came through with gusto and the results are spectacular – melting buildings, giant robots, horrific plagues, threats not just to New York City but to the United States or even the world, the Spider's confronted them all in just the dozen or so adventures I've read to date. Not that the stories all (or even mostly) make a whole lot of sense if they're examined too closely, but it's hard to see that in the middle of reading them as the reader is driven from crisis to cliffhanger to daring escape over and over again in a single novel. It makes the novels well nigh impossible to summarize – but as a reading experience it is breathtaking.

I think any comic book fan would have a ball reading these stories! Will Murray and the fine folks at are doing everyone a great service with their recent initiative to issue the Spider in new eBook editions, at very affordable prices. For a price at the low end of modern comic books ($3), you can have several hours of thrilling adventure. My main disappointment is that once again, like the Girasol Pulp Doubles reprint series that RadioArchives also carries (two adventures for $15, a new volume appearing about every quarter I think), they are bringing them out in random order rather than starting from the beginning and issuing them in sequence. Not that there is much of an overall story going on, but there is inevitably slow development in the characters and situations through the series that is lost when reading them at random. I know that more from reading about the series than reading the stories themselves. The only way to read the stories from the beginning in their proper order would be to pick up the rather expensive Pulp Replicas (also published by Girasol Collectibes and available through RadioArchives at $35 a pop). I don't have that kind of disposable income, so Will Murray's Pulp Classics are a godsend. (The three different formats for the Spider are all grouped together on RadioArchives' website.) I do trust  RadioArchives have the sense to at least keep certain essential groups of stories – “story arcs” – in the proper sequence and together, most notably the three novels from 1938 that make up the “Black Police Trilogy.” Sure I've already read these in the fine, almost scholarly, paperback edition from Age of Aces, The Spider vs. the Empire State, but there are many who have not. It portends well that for the Operator #5 series, and apparently Secret Agent X as well, they do seem to be starting from the beginning and in order with these eBook editions. I understand that for the former at least story order is quite critical. But why not give the Spider the same treatment?

One feature of this new eBook series that deserves mention is that Will Murray, mainly known as the world's foremost expert on Doc Savage but really an expert on all things pulp, supplies handy introductions for each series, telling how it came to be and, in general terms, what the reader has in store. Unfortunately, it appears he has written just one of these for each series, and the same one is repeated with each eBook in that series. (For a different, more personal – and hilarious – rumination by Murray on what I call the “outrageousness” of the Spider, see another of his articles, entitled “Stop Me Before I Read Another Spider!”)

This blog entry has, in typical fashion, rambled randomly into a long discourse on the Spider in general. What about the most recent adventure I've read? Again, it's typically hard to summarize, but here's the gist: The Spider faces the “crime master” otherwise known as the Tempter, a Pied Piper-like character whose seductive rhetoric broadcast by radio corrupts the nation's youth, basically turning them feral. It's all to further a blackmail plot involving a poison to the food supply that causes fatal infantile paralysis. The Tempter is in league with the Doctor, a horribly disfigured “faceless” monstrosity who delights in sadistic tortures applied to his minions and captives to coerce, punish, or simply to kill. Wentworth's technical mentor Professor Brownlee is captured and forced to work for them. Nita goes undercover and is captured, forced to witness the horrific death-by-torture of another female captive. (That's another characteristic of the Spider's foes – Norvell Page imagined some of the most luridly inventive, sickest villains I've ever encountered in any medium!) In the course of the story, Kirkpatrick's problematic relationship with the Spider is sorely tested when, for the sake of his unadmitted knowledge that it's his friend Dick Wentworth, the commissioner has the vigilante in his sights and hesitates, letting him escape – whereupon Wentworth deliberately and with a heavy heart creates a new hostility between the two of them. In the course of the tale we see the formation of a Spider Club for Boys – sort of a Baker Street Irregulars that I wonder if ever played a part in later stories although I don't recall any such in the random later stories I've read (admittedly not many – see what I mean by a disadvantage to random rather than sequential publication?) – and the Spider's apparent suicide after he seemingly causes first one then a second death of a mind-controlled child, all leading to a thrilling climax at Yankee Stadium itself. But of course, as usual, all is well in the end, with the pieces all reset on the board in their proper places for the next adventure to begin....

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

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