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Strange Creature in Black
The Comic Book Years
by Todd D. Severin
Grinning, Gleamingit threatened to swallow The Shadow! It was a silver skull in the middle of a road...but no one knew what that skull was to mean as a horrible messenger of destruction! The Shadow must use all his powers to find the answer to The Adventure of the Silver Skull...in brilliant color.
Shadow Comics - December 1941
During the pulp heyday of the 1930's and 40's, The Shadow's popularity was so great that he became a part of the consciousness of the nation. Perhaps, no other literary figure besides Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan was as immediately recognizable or definitively bankable. His adventures transcended all entertainment mediums, dominating the radio airwaves, the pulp newsstand and the silver screen in both feature films and serials. In 1940, as the burgeoning comic book industry began to flex its collective muscle and prove its legitimacy as a lasting entertainment form, it was only natural that the black clad foe of crime should make the transition to the four-color arena as well.
Although The Shadow is most fondly remembered as either a pulp creation or a radio personality, in reality, the very creation and success of the Shadow were so intimately connected with the future development of the comic book industry, that in many ways, the industry may not have existed without him. In fact, while Street & Smith, the giant publisher of pulp fiction and home of The Shadow, may not be widely recognized as a pioneering force in the field of comics, their innovative approach towards story-telling laid down the very foundation that allowed comic books to emerge as a viable entertainment force.
Street & Smith, founded in 1855, first burst onto the newsstand as the publisher of The New York Weekly, a small tabloid focused on short stories, romance fiction and humor. While this publication proved successful, the company's first major innovation towards what would become comic books didn't appear until the following year when they introduced Tip Top Weekly, a revamped version of the original dime novels. This magazine later featured the debut of the first American short story fiction based entirely around a continuing hero, Burt L. Standish's 'Frank Merriwell.' Running from 1896 to 1915, more than 500 Frank Merriwell adventures filled the pages of Tip Top Weekly, following the hero's exploits through the wild west where he battled outlaws and Indians; to exotic locales around the world where he was engaged in his endless search for hidden treasures; and to England where he aided Scotland Yard in breaking up international crime and smuggling operations.
The importance of Frank Merriwell on the future of comics has not received a tremendous amount of recognition by comic book historians, but Frank Merriwell, an all-American star athlete and honor student at Yale University, is the progenitor of all other athletic adventurers that followed. Merriwell predated Nick Carter, The Just Men and Zorro, all famous characters who followed his path onto the pages of the dime novels. In establishing the viability of a continuing series of stories focused on a single action hero, Street & Smith laid down the initial blueprints for what would become the format of superhero comic books.
The next major innovation introduced by Street & Smith was the Shadow himself. First appearing in 1931, The Shadow Magazine was the first pulp that featured a single character, revising the tradition of single hero stories begun with Frank Merriwell. The success of The Shadow Magazine took the pulp industry by storm and launched a sea of competitors and copycats, each rival publisher frantically producing heroes, searching for that special mix of ingredients that would make their creation a success. From this golden age of hero pulps came Street & Smith's own Doc Savage and the Avenger, as well as the many rivals such as The Spider, Wu Fang, The Black Mask, Captain Satan, The Phantom Detective, Operator 5 and the Ghost. This fantastic burst of hero-generating energy and creativity would not be seen again until the Golden Age of comics nearly a decade later.
The Shadow's profound influence over the future comic industry can not be overstated. The Shadow series, as carefully crafted by Walter Gibson, firmly established the concepts of a hero with a wealthy playboy civilian identity, a recurring evil genius, and a fiendish plotline bent on world domination. Each of these elements would later go on to become staple features of almost every comic book superhero's life. Further, the story-telling tone of the Shadow, his appearance and his mood were profoundly influential on the writers who crafted the comic stories. The Batman, one of the most successful comic creations of all time and a hero who clearly was in part responsible for the golden age boom in the comic book market, was written by Bill Finger who was clearly inspired by The Shadow. Finger has been quoted as saying, "My first script was a take-off on a Shadow story. I patterned my style of writing Batman after The Shadow."
Street & Smith's final innovation occurred in 1937 when they started Crime Busters, a pulp magazine that featured several short, fast-moving stories, each involving an individual continuing character; an anthology of heroes. This was the first magazine of its kind and established the anthology format that all comic books of the thirties and forties would follow.
Clearly then, The Shadow was intimately involved in the very birth of the comic book market, so his transition onto the funny pages seemed natural. And in 1940, he did just that. By this time, most pulp publishers were keying up their presses and entering the burgeoning comic book publishing field. Many historians have incorrectly stated that the publishers jumped onto the comic book bandwagon to save their skins as pulp sales began to fail. This simply is not true. As Ron Goulart reported in The Great History of Comic Books, "while comic books borrowed themes, characters and packaging from the pulps, they did not replace them in the hearts and minds of the habitués of the corner newsstand."
Rather than interfere with pulp sales, comic books sold well to the pulp audience, as well as to the boy's audience that was essentially ignored by the pulps. The depression also had little negative impact on the pulp industry, rather, like all forms of cheap entertainment, pulps thrived during these hard times because a dime could purchase an exciting story that could be read over and over and shared throughout the entire family. In fact, in the late 1930's, just as the comic book industry was starting to take off, and in the midst of the great Depression, the combined gross income of all the pulp magazines was about $25,000,000 annually.