Strange Creature in Black
The Comic Book Years
by Todd D. Severin
Often quoted as the primary force responsible for the demise of the pulp industry, in fact, the comic book market had very little impact on pulp sales. In 1935 there were approximately 150 pulp titles being produced. By 1945, fully six years after the introduction of Superman heralding the Golden Age of comics, 130 pulp titles still filled the newsstand. Nearly 50 different magazines from the pulp glory days of the 1930's, such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, Black Mask and Love Story, were still being produced and selling well, uninterrupted and undisturbed by comic sales. In fact some comic book characters, such as MLJ's the Black Hood, even made the backwards transition from the comic book to the pulps in an effort to increase sales.
The pulp publisher's decision to produce comic books wasn't then out of financial need to bolster their dying industry, it was simply to make a profit. Dell was one of the first publishers to transition from its pulp line (Western Romances, All Western, and War Birds) to its comic line (Popular Comics, The Funnies, Walt Disney titles, Roy Rogers and Tarzan, to name a few). Dell was rewarded for this endeavor by becoming the leading publisher of comic books in the world. According to Goulart, in its peak sales years, in addition to its pulp, movie magazine and paperback sales, Dell was selling over 300,000,000 comics. A nice addition to the company's bottom line.
Other publishers also made the jump. Martin Goodman moved from his successful line of pulps (Marvel Science Stories, Complete Detective, Real Love, and Western Short Stories) and formed Timely Comics, releasing Marvel Comics in 1939 and introducing the Human Torch and the Submariner to comic book readers across the country. Aaron Wyn, who had already made a fortune in the pulp industry with titles like Ten Detective Aces, Flying Aces, and Ace Sports, added Ace Comics to his portfolio with Super Mystery, Lightning and Our Flag. Ned Pines, the publisher of the Thrilling Group of magazines which put out Phantom Detective, Thrilling Western, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Black Book Detective among others, formed Nedor/Better Comics and put out Thrilling Comics, later followed by Startling Comics and Exciting Comics. These comics introduced the Fighting Yank and the Black Terror to the comic book audience, as well as the fantastic cover artwork of Alex Schomburg, who previously had been painting pulp covers and illustrating interiors for the Thrilling Group. Finally, the very company credited as starting the comic book explosion, Detective Comics, who produced Superman and Batman, was owned by Harry Donenfeld, who took over the financially strapped Major Nicholson line of comics in 1938. Donenfeld, under various publisher names such as Culture Publications and Trojan Publishing Corporation, was the man responsible for the Spicy Line of pulps, including Spicy Detective, Spicy Adventure Stories and Spicy Mystery Stories. These pulps were infamous for their daring and risqué incorporation of sex and scantily clad women into the previously asexual pulps. A far cry from the comic book stories Donenfeld would eventually make famous.
Given the overwhelming success of their competitors, Street & Smith were late in adding comics to their line of pulps. According to Gibson, Street & Smith didn't enter the comic field sooner because, unlike their competition, they printed all their own magazines and their plant wasn't equipped to handle color. Finally, when they were faced with the mind-numbing success of their competitor's comic book ventures, they broke down and signed an agreement to send their work to a printer with a color press.
Gibson stated that the concept of a Shadow comic was actually born in 1935 when he had chanced to meet the manager of the Ledger Syndicate on a train ride from New York to Philadelphia. Gibson had previously worked for Ledger in 1921, producing a daily series of tricks and puzzles. After the crossword puzzle boom began, Gibson was called upon to produce 14 such puzzles a week. At the time of their chance meeting, Gibson gave the manager a copy of Zemba, his latest Shadow novel, and after he had read it, the manager called Gibson and said that he wanted to start a Shadow comic strip for syndicated circulation.
In 1938, this idea came to fruition as Gibson began working with Vernon Greene to create a Shadow comic strip. Greene, a veteran of Polly and her Pals and Bringing up Father added an appropriately dark atmosphere to Gibson's Shadow's scripts which were based on the Shadow of the radio, not the pulps. Thus was born onto the newspaper comic page the exploits of Lamont Cranston, the wealthy man about town and his girl friend, Margo Lane. Initially, the Shadow had no powers of invisibility but relied on fist and gun to defeat his foe. These early strips, in typical Gibson fashion, created a fantastic world of kidnappings, murder and blazing handguns. By 1940, the hero had learned how to turn invisible and the scripting began to more closely follow the radio show format, concentrating on espionage as the Shadow placed his abilities in the hands of the U.S. government and the armed forces.
The Shadow comic strips followed a mystery format as the Shadow worked his way through a web of intrigue, populated by beautiful nightclub singers, shady lawyers, crooked policemen and a litany of evil geniuses and dirty thugs. One such tale, "The Mystery of the Sealed Box" had the Shadow overcoming tremendous odds to discover the killer of his friend, Richard Wilton, who had collected and stored in a box enough evidence to expose a terrible graft ring in the city of Southbury. In the final panels, the Shadow breaks the case and nabs the killer.
Very few of the Shadow's agents made the transition to the comic strip. Like the radio show, Gibson felt that it was necessary to keep the comic plots simple and not overloaded with characters. Shrevvy, the Shadow's taxi driving chauffeur was the only agent to appear regularly in the comic strip adaptation.
The Shadow comic strip saw circulation from 1939 until 1942 when newspaper cutbacks on comic strips and Greene's induction into military duty as a field photographer killed the strip.