Mysterious Being of the Night
The Pulp Years
by Todd D. Severin and Keith Holt
The first issue of The Shadow hit the stands in April of 1931 and was quickly gobbled up by the public. It featured the title, The Shadow, A Detective Magazine, and ran the slogan, "The Shadow Knows!" across the cover. The title page carried a portrait of a man in a slouch hat, announcing that the magazine was to be published quarterly. Many thought that this was an early drawing of The Shadow, but it was actually a true-to-life sketch of Blackwell which was put on the title page as a good-luck token since Blackwell's other magazines were so successful. As promised, the issue told the story of how The Shadow rescued Harry Vincent from suicide to become his agent in the war against crime. The issue concluded with a cryptic message on the back cover posing the question "Who is The Shadow?" All in all, rushed as it was, the debut of The Shadow was quite a success.
Gibson pounded out the plots for the next three novels with Blackwell and Ralston and once again returned home to write when the next problem arose.
No one, including the editors and the publisher, knew what The Shadow looked like.
Prior to the release of the first issue, Ralston had conceived a promotional "Guess what The Shadow looks like" contest. Offering a $500 first prize, clues such as, "By the mark of the cobra on my chest," began running weekly on the radio show and later in print in Detective Story Magazine. The correct answer, proposed by a loyal Shadow fan, John G. Porter, described the Shadow as forty years old, blond haired and tattooed with a cobra across his chest. The fact that this "winning" description bears absolutely no resemblance to The Shadow that graced the pulp pages can be attributed completely to Gibson, who saw the list of clues prior to beginning his first novel and promptly ignored them. In his book, The Shadow was an intangible creature of the night, a nebulous figure who moved into and out of the shadows, a spectacular make-up/quick change artist, and therefore, was better left faceless.
By the time the contest results were published in the July 25, 1931 issue of Detective Story Magazine, Gibson had already penned the next three novels and Blackwell commissioned him to begin four more to complete another year of the quarterly publication. In none of these novels did Gibson make reference to the contest's winning response. But rather than confuse readers, the fact that no one knew what The Shadow looked like didn't retract from his popularity, and may have actually served to heighten the mystery surrounding the magazine.
The first issue of The Shadow sold out completely and orders for the second were doubled. Gibson found the time to complete his work with Houdini's notes and finish a book for Blackstone, Modern Card Tricks , before he sat down to begin work on this new assignment for Blackwell.
The second Shadow novel, "The Eyes of the Shadow," hit the stands in July, and was such a success, that Street & Smith decided to go monthly with the third issue. Gibson continued to churn out novels at the rate of one a month and by February of 1932 he had scripted his twelfth novel and found himself a full five months ahead of printing schedule. In retrospect, he soon found that he needed every minute of that five month cushion because The Shadow's success was so overwhelming that Street & Smith, noting that sales were strongest within the first two weeks of an issues release, decided to take the magazine biweekly. On March 1, 1932, Street & Smith offered Gibson a contract to deliver two novels a month for the next year, thus beginning one of the most remarkable tales of writing endurance ever recorded.
Armed with a new Smith-Corona portable typewriter, which was one of the first
to come out with a single shift, Gibson set out to write twenty-four Shadow
stories in one year. At a rate of 60,000 words per story, that meant 1,440,000
words. Working closely with his new editor, John Nanovic, he began pounding
out first drafts at the astounding rate of four pages an hour. Gibson commented
that it took him a day or two to get warmed up to a new story, but then
he soon would hit top speed, working 10 -12 hours a day, cranking out as
many as forty to fifty pages. Often times, he concluded an all-night session
by finishing the story on the train from Philadelphia to New York, before
turning the manuscript in for a reading session that afternoon. After the
reading he would confer with Nanovic and Ralston to discuss the plot for
the next novel.
His life boiled down to two week periods, each of three days travel and recreation, three days for plotting with Nanovic and eight days to write the novel.
The Shadow Magazine went biweekly with the October 1, 1932 issue, "Green Eyes." Gibson continued at his breakneck pace, sometimes finishing a novel in as little as five days, churning out 15,000 words or 60 typewritten pages a day. "By living, thinking, even dreaming the story in one continued process," he once said, " I found ideas came faster and faster."
Gibson typed so fast that rumors have it at one point he positioned four typewriters around his room, so that he could work on a fresh one while the used one cooled down. Whether or not that is true, it is a fact that often times he would type until his fingertips became bloody and sore. At one point, while he was having a new house built and was surveying the construction site, he felt the pressure of the deadline set in, pulled up a crate and typed out a story right there amidst the bustling of the construction crew. Street & Smith rewarded Gibson's efforts by running a full page ad with his picture on it, celebrating the new world's record of 1,440,000 words written in one year. By Gibson's account, however, he had already written the first four novels of the next year and was finishing his fifth the very day of the one year anniversary, thereby moving the record to 1,740,000 words in one year.
Gibson continued at this pace on various projects for several years. The Shadow was published biweekly from October 1, 1932 until March 1, 1943, then reverted back to a monthly format. In all, three hundred and twenty-five issues, plus three annuals were printed. Of these, 282 were scripted by Gibson, 27 by Theodore Tinsley, 15 by Bruce Elliot, and one by Lester Dent (later revised by Gibson), all under the name of Maxwell Grant.