Mysterious Being of the Night
The Pulp Years
by Todd D. Severin and Keith Holt
That The Shadow succeeded at all, given this remarkable production schedule, its hasty introduction and commercially exploitive birth, is a testament to the incredible imagination of Walter B. Gibson, and the close working relationship that he established with his editor, John Nanovic and publisher Henry Ralston. With his unending creativity and complex plotlines, Gibson breathed new life into a genre-- the single hero story-- that had died and laid moribund since the demise of the dime novels at the turn of the century. Like the pulps, the dime novels were cheap, popular fiction that were made readily available to the public during the late 1800's. Also like the pulps, the dime novels contained tales of intense action and spicy adventure. Buffalo Bill was perhaps the quintessential dime novel hero, but Nick Carter and Frank Merriwell were also born from this genre.
From it's inception, The Shadow's dime novel roots were undeniably clear. Henry Ralston was himself a big fan of the single hero dime novels, and Gibson and Nanovic borrowed heavily from established heroes to create their character. It must be remembered, that Gibson and Nanovic were given the unsavory assignment of creating an entire world around nothing more than a menacing voice that appeared briefly on the radio. To do this, they referred back to the heroes that came before them.
Nick Carter, introduced in 1888, was an independently wealthy private detective that successfully solved crimes that foiled the police. Carter was a master of science and languages, an adept make-up artist, and a master athlete. He carried two guns, which he used liberally, a tool kit and a pick-lock, that he and his "aides" used to battle a multitude of evil criminal geniuses. Zorro, created in 1919, was the son of a wealthy hacienda owner, who by night donned a hat, cape and mask to become the riding avenger in black. The Just Men, first seen in 1905, formed a secret organization to battle men and organizations that were beyond the reach of the law and bring them to justice. Even The Shadow's method of borrowing other's identities, such as Lamont Cranston, had a dime novel origin as Sir George Trevor, published in 1910, was actually an American that assumed Trevor's identity when the original Trevor died.
The Shadow's place as heir to this legacy is clear. In essence, he was a direct descendent of Nick Carter and Zorro, with a touch of Trevor and the Just Men thrown in. Sort of a Zorro of the big City. A Zorro with guns. But in reality, he was so much more.
From the onset, it was apparent that Gibson was creating something that transcended it's dime novel roots, something that borrowed from its past, but brought with it a fresh and exciting glimpse of the future. Gibson combined his years of experience with magic and mystery with the fast paced action world of the pulps to create something that is far greater than the sum of it's parts.
In the very first novel, Gibson set us upon a path of unparalleled adventure,
establishing The Shadow as the head of a secret organization bent on purging
crime from the City and introducing us to someone who would become one
of The Shadow's most versatile agents, Harry Vincent. We discovered that
The Shadow was a master manipulator of men, an expert safe-cracker and
lock-picker, an adept disguise artist and a communications master, skilled
at codes and encrypted information. We were confounded by The Shadow's
true identity, learning that no one knew who The Shadow was, but that he
may have been a WWI aviator whose face was wounded in the war. The Shadow
was a nebulous figure. A haunting vision in black.
This first issue also introduced the reader to The Shadow's hidden sanctum, the soon to be familiar desk of policeman Joe Cardona, and the Jonas office on the 23rd street where secret communications were left and somehow ended up in The Shadow's hands. All of this information came to us amid the sulfur tinged air of spent automatic cartridges and the pulsing heat of The Shadow in action.
As the series unfolded, it became clear that The Shadow was more than just a make-up artist, he was actually a gifted actor, a blank slate upon which any personality could be worn at any time. When The Shadow went undercover, he did more than just wear a face, he adopted an entire personality. Became an entirely different person. This was never more apparent than in The Shadow's role as Lamont Cranston. While the radio show was later to state that The Shadow was in reality Lamont Cranston, wealthy man about town, Gibson had a different idea altogether. Cranston was actually just another personality that The Shadow adopted, another guise that he used in his war against crime.
This was all made clear in the third Shadow novel, "The Shadow Laughs." Cranston, upon returning home from a prolonged absence, learned that people had reported seeing him at home while he was gone. That night he awoke to discover himself standing at the foot of his bed. The second self was, of course, The Shadow, who explained that he adopted Cranston's persona because he knew that the real Cranston was frequently out of the country traveling, and that his business and personal connections, not to mention unimaginable wealth, were an asset to his war against crime. Cranston was understandably reluctant at first to allow The Shadow to continue the charade, but eventually succumbed and left for Europe. From that point on, the men were irreversibly bound in a web of secrets, as no one but Lamont Cranston knew about The Shadow's dual role.
The real Cranston reappeared from time to time, producing one of the more interesting underlying conflicts in The Shadow series. The entire Cranston/Shadow interplay was a wonderful Gibson creation, taking the cliched image of the wealthy playboy who became a vigilante by night, and infusing it with a devilish twist. A twist that only an accomplished magician and master of misdirection could accomplish.
Cranston was, however, just one of the many personas that The Shadow adopted. At various times The Shadow appeared as George Clarendon, a wealthy playboy and amateur criminologist; Phineas Twambley, a doddering old gentleman; Fritz, a dim-witted police janitor or Henry Arnaud, a typically Gibsonesque eccentric businessman, to name just a few. The Shadow was capable of producing whatever persona was most crucial to the case he was working. He could slip into enemy territory unseen or appear in the company of the police at just the right moment to learn a critical bit of information. The Shadow could change personas as effortlessly as we change our shoes, and this proved to be a point of never-ending fascination for the reader.
Throughout all of this, the one bit of information that Gibson carefully withheld
from the reader was the real identity of The Shadow. With "The Shadow Unmasks,"
April 1, 1937, Gibson finally answered this question by introducing the
persona of Kent Allard, a former WWI flying ace, known as the Dark Eagle,
who had been lost during the war. Allard confessed that after he was shot
down, he became a roving agent, liberating POW's from secret prison camps.
When he learned of the wave of crime sweeping over America, he did the
only thing a noble American citizen could do. He flew to South America,
obliterated his identity, adopted the role of Lamont Cranston and organized
a first-class crime fighting operation.
Thus was born The Shadow.
Or so we are led to believe.
The persona of Allard reappeared throughout The Shadow's run, but unfortunately, he became less clear with time. As The Shadow radio show began its popular run in 1937, pressure began mounting to keep The Shadow as Lamont Cranston, thereby not confusing fans of the radio show who picked up their first pulp. By 1939, Allard was reduced to a minor role, and Cranston became more closely associated with The Shadow. Finally, in 1948, Gibson committed the only major break in continuity over his extraordinary run and stated that Allard was just a persona that The Shadow used when he grew tired of being Cranston. The circle had come 360 degrees and we still didn't know where we started. The Shadow was Cranston who was Allard who was Cranston who was the Shadow.
Perhaps, not even The Shadow knew.