Shakespeare is enduring, but the most recent literary giant, the best-selling author admired by critics, has little purchasing power in the popular imagination. Today’s popular culture, with only traces of Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck, is built on literature, which the literary world once regarded as trash. Pulp Power Focuses on the work of Street & Smith in New York, a sluggish but highly successful “trash” publisher.
Author Neil McGinness has more than academic interests in the stories he tells. He’s recently been involved in the resurgence of some old pulp characters, including a collaboration with DC Comics’ Shadow Batman, but his mission isn’t to congratulate himself, but to track down the origins of familiar images and stories. McGinnis effortlessly documents the influence of 1930s-40s pulp fiction on the oeuvre of George Lucas and friends. Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones as Doc Savage in a button-front fedora.
Today, more than ever, the box office is dominated by comic book characters that originated in the 20th century. McGinnis shows just how much these seminal superheroes contributed to their pulp fiction predecessors. In many cases, it’s odd that Street & Smith’s copyright holders haven’t sued DC and Marvel for infringement.
With shadows lurking at the roots, the crime fighter made his debut in 1930 as the grotesque voice-over narrator of a weekly radio drama. In response to unexpected public demand for the character, Street & Smith began publishing shadow stories in pulp magazine format. Ultimately voiced by Orson Welles (complete with wild laughs), Shadow is the alter ego of Gotham millionaire Lamont Cranston, working in secret with the crime-ridden city’s police chief . Shadow dons a mask, a black suit and cape, and a slouchy hat hangs down his forehead. McGinness learned that the nocturnal creature was inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
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Shadow is the original Dark Knight, a night-time nobleman on a morally ambiguous quest. Superman’s origins in Street & Smith’s Doc Savage are even less than Batman’s origins in Shadows.Savage’s real name is Clark and he owns a fort of loneliness in the North Pole… oh, forgot to mention, Lamont Cranston’s girlfriend is called Margo Lane. The influence didn’t end with Batman and Superman. Stan Lee admits that “Doc Savage and his quirky team may be considered the ancestors of today’s Fantastic Four and many other superhero teams.”
The Shadow, Doc Savage, and their descendants embody the myth of the lone vigilante, whose predecessors can be found in Western corner novels and Zorro (the original masked man?). They represent Dirty Harry’s anxiety that the law won’t protect us. There is a lot to criticize here. McGuinness acknowledged controversy surrounding Doc Savage’s “prescribed approach to criminal rehabilitation through brain surgery.”
Doc and company are sometimes blamed for implicit (and sometimes explicit) white supremacy. McGuinness quotes crime novelist Walter Mosley, who called pulp “a means of transportation that takes us away from our day jobs… Popular literature ignites the imagination and exploits our reading skills, so that we alienation and poverty.”
But its history can be valuable, Pulp Power is a coffee table book whose main interest is vision. The cover of the pulp magazine paperback is reproduced in full color, bursting with horrific vibrancy as vigilante heroes shoot to rescue women in distress, waging a perpetual war against the world’s villains.