The Shadow Knew: Two Pulp-Era Avengers Set the Template for Superheroes Ever Since

A new book looks at the artistry—and marketing—of The Shadow and Doc Savage.


“Walter Gibson believed in hard work,” notes Neil McGinness in his new book, Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Art of the Street & Smith Universe. Indeed, writing under the pen name Maxwell Grant, Gibson cranked out 300 Shadow novels for pulp magazines in just 18 years; in one 10-month stretch, during the 1930s, he banged out 1,440,000 words on his trusty Smith Corona—a feat that resulted in life-size advertising placards of the pulp wordsmith with the tool of his trade being displayed in shop windows all over New York City. McGinness writes that Gibson’s process was “similar to a powerful train with his authorial hand on the throttle. Once he had constructed a background, an outline, and a chapter synopsis, his train could leave the station as he then focused on ‘watching the signals flash in sight, so you could stay on the track until the run was finished.’”

The mysterious Shadow stalked the streets of Depression-era Gotham, often with a blazing .45 automatic in each hand, the better to cut a righteous swath through the mobsters, blackmailers, foreign spies, extortionists, kidnappers, and miscreants of all stripes who plagued the teeming metropolis. As McGinness points out in this oversize, rapturously illustrated tome, The Shadow and Doc Savage—the other pulp-magazine icon featured in the hundreds of two-fisted tableaux enlivening practically every spread—both worked with teams of versatile operatives, skilled in everything from chemistry and physics to martial arts and stunt driving, in order to foil the nefarious schemes of grandiose gangsters at home and abroad.


If The Shadow’s wealthy man-about-town alter ego, Lamont Cranston, set a template for the playboy facade Bruce Wayne conjured to cloak his Batman exploits, Doc Savage and his band of brawling sidekicks foreshadowed a who’s who of later comics superstars.


The Shadow was a multimedia star of pulps, comics, radio (22-year-old stage wunderkind Orson Welles voiced the character—“The Shadow knows”—for $85 a week, in 1937), and the silver screen. A marketing juggernaut, Shadow sponsors included a salt company, an insulation purveyor, and, prominently, the Blue Coal Company, whose gimmick was just that—adding blue dye to separate their product from the standard fare of coal-black anthracite. As one promotional Shadow calendar boasted, “Try a ton of ‘Blue Coal’—We’ll give you the fastest, cleanest delivery in town.”

The Street & Smith publishing company commissioned cover paintings and interior line art by many stalwarts of the genre, including George Rozen, Graves Gladney, and Everett Raymond Kinstler. Kinstler started in the field at age 16, and went on to paint portraits of presidents, judges, and movers and shakers across the entertainment spectrum. On four-color covers and in black-and-white illustrations, The Shadow moves through a noir urban grid: looming behind the Empire State Building to surveil a gang war; propping up a manhole cover as a bulletproof shield; walloping crooks with a sledgehammer; swinging from gargoyles and jousting with skeletons, ghosts, and other manifestations of the uncanny.

If The Shadow’s wealthy man-about-town alter ego, Lamont Cranston, set a template for the playboy facade Bruce Wayne conjured to cloak his Batman exploits, Doc Savage and his band of brawling sidekicks foreshadowed a who’s who of later comics superstars. Surveying Savage’s tough-as-nails team of scientific, engineering, and legal experts, which first appeared in 1933, Marvel Comics mastermind Stan Lee—not one known for always giving due credit—observes in Pulp Power, “Doc Savage and his oddly assorted team might be considered the progenitors of today’s Fantastic Four and many other teams of superheroes.” Duane “The Rock” Johnson also weighs in on Doc: “Comic-book fans around the world know that Doc Savage is the inspiration for Superman. First name Clark, called ‘Man of Bronze,’ retreats to his ‘Fortress of Solitude’ in the Arctic.” An obvious fan, Johnson then focuses on the nerd appeal inherent to the genre: “Doc Savage has zero social graces … so every interaction he has with someone is uncomfortable and amazingly hilarious.” Add in that Savage was bequeathed a gold mine from his murdered father and has his headquarters on the 86th floor of an NYC skyscraper that looks a lot like the Empire State Building, and parallels to orphaned-by-murder Bruce Wayne’s inherited fortune and palatial digs are also inescapable.

Street & Smith published Doc Savage from 1933 to 1949, with Lester Dent (under the house name Kenneth Robeson) writing 161 of the novels in that 16-year span. Among other death-defying feats, cover artists envisioned Savage dropping by parachute with a valiant dame in his arms, on shipboard slugging dagger-wielding pirates, and going barehanded against a polar bear (though in George Rozen’s pencil rough, reproduced on the page opposite the printed 1949 cover, Doc is unchivalrously toting a rifle).

Dent once outlined the secret to his storytelling success:

First 1500 Words:
1—First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble.… 3—Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action…. SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?

Second 1500 Words:
1—Shovel more grief onto the hero…. 3—Another physical conflict. 4—A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words. NOW: Does the second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck?

The advice continues to cover thousands more words, until we arrive at:

The snapper, the punch line to end it.
HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happened logically? Is the punchline enough to leave the reader with that WARM FELLING? Did God kick the villain? Or the hero?

The Doc Savage pulps folded a few years after World War II ended, but the stories would get a second life in paperback form in the 1960s and ’70s, due in no small part to artist James Bama creating a look that meshed perfectly with the lava-lamp aesthetics of the era. In Merchants of Disaster, Bama envisioned Doc’s bronze skin fading into midnight-blue shadows cut by an azure lightning bolt, as if the hyperrealist painting were actually a solarized photograph. Bama’s dual-tone palettes—red and black for Devil on the Moon, orange-tinted ochre and sumptuous umber for The Majii—beamed from paperback spinner racks, and sales rose through the millions. Around this same time, noted comic book artist Jim Steranko did some covers for paperbacks reprinting adventures of The Shadow. “My storytelling sensibility was formed by the greatest directors: Orson Welles, Hitchcock, John Ford,” Steranko relates in Pulp Power. “On each page, I could create a million-dollar set.”

Therein resides the charm of these rambunctious adventures, which had originally been printed on the cheapest of wood-pulp paper: The narrative possibilities were—and remain—limitless.   ❖

Tonight, Wednesday, September 7, the Society of Illustrators will feature a virtual event with Neil McGinness. Tomorrow, Thursday, September 8, McGinness will be joined by comics maestro Frank Miller and former DC Comics publisher Dan DiDio for an in-person discussion.



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