The Shadow

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The Shadow

For 18 years, from 1931 to 1949, The Shadow, an unrelenting defender of justice, appeared as the title character in 325 novel-length adventures in The Shadow magazine, making it the first and most important of the character or hero pulps. A prototypical figure named The Shadow had appeared on radio even earlier, on the Detective Story Hour, but the fully-evolved character is best remembered for the radio series that ran from 1937 to 1954, with episodes punctuated by such memorable phrases as "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" and "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows!"

The creation of the character named The Shadow is appropriately shrouded in mystery. Although no actual link has been established between the two characters, a seeming prototype of The Shadow appeared in the February 1929 issue of Street and Smith's Fame and Fortune. In that story, a character named Compton Moore, with glittering eyes and a mocking laugh, donned a green shroud to fight evil as The Shadow. Whether by imitation or coincidence, when pulp publishers Street and Smith sponsored Detective Story Hour, a radio dramatization of stories from their Detective Story Magazine, The Shadow was portrayed as the show's narrator, voiced by James La Curto, complete with that familiar haunting laugh.

To get a copyright on their accidental creation and meet what seemed to be a growing demand, Street and Smith quickly created a new pulp magazine, The Shadow, a Detective Magazine. John Nanovic, who would a few years later create the Doc Savage character, served as editor for the first twelve years. Journalist and amateur magician Walter Gibson was hired to turn the name and the laugh into a character. In just a few weeks, Gibson produced The Living Shadow, the first of the 325 novels that the magazine would publish over the next eighteen years. The stories were all attributed to the house name of Maxwell Grant, and Walter Gibson did not write all of them. However, he did write an astounding 282 of the novels, including the first 112 stories that firmly established the character. When the magazine went from quarterly to twice-monthly publication, Gibson simply picked up his pace and produced two complete novels a month.

In the first story The Shadow is a mysterious presence who works through Harry Vincent and his other operatives. It took a few issues before The Shadow himself was in the center of the action, but the basic look and ambiance was established early on. On the first page of the first story, The Shadow, an ominous figure in a long black coat, seems to materialize out of the thick fog, with only his hawk nose and piercing eyes visible beneath his broad-brimmed felt hat. When The Shadow does go into action, he does so with an automatic pistol spitting death from each hand.

As Walter Gibson fleshed out the mythos, The Shadow acquired scores of agents in addition to right-hand man Harry Vincent. Chief among them were cab driver Moe Shrevitz, gangster Cliff Marsland, reporter Clyde Burke, and the mysterious Burbank, who coordinates communications between The Shadow and his cadre of agents. Another operative, would-be love interest Margo Lane, originated on the radio program but was eventually added to the pulp stories. The Shadow's most interesting relationship is with Lamont Cranston, a wealthy playboy whose guise The Shadow sometimes assumed when Cranston was traveling abroad. The 1937 novel The Shadow Unmasks reveals the fact The Shadow is really World War I flying ace and former spy Kent Allard, although some later novels called even this identity into doubt. When The Shadow appeared in other media, his background was simplified—he was Lamont Cranston, though he was not so in the original pulps. The final novel in the series, The Whispering Eyes, appeared in 1949.

Within a decade after his creation The Shadow had captured the popular imagination. "As intensely exploited as Tarzan, The Shadow sold wrist watches, coloring books, disguise and fingerprint kits, sheet music, Better Little Books, comic books, and a succession of nearly worthless moving pictures," recounts Robert Sampson, author of Deadly Excitements. In 1937 The Shadow returned to radio, not just as narrator, but as the lead character, voiced for the first year by Orson Welles. The radio series portrayed The Shadow as less dark and deadly, relying more on his new-found hypnotic powers than on his twin automatics. The show was immensely popular, lasting until 1954. The 1937 feature film The Shadow Strikes was based on the radio program, and there was a film serial in 1940 that starred Victor Jory. Some of the later Shadow films were almost domestic comedies, in which the hero is beset with more trouble from his jealous wife than from the villain. The 1994 film starring Alec Baldwin returned to the dark pulp roots for inspiration, pitting The Shadow against his greatest pulp nemesis, Shiwan Khan. The opening scene of the film is even reminiscent of the first chapter of "The Living Shadow."

The Shadow had a long and varied life in comic books. Street and Smith published the first of them. Even though Walter Gibson wrote the scripts for the first six years, The Shadow appeared quite differently in the comic book version than in the pulps. Since the radio show had become more popular than the pulp magazine, Gibson was pressured to conform to the radio concept. From 1938 to 1942, Ledger Syndicate distributed a Shadow comic strip by Gibson and Vernon Greene. In the 1960s Archie Comics published a series that portrayed The Shadow as a superhero in green and blue tights. One of the most faithful comic-book adaptations was the series published by DC Comics from 1973 to 1975.

—Randy Duncan

Further Reading:

Goodstone, Tony. The Pulps: Fifty Years of American Popular Culture. New York, Bonanza Books, 1970.

Goulart, Ron. An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine. New York, Ace Books, 1973.

Murray, Will. The Duende History of the Shadow. Odyssey Press, 1980.

Sampson, Robert. Deadly Excitements: Shadows and Phantoms. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.

"What Evil Lurked?" Comics Collector. Summer, 1984, 33-42.