Monday, October 4, 2010

Thunder Jim Wade: Waters of Death

On the heels of the success of the Shadow and Doc Savage, publishers tried to duplicate the magic with other characters. Despite the pedigree and talents of the Shadow's scribe Walt Gibson as a magician and writer that lent much to the atmosphere and mysteriousness of the character, he proved the easiest to duplicate. A big part of that is that the character's motivations as a crime fighter are easier to understand and write about. Whether he had mysterious background and secrets such as Secret Agent "X" or they were just masked men with guns and cloaked in darkness and disguises such as Phantom Detective, the Spider, and the Black Bat, the novels when boiled down to it were those of enterprising criminals often with very basic motives of theft and robbery.

Doc, on the other hand, was known for adventures that spanned the globe, full of lost civilizations, and odd technology and devices. And, while he used disguises, his identity and profession was public, he didn't slink about the shadows except when he was being framed and hunted by the police. Then there was the bit of Doc being both a physical and mental marvel. All the super-detectives had their specialties in disguises, hypnotism, being crack shots and a little bit of scientific knowledge in the realm of forensics but Doc was an expert in all areas, inventing most of the gadgets that he used. Doc was a superman among supermen. It didn't stop companies from trying with the likes of Jim Anthony, Captain Hazard, the Skipper, and Thunder Jim Wade. The most successful of the lot was probably Street and Smith's own Avenger and Justice, Inc., who managed to embody a bit of both the Shadow and Doc.

While Lester Dent didn't create Doc Savage, it is probably due to his talent that the series succeeded and became so influential on so many comicbook superheroes that followed and so many of the pulp wannabes never really found ground. Dent was a master at creating memorable characters with broad brush strokes and individual shallow surface ticks. Characterization was never especially deep, just enough to paint a good picture of the character in the mind's eye and motivate all actions that followed. Nor was plotting very complex, but he varied the action, locales and mixed the principle actors involved to keep the story moving and hold reader interest. While there were often gadgets and locales that seemed patently impossible, he and his ghosts grounded much of the science with plausible sounding reasoning and extrapolation. Thus, the reader discovers that Doc had things we'd recognize as an answering machine, automatic doors and that Long Tom was working on perfecting something akin to the bug zapper. Likewise, many of the locales (most often seeming to be the American Southwest) were painted in a clarity and with enough detail to transmit the reader there. This clarity of people and places, the plausibility of so much the science and motivations of the characters, grounded the stories so that you bought everything fantastical that followed. It made a daunting task for those that followed, especially for writers that seemed more suited to the purple prose and overwrought histrionics of the pulps.

Thunder Jim Wade was one of those characters that were built along the lines of Doc Savage. His upbringing was just a tad more civilized than Tarzan's. He was the son of an explorer who died in Africa and raised by natives of a lost Cretan city called Minos. The exotic upbringing made him a master of hypnosis, fighting, and diverse skills such as sleight-of-hand and escape artist. Here he discovered a fantastic metal of incredible strength and lightness that made possible the construction of the Thunderbug (a black vehicle that could be converted from airplane to a tank to submarine due to retractable wings and treads). When joining the outside world, he develops a hatred of greed and crime and builds an organization for fighting it. The core of the organization though is him and his two quarreling aides, red-headed giant "Red" Argyle and slight knife throwing "Dirk" Marat (their relative descriptions remind faithful pulp readers a bit more of G-8's Bull Martin and Nippy Weston than of Doc's Ham and Monk). While Jim wasn't necessarily adverse to killing he and his pals carried guns that would fire a burst of flame meant more to scare and cause a little pain than killing or permanently disabling an opponent.

In a bizarre move, on the covers of the pulps that his stories appeared, Thunder Jim Wade was portrayed looking much like Flash Gordon. The description in the stories themselves do not suggest such an appearance.

Written by Henry Kuttner, the final Thunder Jim Wade story "Waters of Death" stands as a typical Doc story with many of the same elements and structure. A pair of explorers are trying to get out of the jungles with news of a mysterious hidden land called Palinwa and great scientific discovery (turning lead into gold) to turn over to the good governments of the world. To this end, they hope to enlist Thunder Jim Wade to help as the native Tabin Naung they are traveling with claims to be the rightful ruler of this land whose throne was taken over by the beautiful but evil Kamanthi who has set herself up as high priestess of a goddess. Things go badly as all but Naung are killed by headhunters but he meets up with Wade and his crew who travel to the isolated land to set things right. Added for good measure are dinosaurs, a battle of "magic" and the woman Kamanthi made even more exotic by being done up in green body paint and artificial arms to make her a six armed representation of the goddess Tama that the natives worship.

The story is partially under-served by the relative shortness compared to a standard Doc novel. The main characters don't really get a chance to shine, the story is about the equivalent of about the last quarter of one of Doc's standard adventures. Likewise, there is a paucity of characters so the twists in the story come as being about the only twists the story could possibly take to keep it from being even shorter.

Despite being similar to Doc Savage, Thunder Jim Wade fails to come off quite as "super" especially in the physical aspects. He's a capable fighter, but he does not seem to have the edge that you expect of many of the pulp heroes. In fact, he seems to do little better than his aides in that regard. Thus, his personal battles seem to lack in the epic quality somewhat. As a superhero, he needs just a touch more seasoning to make him and the story truly sizzle. In that respect, the shortness may hurt in that it doesn't give him and his aides real time to shine and stand out against a variety of threats and death-traps. However, the story may be served by the shortness in that they don't wear out their welcome with their relative mundaneness. You get the story completely distilled down to the basic plot and everything moves quickly before you can really notice the shortcomings. I've not read enough of Kuttner's work to discover whether he'd have been better suited if given more space to develop the story. But, this is short enough that I wouldn't mind reading the other Thunder Jim Wade stories, to see if there was more to recommend the character.

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