Wednesday, December 15, 2010
The Mysterious Wu Fang (and Robert J. Hogan, too)
I finished reading two Wu Fang novels by Robert Hogan and have started an issue of The Secret Six. And, with the arrival of my new laptop, had hoped to bang out a review of the novels. Usually I like to start with a little background on the character and writer. Which was where I hit a snag.
Maybe it's some ironic twist of fate, that the one author of the major hero pulps that wrote and was published under his own name is the one that the least has been published and written about. At the time of this writing, I'm newly married and most of my research books are at my old house a couple of hours away. But, I couldn't recall a single personal detail concerning Robert Hogan or behind the scenes of his stories. Yet, I can tell you that the creator of the Green Lama did magic tricks. Looking online for biographical data on Hogan was fruitless. The name is too common by itself, and coupled with his works bring up a lot of information on his books and characters, but nothing on him or his writing. Maybe it's the fact the other writers did slave behind house names that fueled interest in doing scholarly research in ferreting out the details behind the principle writers and their ghosts and replacements. As we are going through a revival of interest in the pulps and the characters, with several comic book companies trying new adaptations of them and more pulp reprints being offered than before, there is still precious little being written about G-8 and his creator.
As shown with The Octopus, Harry Steeger, the publisher of Popular Publications seemed convinced that a villain centered pulp was viable. Looking at the success of Fu Manchu, an Asian menace was opted for, Wu Fang. Robert Hogan was tapped to write it. It lasted a mere seven issues. Later, they'd try again with Dr. Yen Sin by a different writer and with even less success.
Wu Fang was a Chinese criminal mastermind who had designs for conquest, especially of America. He was a member of a few secret societies and had loyal henchmen of various races, most notably Chinese and Malaysian, and spies placed in key positions. He was a scientific genius who specialized in breeding various hybrid creatures that were intelligent enough to be trained as well as what could best be described as hybrid monkey men. He also had an assistant who claimed to have an ancestor as an ape, perhaps an early experiment of Fang's. He seemed to have a weakness for exotic white women and was able to exert some mysterious control, perhaps through brainwashing over them. There are two that we know of, Mohra and Tanya, both of whom would betray him after falling in love with his foes.
Wu Fang was most frequently opposed by Val Kildare. Kildare was more than likely somewhere between 30 and 50 years of age and well travelled. By the first novel, he had opposed Wu Fang several times but fails to capture him which leads to his official dismissal from the FBI, though he's allowed to keep his badge. He still enjoys some kind of authority and he's referred to as being ex- Secret Service as well, but most frequently just as a "government man". Kildare is helped first by reporter Jerry Hazard and later archaeologist Rod Carson. Newsboy Cappy also serves as eyes and ears on the street.
Hogan was a good action pulp writer. With G-8, he showed that he could excel at realistic battle and action as well as thinking up outlandish plots. While fighting WWI, G-8 did the usual spy stuff but he also fought lost races brought to fight on the German side, bizarre death machines, science fiction weapons and devices and some that were merely mundane devices decked out with supernatural overtones. He brought that creativity to his writing of Wu Fang, thinking up fiendish tortures, outlandish creepy creatures created and controlled by Wu Fang.
Yet, the novels are lacking when it comes to the heroes and basic set-up. I've only once tried to read Rohmer's Fu Manchu and was bored by it. But there are familiar tropes that are carried through here. The Oriental criminal mastermind, the White government agent and his sidekick, the woman working for the villain but in love with the sidekick and her loyalties divided. Hogan doesn't only follow the trope, but he repeats it when he introduces a second sidekick, Rod Carson and his love-interest Tanya while Hazard is forced to retire with Mohra by his side from the fighting due to injuries received while being tortured by Wu Fang. What Hogan doesn't do is really describe the heroes or give them compelling characteristics or memorable traits.
To look for in depth characterization and motivation in most of the pulp literature would be a mistake, characters are painted with broad strokes, their appearances going hand in hand with their natures. Dent excelled at giving little character or personality bits to his characters to make them memorable. In the G-8 novels, Hogan wasn't often subtle but each of the principal characters were memorable in their own way. G-8 being the most generic, he had a favorite album he played to help relax and was sometimes given to philosophize over the nature of War, how some of the enemy he'd gladly meet over drinks in a cafe if times were different. Bull was large, loyal and a bit superstitious while Nippy was deft with his hands, cunning, witty, and a practical joker. That's all lacking here. We are told in "The Scarlet Feather" that Hazard is visibly younger than Kildare and that he's athletic. A similar description is given to Rod Carson in the other novel. But, that's it. The two are interchangeable and serve the exact same functions in the novels, following along on identical paths though the two men hold two entirely different jobs, Hazard is a crime reporter (and a detective in his own right) while Carson is an archaeologist. But, both talk with the same voice. While being the hero of the stories Kildare is described as an ex-FBI agent or Secret Service agent depending on the novel but still exacting some kind of authority. Otherwise, he's completely a blank slate, bumbling as often as the supposed sidekicks. His main trait seems to be able to be calm and not swayed by the attractiveness of the women while his chosen helpers are excitable and love-sick. The most distinctive of the lot is the plucky newsboy Cappy who helps them with information and even saves their bacon a time or two. Normally I don't like it when kid characters come on the scene as active participants in the stories, but here he's a breath of fresh air, his exuberance jumps off the page.
Of course, Kildare has other things against him that Hogan couldn't foreseen. He's so generic a character, it's hard to not mentally see his name and not think of either Dr. Kildare or Val Kilmer as you fish around for some characteristic or visual image to hook on him.
The traitorous women Mohra and Tanya don't fare much better. They are given little to do other than to look pretty and fret over whether to help their boyfriends or the mysterious crime-lord who holds some control over their lives. Mohra is described as being both exotic looking but also as a "white woman".Tanya is described as a blonde and speaks in a foreign accent. Another novel claims she comes from a royal family, kidnapped by Wu Fang.
Nee-Sa is a young Asian girl that also works for Wu Fang, although in her case it might be willingly. As such, her evil is a bit unsettling and un-natural and in "The Case of the Black Lotus" she disappears from a scene by possibly turning into a bat!
Which takes us to Wu Fang himself. In other novels and stories than the ones here, we get more background on the man and just how far he will go. For that history, I'll just point you to Rick Lai's outstanding article on him and Yen Sin. Yet, at least in these particular novels, we don't get much focus on the villain, he remains in the background, a motivating force until the end. Likewise, we have a lot of hybrid creatures and strange tricks such as Nee-Sa possibly turning into a giant bat, but little explaining how it's done or scenes of the man working in his lab, directing his minions, etc. He is as generic a menace as Kildare is a hero. Which sets up a vicious cycle. As we don't really see Kildare stand out as a detective ala Holmes, or mental/physical epitome ala the Shadow, Doc Savage, Jim Anthony, he never seems that big of a threat against Wu Fang. Likewise, Wu Fang never really shines as his opponent isn't all that special a character himself. It is interesting that one of the two novels I read actually used the term "Yellow Peril" in describing him as a character.
"The Case of the Scarlet Feather" and "The Case of the Black Lotus" are the second and sixth novels of the series. In "The Case of the Scarlet Feather", Wu Fang is up to something strange as he tips Val Kildare and Jerry Hazard to a plot to kill a cargo ship's cabin as well as an escape attempt by men he's holding in the ship's brig. Both events happen as planned, and seemed link to the theft of several caskets, the men involved being identified as foreign agents. Kildare soon discovers that it's linked to the formula for a powerful gas, recently discovered coating a scarlet feather in an Egyptian tomb.
"The Case of the Black Lotus" has Wu Fang usurping control of a secret Chinese society Chang Li, and using their sacred black lotus flowers as death symbols, pinning a widespread campaign of murder and terror on the leader of the secret society. Val Kildare, with the help of Jerry Hazard and archaeologist Rod Carson delve into the underground societies of Chinatown to find Fang's lair and stop him.
Both cases have mounting danger and bizarre menace through the various creepy hybrid creatures under Wu Fang's control. Both have intense scenes of the heroes trapped in buildings and allies getting killed one by one. While Hogan is not one for actual atmosphere, he describes action and settings with clarity. Wu Fang is a torturer and Hogan ably displays that without actually getting too graphic with the details, showing a possible talent for writing for some of the more graphic pulps. Interestingly, both covers feature the prominent method of torture in each story.
"The Black Lotus" is not the novel that Rod Carson and Tanya debut in, but their roles feature heavily as this is the novel that climaxes with Jerry Hazard being tortured to the degree that he may not fully recover for a long time if ever. If he and Mohra did return, it was in an unpublished adventure. Rod's plans for an archaeological expedition seem indefinitely derailed in his joining Kildare for the fight against Wu Fang and rescuing Tanya from his control.
Both novels are wonderfully illustrated, the first by Richard Flannagan, the illustrator of the Fu Manchu novels, and the second by Franz Plachy. Plachy wasn't as atmospheric as Flannagan, but he seemed to love drawing the heroes fighting scores of villains in exotic if cramped quarters and I prefer him over the other.
The end result is that as it was a short-lived series, I wouldn't mind reading the others, especially to get more of Wu Fang's background and character. Hogan is a master of plotting and telling a story, the adventures move at a break-neck pace. At the core, there's some interesting things going on with the characters that don't quite develop. As a steady diet, I'd probably find the blandness of the characters a bit tedious though wishing for Wu Fang to take on someone like Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow or the Green Lama. These two novels were reprinted in 1997 and 1999 by John Gunnison's High Adventure series.