Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Monsters are Coming

To start off, for people that might stumble to this entry looking for the DC comic titled Secret Six, written by the usually excellent Gail Simone. As a name, the Secret Six has a long history. With DC, there are two teams predating the current team of villains. The first team was of various normal people, with specialized talents: a magician, a boxer, a scientist, and so on. Each is being blackmailed by a mystery-man calling himself Mockingbird who may be one of the men or women that makes up the group. In a unique twist, the identity of the blackmailer is kept a mystery and is still unrevealed when the series reached an untimely end. In the late 1980s where it became popular to treat characters from the 50s and 60s as being in "real time" and killing off and replacing heroes with modern versions, the original Six are brought out of retirement and sent on a flight that results in their deaths. However, one seems to have survived as Mockingbird recruits an all new team, including a son of an original member. The new six have robotic enhancements so that each has a singular special power. The mystery of who killed the original team and who really is Mockingbird is finally revealed.

But, before that, the Secret Six was a pulp series from the latter half of 1934. History takes a strange turn as the name precedes the pulps. The term was also used by a group of Chicago businessmen that were interested in toppling Al Capone. Before then, it was used by a group of men siding with Jim Brown and the abolitionist movement.

If you're still reading, DC also took the name Suicide Squad from a pulp team of characters.
The early 1930s saw the birth and explosion of the hero pulps and the pulp superhero: The Shadow, followed first by the Phantom Detective and then Doc Savage a month later in 1933. In 1934, Popular would turn to dependable Robert Hogan to create The Secret Six, a book that featured a team of characters having the larger than life adventures not too disimilar to those that would find the Shadow or Doc Savage.

The chief difference is that the Secret Six did not have the charismatic and superhero leader. In many ways they are akin to DC's later non-Super teams such as the Challengers of Unknown and Sea Devils. While there is a leader of the group who is a better detective, better man of action, better looking, etc., there's not this large gap of ability between him and the others. Also, much like several of the DC teams and even Doc's own group of aides and the Shadow's agents, the various members of the Six are specialists.

The Secret Six are:
King: The leader of the group. A young man of action, barnstormer pilot, previously on death row and sought by police for a murder he didn't commit.
Luga: Large Zulu chief and King's servant and regular cook for the Six.
Key: Possibly the one member of the group that really was a crook and is now reformed. His contacts provide the group with much of their information on the movements of the police and underworld. A master burglar and safe-cracker. A man of slight build.
Bishop: The moral center of the group who seems genuinely religious and keeping the group on the straight and narrow, to the point that they even try to curb their use of swearing. Built along the lines of the stereotypical portly Friar Tuck mold
Doctor: The scientist of the group, in both medical and technology.
Shakespeare: Master of disguise, he disguises the Six for undercover work.

They are also helped by:
The Dummy: A deaf man whose hearing has been restored and feeds them information overheard in Police Headquarters.
Legs Larkin: A former criminal contact of the Key's feeding him information on the Underworld
Flo the Fleecer: A beautiful gold-digger and possible con-artist who is attracted to King.

The Secret Six are all wanted for crimes, although it's possible that only the Key (and his contacts) actually has a past life of crime. As such, their old names and past lives are foresaken and they make their headquarters in an isolated cabin with enough grounds on which to keep their own plane. It's not clear how they make the money needed to feed themselves and operate their vehicles. In this sense, one can see familiar lines that Hogan followed from his most popular series G-8. Like the Six, his real name is never revealed and while very competent, he's not quite along the superhuman lines of Doc Savage, the Shadow, or even the Phantom Detective, Secret Agent "X" and the Spider. He needs the help of his assistant Battle to create the most convincing disguises. And, like G-8, at least in this novel, there are scenes of the groups sharing meals together, a possible theme or belief of Hogan's: the importance and communal nature of sharing meals, illustrating the idea of the group to be more than just friends but a family created by necessity and common goals.

However, The Secret Six didn't prove to be a success story, only lasting a few issues. This may be due to the generic and normal nature of the lead. Or it could be due to Hogan not really exploiting his large cast to the fullest extent. Other authors of the other books didn't need to use their full casts. Dent quickly rotated Renny, Johnny and Long Tom in and out of the Doc books, focusing mainly on Monk and Ham. By nature of the title, one expects to see the full cast. Most of the Six are barely cyphers, given a few small tasks or lines but that's it. Nor does Hogan physically describe the characters each issue or explain their relationships and why they do what they do. This works fine in a series like G-8 where the backdrop of the War and that he's a spy is enough to know of the set-up or a case like the Shadow where the character and his origins are supposed to be mysterious. But, most of the hero pulps took pains each issue to treat the hero as if it might be the reader's first encounter with him. Hogan doesn't write that way here nor in the Wu Fang novels which tend to make the recurring characters non-descript.

The advantage is the plotting of the stories. "The Monster Murders" is from December 1934, featuring a cover of a giant ripping the roof of a building and the Six scattering. A couple of the Six are on a walk when they come across dogs the size of horses running wild in the streets and aid the authorities in routing them. Meanwhile the Key and his contacts bring the Six a case of suicide and possible blackmails. As this puts them on the trail of two men, one over 6 feet and another over 7 feet, which leads them to even taller men that are impossibly tall, Key's case and the giant dogs seem obviously linked. And, it culminates in an exciting explosive finale. It's an exciting story, focusing mostly on the efforts of King and Key (who shares some of G-8's aide Nippy's sense of humor).

The reader will probably be ahead of the Six on figuring out a lot of what's going on in the story. And, with the science fiction plot, the fact that the Doctor is so under utilized other than as a Doubting Thomas and complain is a bit maddening. It makes him seem as if he doesn't bring that much to the table where the team is concerned in a plotline that you'd think would give him a lot to do and take a bit of the center stage. Another problem is that King and the team don't really treat the giants as "impossible" and follow up on the leads that it suggests or the obvious links to the giant dogs until near the end. It's one thing trying to find someone that's over seven feet tall, but once the giant is ten feet, eighteen, or forty, you're entering the realm of something un-natural going on. But, they continually approach it as aberrations but not necessarily un-natural.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the name, "The Monster Murders". One of Batman's earlies adventures pitted him against Hugo Strange and his giants, also identified as monsters in the story's titles. Most attribute this similarity to the Doc Savage novel "The Monsters", the cover featuring Doc being held in the grip of a giant hand and Bob Kane and Bill Finger are known to borrow from the pulps. This Doc novel has proved to be one of the more popular and enduring. Of all the covers, this is the only cover that Bama faithfully follows in his cover of the reprints. The story was also used to adapt for a radio script and was adapted in the 1970s Marvel color comic series with covers by Gil Kane and lush interior art by Andru and Palmer. The Doc story was first published in April, earlier the same year as the Secret Six novel. Is this a case of  Hogan borrowing from the Dent novel? It's possible that he was not as taken with Dent's efforts as Doc didn't really have to deal much with the giants as much in his novel, more with the gangsters behind them. Here, the team and society in general seem genuinely threatened with a nigh unstoppable threat, the Six outmatched.

Or, it could be a case that there's something in the water to prompt two stories of giant "monsters" in the same year. A little thing that was called King Kong in the theaters just the year before. In fact, the climax of the Secret Six novel seems taken right from the movie with the giant taking a lovely blonde as a prisoner and foresaking a cure in the hopes of making her the queen of the world and fighting attacking planes to the death.

There's even an earlier precedent to both of these novels. Three decades earlier, H. G. Wells writes the novel "The Food Of The Gods And How It Comes To Earth", dealing with humans transformed into giants and ultimately a war between them and the rest of humankind. In fact, "The Monster Murders" could be taken to have elements of another Wells novel, "The Island of Doctor Moreau".

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.

Robert Hogan is a bit of an anomaly in the pulp authors' circle. Like Lester Dent, Walt Gibson, and Norvell Page he wrote a character pulp, the principle guiding force behind the character. For 110 issues, he wrote G-8 while the aforementioned contemporaries wrote Doc Savage, the Shadow and the Spider. Like those titles, G-8 has made a couple of forays into comics, several attempts at reprintings of his stories including some with excellent covers by Jim Steranko. However, Robert Hogan and his character were different from them in a significant way. One, I recall no mention of him using ghost-writers or what, if any, editorial involvement may have played in the creation of the character he is principally known for. Two, from the start, Hogan had his name on the cover. Every other major character pulp of the time was published under house names and pseudonyms. Yet, Hogan wrote at least three different title series under his own name: G-8, Wu Fang, and The Secret Six.

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.