Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Spider: In Comics & Pulps

The Spider in Comics.

The Spider - Moonstone has recently released two different comics featuring the pulp hero, the Spider. I've not been enamored with their illustrated prose versions of the character. To be fair, the Spider is a difficult character to capture in comic form. He's violent in a similar way that the Shadow is violent. However, the worlds the two operate in are very different. The Shadow takes on gangs, his opponents are frequently the Al Capones of the world. In the Spider's world criminal empires are headed not merely by brutal and murderous men, but by socio-and psychopaths. They kill in fantastic and horrible ways, using terror and destruction of the social order in order to gain their goals of power and financial gain. Which is what trips most writers up, they see his over-the-top violent and insane world, his own passion and confuse the two. The violent insane style of the stories gets identified as part of the Spider's character. This shouldn't be the case. The Spider should be a passionate man and willing to kill, but he shouldn't seem to be any more insane than Willis' character in Die Hard or the Shadow in his stories.

The first issue of what I assume will be an ongoing comic with a cover by Dan Bereton and story by Martin Powell and Pablo Marcos really manages to deliver the goods. It pits the Spider against a mad surgeon and his Frankenstein-like monsters, showing an understanding of the secret of the Spider is he is normally pitted against extreme and monstrous foes, in this case quite literally. Several Spider stories deal with turning normal people into monstrous and mindless foes, so this seems a natural fit. Overall, the story seems almost a merging of classic DC horror/thriller stories from the 1970s with Batman, but not quite achieving the final polish to push it beyond being pretty good to truly memorable.

Part of it may be the length as the comic also features another pulp hero, Operator 5. A character I've not really gotten into in the pulps and the first chapter of the story here doesn't really grab me either.

Moonstone also is re-releasing Mark Wheatley's Spider comic story "Burning Lead for the Walking Dead" though with some slight tweaking. Like Powell's story, this one is a monster/horror story though more of the human variety, where a villain seeks to subvert and destroy the underpinning of human society and culture.

Wheatley's comic is longer and is especially strong. His artwork at times reminds of the stylish Tim Sale. Out of his Spider garb and in tattered shirt, Wentworth looks like he could hold his own against Doc Savage. Many elements of the pulps find their way into the comic and as a stand-alone, it works as a very good comic pastiche of the pulp hero. We have Kirkpatrick suspicious but unable to prove Wentworth is the Spider, yet the villains having no trouble with piercing that veil, a very common theme. And, while Wentworth wears the Spider garb, for much of story he is forced into action as himself yet somehow able to preserve the fact that he and the Spider are two different people.  As an added bonus, Wheatley talks in the back how the story came about and his love for the character and pulps (constrast that with how Azzarello talked about Doc Savage and the pulps).

Both comics feature the Spider as he's sometimes described in the pulps but seemingly at odds with how he appeared on the pulp covers. The pulps were never totally consistent with the Spider's guise which at times also included false fangs and hump. As I noted, many times he went into action in disguise or even as Wentworth, just leaving no survivors to tell the tale. Moonstone's version is a compromise between the descriptions in the story and the pulp covers by including a dark wig from the stories and the mask on the covers. Wheatley's original version of the comic was with gray/white hair and sans mask. In my own mind's eye, I tend to see him as the covers depict him, as those images were often powerful and iconic looking.

The Mayor of Hell: Girasol Collectibles does the "Pulp Doubles" reprints of the Spider and #15 delivers two powerful Spider tales with one of those wonderful covers I mentioned. What's especially great about this cover is that while it's actually to the second story and illustrates a scene from it, it also works thematically for the first story (and is a far more powerful cover than the actual cover for "The Mayor of Hell").

If I was giving a Spider pulp for someone to read as an introduction to the character, it wouldn't be "The Mayor of Hell" (#28, January, 1936). It takes many of the elements of the Spider character and cranks them all up several notches to the point that it's as comparable to many of the standard novels as the standard ones are to the Shadow novels. It is a rollercoaster of a read though and never is the character so hard-pressed against a criminal organization.

Girasol doesn't print these in order and my reading of them is not even in the order they print them so it is a surprise that Kirkpatrick here is not Commissioner, but Governor of the state! Although, this seems a status quo that the novel is setting out to rectify as he's impeached on trumped up charges and the current Commissioner seems a pawn of the villain.

The story starts off strong and never lets you go. Wentworth is at home relaxing and playing the violin when there is an assassination attempt on his life followed by cops come to take him for being the Spider, dead or alive.  Beset by two groups of foes, each eager to kill him and trapped in his burning home becoming an inferno, there are pages of him and his men battling to stay alive. That the cops themselves seem murderous and corrupt, he's forced to go against his long-standing policy to not fight the police. It's pages of violent action that ends with his aides captured and he is badly wounded and believed to be dead!

Often the stories have him badly wounded but bravely fighting on, but here he is taken out of the action early on. Cared for by an elderly man, his daughter and ex-cop fiance, it is six weeks before he is lucid again. They don't know his identity, but are bitter at the police and at first seem just common crooks, an irony not lost on Wentworth. Overall, it's two months of him out of the action, rebuilding his strength while the Mayor of Hell takes over the city government, the police and the newspapers. With the Spider and Wentworth believed to be dead, he takes on a new identity, that of Corporal Death and with his new allies, tackles the corruption and men of the Mayor, actively warring on the police. His face bears the scars of his ordeal, to the point he's not readily identifiable as Richard Wentworth or the Spider.

The battle is a long and arduous one. His new allies are soon taken from him as well, a disgraced Kirkpatrick is on the verge of suicide and Wentworth must seek allies in the form of one brave small newspaper to ferment a revolution of the general populace to re-instate Kirkpatrick as Commissioner.

Even after the story ends, it doesn't resolve the dilemma of the Spider's death, his new identity or his facial scars, the old status quo has not been completely re-instated. A pity that the second story in the reprint is not the next issue.

Fangs of the Dragon: By comparison, "Fangs of the Dragon" (#107, August, 1942) is almost forgettable. The mystery is one that might confront Doc Savage or the Shadow as Richard Wentworth aka the Spider goes to the relatively small town of Bethbury to investigate what seems to be an outbreak of murderous criminal insanity among normal people. This disease of crime seems to be transmitted by flying glowing dragons.

What helps set it apart is the language and storytelling is top-notch, from the impending horror on what seems a normal every-day evening in an average to the description of the Spider swinging through the night sky with his cape billowing out behind him. Also on hand is Nita Van Sloan, always one of the more capable and brave of pulp heroes' love interests, in this case insisting on fully sharing the dangers and missions of Wentworth and showing herself of capably mimicking his disguised features. I've read other stories where she dons the garb to distract the police and criminals, this is written as if it's the first time she does so.

There's a great series of scenes that's pure pulp/movie serial genre as the Spider is pursuing a foe through the villain's headquarters and must pit himself against all sorts of outlandish death-traps. Who would design a building like this, that would almost surely kill you or your henchmen someday not to mention would actually hinder any kind of quick getaway? But, it makes for exciting reading as the hero must pit both body and mind to just trying to stay alive in a situation that he cannot solve by simply blasting away with his guns.

The story is thematic similar to the first one in that in both the Spider has to contend with the possibilities of corrupted city governments, that he must not merely fear the system doing its proper duty, but the turning of it into a nigh unstoppable criminal machine devoted to his destruction. And, both feature prominent to their plots, the death of Richard Wentworth!

Wonderful reads!

2 comments:

Shawn Aldridge said...

Is there a way to send you a comic for review? Email?

It's pulp sci-fi.

Thanks, Shawn Aldridge

cash_gorman said...

Email works: cash_gorman@yahoo.com