Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Spider Turns 75

The first issue of The Spider was dated October 1933. Since most pulp publishers would get their titles to newsstands about a half a month or only a little less than that before their cover dates, I imagine Popular Publications had The Spider October 1933 on newsstands by September 13 to 15, although I can't be certain of that. Regardless, this month The Spider has turned 75 years old.

For those of you who have no idea who The Spider is, he is perhaps the third most popular pulp magazine hero after The Shadow and Doc Savage. His adventures were published by Popular Publications, a company that also published G-8 and His Battle Aces (which also turns 75 this month--it was perhaps Popular's second most popular title) and Operator #5. The Spider would evolve in a character who was practically compelled to fight crime, as well as the most violent pulp hero. It was rare that he did not shoot to kill. But then if The Spider was overly violent, it was perhaps because he had to be. He fought such menaces as a madman who drugged all the tobacco, liquor and coffee in the city, a villain who caused mass suicides across the United States, and a villain who killed with song. No one in pulp magazines faced as outré opponents as The Spider.

The Spider was initially created by Henry "Harry" Steeger, co-founder and publisher of Popular Publications, as competition for rival Street and Smith's The Shadow. To develop the character he hired writer R. T. M. Scott. Scott was most famous for having created "Secret Service Smith," the hero of five novels and several stories. Smith was an American detective with a Hindu assistant who was deadly with a knife. Coincidentally, there is a very strong resemblance between Scott's version of The Spider and Secret Service Smith. For Scott "The Spider" was little more than a psuedonym adopted by Richard Wentworth as he fought crime as an amateur criminologist. Like Smith, Wentworth was assisted by Ram Singh, a Hindu deadly with a knife. A big difference between Smith and Wentworth was that Wentworth was a bit more bloodthirsty. While Smith always shot to wound, Wentworth would shoot to kill. Wentworth would also brand his victims with the seal of The Spider using a specially made cigarette lighter.

Scott left The Spider after only two issues, whereupon Norvell Page took over as the magazine's writer. Norvell Page was a newspaper writer turned pulp writer, who belonged to the famous Pages of Virginia, one of the First Families of Virginia. Those familiar with Virginia's history might recall that there was a John Page who was governor of the state and a U.S. Congressman. Novelist, lawyer, and one time United States Ambassador to Italy, Thomas Nelson Page was also a member of Norvell Page's family. Page had written the Ken Carter stories for Ten Detective Aces and would later write two sword and sorcery novels featuring Prester John, also known as "Hurricane John" or Wan-Tengri.

Page transformed the basic concept of The Spider as created by Steeger and Scott into something entirely different. In fact, in some respects it is hard to say that Page didn't simply create a whole new character. While "The Spider" began simply as a nom de guerre for Richard Wentworth under R. T. M. Scott, Norvell Page would soon make The Spider a distinct identity from Richard Wentworth. In at least one early novel written by Page, Wentworth would go out as The Spider wearing a cloth mask that covered his whole face except for his eyes. It was in the March 1934 issue of The Spider that Wentwoth would don the costume that would later be The Spider's look. That issue he took the alias of Tito Caliepi, a hunchbacked violinist who wears a cape and a felt hat. It would not be long before Wentworth would stop using the Tito Caliepi alias and adapt Caliepi's for The Spider. It was in that same issue that the first mention was made of The Spider's ring (which was offered as a premium in the same issue). Eventually Wentworth as The Spider would dress in a sallow fright mask complete with fangs, a black felt hat, and a black cape, giving him what was perhaps the most frightening appearance of any pulp hero (curiously, the covers featured The Spider in a simple mask of the sort The Lone Ranger wore--only seven issues published from March through September 1940 had covers featuring the fanged Spider). And while Wentworth was a bit bloodthirsty under Scott's tenure as writer, he became even more so when Norvell Page wrote him. As The Spider, Richard Wentworth was wholly obsessed with fighting crime--one might say he was even compelled to do so. And in his war against evil he showed absolutely no mercy.

Norvell Page changed The Spider in other ways as well. While Ram Singh was originally portrayed as Wentworth's Hindu assistant under Scott, Page made him a Sikh who was not Wentworth's assistant, but his friend and equal. Richard Wentworth's girlfriend Nita Van Sloan played a more prominent role, becoming his partner in fighting crime. In fact, Nita Van Sloan would even sometimes become The Spider herself! Another change Norvell Page made to The Spider was in the aforementioned nature of the enemies he faced. In the two novels by R. T. M. Scott ("The Spider Strikes" and "Wheel of Death"), Richard Wentworth faced rather ordinary criminal masterminds. Page drew upon his own aforementioned Ken Carter series from the magazine Ten Detective Aces to provide The Spider with a whole new sort of opponent. Carter was a former professional juggler turned detective who fought menaces of an outre nature, such as criminals who use music to kill ("Hell's Music") or who transform human beings into statues ("Statues of Horror"). In the hands of Norvell Page, then, The Spider faced such bizarre menaces ranging from giant robots (Satan's Murder Machines) to a madman who plans to gas and rob the whole city via Zeppelin (Prince of the Red Looters).

Norvell Page would not only make The Spider perhaps the most violent pulp hero of them all, but would also bring emotion to the hero that was rarely seen in other pulp heroes. Richard Wentworth sometimes felt considerable angst over his role as The Spider, worrying over what he had become. He and Nita were devoted to each other with an intensity unseen in other pulp magazines. They would seriously consider marriage, only to realise that if The Spider was ever unmasked or killed it would make his wife a target for the criminal underworld. Despite this, Wentworth was compelled to fight crime. He simply could not give up fighting against criminals on behalf of the common man, even though he was often injured, beaten, betrayed, and even hounded by the city's police force.

Ultimately, Norvell Page made The Spider entirely his own character. While Steeger and Scott may have created the initial concept and other writers would pen novels for the magazine (including Emile C. Tepperman and Prentice Winchell), there really can't be much argument that The Spider as we know him is largely the creation of Norvell Page.

In the hands of Norvell Page and writers, such as Emile C. Tepperman, who worked much less frequently on the title, The Spider became one of the most successful pulp magazines of the Thirties. Its circulation was large enough that Page would eventually be paid $700 per novel. And The Spider was popular enough that he would be adapted into two movie serials. The first was The Spider's Web, released in 1938. Warren Hull was cast as Richard Wentworth/The Spider. In the serial Wentworth battled the villainous Octopus, whose plot was to destroy the transportation system of the United States. The Spider's Web was successful enough to warrant a sequel, so that a second serial was released in 1941, The Spider Returns. Warren Hull returned once more as Richard Wentworth/The Spider. This time The Spider battled The Gargoyle, who threatened various national defence projects.

There may have been a Spider radio show as well. There was an ad for a radio show, airing on KMOX in St. Louis in The Spider August 1935. According to the ad, it was to air every Thursday at 6:30 Central Standard Time. Unfortunately, the radio show was never mentioned before or since in the pages of The Spider. Interestingly enough, it is possible that Lee Falk, creator of The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, could have scripted the show--he was working as a writer at KMOX at the time. Unfortunately, there seems to be no proof that the show ever aired. It could have been a project that died before it reached the air. At the moment it seems that only a search of St. Louis radio schedules from July and August of 1935 would show if there was ever actually a Spider radio show.

Despite the success of The Spider, it would not survive the Forties. World War II would bring paper shortages, which force pulp magazine publishers to make their titles shorter or cancel them entirely. Worse yet, pulp magazines had new competition from comic books, then in their Golden Age, who lured many young readers away from the pulps. It would be with the June 1943 issue of The Spider that the title, which had always been monthly, would switch to a bi-monthly schedule. In only another three issues, The Spider would be cancelled. In its entirety, it had run for 118 issues.

While his magazine was cancelled, The Spider would not be forgotten. In 1964 Bantam began reprinting the Doc Savage novels to great success. It was in 1968 that Berkley Books followed suit with reprints of The Spider. Berkley would continue reprinting the novels from November 1969 to March 1970. It was in 1975 that Pocket Books took the rather odd approach of recasting The Spider as a men's action hero of The Executioner type, rewriting both Death Reign of the Vampire King from The Spider November 1935 and three other titles as modern day, men's action novels. Fortunately, the project proved to be a colossal flop. It only lasted briefly in the early part of 1975, producing a total of four novels. In 1980 Dimedia would reprint the six of the original pulp novels, complete with the original Spider logo and graphics resembling those of Popular Publications. From 1991 to 1993 Carroll and Graf reprinted eight of the pulp novels. Although the reprints only lasted briefly, it was the Carroll and Graf reprints that would largely create modern day Spider fandom. More recently, Bold Venture Press and Baen Books have both reprinted the original pulp novels, both companies featuring multiple novels in one book. In 2007 Moonstone Books published The Spider Chronicles, an anthology of stories featuring The Master of Men by such writers as John Jakes and Howard Hopkins.

It was in 1990 that Eclipse Comics adapted the novel Corpse Cargo as a three issue comic book miniseries. It was followed in 1992 by an adaptation of Reign of the Vampire King. The Spider would later appear in the 192 page anthology comic book Titanic Tales published in 1999. In 2002 Vanguard Productions published Scavengers Of The Slaughtered Sacrifices, an original story featuring The Spider. In 2007 Moonstone Books would publish their comic book Holiday Super Spectacular with a story featuring The Spider. They plan an adaptation of The Devil's Paymaster from The Spider May 1941 in the near future.

Although The Spider would only last for a little over ten years, it remains one of the best remembered of the pulp magazines. The Spider himself would have an influence on pop culture artefacts in the future. Its most immediate effect may have been upon the comic book character Batman, who resembles The Spider to a large degree. Both are multi-millionaires who fight crime. Both tend to be merciless towards criminals. And both were friends with the city's police commissioner. The Spider may have influenced the classic Fleischer Superman cartoon "The Mechanical Monsters," which uses the same giant robot motif as Satan's Murder Machines. Later the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would use the same idea. Among the tales of Spider-Man's creation told by Stan Lee is that The Spider was partially the inspiration for Spider-Man. Although not as famous as either Doc Savage or The Shadow. The Spider has had a lasting influence on pop culture that survives to this day. Indeed, seventy five years after his first appearance, The Spider's novels continue to be reprinted.

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