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Forgotten Superheroes of the Pulp Fiction Era

Updated on February 24, 2013

Tired of the Same Old Superheroes?

I was very excited by the recent release of of the movie John Carter. Apparently, I was one of the few people among my peers who knew that John Carter was another character from the mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs (who is more famous for his jungle creation, Tarzan). Even more, I was one of the smaller group who had actually read some of the John Carter novels.

However, that got me to thinking: How many other great heroes and superheroes from the age of pulp fiction have people simply forgotten about? (For those who don't know, "pulp fiction" or "pulp magazines" refers to inexpensive fiction magazines made from cheap pulp paper - hence the name - published from the late-1800s to the 1950s.) With that in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to visit some of these old heroes, who were quite famous in their day.

(The Man of Bronze (Doc savage #1) available from Amazon.com.)

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Flash Gordon

It's probably a bit of a misnomer to call Flash Gordon a "forgotten" superhero. He's more of a character who tends to go out of vogue, if you will, as opposed to being actually forgotten. (Plus, thanks to a lights-out soundtrack by Queen, the 1980 film is virtually a classic.)

Flash's backstory is pretty basic: Earth is being bombarded by meteors that are destroying the planet. One crazed scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkof, believes that the meteors are actually an attack on the planet. When a plane carrying Flash and another passenger, the beautiful Dale Arden, crashes nearby, Zarkof kidnaps them. Using a homemade rocketship, Zarkof takes his hostages into space towards what he believes to be the origin of the meteors. Needless to say, Zarkof is right; the origin of the meteors is a planet called Mongo - a fantastic world of fabulous creatures and scientific marvels, which is ruled with an iron fist by the evil emperor Ming the Merciless. Flash, Dale and Zarkof eventually join a rebel movement to overthrow Ming.

Flash really isn't a superhero in the traditional sense; he doesn't have superpowers. What he does have, however, is an indomitable will, and he battles Ming at every turn in an effort to save Earth. Moreover, he's brave and charismatic, and he inspires the rebels. And sometimes sinspiration is all you need in a hero.

(For those interested, there is allegedly a Flash Gordon movie in the works.)

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The Spider

The Spider (aka, millionaire playboy Richard Wentworth), was a little different from other heroes of the day. With his trademark black cape, hat and mask, he displayed very little interest in bringing criminals to justice. In stead, he had a habit of dispatching them with extreme prejudice. (I guess you could say he was a lot like today's Batman, but not as cuddly as the Dark Knight.)

Needless to say, Spider adventures were sometimes extremely violent, as he battled criminal masterminds and their henchmen. Known as the "Master of Men," he had a special voice command that allowed him to get others to do his bidding. He could also imitate voices. his secret weapons included a silent pistol (this was the 1930s, people) and a pistol that fired a spiderweb to entangle enemies. Finally, he left his signature, the image of a spider drawn in red ink, on the foreheads of all his victims. Utterly ruthless and completely unstoppable, the Spider was extremely popular.

(FYI: Although still set in the 1930s, new authors have taken up the Spider's adventures. The new writers have a great feel for the era while making the stories feel fresh and up-to-date. And, thankfully, the body count remains high.)

The Spider Popularity Poll

Have you heard of "The Spider"?

See results
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Doc Savage

What can you say about Clark "Doc" Savage, Jr. - the original superhero? Trained from birth to be the apex of human development in terms of mental and physical ability, he was a living dynamo. He was a surgeon, scientist, inventor, inventor, engineer... you name it, and Doc Savage probably had a degree in it. Pushed to his limits from the time he was born by a team of scientists assembled by his father, he developed a photographic memory, almost limitless endurance, near-superhuman strength, a deep knowledge of all the sciences, and various other mental and physical skills. In short, Doc Savage was human perfection.

In the usual hero motif, many of Doc's adventures involved battling supervillains bent on world domination. He was often assisted in these adventures by a quintet of long-time friends known as "The Fabulous Five" - each of whom has his own field of expertise. As to equipment, many of Doc's secret weapons actually became reality, including night vision goggles, answering machines, and television. Unlike the Spider, however, Doc was strongly against the taking of human life - even those that were evil. All in all, the Doc savage books were loads of fun.

(On a side note, there is supposedly a Doc Savage movie in the works. For you trivia buffs, there was a previous Doc Savage movie made in 1975 starring Ron Ely, best known for playing the title role in the NBC series Tarzan in the late 1960s)

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Other Pulp Superheroes

Needless to say, there were dozens of pulp heroes who were extremely popular but have largely faded from memory today. A few, like Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conquerer (both creations of Robert E. Howard) have been the subject of films. Others you may not know so well, but they are certainly worthy of your time if you're looking for something interesting to read (or if you're looking to get a jump on the movies, since Hollywood seems to be turning to the pulps for more film ideas these days):

The Avenger

Bran Mak Morn

Captain Future

G-8

The Green Lama

The Phantom Detective (not to be confused with The Phantom: The Ghost Who Walks)

Solomon Kane (Apparently this one has already been made into a movie. I really need to keep up...)

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    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 5 years ago

      i loved flash gordon and the avenger.

    • Camden1 profile image

      Camden1 5 years ago

      The only one I've heard of is Flash Gordon!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have always been a fan of Doc Savage. I read Philip Jose Farmers vs of him and Tarzen (from the 70s) and that got me interested in the older stuff. Really interesting story. YOu could easily add another good one.... The Shadow

      (What evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only the Shadow knows)

      Thanks for sharing this!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image

      hntrssthmpsn 5 years ago

      My dad loves science fiction and superhero stories, and raised us on the classics. I haven't seen John Carter yet, but it's definitely on the list.

    • OrlandoTipster profile image

      OrlandoTipster 5 years ago

      Only familiar with Flash Gordon

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      I have heard of some of these superheroes but not all. Spider, for instance doesn't ring any bell at all. I guess sooner or later every one of them will get a movie and they will earn their famous status again...

    • CruiseReady profile image

      CruiseReady 5 years ago from East Central Florida

      I never knew about any of these, except, of course, Flash Gordon. Nice work!

    • georgeac lm profile image

      georgeac lm 5 years ago

      I grew up with Flash Gordon, more so than most of the other superheroes. Awesome stuff bringing back those memories. Thank you.

    • goldenrulecomics profile image

      goldenrulecomics 5 years ago

      Great lens! I read all the Doc Savage stories when I was growing up, and love the Spider as well. I even got to meet Spider writer C.J. Henderson (and wrote a lens about it). But I'm surprised you left out The Shadow -- he's one of the truly great pulp heroes!

    • belinda342 profile image

      belinda342 5 years ago

      I'm going to have to hunt some of these pulp-fiction superheroes down. I don't know how I missed them the first time around...especially John Carter. Thank you for the information!

    • OliviaDaughter LM profile image

      OliviaDaughter LM 5 years ago

      WOW I remember Flash Gordon ! Great lens. Take Care

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Cool stuff!