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Forgotten Superheroes of the Pulp Fiction Era
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.
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.)
Flash Gordon at Amazon
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"?
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)
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):
Bran Mak Morn
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...)