Monday, June 07, 2010

Master of Men

I mentioned earlier that I'd picked up a Spider book by Norvell Page. I just finished reading the three-novel volume (Satan's Murder Machines, Death Reign of the Vampire King, and The Octopus) and... wow.

On one level, they're not great books. I mean, there's a reason "pulp" was long synonymous with "trash." A typical passage, from Satan's Murder Machines:

Jackson cried out softly as the car whipped into the side street that flanked Wentworth's Fifth Avenue apartment house, and Wentworth saw the reason why. A long black limousine was just sliding past the street's end, slowing to a halt before the main door--and that limousine had blood-red headlights! It was the car of Stanley Kirkpatrick!

You see the dilemma here. On the one hand, exclamation! points! everywhere! There's barely serviceable prose and clunky dialogue in great abundance. Like many pulp authors, Page often finds himself stretching for adjectives and adverbs and not... quite... reaching the right one.

But on the other hand, there's a limousine with blood-red headlights! That deserves an exclamation point. And that's not even the bad guy. That's the Police Commissioner, the Spider's own personal J. Jonah Jameson, a regular member of the supporting cast.

The novel itself is full of thrill-a-minute action on a scale I'd never encountered before Page. I've sadly never read a Shadow novel, but I'd read a few Doc Savage ones in my youth, suckered in by those awesome James Bama covers in the 70's. But though people talk about Doc Savage's action-packed adventures, they're positively dull next to the Spider's tales.

In the first scene of Satan's Death Blast, the Spider kills a roomful of men, but is shot and wounded himself by a mysterious assailant just before the police show up outside and the Spider is forced to flee. Likewise in Satan's Murder Machines (and no, the recurrence of "Satan" in the titles does not mean they featured the same villain--either Page or his editor just liked using "Satan" in the title to denote ultimate evil), the first scene has the Spider attempting to kidnap a security guard for questioning, only to be interrupted by a cop and a robot, and during the fight, he receives a radio message that his secret identity has been framed for burglary. In both books, the Spider runs desperately from confrontation to confrontation in near real-time, avoiding the police while hunting the villains. Neither he nor the reader have a chance to catch their breath until about 2/3 of the way through the book, to set up the final battle.

Compare this to Doc Savage, which would usually start with some random person in trouble, who then seeks out Doc Savage. In chapter 2 or 3, we are introduced to Doc and his assistants, and by chapter 4 or 5, Doc gets into the actual investigation, which proceeds with much banter between his assistants and the Guest of the Week. The Spider starts at Chapter 5, kills off the Guest Stars before they have a chance to make a joke, and runs desperately to catch up the rest of the way. This is what Sargon means by "relentless."

In a way, you could say that the Spider was Marvel to Doc Savage's DC. Which is more apt than you may think, considering that Stan Lee has said that the Spider partially inspired the creation of Spider-man. Now that could be a big load of Lee bushwa, but then again, it's not just the name that ties Spider-man to the pulp hero. As I mentioned above, the Spider spends much time running from the police, a problem Spider-man shared for much of his career. And the overwrought emotions of the Spider, occasionally agonizing over the fact that his crusade against crime has stolen his personal life and that of his fiancee, bears much more resemblance to Marvel's 60's heroes than the staid, cerebral (Doc Savage-like) science detectives of the DC stable.

So it came as a strange shock when, in the first chapter of Satan's Murder Machines (which, remember, I bought just after seeing "Iron Man 2"), a fleeing villain screams, "The Iron Man! God save me! The Iron Man!"

Hey, maybe Smilin' Stan really did read the Spider.

Then I get into the second book in the volume, Death Reign of the Vampire King (love the titles), and Chapter One is titled "The Bat-Man." A quick check of the original publication date, and good God, it came out in 1935, a few years before the first Batman story (although as any true fan knows, in his first story, he was known as The Bat-Man). So did Bob Kane also read the Spider?

Hard to say. Batman writer Bill Finger read pulps. Batman was supposedly inspired by Johnston McCulley's Bat, as well as McCulley's Zorro, and we know Finger adapted a Shadow novel into the first Batman story. Could he and/or Bob Kane have read this one as well and unconsciously swiped the name? Who knows? But it's fun to speculate.

Then I read the third novel, a non-Spider story titled The Octopus, expecting a let-down, but holy shit. The main character is a nondescript rich dude named Jeffrey Fairchild, who for some reason decided he could do more good for society as a kindly old doctor named Dr. Skull (yes, in this world, patients willingly and even eagerly seek out a doctor named Skull), and in his non-doctoring time, Fairchild hunts down criminals as the Skull Killer (and no, with one exception, nobody ever remarks on the similarity between the two names or imagines any relationship between the two). That's right, "Skull Killer" is the good guy. And you thought the 90's were grim'n'gritty.

The bad guy is the Octopus. Hmmm. No real comic book connection there. Oh wait... he's a doctor. Okay, maybe he's not actually a doctor, because it's never explained exactly who he is, but his entire scheme does revolve around an insanely outlandish plan to turn people into vampiric creatures with salt-water blood via ultraviolet radiation in order to scare people into thinking there's an epidemic and extort health insurance money from them. That's right. It's a big health insurance scam. Who said pulps aren't relevant to the modern world?

Anyway, the entire novel is a crazed running battle between the man with two secret identities both named Skull and a tentacled, telepathic monster running a health scam, featuring vampires with glowing purple eyes, and it just misses being the greatest book ever by having a disappointing climax that never gives even a hint of who the villain really is or where he came from, and a side plot involving the hero's sullen kid brother that never goes anywhere (I'm assuming this would have been a recurring feature of the series if The Octopus magazine had lasted for more than one issue).

Anyway, still noodling the idea of self-pubbing Death Wave and chipping away at the plot of the new novel, but no major progress to report.


Anonymous said...

I love the scene in Death Blast where The Spider stops a riot by RUNNING OVER LIKE 50 GUYS with his car. The Spider is hardcore.

Marc Carlson said...

I have those -- I haven't like actually managed to, you know, *finish* them, but I have them. I keep thinking that scotch will make them readable, then I'm back to reading crap like Mall of Cthulhu...

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

well, we all read for different reasons. A few years ago, I probably would have hated them. Now, though, I find I love the daring of them, the audacity to pass off the sheer brainlessness of many of the major plot elements and twists (like the super-explosive distilled from electric eel skins) through pure high-octane momentum. The books are sheer gory spectacle. Norvell Page was the pulps' Michael Bay. In my writing right now, I'd like to fuse that kind of eye-popping daring with better writing. and just a dash of subtlety. Subtle spectacle, whatever that is.