Spider (pulp fiction)
Cover of the first issue (October 1933), featuring the story "The Spider Strikes"
|First appearance||The Spider, vol. 1, #1 ("The Spider Strikes")|
|Created by||Harry Steeger|
|Alter ego||Richard Wentworth|
|Supporting character of||Nita Van Sloan|
The Spider was created in 1933 by Harry Steeger at Popular Publications as direct competition to Street and Smith Publications' vigilante hero, the Shadow. Though similar, The Spider was millionaire playboy Richard Wentworth, who had served as a major in World War I, and was living in New York City unaffected by the financial deprivations of the Great Depression. The ninth pulp has him as the last surviving member of a rich family.
Wentworth was easily identified as The Spider by his enemies in a number of earlier novels and was arrested by the police but quickly escaped, adopting a disguise and associated alias Tito Caliepi. The Spider's earliest costume consisted of a simple black domino mask, black hat and cape. Later in the pulp series, vampire-like makeup appeared and then a face mask with grizzled hair; a hunchback was then added to terrorize the criminal underworld with The Spider's brand of violent vigilante justice. (Actor and comedian Harold Lloyd previously had used a similar mask, lank hair wig, and hunchback in the comedy film Dr. Jack (1922)). Caliepi sometimes begged, utilizing Wentworth's talent with a violin.
At times, Wentworth also ventured into the underworld disguised as small-time hood Blinky McQuade in order to gain needed information. To Scotland Yard, Wentworth was known as Rupert Barton and held a badge of Inspector for services rendered; by the fifth novel he also held the rank of Lieutenant in the FBI.
Wentworth himself, according to the fifth story, was 5'11" tall, and had grey eyes and an old battle scar on his head that would flare up at times of great stress. He was an accomplished pianist and violinist, and he drove a Lancia. He could speak fluent Hindustani and so talk with Ram Singh in the latter's own language, with little fear anyone else would understand. Page's Wentworth was psychologically vulnerable and suffered "frequent bouts of fear, self-doubt, despair and paranoia."
The stories often involved a bizarre menace to the country and a criminal conspiracy, and were often extremely violent, with the villains engaging in wanton slaughter of thousands as part of sometimes nationwide crime sprees: pulp magazine historian Ed Hulse notes that "Spider novel death tolls routinely ran into the thousands". The master criminal of the stories was usually unmasked only in the last few pages. The stories often ended with Wentworth killing the villains and stamping their corpses with his "Spider" mark. The first two novels were written by Reginald Thomas Maitland Scott, but they were slow-paced, so another author was brought in. Later stories were published under the house name, Grant Stockbridge; most of the Spider novels were written by Norvell Page. Other authors of the Spider novels included Donald C. Cormack, Wayne Rogers, Emile C. Tepperman, and Prentice Winchell.
The cover artists for The Spider magazine were Walter M. Baumhofer for the debut issue, followed by John Newton Howitt and Rafael De Soto. The Spider was published monthly and ran for 118 issues from 1933 to 1943. A 119th Spider novel manuscript had been completed but was not published until decades later, then as a rewritten mass-market paperback with retitled characters (see paperback novels section, below).
The Spider sold well during the 1930s, and copies are still valued by modern pulp magazine collectors. Hulse has stated "Today, hero-pulp fans value The Spider more than any single-character magazine save The Shadow and Doc Savage."
Nita Van Sloan, is Wentworth's longtime fiancée, who often aided him. Though they are as close as man and wife, they know they could never marry and have a family, as Wentworth believes he will eventually be unmasked or killed as The Spider, and his wife and family would then pay the price. In the issue #100 story, "Death and The Spider", Wentworth expected to die. Nita disguises herself as The Spider a few times, covering for Wentworth when he has been seriously injured.
Ram Singh, a Sikh (originally Hindu), is Wenthworth's fanatically loyal manservant; he is a deadly knife thrower and usually carries several knives with him, including the deadly kukri. Ram Singh never views his position as a servant as demeaning or negatively impacting his self-respect, feeling that he serves a man totally above other men. At times, he and Wentworth talk in Hindustani, which only they understand.
Sergeant Ronald Jackson, Wentworth's chauffeur, had served under Wentworth in World War I and often referred to him as "the Major". He was killed by "The Avenger" in The Pain Emperor story (Feb 1935). However he was revived in "The Reign of the Death Fiddler" (May 1, 1935) when it was revealed that though near death, Ram Singh had saved him and brought him back to full health again.
Harold Jenkyns is Wentworth's butler, an elderly man who has been in the Wentworth family's service for a long time.
Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick or simply "Kirk", is Wentworth's main ally/antagonist, who is sure Wentworth is The Spider but can never prove it. He has promised to arrest him, try him, and send him to the electric chair if he ever has proof.
Professor Ezra Brownlee, an inventor and Wentworth's old war colleague, features heavily in the early Spider novels; he is killed in Dragon Lord of the Underworld (July 1935). Brownlee's son makes some appearances afterward, taking over from his late father.
Despite The Spider's tendency to kill his enemies, he encounters several foes more than once, such as The Fly and MUNRO, a master of disguise. Some storylines featuring a struggle against a single villain lasted for several consecutive issues, such as The Spider's four-part battle against The Living Pharaoh and The Spider's three-part battle against The Master and his Black Police. Among the enemies he encountered just once were predecessors of the costumed super villains of comic books, such as Judge Torture, Red Feather, The Bloody Serpent, The Brain, The Emperor of Vermin, The Red Mandarin, The Silencer, and The Wreck. The names of two Spider villains, The Bat Man and The Iron Man, were later adopted for DC and Marvel comic book superheroes.
The Spider's seal and weapons
One of The Spider's distinguishing features is his "calling card." Wentworth often leaves a red-ink "spider" image (like a drop of blood) on the foreheads of the criminals he kills, so others will not be blamed. In the sixth novel (1934), the Spider imprints his red sign on a gold ring so that any who need his help can use it by taking it to Kirkpatrick (where Wentworth will find out about it). During the same time period, in the same benign fashion, and perhaps inspired by The Spider's calling card, Lee Falk's long-running 1936 syndicated comic strip hero, The Phantom, left a distinct skull mark in the faces of those enemies he fought, made by the ring he wore. The Spider's seal, however, was concealed in the base of his platinum cigarette lighter and was invented by Professor Brownlee. The Spider also carried a thin silken line (his "web") which had a tensile strength of several hundred pounds.
Brownlee also invented the lethal and almost silent air pistol the Spider used for "quiet" kills. He acted as a sort of on-call technical wizard for Wentworth, whom he looked upon as being close to a son. Wentworth also had a gun in one of his shoes in the early issues, which he used twice is issue 5.
Wentworth was a master of disguise; in the small steel case of burglar tools he carried under his arm, he also had his make-up kit (and in the early novels) The Spider's eye mask.
In Timothy Truman's 1990s comic book adaptation, Brownlee created the "Web-Lee", a non-lethal stun pistol that fired projectiles which erupted into a spider web-like mass, inundated with microscopic barbs of frozen curare.
Like The Shadow, The Spider's usual weapons of choice were a pair of Browning .45 caliber M1911 automatic pistols; he was a crack shot and normally shot to kill. However, he would not shoot anyone in law enforcement, although they frequently were under orders to shoot to kill him on sight.
Master of Men
The Spider's by-name was "Master of Men", indicating that he had a voice commanding enough to get many people to do his bidding. Wentworth could also imitate other people's voices. When he imitated Kirkpatrick's voice, he could give orders to lesser policemen during a stakeout, even during one intended to capture The Spider, so he could himself escape. Wentworth was not above disguising himself as a cop to escape when surrounded by policemen.
Columbia Pictures produced two Spider movie serials, both 15-chapter cliffhangers starring Warren Hull as Richard Wentworth. The first, The Spider’s Web (1938), was also the first film serial to be made from a popular pulp magazine series character. In this serial The Spider battles The Octopus and his henchmen who attempt to disrupt all commercial and passenger transportation systems, and later all U. S. industry; Spider pulp magazine novelist Norvell Page was one of the writers who worked on the serial's screenplay.
In the second serial, The Spider Returns (1941), The Spider battles the mysterious crime lord The Gargoyle and his henchmen, who threaten the world with acts of sabotage and wholesale murder in an effort to wreck the U. S. national defense.
Both serials feature a dramatic wardrobe enhancement to The Spider's magazine appearance: his black cape and head mask are over-printed with a white spider's web pattern and then matched with his usual plain black fedora. This striking addition gave the silver screen Spider an appearance more like that of a traditional superhero, like other pulp and comics heroes being adapted for the era's movie serials; it also made the serial Spider look less like the very popular Street and Smith pulp hero The Shadow, which also had been produced by Columbia and starred Victor Jory.
Berkley Books (then Berkley/Medallion) first reprinted the Spider in 1969 and 1970, intending to reprint all 118 novels in order, hoping to tap into the reprint phenomenon of the Doc Savage novels being published by Bantam Books. However, these first paperback reissues met with poor sales after only four volumes, and the planned series was canceled.
In the mid-1970s, Pocket Books reprinted four Spider novels, featuring "modern" pulp cover artwork by Robert A. Maguire. In this series, The Spider is portrayed as a non-costumed, heavily armed muscular blond hero. These paperbacks also failed to find an audience, and the series was canceled. These four novels were edited and modernized reprints, one of several reasons why they may have never caught on with their intended audience. In one, Death and the Spider (originally published in 1940), Nita Van Sloan is shown driving a Jaguar E-type X-KE, a sports car not created or on the streets until 1961, some 19 years later.
At roughly the same time in England, Mews Books/New American Library reprinted four Spider novels sporting new cover artwork, each different in style and execution from those used by Pocket Books. This Spider mass market series also ended after only four titles had been published.
Then, three years later, in 1979, an unusual Spider publishing event happened right "out of the blue". Python Publishing put into print the never-before-published last original Spider novel, Slaughter, Inc. (written by Donald G. Cormack), originally to have been published as The Spider pulp magazine #119. Python published it as a one-shot mass market paperback. For copyright reasons all character names were changed, and the novel was retitled Blue Steel ("The Ultimate Answer To Evil") and the author listed as "Spider Page" (no doubt a sly reference to the novel's origins as a Spider novel and the character's principal author, Norvell Page). The Spider was recast as the title character, Blue Steel. As with Pocket Books' Spider editions, this paperback sported a "modern" pulp cover painting featuring a very similar, non-costumed, but heavily armed blond hero (that cover appears to be an unused cover painting by artist George Gross, finished but never used for a Freeway Press reprint of the pulp magazine character Operator No. 5). In 2012, Moonstone Books finally published Slaughter, Inc. in its original form as a Spider novel. Slaughter, Inc. was also reprinted in its original form in 2018 by Altus Press in a facsimile edition designed to look like the unpublished issue #119 of The Spider pulp magazine.
A year later, in 1980, Dimedia, Inc. reprinted three Spider pulp novels in the larger trade paperback format. In 1984, they continued with three mass market Spider novel reprints, one in 1984 and two in 1985. These last three sported new cover paintings of the original costumed Spider by artists Ken Kelly (on volumes one and two) and Frank Kelly Freas (on volume three).
In the early 1990s, Carroll & Graf Publishers issued a series of eight mass market Spider paperbacks, each one in a double-novel format. All used original The Spider pulp magazine artwork for their covers. These 16 novels became the longest-running Spider reprint series done for the mass market paperback book market. One cover was a newly-painted version by Rafael DeSoto, the original artist.
After Carroll & Graf, several specialized small press pulp reprint houses tried a complete reprinting of The Spider series. Bold Venture Press published eight issues of The Spider. The Wildside Press offered one The Spider reprint.
Girasol Collectibles has been the most dogged of them all. It has reissued the novels as both a series of single pulp novel facsimile editions as well as re-typeset stories in "pulp double" trade paperbacks. Both series use The Spider pulp magazine artwork for their covers. Every Spider novel has been put back into print as part of Girasol's ambitious program.
In 2007, New York science fiction publisher Baen Books published a single trade paperback featuring three Spider novel reprints. In 2008, they released a second companion trade paperback of Spider reprints. In 2009, Baen issued both volumes as mass market paperbacks. One of the three novels in the second omnibus stars another Popular Publications pulp character, The Octopus. The Baen editions sported new Spider cover paintings by noted graphic designer and comics artist Jim Steranko. Steranko had also illustrated 27 of the 28 covers (Mobsmen On The Spot used a George Rozen cover from the original pulp run) for the 28 1970s mass-market reprint volumes of (he did second covers for five of the titles' second printings) rival pulp hero The Shadow, published by Pyramid Books and HBJ/Jove Books.
Also in 2007, Moonstone Books published an original anthology of brand new Spider short stories entitled The Spider Chronicles. In 2013, Moonstone published a second anthology, The Spider: Extreme Prejudice featuring 12 more new Spider short stories.
In late 2009, Doubleday's Science Fiction Book Club reprinted in hardcover Baen's second Spider three-in-one volume from the previous year. This became the first Spider hardcover edition ever published.
In August 2009, Age of Aces reprinted The Spider's Black Police trilogy in a single volume.
In October 2012, Moonstone Books published an original Spider novel, Shadow of Evil, by CJ Henderson.
The Vintage Library has 34 licensed Spider novel reprints available in the PDF format. For a small fee, each one can be downloaded from their website.
In August, 2018 Altus Press launched The Wild Adventures of The Spider book series. The first entry was written by Will Murray. The Doom Legion saw Richard Wentworth team up with James Christopher, aka Operator 5, and G-8, two of Popular Publications top heroes. A sequel, Fury in Steel has been announced for 2019.
Spider comics and graphic novels
In the early 1990s, The Spider and its characters were reinterpreted in comic book form by Timothy Truman for Eclipse Comics. As noted in Comics Scene #19, Truman set his version of The Spider in the "1990s as seen by the 1930s". Elements of this version of The Spider's milieu included airships as common transportation, the survival of the League of Nations into the near past (Wentworth meets Ram Singh during an intervention into India/Pakistan), and World War II, if it ever happened, taking place differently. This series featured an African-American Commissioner Kirkpatrick.
Moonstone Books started a new Spider graphic novel series, in which installments are structured more like illustrated prose stories than traditional panel-by-panel comics. In March 2011, the same publisher offered the first issue of a more traditional Spider comic book, with art by veteran creator Pablo Marcos.
In August 2011, Dynamite Entertainment announced that they were going to produce a brand new, updated Spider comic book series, written by novelist David Liss; the first issue was released in May 2012. The Spider's costume in this series is based on the one worn by actor Warren Hull in Columbia's 1940s Spider movie serials, but the black costume's web lines are rendered in blood red instead of white. This comics series depicts The Spider and his allies fighting crime in a modern-day U. S. In 2013, Dynamite announced that issue #18 of The Spider would be its last.
In December 2012, Dynamite released the first issue of Masks, an eight-issue comic book miniseries that teams The Spider with Dynamite's other pulp hero-based comic book characters, including: the Green Hornet and Kato, The Shadow, and a 1930s descendant of Zorro, among others. Together, they fight a powerful criminal syndicate, which, along with its gangster henchmen, secretly controls New York City through the corrupt and powerful Justice Party, which has seized complete control over the city and its citizens. This miniseries, set in the Depression Era of the 1930s, is not in the same universe/story continuity as Dynamite's main Spider comic book series. The story is based on The Spider Magazine novels "The City That Paid To Die", "The Spider at Bay", and "Scourge of the Black Legions" all written by Norvell Page. Page was not credited in this adaption. The completed Masks miniseries was then gathered by Dynamite into a one-volume graphic novel.
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