Thursday, March 16, 2023

DARK AVENGER: The Strange Saga of THE SHADOW by Will Murray

If, like me, you happened to read Will Murray’s Duende History of the Shadow Magazine back in the ‘70s, it no doubt left you wishing you had access to some of the many, many intriguing stories he described. It was a bit frustrating, because most of them were impossible to find.

Now, with Dark Avenger, a revised and expanded version of the Duende History, the Shadow’s world is a much different place. All but a few of his pulp adventures are readily available, and the biggest frustration is finding time to read them all.

Amazingly, Mr. Murray seems to found the time to read and study all 325 of those babies, and broken the 18-year run down into seven distinct phases. It’s a fascinating journey. We see our hero undergo the gradual change from a mysterious crime fighter to a guns-blazing avenger - to an urbane detective who hardly bothers to don a disguise - and finally back to some semblance of his old self. We see his true identity shift from a delicious mystery to adventurous Kent Allard, then to sophisticated Lamont Cranston, finally landing somewhere in between. And it’s not only the Shadow’s role that changes, but the identities and functions of vast cast of agents.

Equally fascinating are the forces behind the scenes, notably editor John Nanovic and others at Street and Smith, nudging Walter Gibson in different directions in an effort to please the changing market and address the changing times. We see the coming and going of Black Mask writer Theodore Tinsley (who wrote 28 of the 325) and the odd tenure of Bruce Elliott (who did 15), then coming full circle back to Gibson.

I was surprised to learn how late in the series super-villains like Shiwan Khan made the scene, and how late the radio show began to infect the magazine (1937). The Great Shadow Boom of 1940 was another revelation, spurred by the Victor Jory serial and spilling over into the comic strip and comic books.

The book’s narrative is a mystery and adventure in itself, and a real page-turner. I was itching to discover what changes the writers would come up with—or have forced upon them—from one phase to the next, making it hard to put down.

I came to identify closely with Walter Gibson (who was of course closest to it all, writing 268 of the suckers) and Will had me cheering his all his triumphs and feeling his pain when things went sour.

The wealth of information and detail here is truly staggering. I came away with at least half a dozen adventures I’m itching to read right away, and host of others on the back burner.

Dark Avenger is a must-read for pulp hero fans, and anyone interested in the history of the pulps in general. Get yourself a copy quick, or the Shadow will know.

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