Book Review of The Spider vs. The Empire State: The Complete Black Police Trilogy by Norvell Page. Orchard Park, NY: Age of Aces Books, 2009. Introduction by Thomas Krabacher. $16.99 | 6″x9″ trade paperback | 430pp | ISBN: 978-0-9820950-3-4
Corporate greed, tax cuts for the wealthy, right wing cronyism – long before the Occupy Wall Street movement, this was the stuff of pulp fiction. Or at least this is part of the bleak world picture drawn in some of the depression era fiction of Popular Publications. Thomas Krabacher and Age of Aces books have republished one such portrait in The Spider vs. the Empire State, which brings together a trilogy of Spider adventures from 1938. And given today’s headlines and the current populist Occupy movement, the publication of this book is quite timely.
More than many other pulp publishers, Harry Steeger and Popular Publications worked to say something about the state of depression-era America, to reflect the feeling of helplessness that many American’s felt. This is perhaps best exemplified in the Operator #5 series in which the country suffers from foreign invasion, crumbling government, drought and starvation. This was much different from a decade earlier when much pulp fiction concerned itself with the heroes and settings of upper society – especially New York. This earlier milieu reflected the general fascination with consumption and with upward mobility of 1920s America, and can be seen in the pulps and the literature of modernism alike – think The Great Gatsby here.
But simultaneous with this was a growing distrust of the power structure; prohibition made sure of that. From the mid-1920s on, government officials, police, and business figures such as bankers were often painted in a negative light, especially in detective fiction. Hammett’s Red Harvest is a good example of this. Of course, there were still plenty of Horatio Alger-type fantasies of capitalism, such as Street and Smith’s Fame and Fortune (1928 – 1929), but by the depression, these rang increasingly untrue and became rarer and rarer.
And if the economic promise of capitalism had betrayed the people, there was likewise the feeling that the structure of government had betrayed them as well. The rise of vigilante heroes in the pulps can be seen as a result of a vision that the government’s infrastructure was weak or corrupt, unable to handle the problems of depression era America (or worse, had caused them). And the popularity of heroes like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and, of course, The Spider who worked under the law but who were guided with strict moral codes of right and wrong, was also a reaction against the kind of right-wing vigilante justice of the 1920s embodied in the wild popularity of the KKK. By the mid-1930s, such conservative populist movements were seen as fascist organizations akin to those coming to prominence in Europe. It was exactly in opposition to such forces that pulp vigilantes arose. For example, Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams whose first appearance in “Knights of the Open Palm” (Black Mask, 1923) has him battling the Klan. This claim is troubling though given the unavoidable xenophobia of many of the populist pulp adventures – oddly enough both The Spider and Operator #5 participated in much Yellow Perilism (despite the fact that Steeger was a die-hard proponent of Civil Rights).
The Spider is just such a hero.
Inspired by Street and Smith’s success with The Shadow, The Spider was invented in 1933 by Steeger and Canadian author R.T.M. Scott, more famous for the Secret Service Smith stories, but the character was quickly taken over by Norvell Page under the house name Grant Stockbridge. The Spider, in actuality wealthy socialite and WWI vet Richard Wentworth, was constantly caught between the criminals and the law, pursued by both for his brutal street justice. He was thought of as one of the most violent, ruthless, and frenetic of the pulp heroes that competed against The Shadow on the newsstand. For the most part, The Spider faced super villains whose disregard for life was played out on a massive scale – and this is certainly true for the September – November 1938 issues that makes up The Spider vs. the Empire State, though the dimension of political criticism is more than usual, as Krabacher points out in his fine contextual introduction.
The themes of corporate and governmental corruption are quickly established in the story’s opening as Wentworth and Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick argue about internal corruption of the police force and the state officials recently brought to power by the conservative Party of Justice: “God, Kirk. Can’t you see the danger? The public officials were put in office as puppets – to take orders. They can be handled and controlled as readily by criminals as by the financiers who back the Party of Justice” (35). Wentworth/The Spider’s fears quickly come to fruition as a tax bill is passed which “puts ninety percent of the burden on the lower and middle brackets of income – leaves the big-money men almost tax-free” (37) – and worse, allows tax collectors to seize property if taxes aren’t paid on demand. Things go from bad to worse as the financiers are quickly murdered and the criminal-backed state government establishes The Black Police, a militia whose power transcends that of local and state police. And with this, the link between the fears of greed, corruption, and fascism is complete. Soon, bands of the SS-like Black Police are torturing citizens, squeezing money out of the working classes. And only The Spider and his band of rebels can stop them.
The vision of America in these issues of The Spider is dystopian: extreme and brutal. And founded on real concerns and fears of depression-era America. The pulps were the reading material of the populace, and as such had a closer relationship with their readership than most other forms of magazines at the time. Thomas Krabacher’s introduction does a good job contextualizing these fears and tensions of the years leading up to the Second World War which surface in the story, citing fascism in Europe, Huey Long’s political machine, and Father Coughlin’s Christian Front. Similarly, Chris Kalb’s design highlights these submerged tensions within the story – especially the cover illustration – while still conveying the pulp materiality in reproductions of the original covers and interior illustrations.
Ultimately though, The Spider vs. the Empire State offers adventure: fast paced, violent, sensational, and exciting. There are still plenty of pulp conventions and leaps of faith: plagues, hidden identities, evil masterminds, close calls, dog fights, prison breaks – even concentration camps. Indeed, at times it reads like a story of the French resistance rather than a pulp novel, and in its sweeping panorama it feels more like an Operator #5 story than The Spider. In other words, there is plenty here for both the pulp fan and the cultural historian. And either way, I couldn’t help feeling an odd resonance between the political situation described at the story’s beginning and that in the headlines today. But whereas there is injustice, political protest, and populist upheaval in The Spider vs the Empire State, there is very little peaceful protest; the closest thing to a drum circle is the drumming percussion of machine guns – usually being emptied into a crowd of civilians. Hence the need for Spider and “God helping, the Spider would find its prey! And then … Wentworth’s head wrenched back with the force of the harsh laughter that forced its way rasping from his throat. It was flat and mocking, that laughter, strangely sinister – the laughter of the Spider whose cape cloaked the wings of Death itself!”
With prose like this, who could help but join in the Spider’s dark and ecstatic cackle?
–David M. Earle
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