“Hahahahahahaha. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Ahahahahaha. The Shadow knows.” This is how the radio play always starts before the narrator introduces the episode. “The Shadow,” the narrator says, is “a man of mystery who strikes terror in the very souls of sharpsters, lawbreakers, and criminals.”
For people of now advancing age, The Shadow had a regular appointment with their much younger selves as their families sat in the living room on Sunday evenings and tuned in to the weekly radio serial. As a character for radio, The Shadow was given the mysterious power to cloud men’s’ minds so he could appear to be invisible, a trick he learned from Far Eastern hypnotists. The time when radio was dominant is a fascinating era of human history, in that audio productions were the shared experience for families of the day and the actual imagery was left to the listener to provide. This sort of radio play has made a comeback in recent years in the form of podcasts like the very popular Welcome to Night Vale but for about 80 years, visual media like television has dominated.
The Shadow wasn’t initially involved in any kind of supernatural phenomena, as he was initially created to be the fictional host of a radio detective serial. He was more like the Crypt-Keeper from the old EC Comics line (made famous by John Kassir’s portrayal in the 1990s HBO series Tales from the Crypt) than a major protagonist like Batman, at least at first. When people started to clamor for more Shadow, the radio production company hired a writer, Walter Gibson, to produce stories for hire featuring The Shadow as a main character. Gibson was a magician (and as a practicing amateur myself, this is something close to my own heart) who had ghostwritten books with the likes of Harry Houdini, and he turned his skills to the pulp world.
The radio play was produced for decades (1930s to 1950s) alongside a growing line of pulp novels, mostly written by Gibson under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant, and eventually expanded into comic books, failed television shows, and films, including a 1994 movie starring Alec Baldwin during his initial Hollywood heyday. None of the TV shows made it past pilots, and the films were not highlights of the industry, with the critical flop that was the Baldwin vehicle pretty much putting the final nail in The Shadow’s coffin. At some point director Sam Raimi was attached to a reboot project, but it went nowhere.
The Shadow as a character is a detective in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, a genius with extensive knowledge of obscure subject areas and scientific methods, and like Holmes, he was trained in martial arts and marksmanship. The modern analog in comic books and films derived from them is clearly Batman, but he’s hardly a novel character in the history of crime fiction. Despite the fact that The Shadow typically carries matched .45 caliber automatic pistols (a staple of the time for good reason: the M1911 Colt .45 is one of the most reliable pistols of all time), he’s not hard-boiled in the way Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe are. To further differentiate him from the more realistic elements of straight detective pulps, the plot developments rely upon mysticism and minor magic. The hypnotism and sleight-of-hand type of magic tricks The Shadow uses to intimidate criminals are fascinating, even as they are over-hyped and supernaturally effective, which is part of the reason he was important to me.
My own introduction to The Shadow was through the radio serials, which my father often talked about listening to as a child. Between “The Shadow” and “The Inner Sanctum,” he and my mother regaled me with the glories of old time radio. With the advent of the Internet and its push to mainstream audiences in the 1990s, I was able to download and listen to the old serials. While preparing for this article, I relistened to a September 1937 episode called “Deathhouse Rescue.” Even though The Shadow was acted by famed icon Orson Welles, it doesn’t hold up as well as could be hoped. Perhaps it’s more because of the way society has changed than because of the story. Our media consumption seems to require more sophistication than the old pulp serials. The voice acting from the episode is decent (it is Orson Welles, after all), but the heavy-handed music intrudes more than it assists, and the plot is rather thin.
I also sought out and read The Living Shadow, the first pulp novel of the character and something I’d never read before, but it is perhaps even more dated than the radio serial, which makes some sense as it was written about seven years before “Deathhouse Rescue” aired. The dialogue is full of racial bias (unfortunately a commonplace feature in the old pulps), with caricatures of people based on all manner of stereotypes. But I certainly wasn’t expecting the “Lawdy sah” kind of stuff that even contemporary pulp writers like Lovecraft, Howard, and Burroughs would never have dreamed of using in their own stories. Your eyes might roll as hard as mine did, especially if you picture the crows from Disney’s Dumbo speaking these bits of atrocious dialogue. I forced myself through it and managed to enjoy a fairly decent, if by-the-numbers, plot involving jewel thefts and murders among the Chinese immigrant population, all masterminded by a white man masquerading as a Chinese man. I particularly enjoyed this bit as it alludes to some magic history, specifically the magician Chung Ling Soo who was secretly a white American named William Robinson. It’s a nice subtle nod for anyone aware of the history.
The Shadow’s influence on pop culture is pretty widespread, even as the character himself fades into obscurity. Batman in particular owes a lot to The Shadow, a debt Bill Finger and Bob Kane (the co-creators of Batman) acknowledged early on. As a mysterious figure who operates at night to corral criminals and sow the seeds of justice in an unjust world, it’s clear to see where the lineage lies. The Shadow has no real compunction against killing bad guys if it is necessary, and even early Batman comics follow the trope. But nearly every shadowy vigilante figure who uses the night, darkness, and intimidation to enact justice can trace their lineage directly to The Shadow. Just consider characters like Marvel’s Daredevil, Alan Moore’s V from V for Vendetta, Sam Raimi’s Darkman, or even Disney’s Darkwing Duck (who was deliberately patterned on The Shadow, most obviously with his style of dress). Though his popularity is no longer what it was, it’s safe to say, if you’ll forgive the pun, The Shadow looms over much of modern media.