When you think of a grim, intimidating, darkly-clad super-hero fighting crime in a violence-ridden city during the night, but changing into a wealthy, frivolous and handsome guy during the day, you probably think of the Batman. However, this formula was first used for an earlier hero. When Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger first developed their “Bat-Man” character, they patterned the hero after the best-selling pulp mystery man The Shadow. For their debut Batman tale, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”, in Detective Comics # 27 (1939), they adapted (some might say copied) the Shadow story “Partners of Peril”. Bill Finger later publicly admitted, “My first Batman script was a take-off on a Shadow story”.
Some of you may know the character only from the 1994 film The Shadow with Alec Baldwin. Well, there’s a whole lot more to the urban avenger than that. He was once a multi-media sensation, appearing on radio, pulp magazines, films, movie serials, audio adventures and comic books.
The Shadow first debuted on the radio in 1930 as the mysterious narrator of an anthology crime program called The Detective Story Hour. With his creepy voice, the shadow would open the show by saying, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime never pays. The Shadow knows!”, after which he would introduce the story of the week. The Shadow was originally voiced by James LaCurto, but soon was replaced by Frank Readick Jr. The episodes were taken directly from Detective Story Magazine. The plan was for the radio show to make the magazine more popular, but things worked backwards. The eerie narrator became so popular, fans wanted to hear more of him. That inspired the publishing company Street & Smith to begin producing a twice-monthly Shadow pulp magazine.
The Shadow magazine debuted in 1931 and was wildly popular, quickly becoming the top selling pulp magazine of the day. The first story was titled “The Living Shadow”, and was written by Walter b. Gibson, under the alias of Max Grant. (Gibson would go on to write 282 of the 325 Shadow stories published over the following 20 years.) The character was portrayed as a gun-toting vigilante in a black suit with turned-up collar, topped by a black fedora, with a red scarf and dark cloak. His true identity was pilot Kent Allard, but he took on the identity of absentee millionaire Lamont Cranston. The Shadow had several aliases, as well as a number of agents who worked for him.
The popularity of the Shadow book set the blueprint for the super hero genre and inspired a bunch of other crime-fighting pulp magazine characters such as Doc Savage, the Spider, The Avenger and Ka-Zar the Savage. He was also the creative motivation behind the Green Hornet radio show (1936) and the Batman comic book.
In 1937, interest in the Shadow was so high that the character returned to radio with his own weekly series. The first person to portray him was future cinema legend Orson Welles (writer, director and star of Citizen Kane.) After Welles left the show, various other actors took the role including, Bill Johnstone, Bret Morrison (the longest-serving voice actor, playing the Shadow for 10 years), John Archer and Steve Courtleigh. The Shadow would open each show with his trademark line, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
For the radio, the character was now given the super-powers of hypnosis and invisibility, apparently gained while travelling through Asia. Kent Allard and the other various identities of the character’s mythos were dropped and he was now only Lamont Cranston. Instead of a group of covert agents, he now had his “companion” Margo Lane. The nature of their relationship was rather vague. Lane (whose name inspired Superman’s Lois) was first voiced by Margot Stevenson, and later by Agnes Moorehead (Best known as Endora on Bewitched), Marjorie Anderson, Lesley Woods, Grace Matthews and Gertrude Warner.
The Shadow was so immensely popular that he was given four movies…The Shadow Strikes (1937); International Crime (1938); The Shadow Returns (1946) and the Missing Lady (1946). He also got a 15-chapter serial called The Shadow (1940); two unsold TV pilots, The Shadow (1954) and The Invisible Avenger (1957); and an LP audio-adventure called The Official Adventures of the Shadow (1968). The character has been adapted for comic books many times, starting in 1940, and as recently as 2014. Batman and The Shadow would finally meet in Batman #253 (1973) and Batman #259 (1974) to solve cases together. In the second story, Batman paid homage to the Shadow, admitting that the Shadow was the biggest influence in his masked career.
By the 1970s, however, the popularity of the Shadow had sadly faded. He floated in the periphery of pop culture until 1994 when the big-budget film The Shadow came out with Baldwin as the Shadow, co-starring, Penelope Anne Miller, Ian McKellen and Tim Roth. The movie didn’t do very well, failing to revitalize interest in the character. In 2006, director Sam Raimi said he wanted to make his own Shadow film but the project never materialized.
Considering how immensely popular Batman is today, it’s a real shame that his predecessor is not so well remembered these days. I hope someone does make a new Shadow movie or TV series, and renews interest in one of the most interesting and influential super heroes ever. Will it ever happen? Only the Shadow knows!