Long before the turmoil of puberty, back in the days before cable, and when I had exhausted our little library of books, I used to listen to shows from the Golden Age of Radio (the 30’s to 50’s). My father had bought a dozen cassettes from a company called “Radio Reruns” that offered about a hundred shows from various genres. On rainy or stormy days and nights, when I couldn’t go out into the woods, I would sit down in an old recliner with my portable cassette player (a foot long, and about six pounds) balanced on my lap. I would insert show after show, and would listen to them time and again, until I knew the words to every one. While some shows like Inner Sanctum, Suspense and the Lone Ranger were very enjoyable, the show that captured my imagination more than all of the others combined was The Shadow.
For those who are not familiar with this character, he was a mysterious figure clad in black trenchcoat, a wide-brimmed slouch hat, and a long red scarf. He would appear from the shadows to dole out justice, his twin .45s spitting fire into the night, his chilling laugh echoing through the dark streets. He possessed “the power to cloud men’s minds”, and would rely upon a number of agents whose lives he saved to aid him in his struggle against evil. There was the playboy Harry Vincent, the cabby Moe Shrevitz, the eagle-eyed Hawkeye, the Chinese physician Dr. Tam, the communications expert Burbank, and of course the beautiful Margo Lane, among many others. By day, the Shadow would disguise himself in numerous disguises, including that of the laissez-faire millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston. But by night, he would become the dark avenger, a force of nature… a judge, a jury and an executioner emerging from the darkness to strike fear in the heart of criminals.
The Shadow was also the first true multi-media phenomenon. Eager fans devoured two novels a month in his magazine (of which poor Maxwell Grant, a.k.a, Walter Gibson, wrote one or two a week). His radio show was consistently the highest rated on any station, and featured the likes of Orson Welles and John Archer as the title character. Movies and serials thrilled people in the cinemas. Comic books appeared all-too-briefly on the stands, and the comic strip was syndicated in the papers. Millions of people belonged to “The Shadow Club” and splurged on merchandise of every shape and form. Everywhere you went, you heard the famous tagline, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” followed by mocking laughter. Scores of imitators appeared in The Shadow’s wake, including Batman.
In recent years, The Shadow has popped up occasionally. There have been several series of modern comic books (some certainly more adult than others), and there was a decent 1994 film directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Alec Baldwin, which didn’t fare so well at the box office. (Sam Raimi, now known as the director of Spider-Man, wrote another screenplay about the Shadow, but couldn’t secure the rights… that film eventually became Darkman.)
But the real interest in The Shadow has manifested itself in another way: the Internet. Up till recently, there was no problem finding the original 1930’s-1950’s pulp novels, ready for download from a number of sites. You could view all of the amazing and lurid covers of the magazine. You could listen to the original radio broadcasts, adorned with crackling sound and melodramatic acting. And of course you could discuss and share information about this character in numerous forums. Then, suddenly, a few months ago, most of the fan-driven sites disappeared from the face of the Net.
What happened? Conde Nast, the modern-day proprietor of the trademark The Shadow, and the publisher of such magazines as Glamour, GQ, Vogue, Wired and Modern Bride, has sent a cease-and-desist letter to all the fans hosting information about the character. Since few people have the money to front an expensive legal battle, most of the webmasters simply threw up their hands in frustration and walked away. There is speculation that Conde Nast will be licensing the character for books and another movie, but so far I haven’t heard anything confirmed. What gets me angry is that Conde Nast seems unaware of the power of the Internet to foster a community of fans that do far more than a PR firm ever could. The dime- novels, radio shows and covers are symbols of another time, and would not be valued today by very many people except ardent fans and nostalgia seekers. What is the harm in letting the fan sites promote their character?
There are still a few sites up and running where the webmasters have either not received the letter, or have decided to stand up against the publisher.
- The Shadow Fan is a fairly recent site with plenty of background on the Shadow and his various media incarnations.
- The Shadow: Master of Darkness is another comprehensive site.
- BlackMask Online is an absolutely wonderful collection of books and literature, and their Shadow collection possesses (almost?) the entire collection — in multiple formats, to boot.
- Various OTR (Old Time Radio) stations on Live365 play episodes of the Shadow, among many other marvellous radio shows from yesteryear.
On a related note, I was digging through a few directories of graphics and found a wallpaper that I put together a few years ago with the then-freely-available covers from the old pulps. Download it by clicking on the thumbnail at right, if you wish. The colours will make your eyes begin to vibrate after a short time: don’t say I didn’t warn you. 😉