(Editor’s note: Most Rap Sheet readers probably know Gary Phillips best as the Shamus-nominated creator of both doughnut-shop-owning Los Angeles private eye Ivan Monk [Violent Spring] and Las Vegas showgirl-turned-mob courier Martha Chainey [High Hand]. But he has also branched out to work in the comic books field. Below, he writes about taking on a classic--albeit, not particularly famous--pulp character for publisher Moonstone in a series to be introduced next year.)
(Left) A mock-up of the cover for Moonstone’s Spider #1, in which Phillips’ Operator 5 will debut. Illustration by Dan Brereton.
I first discovered pulp fiction when I was a teenager and Bantam Books was republishing Doc Savage stories in paperback for 50 cents apiece. Initially, I had no idea who this Doc Savage was other than he had a cool name and his adventures were introduced by great magazine covers, which turned out to have been painted by commercial artist James Bama. Titles such as Land of Always-Night, Mystery Under the Sea, Death in Silver, and Resurrection Day (in which Clark Savage Jr., aka Doc--who was not only a giant of a man, supremely trained in the fighting arts, but a scientist, gadgeteer, and surgeon as well--brings a pharaoh back to life to run amok in Depression-era New York City) had me hooked. I’d find out later that Lester Dent, who had created the protagonist and his crew for Street & Smith Publications, pounded out most of those monthly novel-length tales for more than 16 years, while also writing western and detective yarns. In some issues of Doc Savage Magazine, Dent (using various names) wrote all of the stories--not just the Doc main tale, but the short stories too. This in a magazine that originally cost 10 cents for all that pulp goodness.
The success of those Bantam reprints incited reissues as well of The Shadow, featuring a character not created by, but certainly realized by Walter Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant), an amateur magician and friend of Harry Houdini. Indeed, back in the 1930s, The Shadow was the number-one seller and Doc Savage number two for Street & Smith. After The Shadow came reprints of The Spider, starring a character who began as rival Popular Publications’ answer to Street & Smith’s vigilante with the hawk nose and sinister laugh. Like The Shadow, The Spider hefted twin .45-caliber automatics, but as I recall, he was far more bloodthirsty than his predecessor, shooting unarmed villains in the head. “Millionaire playboy” Richard Wentworth underwent a psychological transformation when he put in his set of false vampire fangs and a fright wig to become The Spider, the “Master of Men.”
Another of my discoveries as a teenager was The Avenger, a character reportedly “brainstormed” by Dent and Gibson and then handed off to writer Paul Ernst. In The Avenger magazine, Richard Henry Benson was a career adventurer and millionaire (not an uncommon background among pulp heroes--Doc Savage, for instance, got his money from a hidden gold mine in Latin America) whose wife and daughter were thrown out of an airplane by gangsters. Benson was so devastated by this tragedy that his face turned chalk white and dead (“like something out of a cemetery”), though the flesh also became malleable enough that he could mold it to resemble the countenance of anyone he chose. (This “facial affliction,” though, was later dropped.) Interesting for the time period, too, was that a pair of The Avenger’s crew were black, husband-and-wife graduates of the Tuskegee Institute.
Flash forward. Maybe it’s no coincidence that as the United States reels through the Great Recession, pulp has returned--to comics. It doesn’t hurt that a number of the characters from the pulps of the Great Depression have fallen into public domain. At any rate, DC Comics earlier this year introduced its “First Wave” series. This line offers a kind of alternative reality--alternative to the DC superhero universe, that is--in which Doc Savage, the Bat-Man (returning Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego to its Shadow-like roots, complete with automatic pistol), the Blackhawks (aviator mercenaries), Rima the Jungle Girl (yep, that’s what she’s called), Black Canary, and The Spirit exist together in a world of zeppelins and cell phones. Reviews have been mixed on how these stories have played out so far, but they still hold promise.
Meanwhile, Moonstone Books, an indie outfit headquartered out of Calumet City, west of Chicago, has launched its “Return of the Originals” (ROTO) pulp line.
Off and on in the past, I’ve done some writing for that company. The Moonstone folks hold the comic-book license for Kolchak: The Night Stalker, based on the 1970s teleflicks and TV series. They’ve presented monster-hunting reporter Carl Kolchak in prose works, comics, and “wide-vision stories.” Wide-vision is Moonstone’s term, applied to works that combine prose pages with full-page illustrations. I’ve done short stories for their Kolchak: The Night Stalker Casebook and Kolchak: The Night Stalker Chronicles anthologies, plus another brief tale for Moonstone’s The Avenger Chronicles. In addition, I’ve used a character--Louis Trent, “The Envoy,” the hit man for Heaven--who I created for a one-shot Moonstone comic book (Twilight Crusade) in a short story I wrote for their Sex, Lies, and Private Eyes anthology.
As a contributor to the ROTO line, I’ve been tasked with composing the new and continuing adventures of a licensed pulp-era character Moonstone has acquired, Jimmy Christopher, Operator 5. Christopher is a World War I veteran, the son of a spy. He’s also an undercover operative for the American Intelligence Service, who takes on wild super villains, their strange weapons, and their bold schemes in order to protect democracy. Christopher appeared originally in adventures such as Revolt of the Devil Men, Invasion of the Crimson Death Cult, and a yearlong saga, The Purple Invasion (played out over 13 issues), in which America was taken over by the notorious Purple Empire, a thinly disguised Germany. The Purple Invasion is credited to Emile C. Tepperman, one of three writers (the other two being Frederick C. Davis and Wayne Rogers [born Archibald Bittner]) who penned Op 5’s adventures under the house name “Curtis Steele.” (You can check out some classic Operator 5 comic covers here.)
(Right) An unlettered interior page of Operator 5 by series artist Roberto Castro.
In terms of my approach to writing this particular pulp character, I’ll keep an eye toward nostalgia but also a foot planted firmly in the revisionist-history camp.
To get a sense of the potential readers for Moonstone’s ROTO line--which is just now being rolled out--I’ve been reading some of the blogs devoted to pulps and comics in general, looking for reader reactions to DC’s First Wave series. It seems there are the old-school pulp enthusiasts, who want a certain kind of good guys versus bad guys story, with none of those post-modern, angst-driven, fallacy-prone main characters. Then there are the more entrenched comics fans, who don’t really give a damn about the historical pulp characters, so are wondering just what the fuss is about. And, in the middle, you mostly don’t hear from what I presume are comics readers who have grown up on Batman as the Dark Knight, The Punisher dispatching Lord knows how many mafiosi, and Wolverine skewering foes a’plenty. Which is to say I want to split some differences here to create interest in Jimmy’s adventures.
As I’ve written on the Moonstone Web site, my interest in resurrecting the Operator 5 series is to emphasize the psychological toll that going undercover for the U.S. government has on Jimmy Christopher. After all, he must undertake questionable acts at times in order to maintain his disguise; how does that affect his relationships with his lady love, reporter Diane Elliot, as well as with others? Also, I’m very interested in providing some depth between Jimmy and his dad, John Christopher, a retired spy once known as Q-6. What was it like growing up with such a secretive father, who at some point made the decision to train his son in spycraft--to lie, cheat, and steal in the service of his country? Additionally I plan to weave in real-life historical figures and situations from the Great Depression, hoping to better ground the character and his life in the time period of his stories.
My first Operator 5 story, “The Faithful,” involves a charismatic “America for Americans” preacher intent on assassinating a Marcus Garvey-type figure who leads a back-to-Africa movement for black folks in Harlem. Christopher has infiltrated the preacher’s goon squad. “The Faithful” will debut as the back-up feature in Moonstone’s new Spider comic book, premiering this coming January. I hope the mystery prose community will give this and future Operator 5 stories a read.