If you’re familiar with The Spider, skip down until after the cover image. This will take a little while…
Back in the heyday of the pulps, in the 1930s, someone came up with the hero pulp: a pulp magazine centered around one character, who starred in a monthly short novel. They also had a few short stories and whatnot featuring secondary characters, or just random people, but the focus was the title character. The pulp characters still famous today—The Shadow, Doc Savage—built their success off having their own magazine. They weren’t the only big hero pulps, though, and other big names include G-8 (and his battle aces), Operator No. 5, The Phantom, and The Spider.
The Spider, Master of Men, alias Richard Wentworth, was created in 1933 as a competitor to The Shadow by editor Harry Steeger. Wentworth was a member of the idle rich who dressed up as The Spider to fight crime—something that popped up quite frequently in the pulps before Batman arrived to make it his thing. (Speaking of Batman, Wentworth’s ally/antagonist is the noble police chief, who assumes Wentworth is The Spider, but never has enough evidence to lock the Spider away for good.) I guess the idea of a billionaire who used his money to aid the masses resonated with the Depression-era audience. Unlike his competitors, The Spider relied on his pistols and his wits, less so on gadgets and companions, though he had a Sikh chauffeur and a fiancé. He also had a code of honor: he felt no remorse about gunning down underworld thugs, but refused to hurt innocent people. He also left spider images in red ink on the foreheads of enemy corpses.
The man who would write most of The Spider novels was Norvall Page, a legend in the pulp field. Page wrote dozens of Spider stories from 1933 until 1943, writing nearly all of The Spider tales. He also wrote a solid chunk of other pulp fare, namely mysteries and gangland/detective capers. He went on to do a number of scripts for The Shadow and The Phantom radio serials, but is mostly remembered for his work on The Spider.
The Spider was popular enough for a pair of movie serials in the 1940s, and later some comic book interpretations, but is largely unknown today. Baen Books did two different Spider anthologies in 2007 and 2008, but that looks to be the end of their run. Girasol Collectibles puts out a line of reprints, at $35 a pop. The latest Spider release, back in 2009, was from Age of Aces books, a company largely focused on reprinting sky ace pulps. That’s the one we’re dealing with today. A trade paperback weighing in at 418 pages, and costing just $17, it’s a chunk of action for not a lot of money, and its looks loving beautiful. See:
In the fall of 1938, editor Steeger and writer Page got the idea for a trilogy of Spider novels with heavy real-world inspiration. The obvious part was from the tide of black-shirted, jackbooted fascism sweeping across Europe, but there are other bits in there as well. For example, FDR wasn’t on solid ground at that point in his presidency, and is portrayed as such in the stories. (Roosevelt’s Democrats ended up losing a number of senate seats the month after the Black Police trilogy was released.) The first of the trilogy was released a year before Germany invaded Poland, so there’s a weird feeling of how prophetic the arc is, echoing the fears of everyday Americana in an era of great upheaval.
Thus came the Black Police Trilogy: “The City That Paid To Die” from August 1938, “The Spider at Bay” that September, and “Scourge of the Black Legions” in October. For Spider titles, these aren’t bad, though ones with Satan in the name (like “Satan’s Murder Machines”) were a lot catchier.
The basis for the trilogy requires an Olympic-quality leap of faith, as it’s never clearly explained, but a group of scheming industrialists have taken over New York, buying corrupt politicians and swinging the election in their favor. Now, they’re rewriting the state’s laws, enslaving and brutalizing citizens with the aid of their Black Police. These Black Policemen are freed criminals, and anyone unable to pay random exorbitant taxes is forced into concentration camps. (Mind you, all this is before the book starts; the plot hits the ground running and doesn’t let up.) The President and federal government can’t intervene legally, without being accused of starting a civil war by a hostile senate. So it’s up to Richard Wentworth—The Spider—and his companions, being the only force standing in the way of the total occupation and enslavement of New York.
Age of Aces notes that their main design goal was to create a collector-quality book at an accessible price; they didn’t just succeed, they blew every other pulp reprint out of the water with this one. The book won an Indie Excellence award for interior design, which it deserves. Hell, it should have won for exterior design; the shades of black, red, and white create an oppressive, chaotic atmosphere, while keeping things simple with retro-style silhouettes and iconography. The interior is amazing: the original art is used as full-page spreads separating the three individual novels, while each chapter starts with a black page with white text. Very stark, very slick, and seeing the alternating page colors from the side reminds me of prison bars and uniforms. Age of Aces also had a media blitz to go along with the release, including a terrific promotional site.
Norvell Page is a solid writer; not the best in the pulp market, but far from the worst. In terms of action, suspense, and twists, he doesn’t relent: this is one of those books that never slows down, and even then, it’s ready to start-up moments (pages) later. Page isn’t exactly the world’s best writer—the words competent and workmanlike come to mind—but compared to some of the Shadow stories I’ve read, he’s pretty good. Not extraordinary, but competent enough to write a good story. Page’s prose is that very fast-paced, present-tense, third-person, kind of florid writing that goes along with the pulp fiction territory. Don’t expect a lot of description or internalization, or character depth. But at least he knows how to build a sentence and pack it full of action, even if it’s not as pretty or creative.
The introduction notes that The Spider had some progressive undertones; these are visible and worth noting. Not only does Wentworth have a Sikh butler (Ram Singh) who helps him out, but early on he gets aid from the Chinese lord of Chinatown… a far cry from the first “yellow peril” Spider tale I read. Wentworth’s fiancé, Rita, is also shown to be quite capable of intelligent thought, and even pulls Wentworth’s bacon out of the fire. I can’t think of many other female characters in the pre-feminist era who could pack a gun or save their fiancé hero’s life. Even if she has to have the Sikh drive the car.
With the introduction, the website, and the hype, Age of Aces focuses a lot of time on the story-arc as an allegory for fascism. As the introduction points out, this was written in a very unstable period of time: despite Chamberlain’s announcement of “peace in our time,” we have fascism rising across the world, purges and expansion within the Soviet Union, Spanish and Chinese civil wars, and an unpopular president having a tough time New Deal-ing the U.S. out of a Great Depression. The book does relay an interesting perspective on late-1930s political fears. But the allegory breaks down when compared to the real-world atrocities: the book shows some instances of brutality, with its own concentration camps and a Black Police-sponsored plague, a lot of whippings and beatings and a murder machine, but this is all very tame compared to the horrors that would unfold in the following years. Contrary to the hype, Page wasn’t writing a political statement, or a condemnation of fascism; he wrote an action novel inspired by the headlines.
In a similar vein, despite all the allegorical posturing of Black Police and concentration camps, this is still just a very standard pulp tale. Underneath their uniforms, The Spider’s foes are just the same old thugs and gangland rejects that crop up in many other pulp stories. The first Spider tale I read involved some “yellow peril” magician of the Orient who set a plague of spiders, snakes, and vermin on New York. One Baen book includes a story of The Spider taking on mechanical robots. Page did some great work with eccentric weird science and occult villains, none of which is showcased here. For me, the Black Police loose some of their power (and allegorical charm) when they’re just thugs ala Mugsy and Jimmy Noodles in black suits. There’s one horrific murder machine, but it has less of an impact (and fewer pages) than an attempt to blow up a dam. That’s right, a flood is a greater danger than most everything else The Spider faces in this novel.
Page’s cliffhangers and twists have a habit of becoming redundant, and the book drags over its course even while Page is flying along. There’s no limit to the number of times Wentworth finds his companions locked away in a concentration camp or other prison cell, forcing him to free them. And the rebellion also swings wildly from victory to defeat, back and forth; one minute, they’re marching on New York City, the next, there’s thirty beplagued men left and the locals want nothing to do with them.
The pacing itself is frenetic; at points, it feels like things are moving too fast, as many interesting plots become footnotes because of the breakneck pace. At other times, plot lines drift away, or are replaced by earlier plot lines left dangling… Namely, Wentworth’s attempts to find the mastermind behind the Black Police, which pops up to override everything else going on at the moment. There’s a question of focus when Wentworth is assaulting Albany, in the middle of a Black Police-induced plague, and both those plot lines are abandoned in his quest to find The Master.
This is, in part, a flaw with the format; as a three-part pulp serial, it’s in Page’s best interest to keep drawing out the story, keeping things fast and action-packed, so that the readers come back for more. But I feel that Page should have taken things slower, and cut down on some of the plots and action scenes to focus on the more interesting set-pieces he creates.
The Spider Vs. The Empire State is an average Spider tale, despite all its political metaphors, and could use some sprucing up. I wouldn’t say it’s a good starting place for someone new to The Spider or hero pulps in general, as there’s a lot of better Spider tales out there. The buildup from the introduction left me disappointed with the actual story, which is far less of a grand allegory than is assumed. As a Spider tale, it’s standard: well-rounded without being too interesting, filled with good ideas that aren’t as developed as they could be. That all said, it’s great entertainment, and a damn good pulp tale of action, adventure, and crime-busting. And at $16.99, the book is a steal. If you can get past some of Page’s flaws it’s more than worth what you paid for.