Writer Will Murray on the History of Pulp

Mon, May 18th, 2009 at 3:58pm PDT | Updated: May 21st, 2009 at 9:43am

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer
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Will Murray is a man who wears many hats. He’s a journalist with a long association with “Starlog” Magazine and other publications. He’s a fiction writer who’s contributed to many anthologies and written dozens of novels in the Destroyer series. Working from unfinished plots of Lester Dent's, Murray also wrote Doc Savage novels under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson.

Murray is also known as the definitive pulp historian, whether discussing Doc Savage and the Shadow or H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Murray began in fandom in the 1970s and the “Duende History of the Shadow” Magazine, which he edited and wrote the bulk of, remains one of the most comprehensive looks at the Shadow ever published. When his longtime friend Anthony Tollin obtained the reprint rights to the Shadow and Doc Savage, one of his first calls was to Murray, who for years has been contributing biographical and contextual essays to every volume.

Sanctum Books is expanding its line this summer with reprints of “The Avenger” and “The Whisperer,” and this fall will see the release of an unpublished Lester Dent novel from Hard Case Crime in a deal that Murray brokered. Additionally, Murray is writing the introduction to “The Marvel Omnibus,” in which he discusses Martin Goodman and the move from the pulps to comics. “The Whisperer,” whose main character is Police Commissioner James Gordon, is a favorite of Murray’s and has never been reprinted, and he took the time out to talk to CBR News about these crimefighters and his many overlapping careers.

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CBR: What is it that fascinates you about pulp fiction?

WILL MURRAY: The pulp fiction I’ve been attracted to is half the heroic stuff and half the unusual writers like Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Talbot Mundy. When I first encountered that stuff in the late sixties/early seventies, I’d been a longtime reader of Marvel and DC comics and the attraction of things like the Shadow, Doc Savage, etc. were to my teenage eyes a more interesting format for heroic fiction than comic books. I also had been listening to the Green Hornet and the Shadow on radio in the early sixties, back when I first started to read comics.

You’re the literary agent for Lester Dent’s estate. How did that happen and how does it connect to going on to write Doc Savage?

They go together, indirectly. I first began corresponding with Mrs. Dent in the mid-seventies when I started publishing and editing the fanzine called “Duende.” I was reaching out to anybody who was connected with the pulps. Mrs Dent and I struck up a correspondence and I met her at a convention in 1978 probably, and she invited me to visit her and look at the Dent manuscripts.

I suggested to her, “You have some potential for income in some of these things.” A lot of it was spring-boarded off the discovery of The Red Spider. I brokered that deal between Bantam Books and Mrs. Dent and Conde Nast, which was a difficult deal because she had the only manuscript and they had the copyright. As a fan I wanted the story published at all costs. As someone who cared about Mrs. Dent and was keenly aware that she received no Doc Savage money from the Bantam reprints, I wanted to see that she got something for this.

In the last couple years between restoring the Doc Savage novels for Sanctum Books, I just sold an unpublished Dent novel to Hard Case Crime and I sold a short story to Otto Penzler for his upcoming Black Mask anthology. We’re having quite a period of renaissance here.

How did the deal with Hard Case for “Honey in his Mouth” happen?

Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime contacted me last year about contributing to his new Gabriel Hunt adventure series and since we were in touch, I said, I have this Lester Dent story from the fifties that’s right up your alley. He was a Dent fan and you don’t often have an opportunity to do something unpublished by a significant fiction writer. It was just one of those lucky deals. And the cover is great. I love the cover.

How did you end up connected with Sanctum Books?

I’ve known Anthony Tollin since the seventies. Tony and I have been in touch pretty regularly over the years so when he had the opportunity to do these reprints I was the first person he reached out to and said would you be involved would you be part of this process. It happened very quickly. For a while we were doing two books a month regularly. Now it’s getting to be two and one half or three books because he’s launching The Avenger and The Whisperer.

With The Avenger, we’re doing them chronologically, because it’s a short series and it’s chronologically dependent in the beginning on characters being introduced. With The Whisperer we thought, it’s a short series, let’s just do them chronologically. I started to reread them and I didn’t like the second story. I read basically the first fourteen novels and enjoyed them with a couple of exceptions and said, okay we have to look at it from the standpoint of the covers. A good cover is necessary so when we pair any of these things one of the challenges is what’s the front cover. We don’t want to have two stories with two great covers because then we’re wasting a cover.

I realized the world of The Whisperer, an unnamed city that has qualities of Chicago, New York and San Francisco -- almost like Gotham City -- is like a Warner Bros. pulp fantasy. It clicked one day that this guy is modeled after Jimmy Cagney. He’s got red hair, he’s short, he’s very fiery tempered, he’s got a very staccato speech pattern and he’s got this habit of always putting his feet up on his desk. He’s the Commissioner of Police. And he also keeps referring to criminals as “rats.” It’s a great concept. Jimmy Cagney as a crime fighter. What kind of crime fighter would he be? He’d be kicking butt.

You mentioned that The Whisperer has been a favorite of yours. What was it about the character that appealed to you when you were younger?

When I first read it, the character was very tough and it was a Black Mask kind of world. It was a little more adult, and when I say adult the character didn’t have some of the Street and Smith humor. It was much more punchy.

The writer, Lawrence Donovan, was a very intriguing character. He’d written Doc Savage and most of the hero pulps. He wrote for Black Mask and Masked Detective. He was an older writer than the other pulp writers, he’d had a previous career as a newspaperman and apparently as a silent screen scenarist. The story that I dug up recently was that he was slated to script the 1925 classic Ben-Hur movie, but he went off on a bender and missed the opportunity. I don’t think his Hollywood career ever recovered from that. I don’t know what other films he did.

Donovan was writing for the pulps when he was over sixty, which was again unusual. He brought a different kind of uncompromising realistic style of writing to the Whisperer. It resonated with me back then and when I read the stories again. There were a couple of exceptions that I thought were weak or misfires, but I thought they were quite striking. I liked the character. I liked the way he operates. Like the Green Hornet, he pretends to be this upstanding citizen, while at night he’s the Whisperer. And the Whisperer, like the Green Hornet, has put himself out there as a criminal. That’s how he undoes criminals and criminal enterprises. And the Whisperer and the Green Hornet started the same year, 1936, so there’s some kind of cross correspondence there.

You mentioned “The Whisperer” was like an old Warner Bros. gangster world. For people who don’t know the reference, what does that mean?

There’s a Street and Smith world of Doc Savage and the Shadow and it’s an idealistic world. With the Whisperer, they were definitely going for the audience that was reading the Spider. Tougher, grimmer, grittier, more adult. Not a juvenile series. They [the Street and Smith editors] must have said, people like the Warner Bros.-style movies, go with that. It’s very Black Mask. It’s very realistic and it has a lot of human interest stories. People caught up in crime who have to be rescued. You didn’t see people from the lower classes as you do in the Whisperer. The tone of these stories are much more of a world you might see in old movies than in Doc Savage and the Shadow.

The other character, The Avenger, is someone a lot of people have heard of, but don’t necessarily know. Who is he?

Street and Smith, to create a new hero, decided to take the best elements of Doc and the Shadow. Not necessarily a good idea, but they did it in an interesting way. They brought in Lester Dent and Walter Gibson and probably some other people. They brainstormed the character and gave it to Paul Ernst, who’d started off in “Weird Tales” and was breaking into the “Saturday Evening Post” at that time. Walter Gibson said he thinks they got the idea from one of his Shadow novels, “Vengeance is Mine.” Henry Ralston, who was the business manager and the architect of these pulps, started to think in terms of, “We want to do more stories where it’s just the Shadow fighting jewel thieves and kidnappers and we want more human motivation.” They wanted a guy who’d been transformed into a hero through tragedy.

The Avenger in this first novel goes on a plane flight with his wife and young daughter and goes to the bathroom and when he comes back they’re not there. Everybody on the flight says “What wife and daughter, you came on this flight alone?” That’s the beginning of how Henry Benson becomes the Avenger. He’s got to solve the disappearance of his wife and daughter and through that process a terrible psychological and psychic transformation takes place and he becomes the Avenger. If you recognize that plot, it was the plot of a Jodie Foster movie “Flightplan.” She didn’t become a crimefighter, obviously, it went in a different direction. The Avenger starts picking up other people who’d been victims of criminals, who’d had tragedies and lost loved ones, and he forms Justice Incorporated which becomes an elite crime fighting team headquartered in a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Wonderful covers by H. Winfield Scott, one of the great pulp artists. I think those covers are really going to sell books.

The artwork is really one of the pulp’s great legacies both in terms of the art that was created but also the artists that emerged, people like James Howard Kinstler or James Bama.

Pulps were training ground for aspiring artists. For a couple of generations, people who came out of the pulps went onto other things, became major talents in the slicks or Hollywood or portraiture. You used to see that in comics in an earlier day. Frank Frazetta came out of comics and others, but you don’t really see it in comics anymore. People who get into comics very rarely move onto become larger figures.

Tony is going to be publishing an unpublished Walter Gibson story from 1929-30. Because it’s unpublished we needed it to be illustrated and we’d been discussing who we could get that would appeal to the direct market audience. He’s going to go with Ed Barreto. There are a lot of comics artists we were talking about and they’re good, but their skills don’t always lend themselves to spot illustration, to do it in a way that looks pulp-y as opposed to comicbook-y.

The Shadow and Doc Savage are being reprinted in no particular order. Is it a challenge deciding which books to pair up?

The earliest Shadows, the first three, have been reprinted in various forms. We wanted to deal with the Shadow’s unpublished novels to start with. With Doc, everything was reprinted, so we had to start with what we thought would be the best stories. Once we got past that, you have to pair them in a way that you don’t have conflicts. You take advantage of continuity when you can. And then there’s the variety issue. You can’t just put out a whole bunch of Shadows with his best supervillains because eventually you run out of supervillains and all you’ve got is crime stories or haunted house stories. It’s always been challenging and every time we’ve come up with a schedule, we tore it apart. We reread a story and realize they both have a fight in a castle at the end. And we think about themes, we think about continuity, we also think about what the supporting material is.

We try to do books for the [Comic-Con International in San Diego] that have a comic tie-in. We’ve been trying to do Halloween books. Upcoming in the Shadow we want to do all five of the Hand stories. The Shadow fought a criminal group called the Hand over five novels. It’s not a serial. The stories were not published consecutively. The Shadow never fought a criminal gang over five novels and this is a good opportunity to do something a little different. We’re always thinking, are the readers going to get tired of either series or get tired of certain kinds of stories.

You mentioned that there are far fewer The Avenger and The Whisperer novels. How long will reprinting those series take?

These are not long-term things. The Whisperer was the only pulp hero that was revived. There’s enough Whisperer novels to do seven books of the first series and probably five or six of the second. I’m not sure if we’ll get that far, but I would love to see all the first series printed.

The Avenger is quarterly and The Whisperer is quarterly but we’re going to do the first two Avenger volumes back-to-back, then it’ll go quarterly. We don’t want to over-saturate the market. The Avenger is a well-known character, Moonstone did an anthology recently. The Whisperer is a complete longshot. A lot of people including Tony will accidentally say “The Whistler,” which is a radio character completely unrelated, so we have to educate people who the Whisperer is and why he’s interesting, the whole Batman-Commissioner Gordon tie-in, the Jimmy Cagney-Warner Bros. thing.

Are there any other characters you’ve talked about or would be interested in reprinting?

From the beginning, Tony’s talked about Nick Carter. The problem with Nick Carter for both Tony and I is that we haven’t read enough of them. I’ve read a bunch and they’re very hit or miss. It’s a well-known character but he’s not a superhero.

The one that we’ve talked about the most beyond the ones we’re doing is The Skipper. 1936, the same time he’s writing the Whisperer, Lawrence Donovan is doing The Skipper, Captain John Fury, which Stan Lee told me he remembered reading and liking very much. The Skipper is a seagoing Doc Savage, tough as nails, red headed guy, probably based on another movie actor for all I know. He’s got a boat, The Whirlwind, that looks like a rusty old tramp ship but you throw some levers and it becomes a battleship. It’s what’s called a Q-Ship, they used them in WW I and II. He goes around the world working for this millionaire crushing pirates and having Doc Savage-style adventures. I think they’re very good stories.

There isn’t much else in terms of lead novels. I would love to do Bill Barnes but I’m not sure the rights can be acquired. He’s an aerial Doc Savage. It’s about a super-pilot who builds his own planes and he’s always getting tangled with criminals or rivals. Bill Barnes was famous in his day, but hardly known today.

What else are you working on now?

I’ve been asked to write for a DAW anthology called “Cthulhu’s Reign” and another Cthulhu anthology, “Cthulhu 2012” from Mythos Books. I’ve been asked to do some stories for the Moonstone Green Hornet anthologies. I helped them with the bible. I have a story in Moonstone's “Phantom Chronicles” and a new Spider story in an issue of Moonstone's ongoing illustrated Spider stories this summer.

I have a “History of Western Pulps” I’ve been working on for years. They were constantly reinventing the western. It never died but it was always lurching from crisis to crisis. Is there a market for this book? I’m not sure. Westerns are not big anymore, but I think this book tells you why. Why the western has fallen out of favor and why it’s great when it’s great and terrible when it’s terrible.

I was very flattered to be asked to write the intro to the “Marvel Comics Omnibus”, which is coming out on the 70th anniversary of the first issue of Marvel Comics this September. They’re going to reprint in hardcover all of the first 12 “Marvel Mystery” comics. I’ve been working on a fairly lengthy introduction that tells the history of Martin Goodman, his pulp line in the early Timely books.

We don’t think The Angel on a cover fighting Nazi bombers is significant, but they were publishing that book days after WW II broke out. It was the first WW II cover but nobody knows it because they don’t necessarily collate history with on sale dates. I love to pull together information that’s scattered and assemble them into a coherent whole to say this is why this is the way it is. Someone once called me the Indiana Jones of pulp research and comics research and I’m a little bit like a literary archeologist. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work, too.

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TAGS:  will murray, the shadow, the whisperer, doc savage, lester dent

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