Pulp Supervillains

Pulp Supervillains

(pop culture)
Early inexpensive magazines, printed on cheap “pulp” paper, became known by the term “pulps.” The adventure pulps, containing tales of high excitement and fantastic heroes, were the predecessors of the comic-book industry that soon followed, and the ancestry of comic-book supervillains can be found in the villains of pulp magazines and syndicated comic strips. The larger-than-life actions of the heroes and villains of the pulp magazines served as a template for the writers of early comic books and comic strips, who had to supply stories even more quickly than the authors of pulp magazines. One of the most enduring pulp villains was Shiwan Khan, the evil Oriental inspired by Fu Manchu, and the most formidable adversary faced by the pulp hero The Shadow: “Wide at the forehead, his face tapered toward a pointed chin. The center of that triangular visage was a straight-marked nose … His eyebrows were thin curves of black that ran almost to his temples. His lips formed a thin, straight streak of brown, set against a saffron background. There were also a thin mustache and a dab of chin whisker. … Most amazing of all his features were his eyes. They were green, cat-like in their glow … ” Like his forebear, Genghis Khan, Shiwan Khan dreamed of ruling the world. In the novel “The Golden Master” (Shadow, September 15, 1939) by Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson), Khan first demonstrated his combat mastery, skill at hypnosis, and mental illusions. He fought The Shadow a record four times, three encounters more than most villains lasted against the Master of Darkness. Khan also appeared in the 1990s comic book The Shadow Strikes! John Lone portrayed a Shiwan Khan in the feature film The Shadow (1994), which somewhat differed from the character's pulp and comic incarnations, but preserved the character's atmosphere and menace. Comic-strip villain Kabai Singh inherited the mantle of leadership of the pirate band known as the Singh Brotherhood and led the Brotherhood in many battles against the early comic strip hero the Phantom, the jungle lord also called “the Ghost Who Walks.” Singh pirates murdered the father of the boy who would become the first Phantom in 1525 when plundering a merchant ship, causing the boy to devote his life to the fight against piracy and injustice. This initiated an enmity between the Phantom and the Singh Brotherhood that would span centuries, beginning with the Phantom comic strip on February 17, 1936, by Lee Falk and Ray Moore. The Brotherhood would eventually slay the father of the current Phantom, assuring no end of ill will between them and the Ghost Who Walks. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa portrayed Kabai Singh in the film The Phantom (1996). This appearance, together with the importance of the Singh Brotherhood in the ongoing Phantom comic strip, engendered enough notoriety for Kabai Singh to merchandise him as a costume for Dr. Evil, the nemesis of action figure Captain Action, in 1999. The pulp villain John Sunlight was the only mastermind ever to battle Doc Savage twice. He first appeared in the novel The Fortress of Solitude by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent), printed in the pulp magazine Doc Savage (October 1938), in which he took over Savage's arctic headquarters and proceeded to sell the experimental weapons stored there to the highest bidder. Sunlight was thought dead at the end of this adventure, but later was found to have survived in The Devil Genghis (December 1938), at the end of which he was hacked to death by his angry victims. Sunlight considered himself a uniter rather than a conqueror, feeling that humankind would benefit by having one ruler, rather than being divided into hundreds of warring nations. He preferred to wear clothing of all one color, although the actual color was of no matter. Wrote Robeson: “[Sunlight] resembled a gentle poet, with his great shock of dark hair, his remarkably high forehead, his hollow burning eyes set in a starved face. His body was very long, very thin. His … fingers being almost the length of an ordinary man's whole hand.” In the 1980s Sunlight appeared in Doc Savage comic books published by DC Comics, and in the 1990s in Millennium Comics' Doc Savage series, in which his treatment was consonant with his pulp origins. Although Will Eisner's comic-strip hero the Spirit—the masked identity assumed by Central City criminologist Denny Colt after his alleged death on June 2, 1940—is considered an unorthodox crime fighter, his enemies are no less strange. Most of the Spirit's major enemies appeared after World War II; however, some of his more colorful foes debuted before the war. These include Dr. Cobra, who tried to kill Denny Colt but created the Spirit; Orang, “the ape that is human”; and the Black Queen, a former defense lawyer turned villainess. Eisner's femme fatales became his trademark in the postwar years, a bevy of gorgeous women who couldn't decide if they wanted to kill the Spirit or seduce him. Among these were Sand Saref, his childhood friend; Plaster of Paris; and, best of all, P'Gell, the sensuous beauty who accumulated husbands like matches—and disposed of them nearly as quickly. Also causing the Spirit no end of grief were Carrion, an undertaker gone bad, and his buzzard Julia. But in the forefront of this unique group stands the criminal mastermind the Octopus, perhaps the only villain whose criminal name is less bizarre than his actual name, Zithbath Zark. Though the Octopus first appeared in the “Spirit” Sunday comic section in 1946, his full origin was unknown until told in The Spirit #2 (1966). Though his face is never seen, he can be recognized by his purple gloves with three yellow stripes. Though comic books, strips, and popular fiction have made great strides toward sophistication, many of the villains still take their cues from their pulp forebears.