interview in the New Yorker the other day with Philip Roth. Judith Thurman asked him about The Plot Against America in the context of Donald Trump's presidency, but he told the interviewer this:
"Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American
forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly
pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as
well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam."
The Confidence Man is one of the three greatest American novels, alongside Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby (you can argue the order however you want), in part because it reveals that essential part of the American character, the one Whitman said contains multitudes. Roth was deadly accurate in identifying our Grabber in Chief with Melville's character, but the brief mention reminded me of another identification I made many years ago, with a later fictional character.
It was partly coincidental, because I happened to pull out my copy of The Confidence Man to see if I could find a quote to use in what turned into a 55pp American Studies paper on The Shadow, and I realised that the cover of that Signet edition was drawn by the same artist who'd drawn the covers of the Bantam re-issues of the early Shadow pulp novels. Sandy Kossin had sensed the same inner violence, energy, and darkness in the two characters (Kossin did a lot of lighter material, there's a nice article about him by Drew Friedman; Kossin drew the cover for his father, Bruce Jay Friedman's novel Steambath).
The Shadow is the great creation of the pulp magazines in the 1930s, who spawned the famed radio show with Orson Welles intoning 'who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men...the Shadow knows!', and ran from 1931 to 1949, some 325 novels, 283 of which were written by Walter Gibson (as Maxwell Grant) who for about 15 years turned out two a month. As I said, I wrote this paper, putting the Shadow in the context of the times, of psychology, of literature, and indeed of popular culture. When the Alex Baldwin movie came out I wrote a big piece about the character for The Independent, half of which appeared as a sidebar and the other half as part of the critic's review. But I still follow the character, occasionally read another reprint of a pulp novel, and was very pleasantly surprised by the latest comic book adapatation, a novel called The Fire Of Creation, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Aaron Campbell.
It's a period piece, as it should be, set in 1938, with war clouds hovering, and actual war with the Japanese in China. It opens with a mass murder on the New York docks, and proceeds to China where, in Indiana Jones fashion, The Shadow joins the fight on the right side. Which is also interesting, because the story begins with another massacre too, of Chinese during the Japanese invasion, and the Shadow himself reminds us that he also knows what he calls 'the greater game'. Ironically, that is also how the story ends, with the greater game engulfing a key villain.
Ennis' Shadow is fairly true to the basic pulp character, although he's adapted some of the characteristics which were added on radio. But he's very true to the mood, not only of the character himself, or as his alter-ego Lamont Cranston, but the mood of the times. There's a dark apocalyptic tone to the whole story, and apocalypse is exactly the sort of setting in which The Shadow should thrive. Campbell's art emphasizes this; at times it's moody, at times explosive, and once or twice stunning in its emotional impact. He uses layout and shadows perfectly, and there are an extraordinary set of covers, especially by Alex Ross and a host of other artists, which draw on the original Shadow pulps, by the likes of George Rozen. They are included in a bonus section which also contains the first 22 pages of Ennis script: it's always eye-opening to see how visual good comics writing can be. Of course there are elements of melodrama to the story, but this is the comics, and it's based on a pulp, and it is true to that spirit, and fascinating fun.
The Shadow: The Fire Of Creation
by Garth Ennis and Aaron Campbell
Dynamite, 2012, $19.99, ISBN 1606903616