17 May 2013

The Spider in The Pain Emperor

The Pain Emperor (1935)
By Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge

May has turned into “Pulp Hero!” month for me. It started when I found out that the 1994 movie The Shadow was arriving on Blu-ray. Soon after, the news hit of a new Doc Savage movie getting underway. The time was right to read some Shadow and Doc Savage adventures. Now, I must complete the classic pulp hero trilogy with a Spider adventure. But don’t expect me to read two Spiders in a row, like I did with Doc and the Shadow. The Spider’s lunacy and lack of logic is exhausting. Twice before I’ve read three Spider novels back-to-back, when I reviewed the collections The Spider: City of Doom and The Spider vs. The Empire State, and I nearly lost my mind. This time I’ll keep the most violent and palsied of pulp heroes restricted to a one-shot.

If you need a quick primer on what The Spider is all about and some background on him and his main writer, Norvell Page, the opening of my review of The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham provides a concise overview. I think people need a bit of a warning when approaching something as blood-crazy as these books.

The Pain Emperor was published in the heady first two years of the Spider’s red reign on the newsstands. It followed The City Destroyer, one of the most disturbing pieces of pulp I’ve ever come across. (You can find it in The Spider: City of Doom collection, if you’re strong enough.) It opens in the thick of things with a new hero in New York, a masked figure who calls himself the Avenger. Normally, Richard Wentworth, a.k.a. The Spider, would welcome having another vigilante to help him with his tireless work slaying evildoers. But after the Avenger wounds Wentworth’s faithful chauffeur Jackson when the man tries to help a girl whose brother got himself into gambling trouble, Wentworth begins to suspect the Avenger may be a crook who uses his Robin Hood antics as a cover.

Wentworth has another reason to be suspicious. On the same day of the Avenger’s biggest heroic coup, forty-three people died from poison in canned food. After the Avenger lays a trap at a gambling den to reveal that Richard Wentworth is actually the Spider, the radio reports that seventeen women were horribly disfigured earlier that day from acid put in their cosmetics. Using the completely circumstantial evidence of the proximity of the Avenger’s actions with these occurrences of consumer terrorism, Wentworth deduces that the Avenger is connected to the horrific attacks on the citizenry.

Putting aside the leap of logic here—which is par for the course in the Spider’s world—author Norvell Page does a commendable job crafting the early chapters that set up these overlapping events while delivering the initial blast of action. Page plotted out the openings of his stories carefully, and then pretty much shifted to first draft by the end, when the manic mood took over. As The Pain Emperor begins, Page leans back a bit from his customary gruesomeness: the deaths from food poisoning and the disfigurings from acid are details on the fringe. Instead, Page focuses on setting up a bind for the Spider when the Avenger’s trap ends up putting a piece of evidence in the hands of this new “hero” that can link the Spider to Wentworth. (However, throughout the series it seems the whole planet knows Wentworth and the Spider are the same person by the end of each story, so it feels odd Wentworth is so concerned about it now. The Spider has the worst kept secret identity in pulp hero history.)

During these opening chapters, Page also starts setting up the mystery of the true identity of the Avenger by using the shotgun method of firing out names of numerous suspects, sometimes packed into the space of one paragraph. It’s likely that Page had no idea who was behind the crimes while he was writing these chapters, and he keeps clumsily inserting the suspects into the plot to remind the readers of their existence. However, The Pain Emperor is a rare case where the reveal of the villain at the end makes sense instead of feeling like the Spider yanked a name of a minor cast member out of a hat.

Newspaper reporters immediately latch onto the Avenger’s evidence—and he keeps collecting more—and hassle Wentworth about whether he’s the Spider. The first reporter to show up, and the one who is the most tenacious, is Eddie Blanton from the Press. Eddie even follows Wentworth when he pursues the Avenger to Chicago on the suspicion that a gangster named Martin is masterminding the killings.

The death toll ramps up even before the Spider makes the leap to Chicago: the canned food poisoning and face-eating cosmetic incidents pass the thousand mark, with Wentworth showing much more concern over the disfigured women than the outright murders. In a humorous bit, Wentworth notices women in the city looking rumpled because they’ve stopped wearing make-up. This immediately calls up memories of the 1989 Batman movie, where the Joker contaminated beauty products with Smilex, causing Gotham City to go on a toiletries fast reflected in the frazzled and unshaven faces of news anchors. I doubt anybody involved with Batman read The Pain Emperor, but it shows how influential the Spider was on the creation of the Caped Crusader in the late 1930s. Early Batman comics might have come right from the pulpy pages of The Spider Magazine, and the Joker would have fit easily into the rogues gallery of Richard Wentworth. (The Spider would have killed the Joker at their first meeting, however.)

The logic of the plotting soon frays apart as Norvell Page goes into his standard rush of one thing after the other. The Spider stops in Chicago only long enough to almost get killed before he makes a desperate run back to New York, during which he pulls the mind-boggling stunt of blowing up his own plane so he can parachute out of it and try to “hitchhike” onto a train. There are a few big action set-pieces—the Spider trapped in a subway tunnel, a huge chase with taxis and mobsters and cop cars—to keep readers interested as the events turn into the usual first-draft blur. Right before the climax, Wentworth and the love of his life Nita share a touching scene where she makes a strong plea for him to leave his crusading, which has never rewarded him: “How has humanity repaid you?” she asks. It’s a honest, dramatic moment delivered among the blazing fire of automatics.

The finale, a public meeting between the Spider and the Avenger arranged before a committee to deal with the poisonings, packs a punch amidst the standard frenzy where the Spider has to kill enough people to reach a solution. Wentworth’s breathless explanation of what happened makes some sense (as I mentioned before, the Avenger’s true identity is a more solid mystery than Norvell Page often devised), but it’s the sudden and decisive death of one of the long-running supporting characters from the series that closes The Pain Master on a more memorable note than the book seems to otherwise deserve.

However… the dead supporting character would return to the regular cast three issues later—with no explanation for the resurrection whatsoever. Did Norvell Page plan it this way? I’m positive he didn’t. It was a spur of the moment shock-ending he needed, and after a couple more magazines come and go on the stands, who’s gonna notice the difference? Perfect Spider illogic. Hats off to Walter B. Gibson, who slew a major supporting character of the Shadow’s in Gangdom’s Doom and kept him dead for the rest of the magazine’s run.

(Even casual readers will know about Page’s playing underhanded with death: The Pain Master is packaged in a Carroll & Graf 1992 paperback with Death Reign of the Vampire King, which was published later but has the dead character quite alive in it.)

The sheer gutsy craziness of “he’s dead—no he ain’t!” wrap-up to The Pain Master raises it higher on my “essentials” list for Spider novels, even though it is otherwise a middle-of-the-road entry in the series. Coming off the sheer horror of hordes of people dying in crumbling skyscrapers in The City Destroyer, the poisonings here feel distant. A death-toll of twenty-five thousand gets mentioned near the end, but the book never brings an immediacy to these deaths, with the one exception of the Spider watching a woman suffering from the acid in her cold cream. The people dead from the poison are only numbers, and the story is more interested in Wentworth trying to save himself from the police after the Avenger blows his secret identity. Since the cops and commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick are after the Spider pretty much every other novel, this isn’t anything new.

The title The Pain Master obviously is an editorial pick, as it has nothing to do with the story. Nobody calls himself “The Pain Master” at any time. The Spider vs. the Avenger would be a more appropriate title, although Page’s working title was “When Death Went Mad,” which makes just as little sense as The Pain Master. Not making sense—yeah, that’s what the Spider is all about. That and killing as many people as possible. I think Dead Men Live, which was a title of a Shadow novel, would fit best.

I stand by my promise. No Spider follow-up. Not for right now.