Who knows what genres lurk in the heart of man?


Yesterday I had the privilege of responding to a wonderful talk by Matt Rubery at the Rutgers Initiative for the Book on “Podcasts, Audiobooks, and Podiobooks.” Feeling out of my depth as a non-podcast-listener, I went to my happy place instead, using my response as an occasion for digging around in a period and a medium I know better. Thinking about entanglements of print and audio fiction, I was moved to learn a little bit more about…

(Image from Galactic Central.) I’m not sure bringing this up was particularly illuminating on the subject of podcasts and books, but it was fun for me and I thought I’d set down a couple of things it made me think about.

The Shadow had an impressively complicated itinerary across media.1 In 1930 Street & Smith, the big pulp magazine publisher, sponsored a CBS radio program with adaptations of stories from its venerable Detective Story Magazine (first published 1915). The scriptwriter hit on the idea of having the host be a figure called “The Shadow.” Word soon reached the offices of Street & Smith that newsstand buyers were asking for the “shadow magazine.” The firm was never slow to start a new title when a promising niche presented itself, and by April 1931 the first issue of The Shadow: A Detective Magazine appeared on newsstands. A writer named Walter B. Gibson (writing under the house name Maxwell Grant) was hired to produce an extended tale about a vigilante named “The Shadow” for each issue. Thus the radio host/narrator-figure becomes a print protagonist, even as the Shadow-as-host continued his role on the Detective Story Hour until 1935.

Soon thereafter, print once again fed back into radio: in 1937 the program was revived (we would now say: rebooted) as The Shadow, a cycle of stories about rich dilettante Lamont Cranston and his vigilante alter ego, The Shadow, adapted from the pages of The Shadow Magazine. Orson Welles was cast in the role. He soon moved on, but both radio program and magazine continued their runs until 1954. In my opinion it’s still fun to hear Welles and his (apparently unrehearsed) performances in these quintessentially pulpy stories, which I was able to do thanks to the wonders of the modern podcast: on Youtube I found a compilation packaged as an episode of “The Late Late Horror Show.” The Internet Archive also hosts two scans of early issues of the magazine: November 1, 1932 and August 1, 1933.

Neither medium is “original” here: even though print magazines furnish the source materials, The Shadow’s genesis lies in radio. Indeed, since his special talent is his ability to remain unseen, he is, at least initially, an obvious figure for radio as well. But radio also points back to print: episodes end with ads proclaiming, “You have been listening to a dramatized version of one of the many copyrighted stories which appear in The Shadow Magazine, now on sale at your local newsstand.”

If this sounds a lot like the transmedia itineraries of contemporary superheroes, this is no accident. The Shadow Magazine inaugurated the category of the “hero pulp”; the magazine soon had competitors like Doc Savage and The Phantom Detective, like The Shadow magazines playing host to a cycle of stories about a single protagonist. These were the print-dominated counterparts to comic strips like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and the immediate precursors to the comic-book superhero cycles inaugurated with the beginning of the Superman saga in 1938. (Street & Smith issued Shadow Comics through the 1940s.) They demonstrate the special cross-media adaptability, not of genre fiction as such but of the genre-mixing character-based cycle. A straight line leads from The Shadow to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (with Robert Downey, Jr. as Orson Welles, I guess).2

Indeed, though I have been working on genre fiction in the pulps for quite a while, I deliberately gave short shrift to the hero pulps. For whereas the emergence of genre pulps like Detective Story (and Western Story, Love Story etc.) was a real innovation in cheap fiction publishing, the character cycle was not. Such cyles were a characteristic mode of the late-nineteenth-century dime novel. Titles like Nick Carter Weekly contained a single story about master-of-disguise Nick Carter in each number. When Nick Carter Weekly was discontinued by Street & Smith and Detective Story (edited by “Nicholas Carter”) started in its place, foregrounding the genre was a novel tactic, eventually making possible the whole range of phenomena we call genre fiction. By contrast the hero pulp looks like a reversion to an earlier form, with the added appeal of new transmedia potential.

But “reversion” seems unlikely to be a useful sociological concept. In any case the genre pulps kept right on going until the pulp magazine format itself dwindled in the 1940s, by which time genre fiction categories were an established matrix in book publishing as well.3 “Hero pulp” is itself obviously also a recognizable subgenre, but with a difference: it never rises to the same level of organization as genres like mystery, science fiction, and romance. When these genres start to feature in book publishing, there is no counterpart “hero paperback.”4 By mid-century there were fan and professional organizations for mystery and science fiction, but none (that I know of) for hero stories.5

So the Shadow is a bit of a mystery to me (cue sinister laugh). It’s detective fiction, but then again, detective genre fiction subsists partly by contrast with it. Not by accident does The Shadow: A Detective Magazine shed its genre label, becoming The Shadow Magazine after a single year.6 What forces shape the emergence of genres as opposed to cycles? Do readers move easily from one to the other, or do they specialize? Do cycles shape different modes of media consumption than genres?

Ongoing research meanderings WILL RETURN in My Blog: The Blog.

  1. I’m relying mostly on an extensive entry by Ray Barfield on The Shadow in The Concise Encyclopedia of America Radio, ed. Christopher H. Sterling and Cary O’Dell (London: Taylor & Francis, 2009), 688–91. Quentin Reynolds’s often dubious house history of Street & Smith, The Fiction Factory (New York: Random House, 1955), recounts the anecdote about “the shadow magazine.” Wikipedia is pretty detailed, as you’d expect, on a subject like this, and there’s also a fan wiki↩︎

  2. The genre/cycle distinction is from Rick Altman’s indispensable Film/Genre (London: BFI, 1999). Studios like cycles, says Altman, because they own them (cf. “copyrighted stories”), whereas genres are part of the commons. ↩︎

  3. According to, uh, the book I’m writing↩︎

  4. What about the nebulous category of the thriller? But though some famous thrillers are indeed hero-cycles—so are some detective stories, of course—it is not a prototypical feature of the category. ↩︎

  5. The first comics convention was the 1964 New York Comicon, per Wikipedia. And the medium is the message (superficially anyway). ↩︎

  6. Scans of Shadow Magazine covers can be found at the amazing Galactic Central↩︎