Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!
Do you like Batman? Do you like film noir? How about detective stories in general? Are you a living human being? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should probably familiarize yourself with The Shadow. I first became aware of The Shadow when I found cassette tape recordings of the golden age radio show at a thrift store. Lucky find. From there I moved onto the comics, dove in, and never looked back…except for those times I suspected someone was lurking behind me.
Borne from pulp magazines, The Shadow debuted on the radio as the mysterious narrator of the Detective Story Hour in 1930. The stories soon became centered on The Shadow himself and before long, the show’s name was simply changed to that of its eponymous character, The Shadow: a man who fights crime with gifts unlike any other, including incredible strength, the ability to speak and understand any language, defy gravity, and become invisible by “clouding men’s minds.”
To be fair, when I refer to this godfather of 20th century detective stories, I am specifically thinking of the 1937-38 version of the radio character voiced by none other than Orson Welles. Since his portrayal of The Shadow was wildly popular and helped to cement the figure as a cultural icon, it’s safe to say that, for most, this is the quintessential Shadow. Nonetheless, The Shadow has become a franchise since the early twentieth century, from comics, radio dramas, and serials on to television shows, movies, and video games.
That’s just a brief background, which I hope is enough to spur further investigation, but you might be asking, “why is this important?”
The impact that The Shadow has had on film, comics, and pop culture is astounding. The film noir era got its gloomy and gritty style from the dark tones of The Shadow and Detective Story Hour, as well as the pulp magazines from which the radio show was developed. Without the popularity of The Shadow, the noir classics like The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard, The Big Sleep, High Sierra or They Drive By Night would not have been the same, or perhaps have existed at all. Another set of famous detective stories might also have never come to us without The Shadow. Ever heard of a couple fellows named Bob Kane and Bill Finger? That’s right, the creators of Batman both cited The Shadow and The Phantom (another golden-age radio character drawn from the popularity and style of The Shadow in the ‘30s and ‘40s) as major influences in their creation of the Caped Crusader and his supreme detecting skills. The Shadow’s reach is indeed long.
If you care to enrich yourself, episodes of The Shadow featuring Orson Welles as the eponymous protagonist can be found here.
Images from Old Radio World.