Norvell Page did not create the Spider, but without this amazing pulp writer, the Spider never would have been so well regarded. When Page took over the house name of Grant Stockbridge, he did away with the Spider’s simple domino mask. He instead made up the Spider’s face as a modern day Mr. Hyde. Gone also were the simple criminal rackets. The Spider instead faced things like a judge that shaped his victims, male and female, into bloody letters of the alphabet.
By our standards, the Spider was stark-raving mad. He probably would agree, laughing gleefully as he stamped crimson arachnids to the foreheads of his victims. Some would argue that the Spider was a sociopath. I disagree. The Spider was a different kind of madness altogether, one that the depraved of humanity deserved to meet.
Moonstone began its foray into the Spider property with an anthology of books, followed by a bizarre, visceral Christmas comic strip and then one of their illustrated short stories in comic book form. Finally, they kick off a bona fide comic book series, and it’s dead on.
One thing that readers will pick up on immediately is how the Spider influenced Bill Finger in his writing of Batman. Richard Wentworth, secretly the Spider, poses as an amateur criminologist who accompanies his friend Commissioner Kirkpatrick to various crime scenes, and thanks to the elegant artwork of modern master Pablo Marcos, Wentworth and Wayne may as well be suave, sophisticated cousins.
Kirkpatrick knows that the Spider and Wentworth are one in the same. However, they play an enjoyable game throughout the series. Kirkpatrick can intimate his knowledge all he wants, and Dick Wentworth can tease as well as deny, but if Kirkpatrick ever finds proof, he will shut the Spider down for good. We get a sense of this in the comic book as Wentworth visits Kirk to answer questions about a previous adventure. At that moment the phone rings, and Nita Van Sloan calls.
Nita Van Sloan is just as nuts as Wentworth. Some might think that her fighting “zombies” in Moonstone’s latest is something new, something writer Martin Powell allowed for as a nod to modern sensibilities. Uh-uh. In one of Norvell Page’s adventures, Nita believes the Spider is dead. So she does the only rational thing a person can do. That’s right — she assumes the guise of a gruesome black widow, takes over the Spider’s crusade and adds to the body count. So, yes, Nita would occasionally be used as a hostage in the Spider adventures, and yes, she would occasionally become the sexual object of the villain’s desires or simply spice up the pulps by being divested of her clothes, as happens in this adventure, but Nita and Dick belong together as a kind of vicious Nick and Nora Charles.
Powell’s story reads almost as pedestrian pulp, until the very end, the sucker punch, the gotcha that throws the tale way over the top into the outrageous, grotesque that the Spider wallows in. If I have just one caveat, it’s that the short story form really doesn’t do the Spider justice. The Spider was tailor-made for novel length abnormalities. The medium just gives the characters room to let their various mental problems breathe.
Powell and Marcos also contribute an Operator 5 back up piece. Operator 5 was a more sedate pulp character. He was a master of disguise and given no other name but Operator 5. He blended into secret organizations that wished to overthrow the government at the cusp of World War II and destroyed them from within.
Unlike the Spider story, Powell and Marcos strive for verisimilitude to reflect a period of time in America where Nazi-sympathizing Bunds sprang up like cancerous mushrooms and madmen owned ego stations to broadcast propaganda and racist filth. I know. You probably thought that Fox News was a new invention. Surprise. In fact, the Bunds sound a lot like the Tea Party who want to form their own government and over throw the established checks and balance system. The idea of the Big Bad in Powell’s and Marcos’ story claiming to be a descendent of Cotton Mather is pure genius.
It’s nice to see a tale with such bite, such unwavering loyalty to a true picture of what it was like to live in the United States during a period of chaos. We like to think that all of America unified behind the single idea to destroy the Nazi regime. We did, eventually, but that mindset didn’t spontaneously generate. The genesis was much messier, and Powell’s and Marcos’ story is a reminder to beware of false prophets using scapegoats and persuasive words in a time of economic turmoil. I almost wish that they hadn’t pulled the plot twist and kept the Operator 5 story pulp trappings free. Still, up to that point, the story is remarkable for its unsettling truth.