by Stuart Hopen
In the 1930s, a combination of cheap paper and cheaper thrills unleashed a volcano of creativity. This was the age of the pulp magazine, the quintessential literature of the Great Depression and fertile breeding ground of a uniquely American mythology. Digging through this now ancient archive, one finds the ancestors of the comic book heroes who still walk the Earth today. There is no mistaking the familial features Batman inherited from The Shadow, or that Superman inherited from Doc Savage.
Among this fabled company strode a character named Jimmy Christopher, who starred in a pulp entitledSecret Service Operator #5, America’s Undercover Ace. A forebear of James Bond, he even fought a bullion-obsessed villain who wielded a golden gun and tried to rob the Federal gold reserves. Popular Publications used this title to draw attention to what they considered the pressing concerns of the day; the 125-page pulp was a virtual soapbox, a bloody pulpit, a makeshift urban almanac cum popular gospel that combined espionage, military action, pseudo-science, shady politics, international affairs, sociology, and economics, and delivered dire warnings of growing national weakness and lurking sinister adversaries (foreign nations, secret societies, and cults) intent on destroying the Republic.
The authors (there were at least three, who all wrote under the house name of Curtis Steele) prescribed ways to avoid the dread terrors painted on its covers and marauding through its pages. Americans were admonished not to exhaust their resources in pointless foreign wars, but rather to fortify their shores against both insidious infiltration and overt attack. They were told to cling to their cultural values including hard work, ingenuity, reason, and science.
Many of the issues, which appeared once a month, now seem prophetic. The stories written between April of 1934 and November of 1935, for example, foretold the destruction of the Pacific Fleet by an unnamed Asian power, as well as an armed conflagration called “World War II” which devastates Europe and a crisis created by the U.S. squandering its domestic oil resources, which leads to a malignant dependence on foreign oil.
America, humbled by the Great Depression, was assessing its vulnerabilities. The magazine attuned itself to cultural anxieties about loss of power and prestige, the fears that haunted the nightmares of our citizens at the time. Knowing how Rome and other great civilizations had been overwhelmed by barbarian hordes, the authors raised the specter of that fate befalling America.
The magazine’s covers, painted with classical skill by John Newton Howitt, frequently featured bearded warriors in feathered helmets and beaten breastplates or chainmail, arms bared to display massive muscles. This vision of barbarians at the gate is epitomized in the opening scene of “Master of the Broken Men,” in which primitive tribesmen interrupt the annual ball of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Decorated in war paint, the half-naked party crashers hurl spears into the throng. The Vice-President, in attendance, faints.
Other issues conjured horrific scenarios of barbarians of a different sort, those who have enough science and engineering to construct fantastically powerful weapons, but who use these skills without the refinements of civilization. They erase skylines and fleeing multitudes by turning a universal solvent to military ends; they terrorize the population with an invisible aerial fortress capable of hurling destruction upon a thousand cities and towns; they turn American cities into arctic wastelands using a ray that halts molecular motion; they rip holes in the ozone layer, admitting destructive cosmic rays. Here we find the birth of the techno thriller, decades before Ian Fleming’s Moonraker.
Frederick C. Davis, who wrote the first twenty issues of Secret Service Operator #5, took pains to affect an air of scientific legitimacy with extensive footnotes, which are often dry and distracting. But Davis was also capable of whipping technical details into a dark and violent poetry, achieving surrealistic effects that evoke the power of dreams.
In “The Green Death Mists,” men mysteriously choke to death amid inexplicable storms when a new kind of electrical generator turns the atmosphere to ozone, causing both asphyxiation and strange color transformations:
. . . a gloomy hue appeared, surrounding the roaring planes. It spread swiftly to envelope heaven and earth in its mystery. Through it the sun shone blood-red. Jimmy Christopher saw the wings of his plane blending from gray to a pinkish brown! . . . The spreading water of the Bay was turning a deep purple . . . On the wings of the plane the cocarde of the U.S. army became a meaningless symbol. . . . his skin was green, his lips brown, his eyes a deep red!
Operator #5 faced numerous threats associated with exotic religious cults, whose dangers lay less in their theological trespasses, and more in their allure. Jimmy Christopher tells us, “Religion strikes deep in the human heart.” Aware of the capacity of religion to transform not only individuals but whole societies, Davis played to fears that America’s tolerance of diverse religions would make it susceptible to attack from within.
“Invasion of the Crimson Death Cult” begins with a thunderstorm over the desert that allows 500 illegal aliens to cross the Rio Grande. A strange phenomenon causes a paralysis of thought on the part of the onlookers, described in religious terms as being beyond pain and pleasure. The cult of Kosma, a variation of Zoroastrianism, commands a mysterious force that shatters concrete. All over America, families bankrupt themselves with donations to the cult. Converts are so numerous, Congress is able to pass a law condemning Christianity and opening the national treasury to the leader of the cult. It turns out that a weaponized version of ultrasonic waves has been causing all this trouble, battering down buildings (principally churches) while inducing a deeply disoriented effect on the human brain, misinterpreted by the masses as a religious experience.
In “Army of the Dead,” the threat to religious values comes from science itself: “The Master of Death is granting to human beings, in actuality, what religion only vaguely promises. . . . a continued, certain life on this earth!” In other issues, the threat comes from one of the vulnerabilities of democracy, a susceptibility to deceitful leaders. “Blood Reign of the Dictator” features a scene in which the newly elected President of the United States repudiates the Constitution at his inauguration, and promises to use unfettered power, which he has just granted himself, to eliminate poverty. The on-looking crowd cheers wildly.
Operator #5 had much in common with one of Popular Publications’ other best selling characters, the Spider. Both heroes spoke many languages and both were protean masters of disguise. But the two expert fencers, whose names rang among the Salles D’Armes, seemed more like foils for one another. The Spider was written with tongue thrust proudly into cheek, while Operator #5 relayed his messages with deadpan earnestness.
In Secret Service Operator #5, no effort was wasted on character development. The stories were peopled with archetypes and personifications, principally motivated by their national allegiances, or their inclination to virtue or vice, like characters in medieval morality plays or folk tales. Jimmy Christopher bore a scar resembling an eagle in flight on the back of one hand, a symbol that dictated every choice he makes.
There were strong emotional attachments between Operator #5, his girlfriend, Diane Elliott, his twin sister Nan (a perfect doppelganger but for gender), his father John (a retired agent with a bullet lodged near his heart), and his plucky Irish kid sidekick, Tim Donovan. But these bonds served only one structural function: to lend drama to the moments when each must be offered for sacrifice to the higher calling of duty to country. “Diane, I’m sorry I murdered you,” Jimmy Christopher said once when he was forced to abandon her to gain a military advantage. She would, in that instance, be reprieved, for there was an authority somewhere that was seemingly satisfied with Jimmy Christopher’s willingness to make the sacrifice, in and of itself. Yet the reprieve always came, with biblical conventionality, at the last possible moment.
In Ron Goulart’s An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine, Davis said, “I don’t remember how long I kept Operator #5 going . . . several years, anyway. Eventually, it just got to be too much.” One wonders just what exactly got to be too much. The demands of keeping a vigil on advancing technology and international politics? Or the outrageous level of intensity the plots had reached?
After Frederick Davis surrendered his burden, the writing chores shifted to Emile Tepperman, a veteran writer of Secret Agent X, who was a competing publisher’s boring version of the same character. The drop in quality was immediately obvious. Tepperman frog-marched Jimmy Christopher through the next five issues, culminating in an apex of tedium in “Crime’s Reign of Terror,” a generic tale about a gangster trying to consolidate the mobs in America.
And then something extraordinary happened with the next issue, “Death’s Ragged Army.” At the start of the story, it seems as if months or even years have passed since the previous issue, but on a subtler level, centuries have passed, for the story is told in the format of a future history, from a time in which the events have become embedded in the nation’s consciousness. Invaders from the Purple Empire (a thinly disguised Germany) already hold all of New England and most of the Eastern Seaboard. Canada already has been defeated, and Maine has been depopulated by a poison gas. The President has fled to a ramshackle courthouse in Jacksonville, Florida.
So begins the epic generally known as the Purple Invasion, which tore through the next thirteen issues. It is sometimes called the “War and Peace” of the pulps, but there is no peace within these 780,000 words. Tepperman took some of the premises and themes of the earlier Davis stories about foreign invasions, and enlarged them into a vast, sprawling, post-apocalyptic horror novel with a closer kinship to King Stephen than Count Leo.
Jim Steranko, in his History of the Comics, gives us a thumbnail version of the Purple Invasion:
Operator #5’s betrayal by army officers, the President’s suicide, Diane’s rescue as she is about to be hung from the Liberty Bell on the 4th of July, a gold train attack, a fantastic naval battle, the destruction of the Panama Canal, American forces pushed beyond the Rocky Mountains, the use of plague bacteria, the Purple Fleet’s onslaught of San Francisco . . . the suicide charge of the Canadian Lancers, the destruction of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, the Purple National Anthem, the American revolutionary army rallying at Death Valley, their push toward Los Angeles and the destruction of the Purple Navy, the fall of the Purple Empire and the rebuilding of America.
Not to mention the wall of living crucified children, Diane tied to the treads of a tank, the torture and martyrdom on the gallows of the Supreme Court Justices, the mothers who surrender their virtue to the wanton appetites of the invaders in vain efforts to save their infants who end up on bayonets anyway, and the rage and grief of the men who find the evidence of these deeds.
Tepperman describes the army that rises against the invaders as a parade of iconic images:
Old farmers, crotchety with rheumatism, swinging upon their shoulders antiquated muskets which had seen service in the early days of American colonization of the West; youths still in their teens, too young to serve with the American Defense Forces in the Rockies but not too young to join enthusiastically in a plot to strike a shrewd blow at the enemy; women, many of the wives and daughters of the Americans who had died in battle—all of these flocked from miles around to serve under Operator #5.
One issue after the fall of the Purple Empire, Tepperman departed from these pages. Perhaps Secret Service Operator #5 became too much for him as well. In any event, the title was not long for this world. Another “Curtis Steele” would take up the pen, but America had already been conquered, and recaptured. It was well past the point of being too much.
There is much in the pulps that will prove distasteful to the modern reader. The rhetoric-driven dialogue often reads as unintended satire, sometimes of the wafer-thin characters and sometimes of the propositions they so fervently promote. In their zealous advocacy of American isolationism, which history would shortly prove utterly wrong, the authors were not above stirring up ethnic and racial biases and resorting to crude stereotypes. An editorial from the February 1936 issue contained a statement that affects an affable air of tolerance, but is fraught with troubling ambiguities. “Americans don’t care what a man’s father or grandfather was, as long as he’s first and last a true American.” Meaning what, exactly?
Even with all of its flaws, however, Secret Service Operator #5 remains a unique artifact, infused with raw American folklore and nightmares. It provides intriguing glimpses into the terrain of the cultural subconscious during the Great Depression, a time not entirely unlike our own.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011