We all love watching our favorite heroes fight the big bad on TV and the “Big Screen”. Seeing our favorite masked vigilante in technicolor with exhilarating action scenes and thrilling fight scenes. It brings what we have imagined for so long one step closer to reality. Audiences have been watching the daring dos of heroes for as long as film and television have been around, and we certainly live in a golden age, with movie versions of our favorite comic book characters being some of the biggest blockbusters film has seen.
But there was a time before television. I know it is hard to believe. What did people do to get their weekly fix to fulfil their superhero addiction? Well, they listened to serialized stories broadcast on their radio. In the 1920’s broadcast productions of stage plays had become extremely popular it was realized that not all productions translated well to an auditory only media like radio, so soon radio stations were looking for scripts written specifically for the airways. Here are some of the earliest radio heroes setting the stage for the rise of the modern-day superhero!
In 1930, to boost sales of Detective Story Magazine, Street & Smith publications hired an advertising agency to adapt the magazine’s stories into radio shows. David Chrisman and William Sweets, along with Harry Charlot thought that the stories should be introduced by a mysterious stranger. So “The Shadow” was born to be the announcer of the Detective Story Hour radio program. The program did not do as intended, bring in more readers to the magazine, but the listeners were clamoring for the stories of The Shadow. The audience found the announcer, far more interesting than the actual stories. So in 1931 the magazine started publishing full novel length stories about the Shadow every month. Most of them written by Walter B. Gibson. The Shadow laid the archetype foundation for our modern-day superheroes, including stylized imagery, sidekicks, supervillains and a secret identity. Although he started on the radio, it wasn’t until 1937 that The Shadow got its own radio program. The Shadow can read peoples thoughts and cloud their minds, so he appears invisible. The opening line has found a place in American idiom, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows!”. The radio program also inspired The Whistler another mysterious announcer and narrator of crime drama on radio in the 1930s
In 1933, The Lone Ranger, Created by George Trendle and Fran Striker , premiered on WXYZ (Detroit) and was an immediate success. The radio program was picked up by the Mutual Broadcasting System and later by NBC’s Blue Network, which later became ABC. John Reid, a Texas Ranger who is the sole survivor of an ambush where his brother was also killed, is saved and nursed back to health by a Native American named Tonto. Fashioning a mask from his brothers vest and taking on the name, “The Lone Ranger” he vows to hunt down and defeat the man responsible for the ambush. The Lone Ranger is firmly embedded in American pop culture. “Kemo Sabe” which means trusty scout and “Hi-yo Silver” being two examples of references that most Americans recognize immediately. And who doesn’t think of The Lone Ranger when the William Tell Overture begins to play!
In 1936, also created by George Trendle and Fran Striker, The Green Hornet premiered on WXYZ. Brit Reid (The Great Nephew to the Lone Ranger), a wealthy young publisher of the Daily Sentinel newspaper, becomes the masked vigilante known as The Green Hornet to fight crime. He is accompanied by Kato, who drives the technologically advanced car “Black Beauty”. Believed to be a criminal by both the police and general public, Britt uses this perception to infiltrate the criminal underworld. To this day, the Green Hornet remains one of my favorite characters. Primarily from the 1966 television show, which I found, even as a kid, far superior to the Batman and Robin show that ran at the same (Bat) time. In fact, The Green Hornet TV series was a spin-off from two episodes of Batman in which he and Kato guest starred.
By the late 1930s and early 1940s, comic books were beginning to transition from simple tales of mystery and suspense to the more modern superhero stories. The Adventures of Superman based on the comic book, Action Comics, created by Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster ran from the early 40s to 1951 for 2088 episodes. With America headed into WWII, the show took on an added dimension as the public needed a hero searching for truth and justice. The most notable thing about the radio show, is its introduction of Kryptonite into the Superman lore. Not only did this allow his foes a plausible way to fight him, since the show was done live, this also was a way to give the actor some time off. Kryptonite having incapacitated Superman and unable to talk, another actor could provide his groans of weakness. Also interesting, is that we also got Batman and Superman team ups on the radio show. For example: Superman, in need of help, enlists the help of Batman and Robin to find and collect the Kryptonite that weakens him.
This is just a sampling of the great entertainment that was available in the pre and early days of television. Many of these radio shows helped form the mythos that now comprises they archetypical superhero story. These broadcasts were often done live with practical sound effects, using only music and the actors voice to convey the adventure, excitement, and romance when telling the story of our favorite heroes. As much as I love this current era of superhero storytelling, we would be remiss if we didn’t give at least a nod to the very foundation on which this period is built.
“I am the Whistler and I know many things for I walk by night”.