The Return of the Originals: Caught in the Spider's Web with Martin Powell

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This fall, the most brutal and ultra-violent vigilante from the infamous Bloody Pulps aims his twin .45 automatics at a new audience under Moonstone Books’ Return of the Originals banner. Known as the Master of Men, thanks to his haunting laugh and commanding voice, Richard Wentworth, AKA the Spider, stars in a new bimonthly DoubleShot series, bringing his lethal brand of justice to bear against some of most bizarre, dire menaces to ever assault the streets of New York.

Broken Frontier spoke with veteran pulp scribe Martin Powell about returning to one of his favorite pulp heroes in the Spider and the challenges of presenting these timeless characters to modern readers.

BROKEN FRONTIER: You’ve had many years of experience in the comics field. Could you please tell us what other projects or titles you’ve been involved with and how they’ve informed your approach to Moonstone’s new Return of the Originals line?

MARTIN POWELL: I’m undoubtedly one of the luckiest writers alive.  I’ve had a lot of experience with this sort of thing, and I’ve gotten to work with many of my very favorite characters in my twenty-four year career.  Since the mid-eighties I’ve written stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, Count Dracula, Frankenstein, Superman, Batman, The Phantom, Kolchak, The Avenger, The Spider, and so on.  It’s been a wild ride so far, and the Return of the Originals is going to be amazing.

BF: You’re responsible for introducing both the Spider and Ki-Gor to a new generation of readers. Could you please give us a little background on their origins?

MP: Well, the Spider, the Master of Men, was created in 1933 for Popular Publications, originally as a competitor—and something of an imitator—of Street and Smith’s The Shadow.  However, after two brief issues Norvell Page was hired to write the majority of the Spider novels from then on, altering the character considerably, creating something fearsomely fascinating and wholly original.

Richard Wentworth, alias the Spider, was a wealthy playboy, a caped nocturnal vigilante, employing a butler who shared his secret, and was allied, and sometimes in conflict, with a police commissioner, all more than six years before the creation of Batman.  I’m sure that modern readers will detect a great deal of Batman’s mythology here, which was first developed in the Spider novels by Norvell Page.

Suddenly, with Page on board, the stories took on a kind of lunatic edge, containing livid lightning-paced action and visceral violence, with murderously apocalyptic villains looming over the panicked streets each and every month.  In the Spider’s nightmarish world, New York City teeters forever upon the brink of oblivion.  Every day is 9/11.  The Spider boldly faces hordes of monstrous madmen with a venomous laugh and a thunderous brace of blasting automatics.  There is nothing quite like a Spider story.  They are brutal, breath-taking, and horrifying in their scope.  The Spider’s reputation as the most vicious hero of the Bloody Pulps is very well deserved, but he’s much more than that, too.  He had to be extreme, because he faced the most ruthless and terrifying adversaries in pulp fiction.  I am striving to continue on with that same tradition.

Ki-Gor the Jungle Lord had a later start, first seeing print in Jungle Stories magazine in the late 1930s, published by Fiction House.  He and the beauteous Helene, his mate, were probably created to capitalize on the extremely popular Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of that period.  In the early Ki-Gor novels he does talk and act rather Weissmuller-like, but soon he developed a unique identity of his own.

Ki-Gor’s jungle is not the Africa we know today.  He inhabits a mysterious world of terrible beauty and nature run amok, insidiously populated by witch doctors, prehistoric monsters, missing links, and lost alien cities.  Also, the tales are more romantic and sensually-charged than what was published in most of the hero pulps of their time, which I will be retaining for my incarnation with the characters.
BF: The Spider and Ki-Gor are extremely different characters. Did your approach to writing them differ as well?

MP: True, they are as unlike each other as can be.  I approached their stories as I do all of my projects, so I extensively researched the Spider and Ki-Gor, although I was already very familiar to both, especially the Spider, whom I’ve written before.  I read and re-read several of the original pulp novels, probably a half dozen each, taking notes here and there, and outlining my plan for the first story-arcs.  That was great fun.  Their worlds are very vividly established in the original stories, although I have embellished and added to the mythos of the Spider and the Jungle Lord with a few touches of my own.

BF: How did you approach updating these characters for a modern audience?

MP: I’m doing no updating.  At least, there is no modernizing of the personalities or time periods of either series.  These are essentially the same Spider and Ki-Gor as the fans might expect.  I feel a great responsibility, particularly with the Spider, who is much better known, to deliver an interpretation that pulp readers will recognize and want to follow again.  I believe it will also attract new readers, as there’s a kind of timelessness about this kind of iconic hero.

Now nearly all the classic hero pulps of the thirties were self-contained, that is, a reader could pick up any copy of the magazines and follow the stories perfectly without being familiar with them before.  Except in rare cases storylines didn’t continue, and were usually concluded in a single issue.  Characterization, too, pretty much stayed the same with each novel.  It was unusual for the heroes to change very much in the original pulp adventures.

I will be approaching this a bit differently, because audiences today tend to expect and accept more from their heroic fiction.  Every major cast member from the Spider and Ki-Gor will grow and evolve with each new adventure.  By the end of the first year’s story-arc everyone will be in a different place, mentally and emotionally, than from our starting points.  That’s one of the aspects of this whole project that has me the most excited, actually getting to add dimension to these classic characters and their perilous, fascinating worlds.

BF: Justice is a major theme in pulp fiction and both of the characters you’re writing have well-defined, if not rigid moral codes. How does this set them apart from modern comics heroes?

MP: Actually, I don’t feel that there is much difference between the pulp heroes and contemporary comic book characters, at least not the archetypes like Superman and Batman who were, after all, also originally created during the Great Depression.

Ki-Gor is probably the easiest to understand.  His life in the jungle has molded his stature into that of a true king.  He takes that responsibility very seriously, and selflessly.  Ki-Gor has a genuine mistrust and dislike of most humans, except for Helene, of course, and a few isolated native tribes whom he has befriended and vowed to protect.  At times Ki-Gor is more animal than man, yet he possesses a clear-cut, perhaps somewhat naïve sense of right and wrong.  In a way he is the ultimate pristine hero, unfettered by society or its largely flawed rules.  In matters of injustice Ki-Gor moves immediately and unerringly against the aggressor.  Most of the natives in his jungle know only too well how terrible Ki-Gor’s justice can be, so they very rarely risk it.  It’s actually the so-called civilized men who cause him the most trouble.

Although he tends to see the world in similar tones of black and white, Richard Wentworth is a lot more complex.  Here is a man who would seem to have everything; wealth, prestige, extraordinary mental and physical prowess, a beautiful woman utterly devoted to him.  And yet, he is a tortured soul, or at least what’s left of his soul.  Like many of the classic pulp heroes Wentworth is a product of the Great War.  He was a celebrated soldier, the youngest major ever decorated by the United States Army.  He did his duty extremely well, and came back forever changed.  Somewhere in the snow shrouded forests of Germany, the Spider was born. 

Many of those closest to him actually suppose that Wentworth, the man, died during the war, and that the brilliant, fanatical, and deadly personality of the Spider replaced him.  Privately, the tormented Wentworth has come to suspect that himself.  The Spider’s lethal obsession is shared by his beloved Nita Van Sloan, who knows his darkest secrets, and fights passionately at his side.  In all the pulps there was never a romantic relationship like theirs, and I’ll be revealing much more of their tenderness, and smoldering passion, than the original tales ever dared depict.  Nita is Wentworth’s moral compass.  Without her, he feels that the Spider’s savagery might become uncontrollable.
BF: What is the Spider’s role in the Return of the Originals line? Where and when can fans expect to encounter him?

MP: The Spider will appear in his own bi-monthly comic book, as well as a semi-annual illustrated prose pulp-style magazine.  I’m hoping that the comic series will increase to monthly very soon after its debut, and the prose magazine to quarterly.  I have a lot of Spider adventures planned.  There will be various special one-shots, too.  One of my most exciting projects is an illustrated pulp novella featuring a team-up of The Spider and G-8 and His Battle Aces, which will actually conclude my first story arc.  I proposed this particular adventure almost two years ago, and it’s grown much more epic in scope since then.  I’m honored to be bringing these two pulp giants together for the first time.  There’s lots more excitement being planned and discussed, but this is all I can really talk about at present.

BF: Who are your collaborators for The Spider and Ki-Gor?

MP: Once again, I’m an extremely lucky writer.  I have two of the best, most perfect artists on board for both characters.  My old pal, and frequent collaborator, Tom Floyd will be joining me on Ki-Gor.  Ironically, we actually worked together on the Spider a few years ago, both the prose anthology, which Tom illustrated, and a Spider Christmas story in Moonstone’s holiday comic book, which was voted by Comics Geek Speak as one of the Best Single Comic Book Issues of 2007.

Tom and I must be brothers separated at birth, because we have an almost identical love of the genre.  We share the same tastes in comics and movies.  We think very much alike, often accurately anticipating each other’s thoughts.  It’s always a sheer joy to work with Tom.  He’s a highly disciplined, enormously dedicated artist, very much from the same school as Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, and Al Williamson.  Tom loves this grand jungle adventure we’ve cooked up together, and it shows in every panel.
For the Spider, I miraculously managed to recruit the legendary Pablo Marcos.  He has been one of my favorite artists since I was a kid. Pablo’s masterfully moody pages from Marvel's Tales of the Zombie magazine held me spellbound. It quickly became my favorite horror series, as I was growing up out of the mundane super-hero comics of that era.  Imagine my excitement two decades later when I actually got to meet Pablo during his visit to the Tekno Comix offices, where I’d briefly been on staff as an editor, and shake his hand.  That was a great day for me, and I never forgot it.  Facebook was actually instrumental in bringing us together again.  I rather shyly pitched the notion of the Spider to Pablo and he completely astonished me by enthusiastically agreeing to illustrate the first stories.  Pablo was born to draw the Spider.

If that wasn’t enough, I also have the fabulous Dan Brereton painting covers for the Spider.  I’ve been a fan of Dan’s work for years, especially The Nocturnals.  He loves the Spider and the pulps, so this is going to be really astounding.  I can hardly wait.

I doubt I can properly express how much this means to me, working with artists like Pablo, Tom, and Dan.  I’ll say it again…I’m a very lucky guy.

For more on the Return of the Originals line check out the Moonstone Books website.

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