In the world of superheroes, a mega-rich socialite who dresses up in a dark costume and spends his evenings beating criminals to a bloody pulp isn’t too hard to find no matter where you look — but that wasn’t always the case.
Before heroes like the Green Hornet burst onto the radio dial or Batman swung above Gotham City along with dozens of other capes, The Spider, a tough urban vigilante who starred in a popular series of 1930s pulp adventures, fought back against a world gone mad. Created by Harry Steeger and written through most of his career by Norvell Page, the character was secretly millionaire Richard Wentworth who had an army of allies in his war against crime and an even bigger rogues gallery of mass murderers with names like The Living Pharaoh and The Master and his Black Police.
Already prepping the world for another pulp return in the form of “The Shadow,” Dynamite Entertainment is bringing back The Spider this May in a new, modern ongoing series written by David Liss and drawn by Colton Worley with a character redesign courtesy of Alex Ross. This new series will see the influence the character played on superhero vigilantes over the years come full circle as the costumed character will mix it up with a number of threats to society and sanity with a 21st Century twist. CBR News spoke with Liss about how he’s bringing his history with pulp icons to bear on the series, why The Spider’s world is one of the most dangerous that’s ever been and how the detailed art of his collaborators will impact the comic overall.
CBR News: David, everyone knows you have an affinity for the time period the Spider comes from, but had you read a lot of the original pulps before taking on this assignment? What was your first exposure to the character and what stuck with you from that time?
David Liss: I’d read some of the Spider pulps years ago when I first discovered and discovered a love for pulp characters. I think I was struck by the same things that strike most readers about the Spider. First, there is the insane scale of the villainy and destruction in those stories. The Spider’s enemies kill thousands, take over entire cities or destroy chunks of New York. There is a kind of lunatic over-the-top quality to those stories that make them so compelling. Then there’s the character himself who always struck me as a lot more human and vulnerable than many other pulp characters. Richard Wentworth feels things deeply. He’s emotional. Suffering affects him and his own personal life is complicated and messy.
When it comes to introducing a modern take on the character, I get the feeling you’ve placed a premium on who the Spider has been in relation to the world around him. Looking at those elements, the character was defined so much in his early run as facing down a kind of world gone mad; this nightmarish version of crime in the Depression. How do you translate that feeling to modern times? What similarities do you see between the two?
I wanted to create a similar feeling in the updated version of the story, so the Spider’s New York is also full of poverty and crime and desperation. It is also full of crazy people willing to do virtually anything for wealth, power, revenge or any of the other sorts of things that motivate villains to put on costumes and destroy. In the end, I wanted this Spider, like the original, to inhabit a world seemingly teetering on a precipice. The Spider believes — and rightly so — he has an obligation to stand against the forces of destruction because he can and because his doing so makes a difference. His burden is that if he doesn’t do it, lots and lots of people will die. How can he walk away from an obligation like that?
Like a lot of other pulp icons, the Spider had a team of operatives surrounding him. Who of the original gang did you gravitate towards bringing back into this series and what role will they fulfill moving forward?
I wanted to include most of the major players as early as possible without hopelessly top-loading the story. I also had to make a lot of decisions about how to update the characters and their relationship to Wentworth and the Spider. For example, in the original, Wentworth couldn’t marry Nita van Sloan because his code would not allow him to risk making her a widow. That just didn’t seem to work for contemporary times, so I had her married to someone else. Now there’s a barrier to two people being together! Ram Sing was originally Wentworth’s South Asian body servant (somehow simultaneously Hindu and a Sikh, which is a neat trick). I changed his role to make him no less powerful, but less of a 1930s cultural stereotype. I’ve also included Commissioner Kirkpatrick, Professor Brownlee and Wentworth’s chauffeur, Ronald Jackson, will show up a little later. They’ve all been changed at least a little, but it’s never change for its own sake. Rather, I wanted the characters to be believable in a contemporary context.
On the flipside, the Spider had one of the most grotesque galleries of villains of any character of the era. Are there any you’ve been looking to bring back as part of the action?
We went with an original villain for our first arc, though I think Spider fans — and pulp fans in general — will agree we are operating firmly within the Spider tradition. I do think it would be fun to try to incorporate some of his original enemies into the story at some point, however. Who wouldn’t want to read about an updated Emperor of Vermin?
As for the man himself, the Spider (and his alter ego Richard Wentworth) has influenced a number of heroes we’ve seen since his first appearance. What do you consider his real defining characteristics you need to retain to make this character stand out in the 21st Century?
The Spider is such an influential character because he’s fully human — with feelings and emotions and the capacity to lose and suffer. More than anything else, that’s what I wanted to make sure I brought to this version. He does what he does because he has to, even though the role he has chosen for himself doesn’t bring him happiness. The burden he feels to sacrifice himself for the good of others, more than anything else, makes him the original modern hero, anticipating the classic Marvel characters with “feet of clay” as well as the modern rendering of Batman.
Alex Ross has provided a redesign to bring this character to the modern era. What kind of story inspiration did both Alex’s character work and innovations like the web gun provide for you?
Opening up the attachment to look at Alex Ross’s designs for a character I would be writing has to be one of the coolest moments of my life. Of course, I wanted to write something that would be worthy of his concept. I always knew I wanted the Spider to have gadgets because that’s part of who the character is. The mask was the design that had the most significant effect on story. Going with a mask meant Wentworth’s face would be hidden and he would not longer be using his ability to disguise himself and alter his own appearance. Personally, I love the new look and I think it makes a lot more sense in the modern world. When you think about it, it wasn’t so outrageous for 1930s heroes to forgo masks because photographs of them would likely be shaky and blurry and photographs of ordinary citizens were not easily available. These days, when everyone leaves parts of their lives on-line and so many people have video cameras in their pockets, a mask is essential to anonymity.
At the same time, you’ve got quite the artist on your hands with Colton Worley on interiors. What do you think his work adds to the tone and feel of the series and how have the two of you worked together in terms of presenting those inventive page layouts for the comic?
I love Colton’s detailed and realistic art and his work on this book is nothing short of amazing. His take makes the gritty and brutal feel of the Spider’s universe come alive and he’s been great to work with. He is always open to ideas, though honestly, I usually have very little to say about his concepts and designs. He pretty much nails it every time. I think anyone picking up one of these issues is going to be drawn in instantly and have a feel for the world Colton envisioned. It’s not a world I’d want to live in, but it’s a pretty damn cool one to write and read about.
Finally, what do you want to say at this stage about the first adventure for the Spider? Was there a specific story from the past canon you looked to update or does this tale synthesize your take on the character in some way?
It was definitely more of the latter. I wanted a story pulp fans would feel was part of the tradition, but also one that worked to introduce the character to new readers. Hopefully we’ve done all that. The Spider faces a pulp-style villain who threatens the entire city and attacks tens of thousands of people simultaneously. It’s violent and its ugly but, more importantly, readers will get a feel for who the Spider is, why he does what he does and what his work costs him. I feel good about the story we’ve come up with and Colton makes it look amazing.
“The Spider” #1 ships this May from Dynamite Entertainment.