Movie producer Michael Uslan (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” “Dark Knight Returns”) returns to his first love this month as he writes the ultimate pulp crossover for Dynamite Entertainment: “The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights.” Featuring art by Keith Burns (“The Boys”), the five-part miniseries — showcasing 1930s masked men The Shadow and Green Hornet — boasts covers by all-star artists Alex Ross and John Cassaday with variants by Chris Eliopoulos.
Uslan spoke with CBR News about how Lamont Cranston and Britt Reid must put their sizable differences aside (one kills and the other is dead-set against it) and join forces as their alter egos in effort to thwart the greatest threat America has ever faced. He also shared details of how real-life inventor Nikola Tesla serves as a connective tissue between the fictional heroes and historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, Rasputin, J. Edgar Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
CBR News: Your first time writing “The Shadow” was back in the 1970s for DC Comics. Did you always have plans to revisit the character?
Michael Uslan: It was absolutely a character that I always hoped to write again. I have had a preference, since I was a kid, for the more mysterious superheroes. Batman was always my favorite. And The Shadow was the direct inspiration for the creation of Batman. I’ve always loved Green Hornet, The Spirit, the 1940s’ Sandman — the guys in the trench coats and fedoras seem to do it for me. [Laughs]
I’ve had the honor and privilege of getting to know Walter Gibson, who was the creative force behind The Shadow during his Golden Age. We worked together on a project and we spent some time together and I was able to ask him a zillion questions and he told me a zillion stories so I have a personal contact, through him, to the character, as well.
When I was growing up The Shadow paperbacks started to come out. Most of them were reprints of the earlier pulp magazines, some of them were new things — I remember Walter wrote a new one, maybe two. And then, later on, some other people started to write them.
But anything that had The Shadow, I bought. And I think, for me, it’s a homecoming that I’ve been hoping to happen for a long time.
And what about the Green Hornet? What’s your history with him?
I can break up my history with the Green Hornet into several things. As I was growing up, we had a flea market not to far from my house and every Friday night, my friend Bobby Klein used to beg my parents to take us to it because it had a back-dated magazine stand. On Friday night, this guy used to come in with boxes and boxes of old, old, old comic books and he would pour them out on the card table, and because they were so old, he would sell them to us for five cents a piece because he figured these comics were so old that they worthless. I was able to pick up some Golden Age issues of “The Green Hornet” at that time.
But primarily, by the time I was in junior high, WJRZ Radio in Newark, New Jersey started to play old-time radio shows on Sunday from late afternoon into the early evening. And it was “Lone Ranger, “The Shadow,” “The Green Hornet” and I started listening every week to the “Green Hornet” shows and that probably more than anything hooked me into the character.
Then that led directly into “The Green Hornet” TV series. I loved that because, unlike the “Batman” show, it was not being done campy. They weren’t making Green Hornet into a joke everybody was laughing at. They took The Green Hornet seriously and I really, really, really enjoyed that show. Spinning out from that show, there were other things like trading cards and stickers and I had a Green Hornet ring. There was a lot of memorabilia. Gold Key put out “Green Hornet” comic books. It was a combination of all of those things.
After all of the years, why do these characters endure? Why do they continue to resonate with long-time fans, as well as new readers?
First off, you are talking about human beings. You’re not talking about people with particular acquired superpowers. Yes, there is some element of power behind The Shadow but I would call him more of a force of nature. For a long time, we’ve seen elements of mysticism involved in The Shadow, which is very easy to swallow and is very applicable, I think, today. People can relate to it. It’s not that much different from the journey Bruce Wayne took in “Batman Begins,” for example, where he had this “Lost Horizon” type of journey, in which he got his training during his period of self-discovery. For reasons like that, I think the mystic angle is always fascinating to readers and viewers.
And I’m adding into this story, the scientific part of The Shadow. It was something that I had never focused on before. I always went back to the Orient, whether it’s “the power to cloud men’s minds” or the invisibility concept but I never focused on the science until I was doing my history reading and discovered that Nikola Tesla was actually the creator, in real-life, of the autogyro. And the autogyro was really only something that I knew from The Shadow. That was as signature to The Shadow as the Batmobile is to Batman so when I saw that historical link through the autogyro, it was like a flash of lightning. Really today, if we look at it, The Shadow has the mystical element, but he is also has a scientific element and if he does, Tesla has to be the guy behind the whole thing.
That led me down a path, in which I ended up doing months of historic research. Just like I did when I wrote the Batman hardback graphic novel, “Batman: Detective #27.” I did months of research before I started writing this and I couldn’t believe that so many different events that really happened in history and so many people who really lived around the late 1930s and early 1940s could all be connected. Once I had Tesla as a connective tissue, it was just very easy to weave it all into one, coherent Shadow story that takes Lamont Cranston — and of course, Britt Reid — and twists and mingles him into these real events of history.
What brings Lamont Cranston and Britt Reid together for “Dark Nights?”
I don’t want to spoil this one but let me put it this way. In the history of comics, most often when two superheroes get together for the first time, they fight. They just do. There is always a misunderstanding or a disagreement or an allusion of something and they wind up fighting. And I was determined that these guys were not going to meet that way. I was going to give them a reason to get together that nobody has ever seen before in comics — something that would just be a flip as to why these two were brought together and I think that readers are going to be surprised because it’s not the normal comic book story of how two superheroes meet.
Color me intrigued. You mentioned Nikola Tesla and his connective tissue, but in this story, Woodrow Wilson, Rasputin, J. Edgar Hoover and FDR are all going to play roles too. When you blend historical characters into your stories and you really start connecting the dots, it’s eerie how easily you can place all of them in one place without too many degrees of separation, isn’t it?
It truly is. I have always loved books like “Ragtime” and “Carter Beats the Devil” and “The Alienist” and that really turned me on to this whole aspect of fiction/fact writing. Here I have Britt Reid, who is operating out of Chicago, I have The Shadow operating out of New York and you just start with that and looking up what was going on in Chicago and New York circa 1939 or so. All of a sudden, there is so much stuff going on. And then you see who was prevalent in the world of politics, who was prevalent in the world of science, what international incidents were taking place, as well, what was going on in these cities, what was going on in Washington, D.C., what was the most popular thing going on in pop culture of the day, meaning predominantly movies and radio, and the blend all comes together fast and furious.
It’s like you’re shooting off a Tommy Gun. Once you get started, the links just pop out at you left and right.
So that covers the good guys, but what can you tell us about the bad guys? It’s already been revealed that Adolf Hitler and Shiwan Khan play roles in the story.
When Cranston figures out there is this evil force out there that has woven in and out of history manipulating people and events in history for malevolent purposes, he actually goes to see President Woodrow Wilson in December 1920 and that is what kicks off the whole series.
I’m not telling tales out of school to tell you that if you do a little historic research, you find that Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke and the remainder of his term was really filled by his wife and very few people knew what happened to him. And he just stopped seeing everybody because only a small handful of people knew what the situation was. They didn’t want the vice president to become president so his wife did and it became America’s most well kept secret as she started making all of the decisions for the government.
And that to me was fascinating and that to me was what was going to get us going because as a kid reading the Shadow books I was always fascinated by one story, “The Romanov Jewels,” and a couple of other ones that began to delve into the origin of The Shadow, the origin of the girasol, and I said, “Oh, my God. In 1920, Wilson has a stroke — what could have led to all of this?”
Woodrow Wilson’s wife was previously married to Norman Galt, who was a famous jeweler. It’s close to the Russian revolution. An important of part of the Shadow lore is the Romanov jewels and you can see how this almost becomes a flow chart into a story.
Are there similarities between The Shadow and Green Hornet? Differences?
There are similarities and there are differences. Part of it is that they do get to know each other as Lamont Cranston and Britt Reid. And they do get to know the inner circle around each other. And if you take a step back and look at each one of their inner circles, you’ve got Green Hornet with one of his closest confidantes is Lenore Case. In the case of The Shadow, it’s Margo Lane. You have Kato, who is driving the Green Hornet, and you have Shrevvy, who is driving The Shadow. You’ve got Mike Axford, who is an investigative reporter working for Britt Reid, and you have Clyde Burke, who is an investigative reporter working as one of the Shadow’s agents. There are a lot of parallels. There is a lot of commonality. If you sift through the stories and the characters, you can find common ground within those inner circles.
A substantial difference is that the Green Hornet will not kill, and The Shadow has no compunction about killing. That is a very, very basic difference. Their methodologies are different but they have, as it turns out, a tremendous, maybe begrudging, but tremendous respect for each other and they wind up having to band together against a far, far greater threat than anything that America had seen to that point and it was just important, ultimately, that they work together.
There is a moment when the Green Hornet feels a little out of his league compared to The Shadow, until The Shadow points out, or reminds him, that he is probably the primary reason why Khan and Hitler are beginning to fail.
It’s kind of fascinating. I keep trying to go for the unexpected and not to take the typical route in stories like this.
Keith Burns is illustrating the miniseries —
Keith’s art is unbelievable. It’s moody. It’s evocative. He captures the period so well. When you see the detail on the historic aspects of this, whether it’s buildings, the skyline, cars, the clothing people are wearing, whatever it is, he’s really gone out of his way to do his research to make sure everything is historically accurate. Tip of that to him.
I just saw the coloring on “Dark Nights” #1 and again, it’s just sensational. It captures the spirit of what we’re going for with these two great characters. I couldn’t be happier. I think people are really going to have a fun time with this story.
And you have a couple of newcomers handling the covers in Alex Ross and John Cassaday.
It’s important that we give these young pups a break every once in a while to get their careers going. [Laughs]
I am as privileged as anyone can be that two of the greatest artists, never mind cover artists, are doing the covers. It’s a personal thrill, if I can speak as a fanboy and not just as a comic book writer.