Monday, November 5, 2018

Doctor Satan on the Cover of Weird Tales

I wrote the previous series on superheroes, supervillains, supermen, and super-words in order to get here today. My hypothesis was that these words and concepts originated in the 1890s, give or take a decade. The evidence seems to bear out my hypothesizing. I didn't realize how strong would be the connection between super-ness and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, though. Even so, we as Americans more or less took these words and concepts away from European high culture and its distant and abstruse philosophizing and adapted them to our popular culture, in the process making them safer and more immediate, democratizing them, deflating them, and reducing the danger they represented to humanity. (1) There were echoes of words and concepts from Nietzsche--of supermen and super-words--in the popular press and in popular culture as late as the pulp fiction era, but as the twentieth century progressed, the superhero, as the successor to the hero in popular, folkloric, conventional, and sentimental literature, became more positive than negative, a force for the preservation of civilization and society rather than for their destruction, or for his striding over them in Nietzschean fashion. The superhero or superman came first, and in becoming positive, he had to have something against him, an antagonist, a foil, a counterweight. That's how, I think, we came to have the supervillain.

In my search for various super-words, I found a first occurrence of supervillain in the 1910s, significantly, I think, in drama (or melodrama) and in the cinema, in other words, in pop-cultural forms rather than in high culture or belles lettres. Tarzan and John Carter, two of the earliest superheroes, first appeared in 1912. The following year, one of the earliest supervillains, the insidious Fu Manchu, showed his face for the first time. (2) Tarzan and John Carter were and are regular and recurring characters. In that way, they have one of the qualities we associate with superheroes. But neither has a regular and recurring supervillain to oppose him. Likewise, Fu Manchu does not have a superhero against him. Instead there is Sir Denis Nayland Smith, a kind of Sherlock Holmes to Fu Manchu's Moriarty. Perhaps that was the model for the Doctor Satan stories that appeared in Weird Tales, beginning in August 1935.

In 1984, Robert Weinberg collected the Doctor Satan stories in a softbound booklet called, appropriately enough, Dr. Satan. In his introduction, Mr. Weinberg explained the origin of the series as a response to the popularity of the weird horror or terror titles of the early 1930s. These magazines were in competition with Weird Tales. If the editor, Farnsworth Wright, was going to keep up, he would have to feature stories of weird detectives in his magazine, or so he must have thought. "The Death Cry," by Arthur Reeves, printed in the May 1935 issue of Weird Tales, was the first entry in the magazine's journal of weird detective tales. The Doctor Satan series, by the prolific Paul Ernst, followed over the next year or so.

Whether he was ever referred to as a supervillain or not, Doctor Satan fits the bill. He has superpowers (his are supernatural) and regularly wears the same costume, at least on the cover of Weird Tales, making him instantly recognizable to children and fans. His foil is Ascott (or Ascot) Keane, a detective who may or may not be super. (He's definitely no Batman.) The two fought it out, as heroes and villains do, for eight stories spread out over a year's worth of issues. Still, the conventions of the superhero genre were not well established in the early to mid 1930s. There may have been superheroes at the time but not always supervillains to match them. Conversely, there may have been supervillains, like Doctor Satan, but no superheroes in possession of equal and opposing superpowers with whom they might contend.

Doctor Satan was on the cover of two issues of Weird Tales, in his debut in August 1935 and in his penultimate appearance in May 1936. In the meantime, the author, Paul Ernst, had his byline on the cover of the magazine several times. Unfortunately for him and his supervillainous character, the Conan stories, by Robert E. Howard, were running at the same time. Conan won the cover contest by a score of three to two in the year he and Doctor Satan shared space in Weird Tales. Conan the superhero is still remembered today. Doctor Satan the supervillain is, on the other hand, almost forgotten.

The Doctor Satan Stories in Weird Tales
"Doctor Satan" (Aug. 1935)
"The Man Who Chained the Lightning" (Sept. 1935)
"Hollywood Horror" (Oct. 1935)
"The Consuming Flame" (Nov. 1935)
"Horror Insured" (Jan. 1936)
"Beyond Death's Gateway" (Mar. 1936)
"The Devil's Double" (May 1936)
"Mask of Death" (Sept. 1936)

(1) Here is Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Vintage, 1991): "I will argue that high culture made itself obsolete through modernism's neurotic nihilism and that popular culture is the great heir of the western past." (p. 31)
(2) There were supervillains before Fu Manchu, of course. One example is the Invisible Man from the novel of the same name by H.G. Wells, first published in 1897.

Weird Tales, August 1935. Cover story: "Doctor Satan" by Paul Ernst. Cover art by Margaret Brundage.

Weird Tales, May 1936. Cover story: "The Devil's Double" by Paul Ernst. Cover art by Margaret Brundage.

These covers also appear in my entry "Devils and Demons on the Cover of Weird Tales," from October 24, 2016, here.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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