Moonstone's three-issue series The Spider: The Iron Man War adapts a classic pulp prose story from 1939 originally titled "The Spider: Satan's Murder Machines" which pitted the pulp pioneer against several mechanical monstrosities. Although the character and this particular story are relatively unknown to today's audiences, this story by Norvell W. Page (under the name "Grant Stockbridge) inspired not only Stan Lee & Larry Lieber in their ideas for Iron Man in I>Tales of Suspense #39, but was also homaged in Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster's 1940 Superman comic strip "Bandit Robots of Metropolis". And oh yeah, whoever wrote the movie Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow probably read this more than once.
For those unfamiliar with the character of the Spider, he was one of the major pulp magazine heroes of the 1930s and 1940s. The Spider, along with the Shadow and Doc Savage, served as forefathers to the coming superhero movement – with Batman in particular taking on many similarities to the Spider. The Spider was in fact a millionaire named Richard Wentworth who donned a bizarre disguise consisting of a cape, fright wig, fangs, make-up and a hat to fight the criminal underworld who were threatening people during the Great Depression.
For this comic adaptation of this seminal story, Moonstone enlisted writer Howard Hopkins and artist J. Anthony Kosar to bring this story to modern audiences. Hopkins is a frequent writer for Moonstone, doing previous Spider stories as well as tales for Green Hornet and Captain Midnight, and has also written prose novels as both himself and the pen name “Lance Howard”. Delivering digitally painted artwork for this is J. Anthony Kovar, who recently did the The Spider: Judgment Knight one-shot. For more, we talked with the pair just after the first issue’s release.
Newsarama: Guys, how would you describe the story in The Spider: The Iron Man War?
Howard Hopkins: It's a non-stop explosive pulp action in the best tradition of The Spider! I mean, giant steel men storming through Manhattan, destroying, maiming, and creating general havoc, and all that good stuff. This was half a century before Sky Captain put it on the screen, and The Spider and his principal writer, Norvell Page, did it with gusto and style.
Nrama How did you two go about adapting this story for the new comic treatment?
Hopkins: Adapting Spider tales are always a challenge, because they have so much going on in them and it’s sometimes painful to choose which scenes to cut and which to keep. This particular story had almost a double ending, so along with keeping the most important parts, it needed to be melded into a single cataclysmic finale. As well, I wanted to preserve as much of Page’s emotional drive and subtext as I could, keep it real for Spider fans, while cutting/combining what was necessary to get a 60,000 word novel down to a three-part widescreen comic book format. Basically, I read the novel, highlighted important scenes and sequences (which amounted to way more than could go into the final series), highlighted key Page prose, then decided which parts I could condense or leave out.
Nrama: This story inspired not one but two comic stories in the future – a Superman story by Siegel & Shuster, but also the Stan Lee/Larry Lieber Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense. Why do you think it was so potent then – and now?
Hopkins: That’s a tough one, because it was a different time period, a simpler yet changing one in many ways. Nowadays, a giant robot could be taken down by a nuke or sophisticated military weapons. But in the 30s, gigantic robots, apes, even men (such as in Doc Savage’s, The Monsters) were pretty intimidating stuff. They were viewed as virtually unstoppable, things that evoked sheer terror. They might have been a symbol for the threats facing the world at the time; namely, the Depression and the growing threat of another World War. Those things were seen by many as something immensely powerful, something mere men had no control over, something that could easily sweep away everything they held dear, or their very lives and the lives of their family. People were being crushed under the emotional and physical strain of those things and the potential threats of a world perhaps too swiftly approaching an age where our ideas of safety had been and were being thrown out the window. What better menace to represent that than something so big and powerful it could march through the world’s largest metropolis and destroy all in its wake? People needed to have those fears compartmentalized, presented as a target—one a hero such as Doc Savage or The Spider could overcome and prove to folks that there was always hope, always a solution and no problem was so great it could not be overcome. Which is why the idea translated to Superman, the ultimate hero, so well. Stan Lee, as Stan Lee did so perfectly, found a way to turn that all on its head, by making the threat THE hero—Iron Man. Iron Man wasn’t gigantic, but he had gigantic technology he used for good, to make us safe.
Nrama This story was written by Norvell Page many years ago – a different century even – did you do anything to update the story for modern audiences?
Hopkins: Honestly, I pretty much left that aspect alone. The story rocked on its own and I saw no need to screw around with it. I fixed plot holes and discontinuities, as Spider novels are wont to have, but the story worked perfectly in its time period. I think the one minor alternation I made was with the robots’ machinegun fingers—those became more of a laser deal. But that was mostly so I could blow up more things! It’s fun to play with fire…
Nrama: Anthony, with drawing such a classically defined character as the Spider, did you take any liberties with his costume design or how he acts in this from the original stories?
J. Anthony Kosar: I took some liberties, but mostly kept true to the character. I’ve seen variations of the Spider with bare hands, but I like him in leather gloves keeping in mind that he is a wanted vigilante and fingerprints will give his true identity away. Also, aesthetically, I keep the Spider’s cape attached under his suit jacket’s lapel rather than attached together under his neck so as to see the classic collar and tie. Mine also wears a single-breasted suit and a vest. There are other minor differences, but overall, I feel confident that I have given him a look that is mine while maintaining the traditional elegance of the era he lives in. I’ve also taken minor liberties with the Spider’s love interest, Nita Van Sloan by giving her longer hair that is styled down or blowing wildly in the wind like the Spider himself, when traditionally her hair is seen shorter, styled up and wavy in a hairdo fashionable to the time.
For the Iron Men, I did not want to go in the direction of art deco, or anything spacey and sleek. I wanted them to be heavy, grungy, and stained metal men without any sophisticated technology. Though the story called for “two circular eyes” and “steam-shovel teeth” which is a very “cute” combination, and the licensor sent a sketch of the head and wanted something that can exist underwater, I did find it challenging to make them look threatening and intimidating. I redesigned the head, very loosely based on the licensor’s sketch, and approached the body with inspiration from deep-sea divers and old submarines. Through the use of extreme perspective angles and showing only what needs to be seen by hiding the rest in light beams from the eyes and atmosphere such as smoke, sleet, and fire, I think I achieved what I was initially going for. It is the mystery, I feel, that sells it.
When it comes to dealing with how the Spider acts, I again stay true to who he is. This is a really cool and complex character, overly dark for the time he was created, and I am really excited to have been part of his revival. What I like about him is that he is dark and edgy, ruthlessly fighting crime without superpowers or technological gadgets more advanced than his two .45s. He terrorizes the terrorists with fear. Basically, he is like the Shadow and Green Hornet, but much darker. He is an early version of the Batman archetype, but unlike Batman, the Spider kills the criminals he hunts. And the best part is, he enjoys it. He gets this strange satisfaction in haunting the hunted, playing mind games with them, and gets a rush in pulling the trigger on those he hates. The Spider’s expertise and skills are rarely challenged, but when they are, he enjoys it more. His alter ego Richard Wentworth, is your 1930s-1940s billionaire playboy and model citizen who fits into a classy world much more innocent and proper than it is today. It is this conflicting psychological difference that is fun to play up in scenes where Wentworth dons the Spider persona, to give the viewer/reader a sense of his twisted enjoyment.
Nrama: It seems the key to adapting any work is to know what to stay true to the original with and what to alter. What would you say the easiest and hardest parts of adapting a story, this one in particular?
Hopkins: Hardest was, as I mentioned, that The Spider was nonstop action. Scene after scene…piled on more scenes of blistering pulp action. Plus he had some character depth and inter-character relationships that are integral to the series. I wanted all that in there, but, alas, what you have room for in a 60,000 word novel does not all fit into a smaller format mini series. Also, there is a modern believability problem with giant mechanical men. I wanted them threatening, not silly, and boiled down there was always that risk. And I believe in preserving the character/series’ soul as written. Fans, I think, appreciate that, and don’t want their beloved characters screwed with a whole lot. I know I don’t. They like the story as it was written, so I wanted to make sure I did indeed stay true to that. Easiest part? There was no easiest part! Unless it was having the privilege to bring a beloved character back for modern readers—that was a thrill!
Kosar: As I mentioned before, the Spider is a dark and ruthless creature. Most of my art is dark and heavy anyway; even the lighter illustrations and paintings have dark underlying themes. Therefore, the way I approach the visual part of the story is to try and capture this element in the illustrations, adding a dynamic and graphic composition for modern readers, while maintaining a bit of the pulp art feeling. I try to take the story to a darker place visually, framing compositions as a director of photography would for a film. The New York that Wentworth lives in may be an elegant place in elegant times, however the underworld of crime that my Spider operates in isn’t a pretty place. There is no art deco. There is no glamour or refinement on the streets, alleys, and rooftops that the Spider prowls. It is a dark, grungy, and rundown place. For the interior artwork, the cinematic aspect ratio along with the help of the black and white limitations of this project enable me to give the Spider a moody and gritty crime noir feel, guiding the viewer’s eyes through the illustration with the use of light and dark, positive and negative space, and all the values in between.
The cover art is approached the same gritty and moody way. However, unlike traditional pulp covers that are often very colorful and smoothly painted oils, mine is nearly monochromatic at first glance while keeping the grittiness of my gouache style. I kept warm fiery colors to play on the original title Satan’s Murder Machines to really show hell on earth, only adding cool colors where I want characters to pop. Naturally, the use of the red on the interior of Spider’s cape also brings focus to him. The three covers have reoccurring themes and imagery that binds one to the other, while touching on the individual title of that particular issue.
The hardest parts for me on this project have been designing interesting black and white compositions for illustrations on pages absent of action, sometimes several in a row. I am at times unsatisfied with the approved concepts of these said “no-action” illustrations and often find myself changing and reworking them to ultimately capture a dramatic sense of storytelling through light and shadow patterns and stronger composition. I am my own toughest critic, so it feels good when I know it’s right, making the no-action illustrations as interesting as the ones full of action and movement. It makes the extra work well worth it
There really is no easy part to any project; each brings its own challenges. If a project is too easy, somehow I’ll make it more challenging to keep interested and make sure I am putting out a product I am proud of. I try to push myself harder with each new painting to prevent myself from any comfort zones. I go through great lengths getting the sense of hyperrealism in my work, often adding details and textures, and keeping focuses that a camera can’t see or get, or that aren’t even present or apparent. Many times, I build miniature sets, sculpt maquettes and props, and coordinate costuming to capture every bit of tiny detail to complete the whole. It’s a fun way to integrate my sculpture and special effects skills into my illustration.
Nrama: Before I let you guys go, can you tell us how you got onboard for this project?
Kosar: My first published illustration job was interior art for The Spider: Judgment Knight #1, the first issue of the first ever, ongoing Spider comic series. Joe Gentile of Moonstone was very pleased with my work, especially my understanding of the character. He had called me when The Spider: The Iron Man War project was starting and mentioned that I was the choice of both him and the licensor. Though I am more inclined to do cover art due to the time consuming nature of my hyperrealist style, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse… not only do I really like this character, but the idea of having the entire book, covers and interiors, for the complete 3 issue miniseries is what sold me. I’ve been working on it ever since, amongst other freelance art and FX jobs that get thrown into the mix.
Hopkins: I believe the license owner asked my editor at Moonstone, EIC, Joe Gentile, for me to give the project a go after I adapted another Spider tale, The Devil’s Paymaster, for their graphic novel: The Spider: Judgment Knight (with fantastic artwork by Gary Carbon) I have a couple more adaptations coming up after this one, in fact. But of course I jumped a the chance—getting to play with characters one grew up on and to this day thrills to is a dream come true.
Have you heard of these classic heroes? Does Pulp have its place in today's market?