The Masked Crimefighter and The Great White Hunter

By Steven S. Long
Illustrations by John Waltrip

The Masked Crimefighter

Copyright 2016 (C) John Waltrip, Used under license

“Who knows… what evil… lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows….”

—introduction to The Shadow radio program

Perhaps the most popular type of Pulp hero, and the predecessor of today’s comic book heroes, the Masked Crimefighter combats crime in all its pulpish forms:  from perfectly ordinary gangsters and gun molls, to macabre crimelords with masks and code names of their own, to villains who threaten the entire United States — or world! Examples of this archetype include the Shadow, the Spider, the Black Bat, the Whisperer, the Phantom Detective, the Crimson Mask, and countless others (most of them inspired by the phenomenal success of the Shadow).

Also known as Mystery Men or Crimebusters, Masked Crimefighters tend to have certain features in common. First, they’re wealthy. This not only provides wish fulfillment for the Depression-mired reader, it means the hero doesn’t have to worry about holding down a job and can afford all sorts of exotic gear.

Second, he’s incredibly skilled. Besides being a crack shot and gifted investigator, the Masked Crimefighter has mastered many other subjects — everything from obscure ancient languages, to how to fly like an ace, to who’s who in the underworld, to the martial arts. This often goes beyond the mundane into the area of weird talents and powers:  rapid hypnosis; the power to “cloud men’s minds”; occult spells and powers. Two common sources for a Masked Crimefighter’s skills (besides the hero himself being particularly gifted) are (a) having served in the Great War, and (b) studying under inscrutable Oriental masters in long-hidden temples in the trackless depths of Asia.

Third, besides his “secret identity,” which allows him to mingle in high society, a Masked Crimefighter often maintains one or more false identities. He uses these to infiltrate the underworld (or for other purposes). Even if he doesn’t set up specific alternate identities, his skills with disguise make it easy for him to go where he needs to.

Fourth, he often has a group of assistants who help him with his crusade against evil. For example, the Shadow has a whole crew of agents (Margo Lane, Harry Vincent, Moe Shrevnitz, Jericho Druke…), while the Spider has his fiancee Nita van Sloan and his faithful manservant Ram Singh.

The typical Masked Crimefighter’s get-up is usually something along the lines of the outfit pioneered by the Shadow:  a fedora or slouch hat; a cape (almost always black); a mask (often a domino) or some other means to conceal his facial features (a scarf, a high collar…); a dark men’s suit or trenchcoat. His weapon of choice tends to be a semi-automatic handgun. Often he carries two of them, and they’re described as “thundering.”

The Great White Hunter

Copyright (c) 2016 John Waltip, Used under license

““Now,” I whispered. Boom! boom! boom! went the three heavy rifles, and down came Sir Henry’s elephant dead as a hammer, shot right through the heart.”


“It is a hard thing when one has shot sixty-five lions or more, as I have in the course of my life, that the sixty-sixth should chew your leg like a quid of tobacco. It breaks the routine of the thing, and putting other considerations aside, I am an orderly man and don’t like that. This is by the way.”


—Allan Quatermain hunts the great beasts of Africa in H. Rider Haggard’s classic novel King Solomon’s Mines

The archetype of the Great White Hunter — a European or American who lives more or less permanently in some relatively “uncivilized” area (typically Africa, but sometimes various parts of Asia or elsewhere) and is an extremely skilled tracker and hunter — derives largely from Allan Quatermain, the hero of several of H. Rider Haggard’s novels dating to the late nineteenth century. Richard Connell’s famous short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” published in 1924, also increased interest in this type of character/story. Similarly, the real world popularity of safari hunting beginning in the early 1900s played a significant part, with the experienced white hunter who guided the party becoming something of a figure of romance.

The best known of these real life examples of the archetype was Frank Buck. He started pursuing and capturing wild animals to send to circuses and zoos in 1911. His 1930 book about his work, Bring ’Em Back Alive, was so popular it spawned a number of feature films.

Several characteristics made the Great White Hunter a compelling hero. First, he’s largely abandoned the ways of European/American society in favor of the more rugged, adventurous life in Africa. This makes him a sort of outsider connected with the mysterious Dark Continent, but not so great a one as a Wild Man like Tarzan or Ki-Gor, so it’s easier for readers to identify with him.

Second is his mastery of the exotic skills needed to survive in his environment. A superb shot, a matchless tracker, and deeply knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, he can survive where other white men cannot. In fact he often surpasses the natives at these skills, so they admire and respect him.

Third, and more importantly, he admires and respects the natives as well. Unlike most Pulp characters, who tend to dismiss the natives as ignorant savages, the Great White Hunter speaks their language and knows their customs; they often consider him a member of the tribe or blood-brother. When interacting with other whites he stands up for the natives and tries to protect them from exploitation and harm. The only ones he fights against are Obviously Evil Natives (cannibalistic devil-worshippers, for example) who attack the tribes he’s friends with. In some cases he may even “go native” and live as his local friends do more than he lives as a white man.

The Great White Hunter is often a key character in that most pulpish of stories, the quest for a lost civilization and/or its treasures. A lost civilization by definition has to be well off the beaten track, and that means a long and arduous trek through the wilderness to find it. Who better to lead the other heroes there than a Great White Hunter?


Next Week:

“Tyree’s Diadem” By  Myke Edwards
Illustration by Joseph Velasquez

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