FOR FRIENDS OF THE STIRLING ROAD BRANCH LIBRARY
Original publication in Rain Taxi Review of Books, ON-LINE EDITION, SUMMER 2011
OPERATOR #5: The Bloody Pulp Pulpit
By Stuart Hopen
In the 1930’s, a combination of cheap paper and cheaper thrills unleashed a volcano of creativity. This was the age of the pulp magazine, the quintessential literature of the Great Depression and fertile breeding ground of a uniquely American mythology. Digging through this now ancient archive, one finds the fossilized ancestors of the comic book heroes and digital gods who walk the Earth today. There is no mistaking the familial features Batman inherited from The Shadow, or that Superman inherited from Doc Savage.
Among this fabled company strode a character named Jimmy Christopher, who starred in a pulp magazine entitled Secret Service Operator #5, America’s Undercover Ace. A forebear of James Bond, he even fought a bullion-obsessed villain who wielded a golden gun and tried to rob the Federal gold reserves.
Popular Publications used this title to draw attention to what they considered the pressing concerns of the day. The 125-page pulp was a virtual soapbox, a bloody pulpit, a makeshift urban Almanac cum popular gospel that combined espionage, military action, pseudo-science, shady politics, international affairs, sociology, and economics to deliver dire warnings of growing national weakness and lurking sinister adversaries (foreign nations, secret societies, and cults) intent on destroying the Republic.
The authors (there were at least 3 who all wrote under the house name of Curtis Steele) prescribed ways to avoid the dread terrors painted on its covers and marauding through its pages. Americans were admonished not to exhaust their resources in pointless foreign wars, but rather to fortify their shores against both insidious infiltration and overt attack. They were told to cling to their cultural values including hard work, ingenuity, reason, and science.
Many of the issues, which appeared once a month, now seem prophetic. The stories written between April of 1934 and November of 1935, foretold the destruction of the Pacific Fleet by an unnamed Asian Power and an armed conflagration called “World War II” which devastates Europe. The magazine also foretold a crisis created by the U.S. squandering its domestic oil resources, which leads to a malignant dependence on foreign oil; and masses of Americans seduced and lulled into complacency by marijuana
America, humbled by the Great Depression, was assessing its vulnerabilities. The magazine attuned itself to cultural anxieties about loss of power and prestige, the fears that haunted the collective nightmares of America at the time. Knowing the way that Rome and other great civilizations had been overwhelmed by barbarian hordes, the authors raised the specter of the same fate befalling America.
The magazine’s covers, painted with classical skill by John Newton Howitt, frequently featured bearded warriors in feathered helmets and beaten breastplates or chainmail, arms bared to display massive muscles. This vision of barbarians at the gate is epitomized in the opening scene of Master of the Broken Men, in which primitive tribesmen interrupt the annual grand ball of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Decorated in war-paint, the half-naked party-crashers hurl spears into the throng. The Vice-President, in attendance, faints.
Other issues conjured horrific scenarios of barbarians of a different sort, those who have enough science and engineering to construct fantastically powerful weapons, but who use these skills and their products without the refinements of civilization. They erase skylines and fleeing multitudes by turning a universal solvent to military ends; they terrorize the population with an invisible aerial super fortress capable of snatching up the President’s son and hoisting him into the sky, and then hurling destruction upon a thousand cities and towns; they turn American cities into arctic wastelands using a ray that halts molecular motion; they rip holes in the ozone layer (without the use of greenhouse gases), admitting destructive cosmic rays. Here we find the birth of the techno thriller, decades before Ian Fleming’s Moonraker.
Frederick C. Davis, who wrote the first twenty issues, took pains to affect an air of scientific legitimacy with extensive footnotes, which are often dry and distracting. But Davis was also capable of whipping technical details into a dark and violent poetry, achieving surrealistic effects that evoke the power of dreams.
In The Green Death Mists, men mysteriously choke to death amid inexplicable storms. Planes drop out of sky while the visual field transforms:
…a gloomy hue appeared, surrounding the roaring planes. It spread swiftly to envelope heaven and earth in its mystery. Through it the sun shone blood-red. Jimmy Christopher saw the wings of his plane blending from gray to a pinkish brown! …The spreading water of the Bay was turning a deep purple… On the wings of the plane the cocarde of the U.S. army became a meaningless symbol. … his skin was green, his lips brown, his eyes a deep red!
A new kind of electrical generator had turned the atmosphere to ozone, which caused the asphyxiation of men and machine, while absorbing the ultra-violet rays of the sunlight, causing all the colors to change. Storms erupted because three measures of oxygen produce only two measures of ozone, creating a vacuum.
Operator #5 faced numerous threats associated with exotic religious cults whose dangers lay less in their theological trespasses, and more in their allure. Jimmy Christopher tells us, “Religion strikes deep in the human heart.” Aware of the capacity of religion to transform not only individuals, but whole societies, Davis played to fears that America’s tolerance of diverse religions would make it susceptible to attack from within.
Invasion of the Crimson Death Cult begins with a thunderstorm over the desert which allowed 500 illegal aliens to cross the Rio Grande. A strange phenomenon causes a paralysis of thought on the part of the onlookers, described in religious terms as being beyond pain and pleasure. The cult of Kosma, a variation of Zoroastrianism, is taking over America. It commands a mysterious force that shatters concrete. Families bankrupt themselves with donations to the cult. Converts are so numerous, Congress is able to pass a law condemning Christianity, and opening the national treasury to the leader of the cult. But Jimmy Christopher exposes the secrets the cult, demonstrating that a weaponized version of ultrasonic waves has been causing all this trouble, battering down buildings (mostly churches), while inducing a deeply disoriented effect on the human brain, misinterpreted by the masses as a religious experience.
A similar cult threatens in Cavern of the Damned, though this one uses a potent drug, Bhang (marijuana), instead of sound waves.
In Army of the Dead, the threat to religious values comes from Science itself:
“The Master of Death is granting to human beings, in actuality, what religion only vaguely promises. He promises, and he actually gives, a continued, certain life on this earth!”
…Z-7 demanded tensely: “How can we possibly fight that man if death cannot destroy him? ”
With an eye turned toward Germany, and the catastrophic consequence of a chancellor selected under a free election, the magazine pointed to threats coming from one of the vulnerabilities of democracy, a susceptibility to cults of charisma and deceitful leaders. Blood Reign of the Dictator features the following scene:
“[Ursus Young] turned as the Chief Justice proffered the historic Bible — a book upon which the hands of great men had rested when assuming the duties of their noble office, a book hallowed by the touch of past Presidents, whose names had carried into tradition and history. Solemnly, the venerable Chief justice raised his hand and repeated the presidential Oath. “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
…Young …thrust the historic Bible aside. “To the people of this nation, who elected me to this office, I say that I will not raise my hand to the meaningless string of words which have just been babbled upon this platform. I will not preserve nor defend nor protect a scrap of paper which is the cause of the wide-spread suffering in this country. …As President of the United States, I declare this nation in a state of war! Our enemy is poverty! … I intend to wield greater power than any President has ever dreamed of possessing but I shall wield it for the good of the common man. My speech is ended. I will not use words to fight our battle, but strength! I will not talk— I will act. I’ll make prosperity— and give it to you. That is my oath of office!”
A cheer that was simply thunderous swelled from the throats of the thronging thousands. Ursus Young, a triumphant leer on his lips, turned from the rostrum. …
“No man is big enough to fight me now! No man will dare raise a word, a finger against me! I— I am the nation!”
Operator #5 had much in common with one of Popular Publications’ other best selling characters, the Spider. Both heroes spoke many languages and both were protean masters of disguise. But the two expert fencers, who names rang among the Salles D’Armes, seemed more like foils for one another. The Spider was written with tongue thrust proudly into cheek, while Operator #5 relayed its messages with dead-pan earnestness.
In Operator #5, no effort was wasted on character development. The novels were peopled with archetypes and personifications, principally motivated by their national allegiances, or their inclination to virtue or vice, like characters in medieval morality plays or folk tales. Jimmy Christopher bore a scar resembling an eagle in flight on the back of one hand, and the sum of his personality was no less symbolic.
There were strong emotional attachments between Operator #5, his girlfriend, Diane Elliott, his twin sister Nan (a perfect doppelganger but for gender), his father John, a retired agent with a bullet lodged near his heart, and his plucky Irish kid sidekick, Tim Donovan. But these bonds served only one structural function: to lend drama to the moments when each must be offered for sacrifice to the higher calling of duty to country. In one issue, circumstance forced Jimmy Christopher to abandon his fiancé to gain a military advantage. But he followed the dictates of duty, and resignedly apologized, “Diane, I’m sorry I murdered you.” She would, in that instance, be reprieved, for there was an authority somewhere that was seemingly satisfied with Jimmy Christopher’s willingness to make the sacrifice, in and of itself. The reprieve came, with biblical conventionality, at the last possible moment.
Frederick C. Davis said, “I don’t remember how long I kept Operator #5 going… several years, anyway. Eventually, it just got to be too much.” One wonders just what exactly got to be too much. The demands of keeping a vigil on advancing technology and international politics? Or the outrageous level of intensity the plots had reached?
After Frederick Davis surrendered which ever burden had gotten to be too much, the writing chores shifted to Emile Tepperman, a veteran writer of Secret Agent X, who was a competing publisher’s boring version of the same character. Within months, Tepperman would also replace Norvell Page as writer on the Spider, and turn that title into a boring version of itself. The drop in writing quality for both Operator #5 and the Spider was immediately obvious. Tepperman frog-marched Jimmy Christopher through the next five issues of Operator #5, culminating in an apex of tedium in Crime’s Reign of Terror, a generic tale about a gangster trying to consolidate all the mobs in America, which looks suspiciously like a Spider story rewritten at the last minute to meet a more pressing deadline.
And then something extraordinary happened. The world utterly changed with the next issue, Death’s Ragged Army. At the start of the novel, it seems as if months, or even years have passed since the previous issue, but on a subtler level, centuries have passed, for the story is told in the format of a future history, as if from the perspective of a time in which the events have become embedded in the nation’s consciousness, all well known to every school boy. Invaders from the Purple Empire (a thinly disguised Germany) have already taken hold all of New England and most of the Eastern Seaboard. Canada already has been defeated, and Maine has been depopulated by a poison gas. The President has fled to a ramshackle courthouse in Jacksonville, Florida. And so begins the epic generally known as the Purple Invasion, which tore through the next 13 issues. It is sometimes called the “War and Peace” of the pulps, but there is no peace within these 780,000 some odd words. Tepperman took some of the premises and themes of the earlier Davis stories about foreign invasions, and enlarged them into a vast, sprawling post-apocalyptic horror novel with a closer kinship to King Stephen than Count Leo.
It seemed as if Tepperman awoke from a literary stupor, but apparently only for these issues. I haven’t seen anything remotely resembling this level of energy or imagination in his other writing. I’d like to think he was under the spell of wild inspiration. But I suspect some other secret and yet unidentified Curtis Steele may have been contributing.
Jim Steranko, in his History of the Comics, gives us a thumbnail version of the Purple Invasion epic:
“… Operator #5’s betrayal by army officers, the President’s suicide, Diane’s rescue as she is about to be hung from the Liberty Bell on the 4th of July, a gold train attack, a fantastic naval battle, the destruction of the Panama Canal, American forces pushed beyond the Rocky Mountains, the use of plague bacteria, the Purple Fleet’s onslaught of San Francisco… the suicide charge of the Canadian Lancers, the destruction of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, the Purple National Anthem, the American revolutionary army rallying at Death Valley, their push toward Los Angeles and the destruction of the Purple Navy, the fall of the Purple Empire and the rebuilding of America.” Not to mention the wall of living crucified children, Diane tied to the treads of a tank, the torture and martyrdom on the gallows of the Supreme Court Justices, the mothers who surrender their virtue to the wanton appetites of the invaders in vain efforts to save their infants who end up on bayonets anyway, and the rage and grief of the men who find the evidence of these deeds.
Tepperman describes the army that rises against the invaders as a parade of iconic images:
“Old farmers, crotchety with rheumatism, swinging upon their shoulders antiquated muskets which had seen service in the early days of American colonization of the West; youths still in their teens, too young to serve with the American Defense Forces in the Rockies but not too young to join enthusiastically in a plot to strike a shrewd blow at the enemy; women, many of the wives and daughters of the Americans who had died in battle—all of these flocked from miles around to serve under Operator #5.”
One issue after the fall of the Purple Empire, Tepperman departed from these pages. Perhaps Operator #5 became too much for him as well. In any event, the title was not long for this world. Another Curtis Steele would take up the pen, but America had already been conquered, and recaptured. It was well past the point of being too much.
There is much in Operator #5 that will prove distasteful to the modern reader. The rhetoric-driven dialogue often reads as unintended satire, sometimes of the wafer-thin characters and sometimes of the propositions they so fervently promote. In their zealous advocacy of American isolationism, which history would shortly prove utterly wrong, the authors were not above stirring up ethnic and racial biases by resort to crude stereotypes. An editorial from the February 1936 issue contained a statement that affects an affable air of tolerance, but is fraught with troubling ambiguities. “Americans don’t care what a man’s father or grandfather was, as long as he’s first and last a true American.” Meaning that all true Americans were accepted? Or only those of third generation? And what exactly was the criterion for a true American?
Even with all of its flaws, Operator #5 remains a unique artifact, infused with raw American folklore and nightmares. It provides iconic glimpses into the terrain of the cultural subconscious at the time of the Great Depression, a time not entirely unlike our own. Secret Service Operator #5 is part of the literary heritage, though it is largely unknown today, and would almost certainly be lost entirely, but for a small but steady succession of admirers who sometimes look suspiciously like a cult.