Pulp expert Jess Nevins on The Zeppelin Pulps:
The following is an expanded version of my essay in Incognito #6, the last issue in the wonderful pulp-supers-noir comic by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Incognito #6 is in stores today (make sure to buy three copies each!) and a shorter version of the following appears there. For space reasons I had to cut some things out, but Ed’s graciously given me permission to repost the original here.
(BTW, this may be the single thing I’m most proud of having written, if only because doing research on the zeppelin pulps and the background to Complete Zeppelin Stories was such a challenge. I’d read Complete Zeppelin Stories, of course, but the context to it, and the information on the other pulps was extremely hard to find. This was a challenge from start to finish, and I’m glad I met it).
Posterity is cruel to popular culture. Successful series, in any medium, find themselves quickly forgotten. Sexton Blake was the second-most imitated character in the world in the 1930s, after Sherlock Holmes, and today Blake is virtually unknown. The radio serial “Fibber McGee and Molly” was famous internationally in the 1930s and 1940s and is now almost forgotten. This was true of the pulps, as well. One of the best examples of the forgotten pulps is the genre of zeppelin pulps and Complete Zeppelin Stories, the most famous zeppelin pulp of them all.
During the late 1920s Frank Armer (1895-1965) was the man behind Ramer Reviews, a publisher of four minor pulps, including Zeppelin Stories, which was best known for Gil Brewer’s lost apes-and-zeppelins classic, “The Gorilla of the Gasbags.” Ramer Reviews failed in late 1929 and Armer became an editor for Harry and Irwin Donenfeld on their “spicy” line of pulps, including Spicy Detective Stories. In 1935, for reasons not known, the Donenfelds and Armer had a falling out, and Armer left the Donenfelds’ Culture Publications.
On February 12, 1935, the U.S. Navy Zeppelin Macon, pride of the Navy’s aerial fleet and hoped-for model for future U.S. military zeppelins, crashed off the coast of California. The Macon disaster, two years before the more famous wreck of the Hindenberg, cast doubt on the viability of zeppelins as military vessels. But the zeppelin boosters within the U.S. Army and Navy were unwilling to let a freak accident spoil their plans for a fleet of armed zeppelins, and sought for a way to redeem the image of the zeppelins in the eyes of the public.
This was not the Navy’s first public relations problem. In 1934 the Navy was faced with non-existent enlistment from Americans from non-coastal states. In response, Frank Martinek, a Navy Lieutenant, created the comic strip “Don Winslow of the Navy.” Martinek’s Don Winslow is an agent of Naval Intelligence who has thrilling adventures fighting against various international super-criminals. “Don Winslow of the Navy” succeeded in boosting enlistment, and a year later, the Navy decided to use the lesson of “Don Winslow” on zeppelins.
They hired Frank Armer, who founded a new publishing company, Stars and Stripes Publishing, and promptly resurrected Zeppelin Stories as Complete Zeppelin Stories. The lead story in the first issue, in September, 1935, was “Death at 30,000 Feet,” starring John Paul Jones, Commander of the U.S. Navy Zeppelin Saratoga. Jones was clearly intended to be the poster child for the series and to act as a recruiting tool–his stories extol the safety and speed of zeppelins and confidently predict that they will be the future of air travel–but something unexpected happened: fan interest skewed away from Jones (who, to modern eyes, is colorless and one-dimensional) and toward Professor Zeppelin, the protagonist of the back-up story, “The Sargasso of the Skies.”
Modern readers dismiss Zeppelin as a Doc Savage rip-off–and, indeed, he is. Zeppelin is the “Sky Scientist.” Zeppelin is reputed to be “the smartest man in the world” and is an expert in every field. Zeppelin is assisted by a team of men, all experts in their fields, including Auberon “The Brigadier” Cooper, the world’s foremost export on aeronautics, and Hammond “Piggy” Higgins, America’s leading test pilot. Zeppelin has a floating base, the “Zeppelin of Silence,” stocked with technologically-advanced aircraft, including one-man “electric zeppelins.” The Zeppelin of Silence also a medical laboratory in which Zeppelin performs operations to remove the “sickness of evil” from the brains of criminals. And Zeppelin’s skin is deeply tanned from months spent in the open cockpit of his zeppelin.
The similarities to Doc Savage are pronounced. But it was these similarities which were the cause of Professor Zeppelin’s popularity. Doc Savage was at this time hitting its peak, both in quality and popularity, and the demand for more Doc Savage stories was greater than the supply, so Doc Savage imitations–like Jim Anthony and Captain Hazzard–were popular with readers. So, too, with Professor Zeppelin.
That a vigilante like Zeppelin should be more popular than a square-jawed, heroic Naval Commander like John Paul Jones was undoubtedly embarrassing to the Navy, but Armer was a wily veteran of publishing and knew to play to his strengths, so in the next few issues he relegated Jones to the back-up features and made Professor Zeppelin the pulp’s lead. Over the next nine issues–Complete Zeppelin Stories, like many other pulps, was bi-monthly–Zeppelin fought an increasingly colorful set of foes: the Prussian aviator Pontius Pilot; the Black Death, the “living disease;” Wu Fang, the Helium Mandarin; Dr. Okayuma, who vivisects spies in his zeppelin laboratory; Amenhotep, the simian Pharaoh of the Congo; and Baron Nosferatu, the Flying Vampire.
Complete Zeppelin Stories was an instant success, and Armer responded by increasing the size of the pulp and including other series characters, most modeled on other popular heroes, in an obvious attempt to further increase sales and perhaps create spin-off pulps. The January, 1936 issue introduced Lazarus, the Returned Man, a two-gun-wielding lift of the Shadow. The March issue introduced Agent 1776, who differed from Operator #5 only in the use of a red, white, and blue zeppelin. The May issue introduced the Scorpion, a more obvious-than-usual lift of The Spider. And the July issue introduced both Swift Stevens, a Flash Gordon lift, and Jack Blake, the Zeppelin Vigilante, a combination of the Phantom Detective and Secret Agent X.
By the summer of 1936 the sales of Complete Zeppelin Stories approached those of Doc Savage, Love Story Magazine, and Western Story Magazine. As was common in pulp publishing, other publishers rushed to imitate success and churned out a number of zeppelin pulps, including Ace Magazine’s Zeppelins, Popular’s Dime Zeppelin Magazine, Red Circle’s Complete Zeppelin Detective Stories, Columbia Publications’ Flying Cowboy Stories, and, most absurdly, Culture Publications’ semi-pornographic Spicy Zeppelin Stories. Few of these pulps lasted long–Spicy Zeppelin Stories was such a failure it was cancelled after a single issue–but some had staying power. Street & Smith’s Zeppelin Story Magazine proved to be a minor hit, and its most popular characters, the humorous, tall-tale-telling cowboy “Gasbag” Gallagher and the Texas Ranger “Dirigible” Adams, made appearances in other Street & Smith pulps well into the 1940s. And Popular Publications, who in 1933 created the “weird menace” genre by turning the mediocre detective pulp Dime Mystery Book into the best-selling occult horror pulp Dime Mystery Magazine, made more money with another weird menace pulp: Strange Tales of the Black Zeppelin. Strange Tales featured a variety of unusual characters and stories, two of which outlived Strange Tales itself. The serial “The Passenger in Berth 12,” written by Cornell Woolrich under the pseudonym of “K. Hite,” became the famous lost film noir The Passenger (1938), which starred Paul Muni and Ann Savage in her first lead role. And the series “Doctor Weird,” about an occult detective, was picked up by Chicago radio station WENR and turned into the horror drama “Doctor of Destinies.” Aided by its position following the notorious “Lights Out,” “Doctor of Destinies” was a hit for several years, and its opening was once as famous as The Shadow’s: a sepulchral voice intoning the phrase, “Do you dare step aboard the floating mansion of Anton Weird, Doctor of Destinies?”
In May, 1937, the zeppelin genre of pulps seemed poised to become as significant and established a pulp genre as sports, romance, and detective pulps were. Hollywood was preparing to capitalize on the genre’s popularity. Several zeppelin films were in pre-production, including the Willis O’Brien-directed War Eagles (in which Lost Race Vikings, riding pterodactyls, battle German zeppelins in the skies over New York), the Republic Pictures serial The City in the Sky (in which Ray “Crash” Corrigan would reprise his role from Undersea Kingdom and fight against a floating city of Yellow Perils), and the Universal Pictures serial Smilin’ Jack vs the Mad Baron (which would have been the first serial for comic strip aviator Smilin’ Jack). But on May 6th the Hindenberg burned. The Hindenberg disaster was the death knell for the use of zeppelins internationally and was equally fatal to the zeppelin films and the zeppelin pulp genre. So powerful was the image of the burning Hindenberg etched in the public’s mind that pulp publishers didn’t wait for sales to kill the zeppelin pulps, but pre-emptively cancelled them or folded them into other, safer pulps, as Street & Smith did, turning Zeppelin Story Magazine into Air Trails. Frank Armer was the lone hold out, keeping Complete Zeppelin Stories going as a Professor Zeppelin vehicle. Zeppelin became land-bound and rode a motorcycle, although his enemies, like the Baron von Mörder, the Future Führer, remained imaginative.
But sales of Complete Zeppelin Stories never recovered, and in late 1937 Armer cancelled the pulp, folded Stars and Stripes Publishing, and agreed to sell Stars and Stripes’ inventory to Martin Goodman, who was having success as a publisher of pulps like Best Sports Magazine and Detective Short Stories. Goodman apparently intended to use the Zeppelin Story Magazine inventory of stories in a new pulp, Sky Devils. But a quarrel between Armer and Goodman over the rights to several of the stories–Armer might have been thinking of the example of The Passenger, whose filming reportedly didn’t earn Armer anything–reportedly led to Armer to threaten legal action if Goodman used any of Stars and Stripes’ pre-existing characters, like Professor Zeppelin, Lazarus, and The Eagle. Goodman, who already had a stable of characters like Ka-Zar (who appeared in an eponymous pulp in 1936 and 1937) and the Masked Raider, decided the legal battle wouldn’t be worth the money and effort. Armer went back to the Donenfelds and Culture Publishing, Goodman continued publishing pulps (and, two years later, began his own comics company–Marvel Comics) and Professor Zeppelin, Lazarus, and the rest of the Stars and Stripes crew disappeared, never to reappear.
Until Incognito, which is one of several reasons Ed Brubaker should be lauded. But–to this pulp researcher, at least–there are a few curious things going on here, foremost among them is their reappearance to begin with. Purely due to vanity, I’ve been reluctant to ask Ed about how he found out about Complete Zeppelin Stories and Professor Zeppelin. Complete Zeppelin Stories is a rarity–only three issues are known to exist, and they’re all in the British Library, which is where I read them. (The British Library actually has a fantastic collection of pulps, on par with the Library of Congress). How Ed found out about these issues, much less got the relevant information on Professor Zeppelin, I have no idea. I didn’t even know about Complete Zeppelin Stories until a couple of years ago–the series even got left out of my Pulp Magazine Holdings Directory, and that book is supposed to be a complete and thorough listing of every pulp still in existence in a library anywhere. Not to flash too much ego, but…if I didn’t know about Complete Zeppelin Stories, how the hell did Ed Brubaker?
To give you an idea of what Ed somehow pulled off–there are no, zero, 0 hits on Google for Complete Zeppelin Stories. The pulp does not appear on the Fictionmags Index (an invaluable resource for pulp researchers). The pulp doesn’t appear on Phil Stephensen-Payne’s splendid index of pulps, Galactic Central. Neither Complete Zeppelin Stories nor any of the characters in it appear in Ralph Sampson’s magisterial six-volume “Yesterday’s Faces” guide to pulp characters (the best guide to pulp characters until my own Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes comes out). There are a few other pulps which have similarly fallen through the cracks–but those pulps are gone beyond recall. How on earth did Ed find out about Complete Zeppelin Stories???
Second, I’m bemused by the lack of commentary over the appearance of Zeppelin et al. The characters in Complete Zeppelin Stories are incredibly obscure–but not completely unknown. Certainly the pulp experts know about Complete Zeppelin Stories and the other zeppelin pulps, but nobody on Pulpmags-L has said anything about this. Perhaps the pulp fans just don’t read modern comics? Too, Professor Zeppelin et al. are one of the great What-Ifs of Golden Age comics. We can only imagine how different those early issues of Marvel Mystery Comics, Daring Mystery Comics, etc., and perhaps Timely Comics itself, would have been with these overtly pulp characters in them, rather than immortals like Taxi Taylor and the Challenger. Perhaps Golden Age comics would have taken a more overtly pulp bent, rather than trying to insert pulp characters into a superhero world? Timely’s The 3Xs, for example, are Jack, Doc, and Reggie from “I Love a Mystery” with the serial numbers filed off, but in a superhero world. Perhaps The 3Xs would been allowed to be properly pulpish if Professor Zeppelin had been around?
I understand why the official histories of Marvel Comics left out the Armer/Goodman quarrel and the Complete Zeppelin Stories characters–the Donenfelds’ National Publications became part of DC, and the writers of the official histories no doubt didn’t want to dredge up ancient history and make the Marvel/DC rivalry any more unpleasant–but where has the commentary been from the Golden Age comics experts? Given that Professor Zeppelin and Lazarus appear in Incognito, Marvel has obviously reacquired the rights to them. No one has said anything about this, that I can find. Where has Roy Thomas been? Is there some article on Frank Amer, Complete Zeppelin Stories, and Professor Zeppelin waiting to be published in Alter Ego? Nothing from Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid (both experts of comics history and arcana) on this?
Thirdly, I’m bemused by the lack of nerdfury over what Ed did to Zeppelin et al. Professor Zeppelin et al. are, as I said, obscure but not unknown. But those of us who are fans of the originals know that they weren’t as…well, dark as Ed makes them out to be. Lazarus was a Shadow lift, true, but he wasn’t a Punisher-style murderer, and Professor Zeppelin’s operations on the brains of criminals was something done to completely wicked men–Zeppelin rehabilitated a fair number of criminals without operating on their brains. Ed’s versions of Zeppelin and Lazarus don’t particularly bother me–reinterpretation of established characters is as old as popular culture itself, and since Incognito isn’t in mainstream Marvel continuity, the fans can still hope to see the real Professor Zeppelin and Lazarus, one day–if not in an issue of The Twelve (is that series ever going to be completed?), then perhaps in Ed’s The Marvels Project. (Hint, hint, Ed).
But this is the Interwubs. There are comics fans out there who are predisposed to hate everything, and lord knows a lot of them are Golden Age fans. And there are pulps fans who are even worse. Where’s their nerdfury over what Ed did to Prof. Zeppelin and Lazarus? They complain like the dickens about any modern interpretation, however faithful, however theoretical and non-existent, of the pulp standbys. Where’s their kvetching over Professor Zeppelin? Surely some of these fans must know about Incognito.
(Oh, how I’ve searched for a cover image of Complete Zeppelin Stories to accompany this essay. Nothing. My Google-Fu is strong, but I have been defeated. I’ve actually had a Google Alert set up for a couple of years now, hoping that an issue of Complete Zeppelin Stories might pop up on eBay–especially the possibly-mythical Complete Zeppelin Stories #11 (there’s considerable debate over whether the eleventh issue ever saw print) but no luck. So…no cover image of one of the issues. I was particularly hoping for an image of the cover to Complete Zeppelin Stories #5, which features Amenhotep, the gorilla Pharaoh. I saw it on microfilm in the British Library, and it is glorious).
Finally, thanks to Ed and Incognito, Professor Zeppelin is making a comeback of sorts. He’ll be appearing in a story in the next “Tales of the Shadowmen” anthology–I’m told the story will describe what Zeppelin was doing in New York City on the day King Kong climbed the Empire State Building.