In some of his introductions to the various volumes of the series, Preiss pointed out that unlike the older pulps, this new series would encompass, or perhaps better stated, emphasize other genres outside of the standard action tales best typified by the Doc Savage and Shadow stories. Thus, there’s more fantasy and science fiction in WH. Also, at several points he stressed that he wanted his heroes to resolve their problems and/or overcome their adversaries without depending too much on violence (and surprisingly, some – but not all – of the contributors did seem to make an effort to adhere to this dictum). What makes these books particularly interesting to comic fans are the illustrations, often done by fan-favorite artists, like Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Estaban Maroto, Alex Nino, P. Craig Russell, Tom Sutton, Howard Chaykin…
The series consists of eight books, which all came out from 1975 to late 1977, i.e., periodically, like the old pulp magazines. Four of them, volumes 1, 2, 6 and 8, are anthologies featuring stories by a number of different writers, while the other four are full-length novels. Some of the contributions were made by notable writers in the SF field at the time, like Philip Jose Farmer, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Ted White and Ron Goulart, as well as a few names familiar to us comic fans: Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, Elliot Maggin and Marv Wolfman.
Back in the day (as they say), I only had one of these, the first volume, which I bought for about 50 cents at our local church’s charity flea market in 1980 or so. The cover caught my eye immediately, and I recognized a few of the names listed on it, like Archie Goodwin and Jim Steranko. (By the way, my favorite story in that first volume, then and now, is Goodwin’s contribution, almost the only one in the entire series that features a character most like the old pulp heroes: Adam Stalker, a scruffy Vietnam vet who works as a PI in Tulsa, OK.) I recall coming across one or two of the later volumes in used bookstores when I was a teen (I specifically remember seeing volume 8), but I never bought them, mainly because – quite stupidly – I thought I had to have the intervening volumes (yep, the completism bug to which us comic fans often succumb can be a rather silly and limiting disorder).
I apologize for the quality of these images, and for the lack of any of the illustrations found inside. Most of my current copies of these books, while intact and not falling apart are nonetheless pretty old and well-read, and I worried about doing any additional damage to the spines by shoving them into a scanner. However, Pete Doree, over at the Bronze Age of Blogs, did a post on volume 6 earlier this year which includes some of the excellent interior illustrations.
Other, less successful spin-offs included J. Michael Reaves’ Kamus of Kadizhar, a detective on a world where science doesn’t work but magic does, who appeared in a book called Darkworld Detective, which collects the two stories from vol. 8 of Weird Heroes, plus two new ones, and then in a later novel that wasn’t written by Reaves; Preiss also published an illustrated novel called Guts, starring the character of that name from the first volume.Besides that, Philip Jose Farmer’s three rather humorous stories about modern-day zeppelin pilot Greatheart Silver were later collected and published in a separate book, and the novel from volume 5, The Oz Encounter (featuring Ted White’s character Doc Phoenix – introduced in volume 2 – but written by Marv Wolfman), was reprinted in what I’ve been told is an attractive hardcover edition in 2005.
Otherwise, in the early 2000s Preiss reprinted the first volume in a new edition, apparently with plans to republish the entire series. Unfortunately, his untimely and tragic death in a traffic accident in 2005 basically put an end to this.
Some characters who never appeared again, but definitely should have, include Goodwin’s Adam Stalker, as mentioned above, as well as Ron Goulart’s Gypsy and the wonderful Nightshade, from volume 4. Gypsy is a mysterious character – a cyborg or possibly even an android – who time-shifted from the mid-‘70s to the early 2030s (in a dystopian, anarchic Europe) and knows nothing about his past, his true identity or why he has some amazing powers. He appears in two novels (in volumes 3 and 7 – beautifully illustrated by Alex Nino) and the second has a bit of an ambiguous ending that leaves a lot of questions unresolved.
Nightshade is very much like a classical pulp character in the tradition of the Shadow, the Domino Lady or the Green Ghost. She’s a brilliant stage magician, who, as a master of disguise and skilled martial artist and so forth, secretly goes on missions to fight evil-doers – although instead of dealing with mob bosses or evil scientists like her pulp-era predecessors, she takes on a multi-national corporation bent on world dominance by manipulating politicians and events in other countries (a topic as relevant today as it was back then). When I finished reading that book I was clamoring for more, but authors Beth Meacham and Tappan King never revisited her.
Needless to say, I highly recommend these to everyone here: they’re fun, light reads for the most part, and in some cases just the lovely illustrations make these worth tracking down.