Knowing what a little superhero nut I was, even at age 5, my grandmother and aunt would tell me about superheroes they recalled. One of them was the Green Hornet.
And because superheroes were thin on the ground in 1959, I listened eagerly to what they remembered from dramatic radio, where the Green Hornet had debuted in 1936. I pictured some guy in green tights who drove a green car that made a buzzing sound. At least I got the buzzing sound right.
I learned later that the Green Hornet was nearly as popular as his relative, the Lone Ranger, who premiered on radio in 1933. Both characters also starred in comic books and movie serials, and I’m a little surprised that the Hornet never followed his ancestor’s footsteps into pulp magazines and newspaper comic strips.
Fran Striker and George W. Trendel’s Detroit-based Green Hornet radio adventures originally aired for 16 years, and listening to them made me realize that the character’s crime-fighting strategy is much better worked out than most. It’s really almost plausible in comparison to, say, Batman’s or Spider-Man’s.
Posing as a mysterious master criminal, Britt Reid is able to infiltrate and intimidate criminal operations that are often marginally within the law. When he exposes and destroys them, it’s dismissed as the action of a rival gangster, and no one figures out what he’s really up to. He also has the resources of a major newspaper to back up his operations and provide him with intelligence.
The approach was pretty well thought out, and retained the flashy super hero elements that made the Lone Ranger so successful — the mask and costume, the symbolic weapon, the daring and faithful friend, the spectacular and speedy transportation.
Trendle said he sought to “…show that a political system could be riddled with corruption and that one man could successfully combat this white-collar lawlessness.” Britt Reid initially hunted “…the biggest of all game! Public enemies that even the G-Men cannot reach!” But that perennial national busybody J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like the implication, so the announcer’s line was changed to “…public enemies who try to destroy our America!”
The Green Hornet’s licensed comic book adventures began in 1940 with Holyoke, but in 1942 switched to the more substantial Harvey Comics for a lengthy run under various titles, including Green Hornet Comics, Green Hornet Fights Crime and Green Hornet, Racket Buster.
The Hornet had a McCarthy era one-shot in Dell Four Color 496 (Sept. 1953), combating a mayoral candidate who was of course secretly a commie spy. In 1967, the Green Hornet returned in a Gold Key title based on the ABC TV series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee.
Though a shadow of what he once was, the Green Hornet remains famous, and was still popular enough to inspire a pretty dreadful feature film in 2011. The movie was an interesting failure, however. Seth Rogen portrayed the character as the world’s first slacker superhero, interested in justice only as an extension of play. I have a feeling there’s an essay about differences in generational ethics somewhere in there.
Britt Reid also loaned the name of his valet, Kato, to the Pink Panther films.
The character pops up perennially in comics, most recently in a 2016 Dynamite Entertainment series that focused — finally — on the hero’s relationship to the Lone Ranger.
I once interviewed Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger on television and in movies during the 1950s. Thinking I’d trip him up, I asked the actor what his character’s relationship was to the Green Hornet.
“The Green Hornet was the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew,” he replied, in that deep, resonant, super heroic voice of his.
Apparently you can’t fool the Lone Ranger. I found that reassuring.