March 22, 2004
The Gray Seal Strikes...First!
Why isn't the Gray Seal more famous?
I would really like to know. Why has there never been a Gray
Seal motion picture (other than in the silent era)? Why hasn't
Marvel or DC Comics put out a Gray Seal limited series, or at least a
graphic novel? Why don't people mention the Gray Seal in the same
reverential breath with Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow, Conan and
Superman? Why isn't he a household name already?
Most of you, being pulp era affcionadoes, probably do know who the
Gray Seal was but FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO CAME IN LATE...
Jimmie Dale, also known as "The Gray Seal", was a fictional good-guy
thief created by Frank Lucius Packard (1887-1942). He was
spectacularly popular in his day, appearing over two decades in
a long series of stories, republished in the collections, The
Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1917), The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale
(1919), Jimmie Dale and the Phantom
Clue (1922), Jimmie Dale and
Blue Envelope Murder (1930), and Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour
(1935). There was also a 16-part silent serial made in 1917
called "Jimmie Dale alias The Gray Seal", starring E.K. Lincoln (not to
be confused with Elmo "Tarzan" Lincoln). Make no mistake, the
Gray Seal was playing with the big boys.
Jimmie was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father
owned a fabulously profitable safe manufacturing company which Jimmie
sold on the old man's death, apparently settling into the uneventful
life of a wealthy young man-about-town in his inherited home on
Gotham...I mean, New York City's Riverside Drive. But Jimmie
loved practical jokes. This, combined with his extensive
knowledge of safe cracking, led him into an unusual hobby. He
liked to break into expensive establishments, doing everything but
actually stealing anything. Apparently he did this to tweek the
noses of the cops. He called himself "The Gray Seal" because he
always left behind a small, diamond-shaped gray adhesive "seal", what
we might call a stamp or a Post-It note. During one such escapade,
broken into Marx's jewelry store, he was nearly caught and, having
fled, found he had accidentally kept a valuable necklace. He had
commited a real robbery!
This might not have been such a problem except, the next day, he
received a strange missive written in a woman's hand. The
note-writer knew all about Jimmie's strange hobby and about his recent
accidental theft of the necklace. She told him that henceforth
the Gray Seal would commit crimes according to her instructions -- or he could
forget about passing Go. True to her word, Jimmie began to
receive messages, always written on the same distinctive paper, always
with the same alluring womanly fragrance, always beginning "Dear
Philanthropic Crook", messages which detailed his next "crime", each
task having some greater good as its ultimate intent. Jimmie knew
his strange puppet master only as "the Tocsin", but he developed a
weird, romantic attachment to her, falling in love even as he had never
seen her face. At the same time, Jimmie developed a strange
adversarial relationship with Herman Carruthers, a former Harvard
classmate and editor of the Morning News-Argus. Carruthers, with
his own romantic streak, admired the Gray Seal and saw himself as the
Gray Seal's nemesis, the two of them matching wits in a cunning game of
cat and mouse, all the while unaware that the thief was his close
friend, Jimmie Dale.
When we first meet Jimmie Dale, in the first story, The Gray Seal,
his legend has already been secured and he is presumed to be dead,
since it has been a full year since the public has heard of him.
This is because the last note Jimmie received inexplicably instructed
him to lie low for a while. Since then...nada. But then, just as
the messages suddenly resume and the Gray Seal once more takes to the
night, righting wrongs, championing the oppressed, bringing justice to
those in need.
Now, so far, you may be wondering why I should make such a fuss
about the Gray Seal. After all, he sounds interesting but pretty
standard as pulp heroes go. And so he might seem -- until we
realize that the Gray Seal stories were written starting in 1914, about twenty years before the pulp era.
The only pulp-like hero to precede the Gray Seal was Baroness Orczy's
the Scarlet Pimpernel (1903). And even the Scarlet Pimpernel
owes a debt to Packard's Gray Seal. In the original story, the
Scarlet Pimpernel got his name because he sent taunting notes to the
French authorities signed with a drawing of the small English roadside
flower, the pimpernel. It was only in the later 1934 movie
starring Leslie Howard that he left pimpernels at the actual scenes of
his rescues -- a la the Gray
It has long been acknowledged that Packard's creation was the model
upon which so many later heroes were based. Walter Gibson, the
creator of The Shadow, admitted he based his far more famous creation
on the Gray Seal. But it is still difficult to really get across
how much is owed to Packard. There is really no way to exaggerate
how thoroughly Packard's Gray Seal reads like a blueprint for just
about everything that came after. A reader encountering the Gray
Seal stories without background knowledge would assume they were
written maybe in the 50s, as a clever homage incorporating all the most
famous devices employed by every fictional hero from the Spider to
Batman, from The Shadow to Doc Savage, from The Saint to Zorro.
It would be easier to list the devices not used by later writers!
Still, I'll give it a try...
Like both The Shadow and the Spider, the Gray Seal haunted the New York
nightscape dressed in a slouch hat. He was the first to wear a
black face mask, which would later become the trademark of masked
heroes and villains, so much so, that that sort of fiction is often
called the Black Mask school. He left behind his trademark gray
seal, just as Zorro would later leave his Zeds, and the Spider would
leave his spider brands on the heads of his victims. (And as the
Scarlet Pimpernel would leave behind his flowers -- in the
movie.) He wore a specially made vest with compartments containing a plethora of safe-cracking and breaking-and-entering doohikeys, just as Batman had his "utility belt" and Doc Savage carried various gadgets on his person. Jimmie Dale had a secret hideout on the Bowery behind the
Palace Saloon which he called "Sanctuary", where he kept weapons and
make-up, and where he could just be himself -- a clear precursor to The
Shadow's "Sanctum", Doc Savage's "Fortress of Solitude", Superman's
"Fortress of Solitude" and Batman's "batcave".
Jimmie Dale was a member of the ultra-exclusive men's club, the St.
James Club, clearly the inspiration for The Shadow's Cobalt Club.
Jimmie discovered the identity of his female puppet master, the
beautiful Marie LaSalle, and she helped him in his adventures just as
Margot Lane helped The Shadow and Nita Van Sloan helped the
Spider. Jimmie had a gentleman butler named Jason and a more
thuggish driver called Benson, just as Batman had Alfred, The Shadow
had the cabbie Shreevy, and the Spider
had Ram Singh and Ronald Jackson. Jimmie's relationship with the
reporter, Carruthers, brings to mind the Spider and Commissioner
Kirkpatrick, Batman and Commissioner Gordon or Superman and Lois
Lane. Apart from his own identity, Jimmie Dale frequently
disguised himself as "Larry the Bat", a lowlife junk-fiend, which
allowed him to interact with the underworld to gain information -- just
as everyone from The Shadow to Batman had their underworld
identities (the Batman's was "Matches" Malone). Jimmie's alter
ego was called "the Bat" simply because he inhabited
the night. Though Bob Kane never acknowledged this as the source
of his Batman, I can't help but suspect a connection. And, of
course, the whole idea of a thief who uses his talents for good was
later reused by The Saint.
I'm sure there are plenty of other things I've missed, but you get the
idea. Yet, simply listing ideas taken from the Gray Seal doesn't
really get to the heart of the matter. You have to read the
stories to really recognize how remarkable was Packard's
achievement. We credit Edgar Allan Poe with originating the
murder mystery, but his The Murders
in the Rue Morgue seems like what it
was...a first try, an author feeling his way, sometimes clumsily, in
brand new territory. We recognize the seeds of what was to come
later, but also recognize that there is still work to be done...if you
know what I mean. The Gray Seal stories aren't just technically
first...they read like pulp
stories. They had a pulp sensibility, full grown, completely
indistinguishable from all those that would follow. From the
beginning, Packard recognized the possibilities in a masked hero, in a
the contrasts between the foppish man-about-town and the manly,
two-fisted Gray Seal, and he played those possibilities to the hilt,
without a miss-step.
But it gets better. It has been pointed out by others that we owe
Packard's Gray Seal, not only for the hero pulps, but also for the whole genre of hard-boiled detective
fiction. Everyone from Chandler to Hammett were following
footsteps. The Gray Seal was the first to set stories in the
tough, seedy New York underworld, a murky world inhabited by
junk-fiends and crooked cops, where life is cheap and violence
casual. Before the Gray Seal, mysteries were polite drawing room
affairs, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. After him, we have Sam
Spade and Philip Marlowe. And yet, again,
Packard wrote with such confidence, such assurance, that it is hard to
recognize how ground-breaking was his accomplishment. All alone,
created two entirely new genres -- masked pulp heroes and hard-boiled
detective. He made it look so easy. And
he had nothing to draw upon except his own boundless imagination.
I will be honest and admit that I have an ulterior motive for hyping
Frank L. Packard and his Gray Seal. You see, Packard was a child
of my own home and native land. He was Canadian. Of course,
he had immigrated to the States, but he was born and raised under the
Northern Lights and, to me, Faithful Fiends, that is cause for
crowing. Understand, we Canadians are forever being told by the
cultural elites of our fair country that such things as masked pulp
heroes and hard-boiled detective fiction are distinctly American
genres. We are assured that there is something in the Canadian
psyche that prevents us from enjoying a character with a rebellious
streak. We never fought a Revolution, but meekly remained
attached to the British Empire. As a result, (say the cultural
elites) we are more comfortable with quietly passive characters,
characters who do what they are told, characters who are definitely not
the types to creep about in the night in slouch hats, righting wrongs
and bringing justice to the downtrodden.
Well, that is hogwash.
I can't tell you the number of times I have read that both the pulp
hero genre and the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction could not
have been produced by anyone other than Americans. In his really
excellent book, The Great
Pulp Heroes, Don Hutchison repeatedly tells us so -- pulp heroes
could only be a product of the American psyche. And Hutchison is
I just want to set the record straight. Lord knows, artistically
Canadians haven't produced much to crow about, internationally speaking
(well, except for David Cronenberg). Surely we deserve a little
bit of credit for this. Frank L. Packard's Gray Seal didn't just
influence later writers -- it laid out the damned blueprint.
Packard ought to be as revered as Edgar Allan Poe who created the
murder mystery; as Robert E. Howard who created sword and sorcery
fiction; as Mary Shelley who created science fiction. The Gray
Seal ought to be remembered along with The Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro,
Batman and a gazillion other later imitators. Thanks to the
Internet, The Adventures of
Jimmie Dale and The
Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale are finally available for free
download at several sites, so maybe there's hope for the future.
But the Gray Seal ought to be available in Ace paperback, say, with a
cover by Mark Schultz. Tim Burton should be negotiating for the
movie rights. Tom Cruise should be interested. The Gray
Seal should be famous!
So, why isn't he? Why? WHY?
I want to know.
Jeffrey Blair Latta,
and Supreme Plasmate
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