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March 22, 2004

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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 the 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, having 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 inexplicably, 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 Seal.

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. Later, 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 polished, virtually indistinguishable from all those that would follow.  From the beginning, Packard recognized the possibilities in a masked hero, in a secret identity, 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 in his 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, he 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 Canadian!

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, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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