Off the Page: THE GREEN HORNET Radio Serial

The Green Hornet! He hunts the biggest of all game: public enemies that even the G-men cannot reach!

With his faithful valet Kato, Britt Reid, daring young publisher, matches wits with the Underworld, risking his life so that criminals and racketeers within the law may feel its weight by the sting of the Green Hornet!

Like the assorted mystery men we discussed last time, the Green Hornet actually predates Superman – he first buzzed his way onto the radio in 1936, the brainchild of George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. And like those characters, a certain pulpy, 30s-esque tinge of sepia still clings to him. Maybe it’s the old-school fedora-and-mask combo; maybe it’s the shadow of the radio series, which was immensely popular and ran all the way to 1952; maybe it’s just that until this year he’s never had the weight of one of the Big Two comics publishers behind him. But the Green Hornet has retained that vintage flavor while contemporaries like Superman and Batman have become timeless.

Despite the 2011 movie – which was my first introduction to him – the Green Hornet’s still a relatively unknown quantity even within geek culture, so here’s a quick rundown: Britt Reid (incidentally, the great-nephew of the Lone Ranger, whose show was also produced by Trendle) is a dashing young playboy. The owner of the Daily Sentinel, he uses his access to the latest news to fight crime as the Green Hornet, accompanied by his valet/chauffeur/jack-of-all-trades Kato. Assumed by the police to be a criminal, the Green Hornet plays into his reputation as a no-goodnik to get in good with the rackets he smashes. Aside from his car, the Black Beauty, and his gun with its knockout gas pellets, his trademark is a little Green Hornet symbol (on the TV show it basically looks like a Pog), which he leaves behind to let criminals know he’s onto them or to tell the police he’s solved yet another case.

Al Hodge as Britt Reid.

Al Hodge as Britt Reid.

The most notable character in the franchise, arguably even more than Britt, is of course Kato. Thanks to Britt saving his life on some past adventure in the Far East, Kato is now his devoted friend/sidekick/uh, something. I don’t know, maybe having some guy follow you around everywhere was normal in the 30s. Kato was originally Japanese, but after Japan’s 1939 invasion of China, his nationality was quietly dropped from the narration, and soon after various sources started referring to him as Korean or Filipino. I was bracing myself for a thick accent and a lot of scraping and bowing from Radio Kato, but mostly he’s just quiet and helpful – not that there’s not racism enough in the idea of a generically Asian character obediently trotting around after some rich white dude. It’s especially disappointing because as the genius who designed both the Black Beauty and the gas gun, not to mention an Asian man living in America during World War II, Kato’s clearly a far more interesting character than Britt.

The rest of the cast is fleshed out with the staff of the Sentinel – the exasperated and slightly lovelorn secretary Lenore “Casey” Case, hard-nosed and fairly interchangeable reporters Mike Axford and Ed Lowry, girl photog “Clicker” Binny, and so on. If you’ve seen His Girl Friday, you’ve got the general idea.

And that for me was the problem with enjoying The Green Hornet as much as I wanted to. It’s a perfectly good radio serial, even if the episodes feel a little long at 30 minutes each. The cast, originally led by Al Hodge and Tokutaro Hayashi as Britt and Kato respectively, is solid; the patter is snappy; the racketeers are all lowdown dirty rascals, as they should be.

Tokutaro Hayashi as Kato, Al Hodge as Britt, and Jim Irwin as reporter Mike Axford.

Tokutaro Hayashi as Kato, Al Hodge as Britt, and Jim Irwin as reporter Mike Axford.

But it all kind of feels familiar. As a playboy and newspaper man, Britt feels like a mashup of other, more well-known heroes than his own thing. It’s totally unfair to the Hornet, who predates both Batman and Superman, but it might help to explain why he’s never again reached the popularity of his early years – his shtick was boosted by a pair of upstarts in longjohns and he’s never quite recovered. It doesn’t help that Britt’s a publisher and not a reporter, meaning that it’s Mike, Ed, and/or Clicker doing the legwork for the first two-thirds of every episode, until Britt will inevitably exposit the whole plot to Kato before swooping in as the Green Hornet. There are some compelling concepts seeded into the Green Hornet’s story, but Britt himself is just not a particularly active or compelling character.

I’d definitely recommend listening to at least a few episodes of The Green Hornet if you’re interested in early superheroes and/or 30s Americana – or if you really love “Flight of the Bumblebee,” since they play it in its entirety like three times per episode – and you can do so for free at the ever-helpful Internet Archive. But unlike, say, The Adventures of Superman, which I loved, I probably won’t be tuning in to this particular Bat-channel (Hornet-channel?) again.