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Q&A: 'The Purple Wars' -- a Pulp era epic

Not only was the secret agent Operator 5 a progenitor of sorts for James Bond but the Pulp series that detailed his exploits offered one of the most impressive fictional threats of the 1930s' - the Purple Empire. Altus Press, a company that reprints classic Pulp, has just released the story arc from the series in a two-volume hard cover edition that company spokespersons described in a prepared statement as "the 'War and Peace' of the Pulps'".

"Running in the pages of Operator #5 magazine from 1936–38, this 14-part epic chronicled the invasion and conquering of America by a mysterious foe from Europe: The Purple Empire.," the statement adds. "As Will Murray describes in this edition’s Introduction: “Battles rage from coast to coast. The exploits of Operator 5 shift from espionage and counterespionage to straight military adventure. Through it all, Jimmy Christopher rises to become the de facto leader of the resistance.” Written by Emile C. Tepperman (author of The Spider and The Masked Marksman) and containing nearly 300 illustrations by John Fleming Gould, this half-million-word saga remains the greatest epic to see print in Golden Age of the pulps and is still considered most risky and ambitious experiment ever undertaken in the single-character magazines.

This two-volume deluxe, hardcover edition includes an all-new Introduction by pulp historian Will Murray, as well as Tom Johnson’s retrospective on the series, The History of the Purple Wars. It also collects the rarely-reprinted Epilogue to the Purple War, “Revolt of the Devil Men.” Also restored are all of author Tepperman’s rarely-reprinted footnotes which graced the original pulp editions of the stories. Never-before collected, this remastered, comprehensive collection of Operator 5: The Complete Purple Wars has been one of the most eagerly-anticipated pulp publications of all time."

Matt Moring, a spokesperson for the company, discussed the release with us.

What in your estimation is the appeal of the character?

Operator 5 certainly benefits from a number of factors. He was one of the first hero pulp characters published by Popular Publications, and the series premiered in the wake of the single-character title wave which was ushered in by The Shadow Magazine in 1931.

The premise of the series was unique as well: every issue, America was faced with a threat from abroad, and Jimmy Christopher—AKA Operator #5—would have to beat back this attack in the course of about 80 pages of purple prose. It must have resonated with WWI vets and Depression-era readers to a degree. Espionage fiction wasn't new at the time, but the fantastic nature of the threats was amped up to a higher degree than what had been seen before.

Also, it was authored by Frederick C. Davis, who is still well regarded for the inventiveness of his stories and the sustained interest in his series characters.

Could you describe the Purple Wars story arc? By the time this story arc saw print, the Operator 5 title had over two dozen issues published with a similar premise: a threat was loomed over America, and by the end of the story, it was defeated. Frederick C. Davis had burned out from writing this similar story, issue after issue, and had moved on. Publisher Harry Steeger brought in one of his most prolific writers, Emile C. Tepperman, to take over writing chores, and an overhaul of the series occurred. Gone were the one-and-done stories of America's eventual victory. Now, a mysterious European nation not only attacked America—it conquered it! From the first installment of the Purple Wars series, the title would chronicle Jimmy Christopher's—and America's—struggle to defeat their occupiers. Such a series rarely—if ever—had been seen in the pulps.

Did a lot of Pulp fans request this? Without a doubt, for decades, a collection of the entire Purple Wars series has been the most in-demand reprint from the pulps. Why it never saw a comprehensive collection, I assume it's due to its length: it's half a million words long, making it an unrealistic size for traditionally-sized books. It's too bad because it's certainly one of the most influential saga from the pulps.

Are there parallels to current or historical events that exceed the obvious? I don't see any parallels, historically-speaking. But this is more than a war/espionage story: America is defeated and it becomes a post-apocalyptic saga as well. I see a lot of parallels with The Walking Dead, in fact. What can readers expect with this edition?

While the 14 Operator 5 stories included in this deluxe have been reprinted before individually, not all of those previous editions have served the story well. Even the recent ebook editions of this series were poorly done: typos galore, missing text, and the like. If you want to enjoy the saga as it was intended, I encourage readers to consider this 800-page deluxe edition.

Of all the book formats in which we publish, our Deluxe Edition line is my favorite: they're the most impressive-looking, contain the most bonus material, and are comprehensive. This is a two-volume, hardcover, dustjacketed matching set. They contain an all-new historical introduction by Doc Savage author Will Murray, an overview of the Purple Wars series by Tom Johnson, and several hundred interior illustrations from the original pulps by John Fleming Gould. The original John Newton Howitt covers are included. All of the original footnotes for each story—scores of them—are included as well.

We've noticed the biggest gripe about the Purple Wars series was that some readers felt it ended abruptly. It was Will Murray who realized that previous overviews of the series curiously overlooked that the actual final novel in the saga, "Revolt of the Devil Men," perfectly brought the story to a pleasing conclusion. Oddly, most retrospectives of the saga stopped with the previous story, "The Siege That Brought the Black Death." We've included this final story here.

I will leave you with the mention that this is one of the most impressively-looking collections we've done... and we're closing in on 500 books.

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