The Green Hornet is out this week, director Michel Gondry’s Seth Rogen/Jay Chou-starring action-comedy about a regular shmo and his techno genius/martial arts expert pal who decide to play superhero. The movie is actually quite good; even if you’ve had enough of Rogen – has anyone not had enough of Rogen? – Gondry’s involvement elevates the flick to something better than it has any right to be.
What you might not realize is The Green Hornet has roots that extend all the way back to the 1930s. Gondry’s take is only the latest version of a character that has seen many transformations over the years. So we put together this handy little guide to help get you up to speed before going into the new movie.
The Green Hornet: Origins
The Green Hornet was born in a 1936 radio program that first played on a local Detroit station, a creation from George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. As with the new movie, the masked vigilante’s alter-ego was newspaper publisher Britt Reid. He was much more dashing than Rogen’s Reid is made out to be, a true hero, aided by his faithful valet, Kato.
Trendle, who had previously worked on the development of another popular radio series, The Lone Ranger, got together with Striker, a writer, and director James Jewell. Their intent was to create a work of entertainment that considered the corruption in the political establishment and one man’s fight against it. As is the case in the new movie, the Hornet’s vigilante ways lead him to be marked as a criminal. He played into this, antagonizing criminals into attacking him so he could leave defeated foes for the police without raising suspicions concerning his true intentions.
The Green Hornet Takes to the Screen
Following the success of the radio series, which was put in front of wider and wider audiences over the course of 1938 and 1939, a big screen treatment seemed inevitable. The Green Hornet kicked off as a serial in 1940, starring Gordon Jones but with the voice of Hornet radio personality Al Hodge dubbed over him. There were 13 installments in all. That was followed by The Green Hornet Strikes Again! in 1941 with Warren Hull in the starring role, which ran for 15 installments.
Each of the two serials followed the crimefighting duo as they knocked out a range of criminal rackets and the big boss behind them all. This was a change from the format of the still-running radio series—The Green Hornet was a fixture on the radio until 1950, and was even revived for a brief run in 1952. In the broadcast series, the Hornet and Kato took down criminal rackets as well, only there was no overarching organization tying those illegal businesses together as there was in the film serial. The franchise then lay dormant for a time before getting an ABC TV series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee (yes, that Bruce Lee) as Britt and Kato, respectively, with 26 episodes aired between 1966 and 1967.
The Green Hornet in Full Color
The franchise was born on the radio, but The Green Hornet was also a comic book star from shortly after the character was created through to today. The first books launched in late-1940 - Green Hornet Comics. It had a brief run, only six issues, with Fran Striker credited as the writer. The series picked up with issue #7 the next year under a new publisher, with 40 more issues released before the run ended in 1949. In the years that followed, the Hornet only surfaced occasionally in comics; a 1953 one-shot and a three-issue run in 1967 based on the TV series.
Luck changed for the Hornet in 1989, when NOW Comics kicked off a series about the masked vigilante. Most importantly, the publisher attempted to establish some sort of continuity across the different generations of Hornets. Kato’s Japanese nationality, which had been changed in the early days of the franchise because of World War II, was restored. Previous references to him being Filipino were justified as Reid attempting to protect his friend from persecution. Meanwhile, the Britt of the 1960s TV series was established as the nephew of the original Hornet. The first NOW series encompassed 14 issues in all. The second volume, which kicked off in 1991, lasted for 40 issues. The same period also saw the release of several miniseries’. It all came to an end in 1995, when NOW went out of business.
That wasn’t it for the Green Hornet, however. In many ways, some of the most exciting developments were yet to come. Comics publisher Dynamite Entertainment picked up the Hornet license in 2009. They kicked things off with a miniseries written by Kevin Smith – which was based on the filmmaker’s unproduced screenplay – and then switched gears in 2010 to make it an ongoing release with a present-day setting. The Dynamite comics rejigger the mythology somewhat, following Britt Reid Jr., son of the original Hornet. When the senior Reid is slain by a Yakuza mobster known as the Black Hornet, Kato comes out of retirement to help his old partner’s son, bringing with him his crimefighting daughter, Mulan Kato.
The Green Hornet in 2011
All of that brings us to this week, when yet another take on the Green Hornet is introduced to the world. It’s a sizable departure from Trendle’s original idea. Set in the present day, we meet Britt Reid before he ever considers putting on a costume and fighting crime. He’s a do-nothing partyboy, mooching off of his father – a successful newspaper publisher – and not caring when his antics earn him embarrassing front page headlines. The senior Reid dies suddenly, and Britt quickly hooks up with one of his dad’s former employees, a Chinese mechanic named Kato who moonlights as a technological genius and martial arts master. It’s a significant shift away from the established mythology, a gamble to be sure, but early reports suggest that director Michel Gondry and writers Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg nailed the spirit of the character, effectively re-introducing him in a fresh way for a new generation.
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