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Pulp'd - Is pulp dead?


#1

Superheroes owe a lot to the old Pulp characters - Doc Savage a clear precursor to Superman, The Shadow prefiguring Batman, etc - and yet the pulp characters were never really able to move forward with the times. For whatever reason, as the world move forward, the pulp characters couldn’t keep up.

But for the life of me, I can’t quite understand WHY. What made them different? Was it a question of approach? What made superheroes so much more adaptable? If anything, I might have thought the darker worldview at the core of pulp heroes like Shadow and Savage (who kill without much compunction) would have been extremely palatable to a modern audience.

I admit that I don’t have a lot of affection for pulp per se, but rather the wave of ‘post-pulp’ (as I call it) that came in the 90s, with Warren Ellis’ Planetary and Alan Moore’s work on America’s Best (and the Wildstorm stuff that prefigured it, which called back to some of that pulpy era).

And yet, the only rumblings I can recall in multi-media of late have been a Shane Black-driven Doc Savage remake – which appears to be dead. Dynamite has tried to revive these characters with an almost infinite patience and zero success. DC launched “First Wave” with top notch talent (Brian Azz, Phil Noto, Rags Morales) and even included a gun-toting Batman, and it fell flatly on its face (despite being quite good, I thought).

So, what? What about Pulp makes it such a non-starter?


#2

Good question. I like the idea of pulp, but I think that you can make so many other genres pulpy that it becomes a bit vanilla by itself. For pulp sci-fi, see STAR WARS. For pulp adventure, look to Indiana Jones.
I think somebody could do a really cool high-budget period piece, almost Fritz Lang, Shadow movie and I would be there on opening day despite having read only a handful of comics (including the excellent 80s one by Howard Chaykin).
Tarzan is very pulp, so I guess we’ll have to see how his latest movie does. But after John Carter I’m not expecting a great result or a mainstream pulp revival.


#3

Superheroes changed for changing markets. DC and Marvel look very different after each 10 year period. Pulp didn’t. In some ways it doesn’t by it’s very nature, the trappings of pulp holding it back. The properties that tried to reignite the genre were basically homages to the past. But I have a theory that kids don’t want to play with their parents toys, and it’s only the marketing onslaught of Disney and Hasbro that keeps some of the older brands around (that and parents passing on hobbies to their kids).

I think Pulp has an opportunity to dominate superheroes in the comic space, if only someone had the right vision. There’s just no-one there to drive it right now. I honestly think superheroes are tired in comics these days, DC and Marvel losing their way and no really significant presence of an alternative superhero universe in indie comics.

Mr Millar is close. Starlight and Empress both have roots in pulp.

Guardians of the Galaxy were pretty pulpy. There’s definitely a market waiting for this kind of thing. Pulp just needs to be reinvented.


#4

Essentially, whether or not pulp could’ve survived the same downturn that comic book heroes weathered is a tough question.

Take a look at Captain Marvel (SHAZAM!) That character was actually much more popular than either Batman or Superman in the Golden Age of comics. The reason is obvious… he was really just a little kid. Not a rich detective. Not an invulnerable alien. He was a little kid with one magic word.

The idea that superheroes were forced to tone down and appeal to children during the “Seduction of Innocence” comics code period is in part true, but at the same time, you have to consider that the comics code came about because everyone knew that the vast majority - if not the entirety - of comic books’ readership were kids. Primarily young and pre-teen boys. Characters in costumes were lot easier to turn into children’s books than the pulp heroes.

Nevertheless, even though Captain Marvel was so popular, the fact that it was out of the reader’s eye for just a little while has made it practically impossible to bring him back for any sustained period. Why bother with all the other heroes who stayed around?

The main reason the pulps died was simply business. The publishers went out of business. Partially due to paper prices rising from WW2 and also due to people just not being all that interested in reading the stories when they could watch a television show instead. You have to remember that these characters were popular before television and a lot of them were just as well known due to radio programs as to the published stories. In fact, I think a lot of people would remember The Shadow more from the radio show than the magazine stories.

So, that left primarily the hard-boiled detective and crime stories as well as Westerns in the pulp market while weird heroes were entirely replaced by comic book superheroes.

Honestly, though, now the question is- why bring them back? What really is the appeal? Isn’t Jason Bourne a much more natural hero for today’s audience than Doc Savage? Even if you decided to go with a period approach and set The Shadow in 30’s New York, it would sorta look ridiculous compared to something like Boardwalk Empire. If you update the character, it has to compete against other already more popular characters in the same genre. Flash Gordon would look like a Star Wars ripoff and, on top of that, it would have none of the nostalgic appeal of Star Wars.


#5

That’s exactly what happened to the John Carter movie. RIP. :cry:


#6

Yeah, and a lot of other stuff - like no marketing program that gave you some idea what the hell the story was about.

Watch the trailer with the sound off and you get the idea that it’s about an outlaw in the Old West who gains superpowers from a weird bald guy in a cave and fights alongside a tribe of green four-armed native Americans against time-traveling Romans invading the Mojave desert with flying battleships.

Oh, and there’s a scene in Victorian England, apparently, too.

And it’s all very serious.


#7

The only thing close to “pulp” nowadays that had any kind of success was Brubaker/Phillip’s Fatale. It was a love letter to the original pulp stories.

Incognito was another of their series that had the pulp feel to it.


#8

Well, isn’t that a very narrow definition of pulp? Or perhaps Pulp really is that narrow; but any success of those characters, I think, would require a broadening and a deepening of their world, and the genres they dip into. I mean, a pulp-first science fiction series is still a pulp series. A pulp-first mystical series is still, in my opinion, pulp.

Iron Fist under Bru and Fraction was very clearly a pulpy take on the concept. That’s a mashup on a lot of things, and that they even had the chance is because Iron Fist is built on a superhero scaffolding, but that’s still pulp, to me.

What I’m asking is “Why can’t we do that with Doc Savage? Why can’t we do that with Shadow?” in a way that is palatable to people?


#9

I think the pulp characters represent a certain world view and approach that could have a lot of currency today, while still representing many relevant archetypes. I’m not necessarily advocating for the resurrection of the properties per se as some of the core notions at play in them. I’m not sure I see many, if any, of the parallels you’re drawing – Doc Savage is set to confront an entirely different set of ethical and physical choices, has an entirely different skill set and operative milieu, than Jason Bourne. Complaining that the Shadow is ridiculous because of boardwalk empire is like saying V for Vendetta is ridiculous because of Syria, I think (it well might be, but art tends to look ridiculous and absurd next to the horror, big and small, of real life).

Why bring them back specifically? Because they still seem to have some cultural cache, however small, and that tends to be an easier sell than no cultural cache.

Here’s a question: Why does everyone bring them back as period pieces? That seems odd to me; you don’t see the same treatment of Superman and Batman. They move forward as the times move forward. Yet, for whatever reason, we imply that Doc Savage is inextricable from the time in which he was created (heels of the first world war, cusp of the second). Yet the most successful pulp stories, for me, have been those who move forward – Tom Strong, Iron Fist, certain elements of Planetary. This also solves the problem of the often racist, or at minimum monochromatic, milieu and supporting cast that a lot of these guys come with.


#10

Doc Savage was a total genius in 1935.

Same skills now? A fourth-grader.

Time changes stuff.


#11

It’s been attempted -
http://www.examiner.com/images/blog/replicate/EXID29730/images/2009-10-01-the_green_hornet1-533x660.jpg

Of course with Tarzan, who has a much more distinct place in culture than nearly any other pulp hero including John Carter and Flash Gordon, updating him to today is again a little difficult. It could be interesting, but the global nature of the world today makes that story a bit harder to tell. I think it would be easier to produce more Tom Strong than to update Doc Savage or to squeeze the Shadow in between Daredevil and Batman. I think it would probably be easier to publish and produce more material for the Rocketeer than any of the original pulps.

Unlike other older characters and character types - like Dracula and Frankenstein - the characters really haven’t kept connected to the culture even nostalgically. Other, newer characters have taken what they offered and done it even better.

One of the main problems is that even for those who read the stuff most of us still liked the superheroes more. For me, I liked Tarzan a lot, but Doc Savage and The Shadow weren’t as interesting as the detective stories Hammet and Chandler wrote. If someone was going to bring them back - like Shane Black, even, who obviously has some appreciation of the material - the big question would be “why not just come up with a new character entirely?” As Dave Stevens, Alan Moore and Warren Ellis did when they produced their pulp fiction inspired material.

For me, Doc Savage’s most interesting element is the way he was raised. Trained from birth to be super-intelligent and as physically perfect as humanly possible, there are a lot of ethical, moral and existential questions raised just from that. How does a child develop emotionally with that amount of pressure on him to be “more than human?”

However, in the stories, it’s just an explanation for why he can do all the amazing things he does. Like with Tarzan. At least the first story dealt with to some extent his alienation from both the human race and the apes that raised him, but in the later stories, he was basically Doc Savage of the jungle.


#12

Right. I want to be clear that I’m NOT a fan of those old pulp stories – but I am a fan of what I think they can be. This is more an intellectual exercise than anything, but I AM a fan of the post-pulp Ellis/Moore stuff, and I’m vaguely curious as to why companies who ARE trying to resurrect the pulp characters - as Dynamite has been trying to do for some time, a tone Gold Key seems to have tried to strike on a number of occasions - aren’t taking that approach to the characters, or why more creators aren’t calling back to them.

It just feels like there might be room in the marketplace for those kinds of books, that have the tone of a two fisted adventure with a modern sophistication or world view. You can say “well, Alan Moore already wrote the definitive Doc Savage remake”, but that certainly hasn’t stopped a glut of Superman pastiches since his SUPREME run (or Superman runs).


#13

What I find interesting is how companies are much more likely to resurrect old comic book characters and update them to today. There are new Gold Key stories bizarrely bringing together Doc Solar, Magnus Robot-Fighter and Turok of the Stone Age. I recall Airboy, which Eclipse brought back in the 90’s, had or has another shot with James Robinson.

Honestly, you probably are right that if they brought these characters back in the comics and updated them, it might lead to something more popular. I could see a story with Doc Savage’s granddaughter as the protagonist fighting the same evils in today’s world. A new take on Fu Manchu could work, and has worked in regard to Shang-Chi at Marvel in the 70’s.


#14

Or as co-tagonist, with the still youthful, somewhat dated, Doc Savage around.


#15

Doc Savage should be the antagonist. After years of what amounts to extended abuse in his extreme childhood, he finally cracked up in his later years. He was committed to an insane asylum and his granddaughter, who underwent the same sort of training fears she may end up there as well. Unbeknownst to all, Doc is still manipulating events threatening our hero’s life in the belief that this is the “final phase” of her training.


#16

On the Venture Brothers, they do a great parody of Doc Savage with Jonah Venture and the original Team Venture. Those flashbacks always make me laugh.


#17

Never seen it but heard great, great things.


#18

@DenizCamp Well maybe we should look at defining pulp as a genre or style of storytelling. I find plenty of things in current comics that I would point out as being pulpy, but there are none of those classic characters. It’s like superhero stories absorbed the elements, added their own and left the characters behind.

I would love to read some modern-day updates of some of these characters but I think you have to go about it with respect to the source and really mix together all of the elements that have resonated over the years and think about how the modern world affects them. Maybe you should take note of the homages and allegories that have sprung in the wake of the original and rip the best parts of those. Reconstructive storytelling in the Grant Morrison style could be something very interesting.

Have you read any of Dynamite’s pulp comics? They did a modern-day series for The Spider, and they might have done one with The Shadow as well?


#19

It is tough to really define. HP Lovecraft was a pulp writer. Edgar Rice Burroughs somewhat predated the pulps. Conan was a Pulp Hero and so was Hammet’s Continental Agent. Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey were pulp writers and Westerns were a big part of the pulps. It all came out of Penny Dreadful pamphlets.

Basically, pulp fiction just means genre fiction between the World Wars and just into the post-war period when television took over storytelling from the movies, magazines and radio. That was a big part of pulp fiction. It came out at a time when the world had changed drastically after the first world war when mass publishing and radio were the most popular forms of cheap entertainment and then hit a stumbling block when World War 2 changed the world again and the old media declined.

However, genre fiction continued unimpeded on television and in mass market paperbacks… and of course in the comic books.


#20

I’m not sure I agree with the premise, actually.

The pulps didn’t die off - they just evolved into many different forms that we can still see today, some of which are still very successful.

So you have superheroes as an obvious descendant of those early pulp adventure heroes, and they’re maybe more popular than ever today (through the movies now even moreso than the comics). You have supernatural horror as another very popular genre in various media (which, ok, might not quite be Lovecraft, but plays with lots of similar ideas). Wildly imaginative, lurid sci-fi - well, you don’t have to look very far to see popular examples of that. Dark tales of crime and murder - again, noir and detective fiction is hugely popular today, especially if you extend that to police dramas.

All of these are often (sometimes unfairly) derided as ‘low art’, as being unsophisticated, lowbrow, mass-produced, cheap entertainment for an uncultured audience, made by people who are not considered truly great writers and artists.

Sound familiar? :slight_smile:

I think it’s tempting to only see the pulps as being Doc Savage, the Shadow or whatever, because they’re examples of the original pulp stories that are still popular enough to be known about today, but not popular enough to really capture the public’s imagination in a big way.

But that’s really a very limited view of how the pulps have endured, I think. From another perspective, a huge amount of today’s popular fiction has its roots in the pulps. The stories have just evolved into different forms and been adapted to different media to keep up with the public’s tastes.