Pulp fiction, at its peak in the ’20s and ’30s, is an often misunderstood phenomena. However, the pulps are very much still with us: accessible, iconic, and familiar, just like they were always meant to be. They have certainly evolved from the thrilling days of yesteryear. What began with the pulps made its way into other media: comics, radio, movies, and television. Pulp provided the source. Some pulp writers crossed over to other media. Other writers were influenced by the pulps. And some writers simply took characters and stories directly from the pulps and transferred them to other media. Think of it this way: Doc Savage is Superman; The Shadow is Batman. Plus a whole lot more going on. In a fascinating panel discussion at Emerald City Comicon, Rob Salkowitz moderated a conversation between comics scholar Greg Hatcher, artist Dan Schkade (The Spirit), and writer Chris Roberson (The Shadow, iZombie).
Rob Salkowitz asked each panelist to name their favorite pulp character and the answers help give you a window into the appeal. For Chris Roberson, his favorite is Doc Savage. He said that growing up in the ’70s was a perfect time for a kid to read the pulps since there was a boom in avenues for distribution but limited content. So, Chris got to enjoy all the reprints of Tarzan, Conan, and Doc Savage he could ever want to read. This, of course, left a tremendous impression upon the budding young writer.
It was great to see Dan Schkade, with his witty enthusiasm, be quick to say that the best character in pulps is The Shadow. But his personal favorite character is The Avenger, “the dead middle between Doc Savage and The Shadow, both similar and less than the sum of their parts. He’s just so creepy with his dead face that he molds to look like other people. And his weapons, a switchblade and a Mauser, which he’s given first names to.”
And Greg Hatcher, coming from a historian’s point of view, recalled as a boy seeing his first comic books based on the pulps and immediately hitting the library to do research! His favorite pulp character is The Spider. “As Will Murray used to say, it was the good kids who read The Shadow; and it was the bad kids who read The Spider. There was this incredible hell-for-leather deranged momentum behind a Spider story. For the main character, Richard Wentworth, each Spider mission was personal!”
The subject of pulp fiction is definitely not one to take lightly. Once you make one assumption, there is always something else to consider. For instance, while pulp fiction was designed to have broad appeal that did not mean that all stories were the same or of a low quality. In fact, there are numerous examples of great writing in the pulps. Great writers first began in the pulps: Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond, Chandler, and James M. Cain, to name a few. At one point, Schkade made a brilliant observation regarding how pulp is presented today. “Many people have the misconception that pulp is inextricably linked to the past, that everything has to have a retro look to it. But, when you think about it, the stories during the pulp era were set in the present.”
Pulp is with us more than you may know. Consider any number of fantastic, hard-hitting, action-packed stories that you read or view today, and they will owe something to pulp fiction. The grandest examples: Indiana Jones, Avatar, and Star Wars. The interest in pulps is tremendous and it is not an exaggeration to say that it has never let up since its earliest days. In fact, that is the deepest well of them all for fan fiction. Since the ’60s, there has been a growing New Pulp movement with fans creating their own versions of their favorite pulp stories. One recent anthology that will be of interest to you is “Legends of New Pulp Fiction,” which you can find on Amazon right here. It is a dazzling collection that includes a story by Greg Hatcher. This is a special benefit anthology. Proceeds from the book go to benefit New Pulp writer/editor/publisher Tommy Hancock suffering from congestive heart-failure. You can learn more about this right here.