Friday, January 9, 2009

Ode to the Pulps

Where do you figure the name Clark Kent came from? Consider two Jewish kids from Ohio, the children of working class immigrants. Did they pluck the most WASPiest name in the world out of thin air? I don’t think so. Before the comics were really comics and before these two Jewish kids from Ohio created the super-hero, the closest thing anybody had was in the pulp magazines of the 1930’s. The two biggest characters in the pulps: Doc Savage -- full name: Clark Savage, Jr. -- and star of pulps and of the most popular radio show of all time, the Shadow -- real name: well, on the radio it was Lamont Cranston, but in the original pulps, Cranston itself was just an alias. His real name was Kent Allard. So, you've got Jerry and Joe thrilling to the adventures of a pair named Clark and Kent . . .
All of this is just to illustrate what a debt that comics in all their multifarious genres (super-hero, crime, romance, horror) owe to the pulps, which comics themselves made obsolete.

If you’d like to see where all the supery, batty and spidery guys came from, you’re in luck
. Nostalgia Ventures is reprinting the original adventures of Doc Savage and the Shadow. Doc, the philosophical and tonal antecedent of Superman was a “physical superman” trained from before the day he was born to the peak of human perfection for the exclusive purpose of making a finer world. The best place to start with him would be Volume 14: The Man of Bronze & the Land of Terror (by Kenneth Robeson aka Lester Dent). This includes Doc’s first adventure and introduces his motley crew of assistants and his fast-paced “science adventures.” The Shadow was a darker, nastier Batman right down the line. If you’re just jumping on board, start with Volume 3: the Red Blot & the Voodoo Master (by Maxwell Grant aka Walter Gibson), which features the Shadow’s showdown with one of his greatest foes and showcases his merciless and disturbingly efficient methods.

You better believe that comics return to their forebears with tokens of homage quite often. The very best of these (and I’m not exaggerating, this thing is fantastic), is Lobster Johnson Volume 1: the Iron Prometheus (by Mignola, Armstrong and Stewart). A spin-off of that big red galoot Hellboy, Lobster Johnson was a mystery man 100% in the tradition of the Shadow, taking on mysticism, science gone bad and Nazi spies with two swift fists, a blazing .45 and his burning Lobster’s claw. This volume (the first of many, I fervently hope) has cybernetic hoodlums, giant apes, hooded assassins and a Fu Manchu mastermind. It also has the pared down story-telling and breakneck action the pulps were famous for, but fused with a sophisticated modern perspective which creates multiple levels of engagement and offers some intriguing, and genuinely creepy moments.

More than almost any other art form, comic books are linked with their past in a way which makes an examination of said past all the more enlightening and meaningful. Have a look.


david elzey said...

when i worked for a large corporate book chain i would take doc savage and tarzan and any other pulp-y books i could find and "accidentally' shelve them in YA... or get clueless co-workers to do it. the thing is, they sold over there, but anytime someone spotted them they got put back in with rest of the fantasy and sci-fi. and they sat there until they got pulled for returns (or more likely stripped).

so i would say the market is still out there, that comics and pulps could exist side by side.

Jesse said...

Pulps and comics ought to go hand in hand. Every year I hear about someone trying to update the pulps in one form or another, be it in movies (Sam Raimi's producing a new version of the Shadow) or books (Tim Byrd's upcoming YA Doc Wilde series). But somehow or other, comics seem to keep missing the boat. There hasn't been a Doc Savage or Shadow comic that stood the test of times in years. What's going on?