Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What is pulp?

While there's is a lot of crossover between superhero and classic pulp, since the superhero genre has its roots in the pulp adventures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it could be argued that superhero comics were really just a subgenre of pulp... pulp with pictures, as it were... still, pulp is the father and grandfather of the superhero, and a broader, richer vein to mine.

Many classic pulp do gooders had classic superhero trappings... secret identities, melodramatic code names, costumes, parahuman powers... just as the earliest superheroes were, at that time, unabashedly pulpy. Superman and Batman were, in their earliest appearances, very hard to distinguish from characters like Doc Savage, the Spider, and the Shadow, and Batman hasn't changed all that much over the years. Superman, however, evolved away from his lurid origins and quickly became the archetype for a clearer, more distilled and crystallized presentation of The Eternal Conflict between darkness and light, good and evil, law and lawlessness, order and chaos.

Superheroes were a facet of pulp... the facet with the masks, the flashy costumes, the alter egos, the magic powers, the code names. Nearly all of the more melodramatic aspects of pulp went into the funny books. But pulp itself contained more than that; pulp heroes did not have to have capes or domino masks or skin tight bodysuits or goofy code names or hidden identities. They didn't have to have superhuman abilities, either. They could be deep sea divers, jungle explorers, frontiersmen, immortal soldiers cast by unlikely wizardry to the surface of distant alien spheres, mighty thewed barbarians, millionaire philanthopists, stage magicians, cowboys or Indians, archeologists, or pilots.

Pulp was not limited to modern settings or the surface of the Earth, nor was pulp strictly limited to protagonists with altruistic motivations. Pulp heroes could simply be adventurers; men (and even women, although this was rare during the period) who simply got into trouble a lot, and then shot, punched, slashed, or whipcracked their way back out of it again, usually with a beautiful member of the opposite sex and a plucky young sidekick in tow, while carrying some priceless treasure from a long forgotten city or buried tomb, and always with the minions of some calculating crimeboss, evil overlord, ancient undead emperor, or cackling mad scientist in hot pursuit.

Pulp is, above all other things, visceral; it is written from and to the gut, not the intellect; it originates in the heart, never the head. Pulp is fantasy, it sets your pulses pounding, it carves its images from the universal id. It is noble good guys fighting evil bad guys, all of whom are somewhat larger than the real life folk they are marketed to. It is thrilling adventure and astonishing action and heart pounding peril!

It is heroes that never say die, and villains that always scream DIE!

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