A Column Explaining, Discussing and Exploring New Pulp
By Tommy Hancock
Shadows hang like shredded ebony curtains in the dark room, given life by the pendulum of a bare bulb swinging back and forth above the table. Across the scarred table top lay the result of investigation, debate, education, and good ol’ fashioned footwork, leaves of celluloid and pulp scattered by a defining wind. The disorganized results of pokin’, proddin’, and leavin’ no stone unturned are obscured from view, however. Unless you happen to be one of the several figures huddled around the makeshift work space, a pop culture altar for the truly devoted. Yeah, that’s you– the guys and gals who’ve read this hack’s attempt at a column from the very beginning. You who pulled hard on the battered fedora you always wear, tugged the knot holding your domino mask on even tighter. You who brought along Suzie, Betsy’s little sister, in her own holster. Just in case. You who buzzed, rang, or gave all your secret operatives the high sign for danger as you embarked on this most daring escapade. Yes, all of you are there, looming, leering, waiting for the greatest pay off, the rarest artifact, the stuff dreams are made of. All waiting for the definitive final answer to that question dogging us since our very first midnight rendezvous.
What is New Pulp?
Well, if you haven’t surmised yet, there are two possible answers to that query. One– and the one I don’t care for much at all– is ”This Hancock guy doesn’t know ships from shinola about New Pulp.” Let’s just assume that response is at best totally wrong and at worst inappropriate. That leaves us with only one other possibility– New Pulp, like the great medium/genre/style/methodology it sprang from (Classic Pulp) is all at once many different things to different people while being a singular expression of action, adventure, emotion, and passion all its own. It’s a tad corny to say, but New Pulp has to be felt as much as read, seen, or heard. And not only by the writer or artist, but by the reader. New Pulp is visceral, primal, gets all the juices flowing and makes one’s ears perks up and skin pimple with goose flesh in anticipation of danger or something else. New Pulp is malleable, its components can be identified and someone says ‘Oh, that’s not New Pulp,’ then someone can turn around using those same ingredients and make a mad mixture that the same someone would say, “Wow, that’s the best New Pulp I’ve ever seen! (An observation made recently by mad New Pulp genius and publisher Bill Cunningham, Pulp 2.0 Press.) So, New Pulp is as elusive as creatures of this sort get.
Still, there is enough consensus as stated by the New Pulp writers spotlighted in the last installment of this column and demonstrated by the New Pulp samples in the installment prior to that one that there are certain aspects needed for a story to be a New Pulp tale. Pacing, grandiose verbage and storylines, well defined and larger than life characters being just a few of those traits. Even with that, however, every individual that picks up a Moonstone comic or listens to a Decoder Ring Theater show or bends the cover on a White Rocket book is going to define New Pulp through their very own special funnel. I am no different. Except that I am writing a column about New Pulp.
In my last august or vain– whichever way you want to view the light through your own prism– attempt to define as much as possible this thing we call New Pulp, I’m going to drop a few definitive statements made by others about what Pulp (New or Old) should be, about definite things these people see that Pulp must have to be considered Pulp. And then of course, I’m going to sound off about said statements with my own verbose opinion. Some of these are from comments left on message boards, others from emails, and others picked from past discussions, debates, and knocked down drag outs. My responses to these statements will be just as varied, some backed up with clear irrefutable evidence (if such even exists) and others based solely on a purely emotional response. And I’ll give the end away at the beginning. What you are about to see is again the duality of New Pulp– how it can be one thing separated from other forms of literature and entertainment while being many different wonderful things to whoever is looking at it at the time.
“I think too many people confuse Noir for pulp. The femme fatale doesn’t exist in pulp.“
I agree that the line between Pulp and Noir for many people is blurry. Not all Noir is Pulp and vice versa, but there are many, many examples of where the two hold hands and make nice, both from the good ol’ days of Pulp and in the modern New Pulp era. Noir is just as changing and shifting as Pulp is, so I’ll let the guy or gal who wants to write ‘Noir Never Dies’ tackle that in some unwritten future, but they definitely share some traits.
Now, that second statement– nah, sorry. To say the femme fatale doesn’t (and by saying that, that also means ”can’t”) exist in Pulp is wrong on a couple of levels. First, there are examples that go back all the way to the heyday of crime Pulps and beyond that show femme fatales make up a very active part of the Pulp pantheon. Look at Hammett’s Brigid OShaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon and Chandler’s various women throughout the Marlowe stories, only to pick the most obvious examples. And before you naysayers say that those two great literary masters weren’t Pulp writers…get your Google on and see for yourself. And as for other examples, works that can be classified as ‘Pulp’ since the days of Sam Spade are rife with dangerous dames. The most notable example I can think of off the top of my hatted head would be various and sundry villainesses and shady ladies from Eisner’s The Spirit…and don’t even waste your breath telling me Will wasn’t writing his own kind of Pulp.
“New Pulp is fantastic, not grounded in reality. Realism and Pulp don’t go together.“
I, as a writer, definitely prefer masks and mad scientists, world domination and shiny futuristic weapons. At least part of the time. But to say that Pulp cannot be realistic ignores the fact that many, many Pulp writers, both Classic and New, write gritty, hard hitting extremely realistic stories that fully qualify as Pulp. The first two subgenres that come to mind are Crime and Western Pulps. Louis L’Amour– probably the best known writer of the American Western in the past, present, and future– made his name in the Pulps and nearly every single story he wrote steered clear of the fanciful and fantastic. Read any of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and prove to me those aren’t fantastic police procedural Pulps. Go on, I dare ya.
“Heroes fight in the light; they don’t skulk around in the shadows. There is a clear difference between good and evil, There is no grey areas of morality.“
Again, this is a matter of perception. The kneejerk reaction here is to reference The Shadow, but I’ll go you one better. The Spider. Yes, The Spider is clearly the good guy, I don’t think anyone who’s ever read a Spider story, Classic or New Pulp, would disagree. But he murders as much or more than some of those he fights. Now, there’s “self defense” and “meting out justice” and all the other arguments, but one of the great things about The Spider is that the reader, while knowing he’s on the side of angels, can’t help but also admit that Wentworth might be dancing a little to clo
se to the devils as well.
I am a big proponent of clearly defined heroes and villains in New Pulp, ask anyone. Having said that, though, to say there are no gray areas of morality removes one of the best tools a New Pulp writer has for characterization. If everyone, even your hero or villain, stands firmly on one side of the moral fence or the other, then there’s no growth, no change, and no subtle danger as well. I think a Pulp story has to make a definite statement about good and evil, but I also believe that to do that well, morality has to be ambiguous for some characters at times throughout the story.
“It Isn’t Pulp if it’s not set in the 1930s or 40s. New Pulp written in the modern age just isn’t Pulp.“
This is a point I could probably rant on for pages and pages about. I understand how some fans feel about the time period that the Classic Pulps were written in, I for one would give eye teeth to have been a part of that era. But to say that just because Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon is written in the modern era it doesn’t meet the requirements to be Pulp not only slights the very awesome New Pulp set in modern times many people are writing, but it also limits Pulp itself. Saying that a story has to be set in a certain period to be Pulp eliminates so many possibilities and negates much of the Pulp work that was done in the past in terms of fantasy and science fiction. And I know one of the fast draw responses that this topic always gets is “Well, look at westerns. The story has to be set in the Old, Wild West to be a Western.” Justified, anyone? Or if not, what about Firefly?
There are other such incendiary little bombs such as these still in my bag of tricks that I may pull out at a later date, but these serve to make my point. New Pulp is fast paced, action, great characters, over the top storylines, and most of all, something that evokes an innate emotional response. The same one you got the first time Bruce Willis said, “Yippee Ki Yay” or when your young eyes glommed onto that Bama Doc Savage cover on a K-Mart or Kroger spinner rack. The same tingle that ripples through your body every time you hear “Hi Yo Silver, Away!” or “Bond. James Bond.” Yeah, that visceral “oh boy!,” that’s New Pulp.
And for all the heroes looking for a place to hang your fedora- PULP NEVER DIES.
Chapter IV of Darkness, Spreading Its Wings of Black continues here.
Tommy Hancock is a New Pulp author, publisher, podcaster, convention organizer, and all around New Pulp supporter. A Partner in Pro Se Productions, Tommy has been published by various New Pulp Publishers and is currently at work on projects for Moonstone, Airship 27, and other companies. Tommy is the organizer of the New Pulp Movement and also is the Editor in Chief of All Pulp and the creator and one of the co-hosts on PULPED! The Official New Pulp Podcast