Reading Jim Steranko’s History of Comics, it becomes clear that there is a definite path between the pulps and comics. Tough-jawed men, hysterical women and strange menaces translate very easily from the medium of the pulp novels to comics, a style that stretches from the golden age of comics all the way to today.
The pulps were designed as cheap disposable entertainment, so it should come as no surprise that so many of the key components of the pulps ended up in comics. An intelligent yet tragic hero often found himself stuck in a violent world full of vice and danger with a seemingly endless sea of troubles threatening to drown him in the pulps and that can certainly be said about many comic books.
In his newspaper strip the Spirit, Will Eisner evoked more mood thank most motion pictures. His seedy streets dripped off of the page, his fist-fight stumbled along the confines of the panel and his heroes had more meat than a ration book. While Eisner may get more attention today and be almost automatically regarded as one of the masters (if not THE master) of the comic book art form, it’s not without reason. Eisner saw the form of comics and gave it depth, he saw plots and granted those stories meaning, even his stock characters took on a certain kind of tangibility. In this post-modern world it’s difficult to imagine a time when an artist could genuinely innovate in the comic world, but that’s essentially what Eisner did.
The Spirit also felt like a pulp with just a dash of super hero (enough to get him through the door and into the super hero club) to it. Frank Miller, like many comic artists, idolized Eisner as a mentor. His Daredevil series took the pulp sensibilities and added a dash of 1970′s cinema to it. Whereas Miller is today almost a joke on his former successes, back in the day he was a genius. Adding Klaus Janson’s capable inks to Frank Miller’s pencils was like a dream come true. Many sharp readers had seen Janson’s moody work in Moon Knight and were not disappointed to see it mature in the pages of Daredevil. In truth, Janson helped Miller as much as Miller helped Janson. But it’s hardly a point worth debating as the end result is so stunning.
Reading Daredevil comics, the reader could hear the impact of DD’s punches and smell the booze-laden breath of the hoodlums he was slugging.The reader could also feel the ache of Murdock’s loss and feel the sharp chill of Elektra’s grave. The streets of Frank Miller’s comics were full of criminals living in their own disease-ridden filth as the enraged Daredevil watched over them, perfection in body and mind yet tragically heart-broken in his soul. As sensational as it was dynamic, Miller’s run re-introduced readers everwhere to the connection between the pulps and comics.
In the late 1980′s, former Batman editor Denny O’Neill introduced a new spin on the pulp dynamic with his adaptation of Steve Ditko’s The Question. A deranged and troubled man, reporter Vic Sage felt himself compelled to dig his bare hands into the corruption of his city to find truth. Walking defiantly into the face of trouble, Vic Sage was compelled to remind his opponents, ‘we don’t have to do this.’ An existentialist action hero who openly addressed the futility of violence is something that I had never seen done before, and portraying Sage as your typical tough guy only added weight to the argument. A comic of its time, The Question addressed urban decay more than I’ve seen any other comic book do before or since.
Writers such as Duane Swierczynski, Ed Brubaker, Jason Aaron, and Garth Ennis to name but a few imbue their work with so much machismo that you’d think each issue had a ‘no girls allowed’ label on it. The rebirth of the tough guy comic in recent years has proven that you cannot separate the pulp from the comic book. While there are many long underwear types still flying about, there’s still a ‘regular guy’ who’s not afraid to walk into a seedy bar and ask the tough questions.
What’s your favorite pulp?