The Return to the New 52 and the New Adult Pulp

In “The New 52 and the New Adult Pulp,” I endorsed the notion of mainstream comics embracing their heritage (yes, heritage) of extravagant sensationalism. A few months have passed, and it’s evident to me that the majority of the new 52’s titles weren’t able to take full advantage of new horizons: that many were, at base, “business as usual.”

Naturally, proponents of the artcomics scene showed no enthusiasm for the DC reboot. Long before the reboot itself, critics of this stripe made clear that they have regarded genre-comics as an impediment to the realization of “comics as art,” whether it meant confining comics to a juvenile mode– the late Harvey Pekar’s position– or to the status of a creepy “superhero decadence” patronized by adult readers– Dirk Deppey’s position, recounted here.

What’s more surprising, however, is that adult pulp comics have received considerable hostility from longtime fans of genre-comics, particularly those of the dominant superhero genre. These genre-fans, whom I’ll term the “anti-pulpsters,” fall into two groups:

(1) Fans who view the superhero genre, as Deppey does, to be intrinsically for children, and who scorn any influx of mature subject matter in the genre.

(2) Fans who are willing to tolerate mature subject matter in superheroes created by modern artists, but don’t like seeing the characters long favored by the juvenile market—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman—polluted with the most common sources of adult sensationalism, sex and/or violence.

Until recently, an ideal thread existed to display both of these types, on a large comics-oriented message board. I participated in the thread briefly, but didn’t have time to do much damage as the argument’s tone had already become toxic, prompting the moderators to delete the thread entirely.

What impressed me about the posters on this thread—to the extent that I’m representing their positions in a bulk paraphrase—is that many of them who opposed a Deppey-ish “superhero decadence” did so not to promote artcomics, but were defending a certain type of genre-comics through a Wertham-like “what about the children” lens. According to them, most of the patrons of modern superhero comics—those who support mainstream comics through the direct market comic-shop system– are nothing more than creepy “man-children” lusting to see the icons of their childhood infused with pornographic content. I don’t remember if anyone raised the cliché about said fans all living in their parents’ basements, but I assumed it was implied.

Both types of anti-pulpsters shared the notion that the solution to the depravity of direct-market comic books was to return to an era when the medium policed itself, presenting an “all ages” façade to the American mass market. Many of the posters spoke eloquently of having been children entranced with “all ages” superhero comics, but feeling uncomfortable about exposing their own kids to the modern incarnations of the genre, most of which are aimed at the direct market and its man-children spawn.

This parental squeamishness is understandable. However, such a viewpoint sentimentalizes the actual nature of the “juvenile pulp” that once dominated mainstream comic books. Some of these kid-pulps were resolutely “clean” of any touchy subject matter, some were “dirty” enough by the standards of their times to bring about a Senate hearing, while others were what I’ve called “semi-dirty,” implying but not showing potentially transgressive materials.

Frederic Wertham, who rashly claimed that adults never cherished any memories of their juvenile comics-reading, never concerned himself with any alleged man-child species: only with real children, seduced by the vile sensationalism of comic books. Wertham recognized no gradations within this pervasive sensationalism: for him, Superman cleanly punching a dangerous thug into submission was as “dirty” as an EC-villain cutting off his wife’s head with a hatchet. At base Wertham expressed the same sentiment as the anti-pulpsters: protect the children at any cost.

Because the aforementioned thread was terminated, I never got a response to my arguments about the true nature of the “all ages” comic books of the Golden Age: that the superhero comics of the period were often as grotesque as anything in the horror-comics genre. I assume some juvenile readers might have preferred the light-toned adventures of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel to the freewheeling mayhem and torture seen in the Simon-and-Kirby Captain America. But since both were successful, it stands to reason that even the kids’ audience of the period was not unitary in terms of taste.

It’s possible that many of the anti-pulpsters weren’t thinking back to the Golden Age, but rather to the “all ages” approach of the Silver Age, when societal pressure obliged the mainstream comics industry to adopt a production code. One could credibly argue that the wild-and-whacky comics from this period– roughly 1956-1970—succeeded at delivering “clean comics” across the board. Nevertheless, the anti-pulpsters could suggest no way in which such “clean comics” might be made popular again with a mass audience, especially given how greatly other media have changed since the 1960s.

I’m aware that superheroes still have considerable appeal for young readers, though I suggest that modern kids know them more from films, television shows and video games rather than prohibitively expensive American comic books. That said, it’s not the job of the comics-industry to remake itself for the sake of the kid-audience, particularly when there are so few indications that the audience could be regained. I assert that the dream of a juvenile mass audience is a ship that has not only sailed; it has sunk, while the contention that superheroes are intrinsically juvenile is empty rhetoric with no logic to back it up.

And what about the man-children? Personally, I could not care less whether or not adult comics-readers get “whacky” (in a very different sense than used above) with their superhero comics, their horror comics, or even their artcomics (many of which have not been remiss in their use of sex and violence). What I do care about is the attempt to make all these anonymous fans a scapegoat for whatever other fans happen to think is wrong with the medium. Such fans seem to think that if the market could just focus on clean comics and send the creepy guys back to reading PLAYBOY and PENTHOUSE (as some posters implied that they should), comic books would be safe for children again.

Sorry, anti-pulpsters. In the words of Rocky the Flying Squirrel:

“That trick never works!”

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen



  1. Gary Ancheta says:

    So if we map this idea that DC’s 52 is the New Pulp (patterned after the old) we have the following:

    adventure: The Young Justice Titles (like LSH, Teen Titans, Etc)
    detective/mystery: Batman Titles
    fantasy/sword and sorcery: Demon Knights,
    gangster/crime: The Edge TItles
    horror/occult (including “weird menace”): The “Dark” Titles
    science fiction: Superman TItles and most of the Justice League titles
    Série Noire: The Shade series
    “spicy/saucy” (soft porn): The Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws
    war: Blackhawks and Sgt Rock
    westerns: Jonah Hex

    We’re only lacking Sports-style Pulps and overt Romance Pulps, but I think you’re pretty spot on in the idea that DC is leaning towards creating “new pulps” out of their DC line. I’m curious if DC will develop newer “Swing with Scooter” titles or possibly “Angel and Ape” to court the Romance pulp angle. I have no idea what they could do for Sports Pulps. Maybe if they did something more “overtly video gameish” in the style of Scott Pilgrim that maybe the sports pulp idea might work.

    But now that I think about it, is the line being diversified for more of a Manga-style management of titles? It seems like these conventions also fit the different types of manga that are marketed today. Or is manga merely reflecting the Pulps of the past?’

  2. ‘Clean comics’ would do better in newspaper strips anyway. Its the ONE form of comic which nearly all kids still read. It costs the children nothing, the parents don’t have to choose or buy them with them, and its already there in the house (piggybacking on a mass-market publication is a good business model which nobody seems interested in).

    I guarantee more kids have read newspaper strips of Spiderman than they have comic books featuring the character. More people in the world have read Garfield than Batman. Maybe its a viable direction which some publishers need to get more serious about. Leave the ‘mature’ (HAW!) material for the speciality stores.

  3. I doubt most modern kids read newspaper strips, though, unless the newspapers appear in the house on a regular basis.

    If a kid doesn’t grow up with them that way, does he ever bother checking out strips online? Do the majority of modern kids bother with online comic strips?

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