Pluralistic Pulp

Like most writers, I enjoy seeing one of my assertions independently confirmed by a critic working in a parallel vein. In “The Growing of Adult Pulp,” I demonstrated some differences that separated “pulp fiction” from the greater category of popular fiction. In a DVD commentary for the resurrected low-budget film noir Decoy (1946), cinema-critic Glenn Ericksen distinguishes the qualities of that film from those of many other crime films of the same period, such as Howard Hawks’ same-year The Big Sleep.

“I think it’s important to say that Decoy, unlike the other movies that came from very accomplished books like [those of] James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler, this movie seems to come directly from the vein of pulp crime fiction—right out of those Black Mask-Police Gazette type of stories… Very few of the [other] movies from the period even attempt to capture that, for they’re too sophisticated—they want to bring in the ‘carriage-trade.’”

Throughout his commentary, Ericksen emphasizes a difference in the way Decoy uses violence, as against its depiction in The Big Sleep, in that the latter maintains a more “sophisticated” tone while Decoy’s violence is more overtly gritty and exploitative. He also profitably compares Decoy to the 1955 cinematic adaptation of Kiss Me Deadly, authored by Mickey Spillane, surely the first example of a Golden Age comic-book writer graduating to the status of a bestselling prose-fiction author.

My essay “The Growing of Adult Pulp” does pursue this difference in tone in perhaps more involved ways. Where Ericksen is concerned with only comparing pulp crime fiction with a more “sophisticated” form of crime story, my schema encompasses the whole of popular literature, of which “pulp fiction” is a subcategory. The fiction in actual pulp magazines usually fell into one of four broad categories—adventure, horror, crime fiction (which often combined aspects of the previous two categories), and the love-romance. American comic books made use of all of these genre-categories, and tended to market features just as the pulps had: appealing to the reader through the use of vivid, though not always violent, sensationalism. My distinction isn’t so much between exploitation and sophistication (Decoy vs. Big Sleep), as between a balls-to-the-wall extravagance that ignores realistic concerns and a more subdued form of sensationalism.

One could find this dichotomy within many genres in the comic-book medium as well as in film and in prose fiction, but for symmetry’s sake I’ll stick with examples that have a strong “crime” element. Thanks to the anti-comics protests of the late 1940s and early 1950s, “crime” was one of the two genres most pilloried—horror being the other—resulting in a dimunition of both genres following the institution of the Comics Code Authority. Even before the Code, though, there were certainly some crime stories that reveled in “blood and guts,” and some that followed a more reserved documentarian approach. The Code simply made it impossible for the more “pulpy” tradition of crime fiction to exist.

That said, several years before the Code or the anti-comics protests, one can see the dichotomy in the way two Golden Age studios—that of Bob Kane and that of Will Eisner—approached the idea of the masked urban crimefighter.

Although most superheroes battled urban crime in some form, Kane’s Batman and Eisner’s Spirit are distinguished in that the respective heroes are steeped in the culture and atmosphere of the urban crime-world. Crime remained a consistent presence in each character’s mythos, even these urban jungles were populated with bizarre figures like the Joker or Mister Carrion.

Though Batman was a newsstand comic book while The Spirit was a comic-book insert distributed through newspapers, both features were extraordinarily pulp-like during the first year of each feature’s publication, and both settled down somewhat for the remainder of their respective Golden Age runs. Both always had some moments of creative extravagance, but nothing in Batman’s history quite tops his early battle with the Duc D’Orterre, who steals men’s faces, and nothing in the Spirit’s annals is as extravagant as the hero’s encounter with an ape given the brain of a man.

However, the different methods of distribution did make a big difference in the extent to which each feature “settled down.” As Will Eisner stated in many interviews, he felt that being distributed with newspapers gave him the chance to address an adult readership, as a pure comic book could not. Bob Kane would probably have agreed with this: there’s no indication that he ever imagined Batman being anything but children’s entertainment.

The Batman feature becomes considerably less wild-and-woolly once Robin the Boy Wonder becomes the Caped Crusader’s teammate. However, given that the feature was still supposed to appeal to children, by and large it did continue to emphasize a world of pulp extravagance. Costumed crooks never outnumbered the more mundane types, but Batman became inextricably associated with bizarre criminals, whether they were as long-lived as Joker and Penguin or as short-lived as Scarecrow and Hugo Strange.

In contrast, The Spirit consistently used humor to palliate the titular hero’s adventures. The Spirit never entirely strayed from the genre of hard-hitting crimefighting adventure, but Eisner frequently downplayed the adventure elements for those of slapstick humor or romantic comedy. It’s arguable as to just how “adult” The Spirit was overall in comparison with other comic books on the same theme. However, many Spirit stories, particular of the so-called “postwar period,” attempt to address the same themes found in the more adult film melodramas of the period. As if in compensation for this, however, the Spirit feature was never as inventive in terms of inventing extravagant villains, though many of the hero’s one-shot foes come close to being as physically grotesque as Batman’s.

From all indications, Eisner considered his approach to the masked hero to be superior to that of the more overtly juvenile forms. I understand why he thought so, but I don’t agree. His brand of relative realism was just one more fascinating fictional strategy. But even after one has enjoyed the sophistication of a Chandler or an Eisner, the allure of pulp sensationalism remains undiminished.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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