“Thriving on unconstrained creativity, held accountable to few standards of logic, believability or ‘good taste,’ the pulps were literary dream machines, offering regular entry to intensive worlds of excitement, danger, glory, romance. Each brittle page held the promise of escape from mundane reality, a promise gaudily fulfilled.”—Lee Server, Danger is My Business, p. 9.
On my blog, I’ve written extensively about the influence of the pulps on American comic books, and how the pulp aesthetic stayed with comics long after the pulps themselves faded. I outlined a short history of this influence in my essay Secret Origins of Superhero Decadence. The most important thing about assessing this influence is to validate the hallmark quality of the pulp—the quality of extravagant sensationalism—as a literary quality in and of itself, rather than something that takes on significance only when limned by portentous drama or finely honed satire.
With this in mind, I would suggest that some if not all of the “new 52” constitute a major push by commercial comics out of the realm of “juvenile pulp”— extravagant fictions aimed at juveniles, careful to avoid explicit adult concerns—and into the realm of “adult pulp.” And perhaps none of the “new 52” books exemplifies this transition for DC—a major sea-change away from thirty years of dominantly imitating Marvel Comics—more than Catwoman #1.
Catwoman #1, written by Judd Winick and artistically rendered by Giullem March, is by no means the ideal representative of the New Adult Pulp. But in contrast to many earlier DC comics that served up sex and/or violence with all the skill of a lunch-lady slopping gravy onto a student’s tray, Winick and March distinguish themselves by leavening the hard-and-fast outpourings of S&V with bits of visual and verbal humor. Yes, as a reader I know that titillation is a major part of the game on page one, where Catwoman is seen hurriedly donning her clothes to escape a brutal invasion of her apartment by armed thugs, and is forced to evacuate while only semi-clothed. But Winick’s caption puts a sardonic spin on the perilous life Catwoman has chosen for herself, as she thinks, “I’m not sure I like doing anything unless it puts me out on the limb. ‘Cuz that’s where the fruit is, right?”
One reason I push the term “pulp” in relation to the Catwoman title is in partial reaction to a term used in Julian Darius’s article on Sequart: “sexploitation.” I find the term problematic as far as applying to Catwoman, in that there are many types of sexploitation narratives that contain no violence (in the usual sense of the term), and there are other narratives that use violence in place of sex, as seen in some of the so-called “roughie” films.
Now, not all pulp-stories combine both sex and violence in equal proportions either. However, the overall history of pulp fiction, being defined by me as pure extravagant sensation, is one in which sex and violence carry equal weight in the sensation-making department. One can’t say this of sexploitation fiction.
The middle section of the Winick-March tale is slanted a bit more toward violence. In keeping with Catwoman’s current history as a professional thief, the quasi-heroine doesn’t immediately go looking for the thugs who trashed her home, but tries to set up a new score. This leads to an incident in which a disguised Catwoman has a run-in with a member of the Russian Mafia with whom she apparently has a history. She attempts to erase the history by clawing the hell out of the putative gangster. Interrupted by other thugs, she flees, once again in ostentatious, whip-wielding style. This sequence feels like little more than a foreshadowing of some future plot-development, which I presume Winick will explore later.
The escape-scene leads without much ado to The Scene Everyone’s Talking About, in which Catwoman retreats to a penthouse. One aspect not much commented upon is that when Batman finds her that night, she’s not simply Girl Ready for Sex. The cat-girl sits surrounded by her cats, despondently thinking, “…I don’t have a home. At best, I have people. Some go away. Some stay close. Some die. And then there’s some… that always just show up” (i.e. Batman). I’m not claiming this is writing of the caliber of Dashiell Hammett, but it does speak to Catwoman’s character somewhat better than does the sort of “creepy fan fiction” to which Darius compares the scene. The dialogue suggests to me that Catwoman thrusts herself (so to speak) on Batman because despite all their crook/cop differences he still gives a shit about her. His concern, as much as his muscles and chiseled jaw, are her turn-ons. The scene is primarily a desperation-fuck, not Batman X.
Some people, including Julian Darius, found the scene “creepy.” In judging something as intensely personal as one’s reaction to a depiction of sex, I don’t believe in a “right or wrong” response. I just didn’t find it creepy, and I didn’t feel the lack, as Darius did, of “a thoughtful story about super-hero psychosexuality.” I don’t think the Catwoman tale is without any thoughtful moments, though there’s no question that it’s first and foremost a tale of extravagant sensationalism.
For me, that’s a good thing. I’ve had a long fannish love affair with the Marvel brand of soap opera plotting, but I was gratified not to see Batman and Catwoman stand around wringing their hands over their “feelings.” Ever since Marvel gained market dominance in the 1970s, DC has struggled to find a new paradigm once it was no longer able to sell comics by putting purple gorillas on the covers. Semi-sophisticated imprints like Vertigo presented only partial solutions.
So why not return to the sensationalistic source from which both Superman and Batman descended? Why not embrace the pulpy past in order to compete with high-tech films and violent video games?
If everything old becomes new again, a New Adult Pulp might prove DC’s salvation.