The New 52 and the New Adult Pulp

“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.

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5 Comments

  1. Gene,

    Interesting analysis. I’m curious what your thoughts are about connecting the new DC 52 to the old pulps of the 1920s & 30s when many can often be seen as problematic from a present-day standpoint. My reason for seeing many (though not all) as such is due to the prevalence of racial & gender-based stereotypes that I’ve seen in many of these pulp magazines–both in the art and the stories. If the new DC 52 are supposed to represent a new creative direction as well as a modern reiteration of the old pulps, how do you reconcile this? It just seems to me that the Adult Pulp genre would appeal more to a niche segment of readership and less to a broader range of non-comic readers. Now, it may be that DC really *isn’t* aiming to bring in new readers but primarily just deliver the old material in a new way to excite and reenergize their present readers–in which case, this move to reinvent the old makes much more sense to me.

    Anyhow, thanks again for the counterpoint to this subject (and title)!

  2. David Balan says:

    Interesting correlation!

    However, as a solution for long-term success for DC? I don’t think it would work, even if it is intentional. Pulp fiction has always been both focused on sensationalism and primarily disposable.

    You read it, you trash it, you forget about it. It’s a shop and drop sort of thing – no lasting value, no real thought, no quality narrative. Now, some writers who began in pulp certainly elevated the standard of quality and moved on to write some highly influential work, but if you define pulp as “focused on sensationalism” then your basic premise is essentially a recipe for disaster.

    If your literary focus is on titillation, and exciting the reader through violence and sex simply because they are violence and sex, you’re going to fail. It won’t last – spectacle becomes boring. DC will be thrown out when the next ‘big thing’ comes along – this isn’t staying ahead of the curve, it’s playing to the curve. It’s not creating lasting content that will give you a powerful return for years to come, it’s scrambling to make something that will sell ephemerally, and then fall off the charts within a year or two, at best.

    That’s not a good business strategy, and it’s one that’s unfortunately plagued comics since almost day 1, since, as you said, they grew out of the ephemeral, stop ‘n drop pulp tradition.

    Serialized fiction is a wonderful exercise in format, and it’s great for training up a writer or illustrator. But the “pulp sensational” aspects of serialized fiction are deadly to quality, because they focus on ephemeral market trends instead of actual quality.

  3. Ben Marton says:

    Mr. Phillips, with respect for what is an intelligent, well conceived and articulate article, I must concur with Mr. Balan. I love the classic pulps and have long been a devotee of Doc Savage, The Shadow and their ilk, but dialogue initiated by the current publishers themselves seems to suggest that DC is aiming for something with a little more literary heft than the ‘disposable entertainment’ model. The problem is that the product they are offering simply does not fulfil their stated objectives (at least the non-commercial ones). I could even argue that, as one of many options, I would welcome pulp-inspired superheroics with open arms, but only as one of many options; when it comes to the ‘New 52′ I am very much voting with my wallet, because current wisdom in the DC editorial office seems to be ‘House Style’ in the name of homogeny; one tone, one aesthetic, limited range of sub-genres, very, very poor treatment of gender politics, and when it comes to same-sex relationships, ignorance (what has happened to Apollo and The Midnighter’s relationship?) or ghettoisation (why is ‘Batwoman’ suddenly the repository for all lesbian or vaguely mannish women?).

    Although my argument seems to have strayed somewhat from your original contention, that is my point. Perhaps I misread it, but I assumed Dr. Darius’s article to be about the representation of gender politics in superhero comics rather than simply the sex act, and since that debate ramped up some months ago I have read and heard many unfortunate examples of (primarily male) commentators steering the discussion away from the former and towards the latter. The point, as I understand it, is not that ‘gasp! choke! there are superheroes doing the nasty!’, but that women are still being objectified in and offensive, phallocentric manner in a genre and a medium that is supposed to have grown up. So, not sex. Gender.

    By all means, DC, give us pulp. But give it to us as an option, not some kind of industry standard.

  4. Pingback: The Growing of Adult Pulp | Sequart Research & Literacy Organization

  5. I meant to reply to these comments long ago but somehow kept forgetting–

    Forrest– it’s debatable as to whether DC’s “new 52″ is as guilty of racial and sexual stereotypes as the actual old pulps. They can’t possibly get away with as much as the pulps; social taboos against some of the “bad taste” of the bad old days have been thoroughly internalized. What I would hope for would not be a literal return to the stereotypes popular in the old days, but simply a return to the appeal of sensationalism as opposed to the more continuity-heavy “event” plotting. I feel the latter *could* be done well but in practice has proven essentially static.

    David– Yes, it’s inevitable that a more sensation-based appeal would bring with it a readership that just wanted a quick fix, but it’s possible that this sort of “browser” readership could coincide with what the more regular readers want to see.

    I don’t believe it’s possible for huge organizations in any media to stay ahead of the curve. They have too many employees and too many franchises in play to keep them all of a uniform quality. In comics most of the breakthrough creativity has come from companies or imprints limited in size– EC, early Marvel, Vertigo. What I’m proposing wouldn’t get rid of all bad books; it would just be an alternative to a lot of the more exhausted forms of storytelling.

    Ben– Yes, it’s quite possible that DC has evolved, or will shortly evolve, a new “House Style” to take the place of the old. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” I haven’t read the majority of the titles yet, but I did think CATWOMAN and ACTION were a little more ballsy than JUSTICE LEAGUE. Some works like BATGIRL and WONDER WOMAN seem to be continuations of what the authors were doing before. But as I indicated to David, I’m skeptical that any big company is going to produce more than a handful of breakthrough books at any given time.

    You say that the focus has shifted from gender politics to the sex act, but it seems to me that early on some commentators were interpreting the depiction of the sex act as “phallocentric” for no better reason than because a sex-scene between Batman and Catwoman would prove pleasing to a mostly male readership. That sounds like gender politics in the Susan Faludi style. I agree that CATWOMAN was sensationalistic but I don’t see it as intrinsically sexist, in comparison to (say) the RED HOOD book– which I haven’t read in full, though I didn’t buy any of Lobdell’s defenses.

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