In “The New 52 and the New Adult Pulp,” I asserted that DC’s new line followed the sensationalistic tradition of American pulp magazines, upon which most (though not all) early American comic books modeled their format. Of course, merely being in a tradition by itself doesn’t confer merit: there are any number of bad traditions throughout culture and political life. Many critics would claim that the sensation-mongering aspect of the pulps and all of their descendants would be a uniformly bad tradition. For me there are both good and bad sides of sensationalism in all forms of literature—but it would require another essay to sort out the nature of the good and the bad. In this essay, I’m more concerned with putting forth a working definition of “pulp” as a storytelling aesthetic.
There’s a widespread tendency—to which I’ve not always been immune—in which speakers equate “pulp” with any kind of fiction that (1) seeks a wide, supposedly undiscriminating audience, and (2) does so principally with the use of appeals to sensation. But this isn’t accurate. I mentioned above that not all early comic books modeled themselves after the example of pulp magazines, and this can be illustrated with one of the Golden Age’s dominant categories: the humor-comic, which ranges from the “kiddie” comics of Casper and Donald Duck to those aimed at somewhat older juveniles, like Archie. Most Golden Age humor comics appealed to large readerships through the use of slapstick and other forms of sensational humor. But no one would equate the aesthetics or content of the humor-comics with those of pulp magazines.
There’s a particular tonality, then, about the way that the prose pulp magazines appealed to sensationalism. The dominant emphasis was that of extravagance, of “going to extremes” as a later generation would put it. Detective pulps concerned themselves with grungy hardboiled dicks, not with effete problem-solvers. Horror pulps generally eschewed the subtle school of fearful intimations for blood and guts, for sadism and bizarre monsters. The so-called “hero pulps,” featuring characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage, could barely trace their lineage back to any more subtler variation on their theme: for many of us today, the hero pulps embody the extravagance of the period. Only some science-fiction pulps steadily quested after intellectual entertainment at the expense of sensation, but even the more challenging sci-fi pulps weren’t above using the occasional BEM (bug-eyed monster) on the cover.
But though pulp magazines were linked across the board in terms of tonality, there was still a divergence between those that were directed more toward juveniles and those that were directed more toward adults, or juveniles who were close to adulthood. In his book Danger is My Business, former pulp-author Lee Server asserts that a particular company, Popular Publications, “brought an adult perspective and visceral action to the otherwise juvenile hero genre” with titles like The Spider and Operator 5
This is not to imply that, pound for pound, there was less action in the average Doc Savage tale than in the average Spider story. Server’s word “visceral” is well chosen, in that works aimed at adults might show roughly the same actions but would imbue them with an edgier quality I choose to call “narrative gravity.” Both juvenile and adult pulp-fictions were still escapist, extravagant and sensationalist: they simply took different paths to reach the narrative pay-off.
Comic-book historians may argue as to what companies or titles in the Golden Age may have been aimed more at adults than at kids, but few historians would debate that almost all the superheroes of the 1940s and 1950s remained aimed at kids. By my reckoning the superhero genre first entered the domain of “adult pulp” in 1967, with Carmine Infantino’s Deadman. Significantly, in terms of its sensational aspects—mostly violence, with very little sex—Deadman didn’t violate the standards of the Comics Code any more than any other “all-ages” color comic of the time. Only very slowly did the mainstream publishers begin to explore the potential of racy, ultraviolent heroes that might be deemed as “adult” in the same sense as the Spider magazine.
However, to repeat a point I made in “The Dividing Line Part 2“, gobs of sex and violence do not necessarily confer “narrative gravity” upon every title. The 1980s title New Teen Titans certainly contained far more sensationalistic materials than had earlier versions of the feature. Despite this, the tone of New Teen Titans shares the “narrative levity” of the earlier versions, so that I’d still categorize NTT as “juvenile pulp.” In contrast, though from conception Batman was a juvenile pulp, some versions of Batman, such as Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, did make the transition by virtue of Miller’s rethinking of Batman through the tough-guy model of cinema’s “Dirty Harry.”
Having established a rough genesis for “adult-pulp” comics from their juvenile progenitors, next time I’ll address the question of finding merit in escapist “trash.”