Fun, Passion and Insight: The Incomparable World of Pulp

In a 1980’s comic book called Aztec Ace (written by Doug Moench, the author who also did the superb 70’s black and white Doc Savage magazine for Marvel — the paperback cover to The Man of Bronze, as well as a Shadow paperback cover are also prominently displayed below), there is a splash page in the story titled Bloody Pulp where the book’s main protagonists, Caza and Bridget, lounge around talking about the relative value of pulp and classical literature. A remarkably introspective musing about the pleasure and fulfillment to be found in all mediums of entertainment.

Aztec Ace, by Doug Moench and Dan Day

Caza: All means of passing time, Bridget, but also nothing but junk.

Bridget: Makes a lot of people happy, Ace.

Caza: Me included. Although I suspect it merely buries unhappiness under a gaudy spill.

Bridget: Are you saying that only highbrow literature and classical music…

Caza: I draw no such superficial distinctions. It’s all junk in the end. And here’s a toast: to junk.

In my own novel Towers, right at the center of the adult Doc Savage pastiche Talos Chronicle, an NYU professor named Anya Ksavierij comes at the same concept from a slightly different angle.

She took a cab to the fairgrounds. She admonished herself, not so much financially as philosophically, for the extravagance. She did not take cabs. She habitually used the subway. It was a great equalizer; hanging from a strap in a rattling car gave her a kind of pleasure her ex-husband had found so annoying…her love of communion in the masses. She perpetually wanted to know everyone’s story. Where did they work, where did they come from, what were there troubles, or wonder of wonders, were they happy? No trip underground lacked for – short or long – a spontaneous conversation.

Poor George…she had driven him to distraction. He had loved to go out on an evening dressed to perfection. Clubbing, or to a show…only to have his wife strike up chats with doormen or waiters. Of course she should never have married him. She’d done it only in her agony of loneliness after Mama and Papa had passed away so close together, and George had been fully besotted with his “queenly Russian intellectual.”

Cabs…she actually smiled to herself remembering the last one they’d shared together – to sign the divorce papers – and she had talked incessantly to the driver from the back seat. She’d wanted to know if his union was giving him a fair shake…and if the Shadow pulp magazine he picked up to read at red lights was a good issue. Did he ever find himself identifying with the Shadow’s cab-driving agent, Moe Shrevnitz?

She and George had proceeded to have a comical argument about her slum-taste in literature. She had Tolstoy and Chekhov on her bookshelf, why did she descend to reading such trash? But of course it was the entertainment of everyday people, and therefore noble.

She is on her way to the 1939 World’s Fair, where she will encounter the Talos avatars of Doc and Pat Savage, and she will die there. But in the moment above, she touches on the moments when we all, as people, approach a kind of common ground…an equality in our pleasures, despite our social status and personal histories.

My own literary path followed what might be considered a traditional arc…in which as a boy and young man I consumed mass quantities of pulp (books, comics, films), and then shifted to a more academic appreciation of the arts (classical literature, history, cinema and fine art). It then took a less traditional turn, as I carried those sensibilities right back into the world of pulp. Rather than making me snobbish or dismissive toward my earlier love of popular entertainment — thank God — it deepened that love.

Shakespeare was once considered trash…blatantly exploitative of an audience’s emotions, played out before an audience both aristocratic and common. The Roman poet Catullus wrote about his raw passions — a topic considered crude — at a time when society was struggling toward order and insight. That basic pattern is alive and well today. I have every expectation that the popular literature of the pulp era — in fact, of the whole 20th century and beyond, into today — will be the subject of scholarly appreciation and study for generations to come.

Every modern pulp writer, whether consciously or not, is tapping into uniquely powerful places in the human soul. Sometimes it is by crafting pure entertainment. The long runs of Doc Savage and The Shadow — referenced in the image above — are emblematic of that entertainment. Unpretentious, fast-paced adventure and mystery, with a broad sprinkling of good vs. evil values, though presented often as a framework for excursions into mayhem. Strangely wonderful in a way, that they could inspire musing of the type Caza and Bridget (the Aztec Ace comic characters) display — a leveling of all literature into a place where unhappiness can be banished. At least for a little while. And in reflection, can inspire the opposite of unhappiness: a kind of unfettered joy.

Here are the actual Doc and Shadow covers depicted above…the next time you pick up these books to read, put them on a shelf next to Shakespeare and Catullus (or your own preferred “classics”) when you are done. Stand back, take a look, and realize that every ivory tower has foundations at ground level…possibly even with a gutter nearby. They are not worlds apart, but supremely suited to complement and enhance one another.

The Man of Bronze cover art by James Bama
Gray Fist cover art by Jim Steranko

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