Thursday, April 21, 2005

Reclaiming our pulp roots

Warning: For those folks for whom 'Superhero' is a dirty word. Um. You'll prolly not like this one much.

Anyway, I'm gonna talk about The Fantastic Four and Iron Fist. But first...

So anyhow, I'm a big pulps monkey and a huge fan of adventure fiction. Love 'em. Tales of two-fisted derring do, whether it's Captain Blood, or Doc Savage, Robin Hood, John Carter or the Three Musketeers. As has been pointed out many times by people cleverer than me, a lot of our modern day comic adventure series owe a lot to these pulp roots.

Comparisons are easy to make between Superman and Doc Savage, Blackhawk and G-8, or Batman and pretty much everyone, from Zorro and the Shadow, to The Scarlet Pimpernel and Phillip Marlowe. And the pulps were diverse too. Westerns, Tales of Exploration, Historical Dramas, Crime, Piracy on the High Seas, Science Fiction, Horror, Detectives, Hardboiled G-Men, War Stories, and on and on it went...

And a lot of really cool people agree with me. Alan Moore drew on the pulps for inspiration with his America's Best Comics line. Warren Ellis did the same thing with the Apparat line. And Brian Michael Bendis, when discussing his Daredevil run, described the character frequently as 'a pulp hero' , rather than a superhero.

So what, huh?

Well, one of the big dealies that people like to complain about is the lack of variety in modern comics. Ellis' famous 'Nurse Romances' comment, f'rinstance. However, let's think about superheroes and pulps at the moment. The lovely thing about pulps and pulp genres is the variety of approaches which can be taken if you come at of your story not as a superhero story, but as a detective story, a Western, a science fiction story, a fantasy story, or a historical drama.

And I'm not talking about just whacking a cowboy hat on Batman, but on looking at the genre, the conventions and the archetypes. What makes them so enduring? What makes us respond on such a visceral level to these stories? And more than just the stories, look at the history as well. If you can draw influences from the adventures of fictional aviators like G-8 or Biggles, why not the lives of real aviators like Chuck Yaeger or Baron Von Richtoffen?

One of the problems with modern comics is that they are essentially inbred. Comics Creators who are influenced by the work of other Comics Creators who are influenced by the work of other Comics Creators. It's like mainstream genre fiction. Fantasy or Science Fiction drawing on the work of fantasy or science fiction writers like some sort of ever-diminishing pulp Ouroboros.

So what does this have to do with the Fantastic Four and Iron Fist?

These are two titles that I have a real soft spot for. I'm not a huge Marvel fiend, but if you gave me the opportunity to write any series for Marvel, it'd be Powerman & Iron Fist without hesitation. I love these titles because they exist outside the 'standard' superhero genre.

The Fantastic Four, at its best, draws on crazy science fiction, from the Jules Verne-style fantastic voyage, through Gernsbackian Pulp Science Fiction, and 50's Atomic Age Chiller Theatre Schlock, to the most insanely speculative modern stuff, fed on a diet of equal parts New Scientist, Fortean Times and Weekly World News. The FF are astronauts, explorers, daring adventurers seeking new thresholds and venturing beyond them into strange realms where the map has nothing to offer but 'Here Be Dragons'.

Iron Fist, too, draws from other sources than most comics of its type. A combination of the traveller into mythic realms (whether it be Rip Van Winkle, Lemuel Gulliver, or Alice Liddel) and of course, the wandering swordsman/gunslinger/kung fu fighter.

So why. Why, oh why, in both cases, do I keep getting these dump standard superhero stories?

If you're going to have bold adventurers exploring the far bounds of possibility, why do we continually get crimefighting scenarios?

Or battles with arch enemies?

Or all that other bollocks we can get from any other superhero team book on the shelves.

Admittedly, Iron Fist is another thing for me, as, heartened by an encouraging read of Essential Luke Cage Vol.1, I picked up Essential Iron Fist, only to be continually confronted with bog standard superhero crap which could have been done better with any costumed urban vigilante character.


One of the coolest things about the superhero genre is that it is capable of encompassing almost any genre. This is admittedly, sometimes its weakness, as we realize that Alan Moore's Swamp Thing stories co-exist in a world with Bat-Mite, however, it can also be a great strength.
Superheroes can encompass science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical romance, mythology, detective, and an almost endless array of other enduring adventure genres.

I love diversity, and I love looking at the shelves and seeing all the different non superhero genres represented there, but I admit, I'm a throwback.

I love superheroes.

And there's no reason for such diversity not to be represented in a genre which has so much potential for it.


Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Did you know that Michael Chabon used the Nurse Romances line in a book and pretended like he came up with on his own?


4/22/2005 06:01:00 AM  
Blogger Pól Rua said...

I was not aware of that, however, and I'm pretty sure I'm alone in this, I was more than a little underwhelmed in 'Kavalier & Clay'.
I DID like the Mister Terrific story he wrote for JSA: All-Stars, though.

4/25/2005 12:08:00 AM  

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