guttergeek formerly discontinuous review of graphic narrative; now just discontinuous

First Wave and Pulp Fiction (Part I)

By Alex Boney

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In theory, the pulp fiction genre is a natural fit for the comics medium. Many of the action/adventure and detective characters who became popular in comics during the late 1930s and 40s were based on prototypes developed in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s. Despite these connections, though, pulp heroes have never fared particularly well in comic books. DC Comics’ First Wave project was conceived as an attempt to correct this track record. While series creator Brian Azzarello has solved many of the pulp characters’ previous difficulties and the project began impressively, the First Wave line is gradually withering away because of a whole new set of problems—specifically an all-too-familiar appearance of neglect.

I’m guessing that most Americans are at least nominally familiar with pulp heroes such as Doc Savage, Tarzan, Zorro, the Shadow, Flash Gordon, and Conan the Barbarian. And I’d imagine that most comics and science fiction readers are familiar with some of those characters’ adventures from pulp magazines, movie serials, radio shows, or (more recently) film updates. But with the exception of Conan, familiarity has generally not translated into comic book success.

 
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This isn’t to say that the quality of storytelling has been poor when these characters have been adapted to comics. Denny O’Neil’s four-issue 1975
Justice Inc. series—featuring the Avenger character created by pulp writer Kenneth Robeson—is a fun, appropriately hard-edged read. The fact that Jack Kirby drew issues #2-4 didn’t hurt, either.

 
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O’Neil also wrote a 12-issue
Shadow series (1973-75, with art by Michael William Kaluta) that stayed true to the dark, violent pulp/noir tone of the original Shadow magazine, strips, and radio stories. For the 70s, it was a pretty gritty mainstream series.

 
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Similarly, DC updated many of its pulp properties in the 1980s with remarkable effects. Denny O’Neil’s four-issue
Doc Savage mini-series (1987) and Howard Chaykin’s four-issue The Shadow (1986) were both smart, serious, and stylish adaptations of characters whose heydays were decades behind them. The subsequent ongoing Shadow (by Andy Helfer, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Kyle Baker) and Doc Savage series (written by Mike W. Barr) continued this tradition, but each book only lasted a couple years before cancellation. While not technically a pulp book, Howard Chaykin’s Blackhawk #1-3 (1987) had the same flair and attitude of its contemporaries. The same can be said of Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker’s two-issue Justice Inc. series from 1989.

To be clear, DC wasn’t the only comics company that adapted pulp characters to comics. Many companies have ventured into this genre area. Street & Smith and Archie Comics both took a crack at the Shadow, while Street & Smith, Marvel Comics, and Gold Key all published versions of Doc Savage. But DC was the first company to launch a focused, concerted effort to build support for these characters by offering quality, sophisticated stories by top-tier creators. DC made a genuine attempt to create a pulp revival in the late 80s, and many of these books remain critical and artistic successes. But they never seemed to connect with a rapidly-splintering readership that was being pulled in many different directions after the mid-80s
Crisis on Infinite Earths. This was the time period that gave usWatchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Longbow Hunters, and the beginnings of what would become Vertigo (Hellblazer, Sandman, Black Orchid, etc.). The pulp characters just ever sold enough books to last in that environment. Dark Horse Comics tried again a few years later, but they were no more successful than DC had been.

The main problem with the pulp characters was (and continues to be) that, for contemporary readers, these characters come across as outdated relics. Nostalgia is difficult to transfer from one generation to the next. Doc Savage, the Shadow, and Flash Gordon may be excellent characters and they may have influenced many of the stories I continue to read every month, but they’re not
my generation’s action/adventure heroes. It’s difficult to connect with things you’re told you have to connect with. Despite the fact that I loved the camp Flash Gordon movie (1980) when I was a kid, it’s taken me decades to acquire a taste and a respect for the pulp characters. Perhaps the best interpretation of the pulp dilemma in the modern world was presented by Warren Ellis in Planetary #1.

 
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The pulp characters were killed off by the superheroes who came after them (literally in Ellis and Cassaday’s story), and they never really recovered. Nor did their historical impact and significance.