As the build-up to NaNoWriMo accelerates, I’ll be using this space to put down my thoughts on some of the works and ideas I’m intentionally drawing on when planning my novel. This is the second such post. The first, about the TV show Leverage, can be found here.
Before a man in a bat costume terrified cowardly and superstitious criminals, a man in black knew what evil lurked in their hearts. Before a man of steel saved us time and time again from alien menaces and tech-laden billionaires, a man of bronze (who, when not operating in his familiar metropolis, could be found at his polar Fortress of Solitude) battled nefarious geniuses bent on world domination. Before the colorful team, there was a single Avenger with many faces. Before Spider-Man, the deadly Spider protected New York City. And, of course, there was Zorro…
The pulp heroes of yesteryear, headlined by The Shadow and Doc Savage from the Street & Smith publishing company, were a mainstay of pop culture for years. Preceded by Sherlock Holmes and various adventurers from the penny dreadfuls; contemporaries of Sam Spade and his hardboiled cohort; newsstand chums with Cthulhu and other weird tales; and followed by the comic book heroes that have adapted to take over our movie theaters, the adventuring heroes from the pulps are a key step in the progression of Western storytelling. (Culture-Western, not cowboy-Western, another mainstay of pulp magazines.) They crystallized tropes, earned dedicated fans, and gave us a couple of less-than-stellar ‘90s movies.
These heroes occupy an odd space right now. Most of us (including me) haven’t consumed much, if any, of the magazines, radio shows, or movie serials from these characters’ early days. Many of those stories are deeply problematic for a number of reasons including racism (infamously, though by no means exclusively, of the Yellow Peril variety). Too many of the characters are blatantly ripping each other off. People writing 60,000 words of story every month aren’t going to be hitting bullseyes for quality every time.
And yet, their influence is undeniable. Reinterpretations of these characters persisted over the decades, and they obviously inspired some of the most recognizable heroes of last century and this one. One of the most interesting takes, and the one that made these characters an influence I’ll be drawing on in November, uses still another approach. That would be Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.
Rather than write the characters directly, Malmont starts with their authors. Fictionalized versions of Lester Dent (the man primarily responsible for peak-of-human-potential Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (the main author of dark-night vigilante The Shadow) find themselves wrapped up in adventures that put them both in situations resembling those of the stories they write. Along the way, they rub elbows with various other figures of the time, including L. Ron Hubbard, H.P. Lovecraft, E.E. “Doc” Smith (creator of the proto-Green-Lantern Lensmen), and needs-no-initials Orson Welles. It’s a book that’s invested as much in the idea of the pulps in the eyes of the people who created them as it is in being a pulp-like story itself.
The book is fun (or was for me, at least – your taste may well be different). What’s more, it celebrates the fun of these characters and the adventures they had. For someone who had followed up a noir kick by diving straight into some of the notable comics of the ‘80s in all their cynicism and grimness, the unbridled glee drawn from the world of pulp adventure was refreshing.
I sought out the (uneven at best) Alec Baldwin Shadow movie from the ‘90s, sampled Sam Raimi’s Shadow-inspired Darkman, and did more reading on several of the pulp characters. To know one is to know several, it turns out, since creators and publishers often directly copied aspects of existing heroes in the hope of capitalizing on what was already winning in the marketplace.
For example, most of these heroes:
- are wealthy (with varying degrees of justification given their publication during the Great Depression)
- maintain regular teams of specialists
- are masters of disguise
- display highly specific knowledge of a huge range of disciplines
- are white.
The primary exception to that last point is Zorro, who predates most of the other pulp adventurers by over a decade, although he is sometimes grouped with them rather than closer contemporaries like Tarzan. Zorro differs in other obvious respects, too. For example, his adventures are set in the past rather than the author’s present day. Still, he fits in well with the tradition, and one could argue that he was an influence on the development of The Shadow, who in turn spawned the rest.
In any case, many of my characters in November will be based on the pulp adventure heroes. There will be some changes to fix some of the problems with that list of characteristics. None of my characters will be independently wealthy, and none will be white men. Both of those changes open up narrative opportunities, and I’m excited to explore them, especially within the group heist/con dynamic of Leverage. November needs to get here faster!