Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More Pulp History: Neo-Pulp!

So Joshua's given a great introduction to the early days of pulp, and how that word has shifted in meaning from a particular medium to a broad-ranging style popular in all sorts of media.

But these days, the pulp aesthetic holds more artistic weight than it did in its origin days. It's not a pure pejorative anymore as it once was. And the real difference is Indiana Jones.

At the dawn of the 80's Spielberg and Lucas put together their love of low-brow narrative with a sophisticated bit of story-telling, and the tremendous performance of Harrison Ford and came up with the model for "neo-pulp" -- new pulp.

The pulp aesthetic married to sophisticated story-telling. Raiders of the Lost Ark, even more than Star Wars, was the movie that proved you could make, if not "serious art", at least "grown-up art" that was full of slam-bang action and over-the-top gee-whiz sequences. The idea embodied in Raiders spread, and in the very early 80's comics creators like Frank Miller and Alan Moore began turning THAT medium upside-down with savage, intelligent tales about ridiculous characters. While at the same time, writers like Glen Cook and Steven Brust were doing the same to fantasy fiction. It was a pretty thrilling time to be a genre fan -- this stuff was still very much marginalized, even with the immense success Lucas and Spielberg were having, so it was pretty much impossible to explain to anyone who wasn't in on the secret what was going on.

But even as a teenager I knew what I was seeing. I knew Frank Miller had changed the game forever with The Dark Knight Returns, just as I knew what Cook was doing was something genuinely new and exciting. The 80's were the time when punk grew up and got smart with bands like Nine Inch Nails, when rap hit the mainstream with gangsters and revolution and in general just a massive confluence of ideas and craziness. Anne Rice's lurid vampire tales, beginning with Interview With The Vampire, launched a huge wave of horror enthusiasm we're STILL watching roll past.

It took a while for all this to be recognized, and the label neo-pulp is not a twenty-year-old one. But it seems that in many ways pulp has been growing up all this time, across every imaginable channel, and it's really hit the mainstream now.

That probably means it's no longer interesting, but I don't care. I'm still gonna write comic books about REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS!


  1. I wonder sometimes if part of the "respectability" of pulp today is as much nostalgia and romanticism as it is anything else. They were a long time ago, adults today grew up reading reprints of them, and we have enough distance that we can talk about the sociological impact of them. Hence, viola! suddenly they're a subject of some respect and a worthy academic subject.

    Although I also think that the aesthetic is more appreciated for it's own sake, today, and purveyors of creative material are looking to see how they can wed the strengths of the pulp aesthetic to the strengths of whatever other material they're working with. Which, really, is at the heart of neo-pulp.

  2. Your linking pulp with Raiders with The Dark Knight Returns brings up some still half-formed conceptual linkages for me -- pulp's relationship with violence and (for lack of a better word) darkness. In my mind, pulp has violence that is (as Joshua said in the other post) over-the-top but not serious or graphic. Sure, Raiders has face melting, but placed in a supernatural context that dilutes (in a good way) the horror of that scene. Similarly, pulp lacks a certain grimness (which is in turn supplied by it's cousin, noir). ADKR is pretty grim, which moves it away from pulp. There's also Temple of Doom, the darkest of the Indiana Jones moves (and one which is underrated, I think). Pulp, yes, but more grim that the others. Interesting they moved away from that with Last Crusade.


  3. We can debate the genre cladistics all day (I'd include noir as a form of pulp storytelling, for sure), but I think that one of the transitions I'm talking about is that very incorporation of honest darkness into the pulp aesthetic. That's why Star Wars isn't as interesting as Raiders to me: it doesn't possess authentic darkness. But that moment in Raiders, when Indy is prepared to die killing Belloc in the cafe -- Ford goes to a very dark place that the series never goes again.

    If pulp can't possess that sort of honest-to-god darkness then I'm not interested, so according to your semantics I may be talking about something different than pulp. That's cool with me, but I'm going to keep using the word pulp.

    @Joshua: The problem with your nostalgia assessment (which I don't really disagree with, but we gotta talk about SOMETHING) is that pulp story-telling never went away. You had Leiber writing Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales all through the 40's, 50's and 60's, and the 50's "giant bug" movies are definitely inheritors of the pulp aesthetic. So the nostalgia argument begs the question of WHY this nostalgia resurfaced in the 80's rather than some previous decade -- and I think the answer to THAT is the creative genius of folks like Miller, Moore, Cook and so on. Without them, the pulps wouldn't have acquired the aesthetic worth they have today.

    Lieber couldn't do it on his own. I think you needed a critical mass of creativity across a variety of media.

  4. I don't disagree. I think that creators---writers, artists, film-makers, or what-have-you, became savvy enough to utilize the strengths of the pulp aesthetic while simultaneously minimizing its flaws. And really, in my opinion, that's the heart of the neo-pulp movement. I've made a point of reading some older "retropulp" from the sixties; some of that really derivative disposible paperback stuff like what Lin Carter (not to pick on Lin, but he's a great example of it) wrote, for example, and sadly, it does the opposite. It repeats the weaknesses of the pulp aesthetic while only poorly reflecting its strengths. But, for whatever reason (and I think George Lucas deserves a nomination as a key factor here) good writers started thinking about how they could have written the pulps and done them better, without the limitations that the economic reality of the pulps imposed on the writers (maybe not exactly in those terms, but that's effectively what they did) and that's how we got to where we are now.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I didn't mean to drag things into a semantic debate about what is or what isn't pulp. I was just thinking about what happened to comics in the 80's -- they got darker and more violent, largely due to the success of The Dark Knight. There's nothing really light about that comic and, for good and bad, comics weren't the same after that. Perhaps this is getting back to what Joshua said about nostalgia; we can look back at lots of the things that fall under "pulp" prior to the 80's and see, even with their focus on gratuitousness in various forms, and see a degree of light-heartedness that went away in the 80's.

  7. That's a good point, and I think it points to a transformation in the audience and why, for example, the later Star Wars films are understood quite clearly as KID'S films, which the first couple at least certainly were NOT.

    Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979) are interesting points of reference here as well -- films deeply steeped in pulp idiom, but with very grown-up issues and characters. And both were immensely influential.

    There's also the rise of the slasher film after John Carpenter's Hallowe'en. 1978. With Raiders in 1981 we've got a pretty transformative four-year stretch.

    Now Spielberg had been mining this territory in the years previous, with Close Encounters in '77 and Jaws in '75, but Raiders is the high point for him -- after Raiders he loses that deft touch and his films become either too silly or too serious.

    So it's happening in film through the 70's, but film is by nature a pretty pulpy medium. I don't think you'll ever get away from that aesthetic in cinema.

  8. Jurassic Park was neither too silly nor too serious. Watched that with the kids a coupla nights ago, and dang, it's still a really good movie.

    But besides that, and maybe one or two more exceptions if I really think about it, I agree.