Tag Archives: pulp

PULP on TV: “Red Dwarf”

16 Feb

n the early 1980s, comedy writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were stuck in radio and looking for a way into British television. Having written two sketch shows – Cliché and follow-up Son of Cliché – they decided to spin one of their favourite recurring sketches into a TV pilot.

“Dave Hollins – Space Cadet” was, more than anything, a comedy homage to its genre. The titular Dave was accompanied only by a computer named Hab – a parody of 2001‘s Hal – and was drifting in space either 300 or 7 trillion years away from Earth, depending on which sketch you were listening to. By the end of Son of Cliché, Dave successfully returns to Earth, however the human race has since become subordinate to fruit flies, beetles and P.E. teachers.

When the pilot was finished, Grant and Naylor shopped it around to just about every production company in Britain. Each said the same thing: the comedy worked, but the science fiction was either unfilmable, or a distraction from the comedy. Even after Paul Jackson (a producer for The Young Ones among other sitcoms) commissioned it in the mid-80s, electricians’ strikes and other obstacles meant that production was delayed until 1987.

Red Dwarf itself

Red Dwarf had finally made it to BBC North three years after the pilot was written, being recorded in front of audiences that had been press-ganged into the studio from nearby pubs.

Combining sci-fi and comedy has never been the most obvious or most successful choice for film or television, but Red Dwarf at its best featured sci-fi concepts that were more original than many of its ‘straight’ sci-fi contemporaries, while still managing to poke fun at the absurdity of the more conventional sci-fi tropes.

It is the 21st (or, the 23rd) century, and Dave Lister is the lowest of the low on Red Dwarf, an ugly, five-mile long mining ship. A Liverpudlian slob, Lister’s direct superior and bunk-mate on board ship is the neurotic, chronically underachieving Arnold Rimmer. After Lister is found with an unquarantined cat, he is sentenced to spend 18 months in suspended animation.

Series I: "Me²"

Unfortunately, during this time, the crew is wiped out by a radiation leak and Lister awakes 3 million years later to find himself alone but for the ship’s computer (renamed Holly), a creature who evolved from his pet cat, and a hologram projection of his dead roommate, Rimmer.

he first two seasons focused on the antagonism between Lister and Rimmer more than on sci-fi plots, since Grant and Naylor wanted to establish the characters before writing them into overtly sci-fi scenarios that might turn viewers off. What was more, Red Dwarf‘s future featured no aliens, and no humans other than Lister. Though they covered some familiar terrain – parallel universes and virtual reality – they also ran into more unusual situations: the Cat-people’s religion venerates Lister as their God, and a mutated version of the flu turns Dave’s hallucinations into flesh and blood in “Confidence and Paranoia” (an episode that featured a pre-American Craig Ferguson as the American incarnation of Lister’s Confidence, below).

Luckily, the BBC had commissioned two seasons from the outset, so the crew’s second outing featured more science fiction, and a little more back story that made Rimmer a tad more sympathetic.

y the third season, Doug Naylor had convinced Rob Grant to bring back a guest character from season 2. Initially resistant to the cliche of a robot on board ship, Grant gave in, and android Kryten was added to the mix, along with a new female version of Holly, and a total revamp to the sets

Series 3 introduced Kryten and a more up-to-date look

which made it appear as though Dwarf‘s budget was much larger than it truly was.

From the third season onwards, the show was at its peak, garnering up to 8 million viewers for each new episode – an all-time high for BBC 2.

Though the sci-fi focus was stronger, Grant and Naylor’s background in sketch writing still shone through in season 3’s character moments. The first show, “Backwards” opens with this conversation between Lister and the Cat as they watch television from their bunks:

Lister: D’ya think Wilma’s sexy?
Cat: Wilma Flintstone?
Lister: Maybe we’ve been alone in deep space too long, but every time I see that body, it drives me crazy. Is it me?
Cat: Well, I think in all probability, Wilma Flintstone is the most desirable woman that ever lived.
Lister: That’s good. I thought I was going strange.
Cat: She’s incredible!
Lister: What d’ya think of Betty?
Cat: Betty Rubble? Well, I would go with Betty… but I’d be thinking of Wilma.
Lister: This is crazy. Why are we talking about going to bed with Wilma Flintstone?
Cat: You’re right. We’re nuts. This is an insane conversation.
Lister: She’ll never leave Fred, and we know it.

A fourth, fifth and sixth season followed in 1991, ’92 and ’93, but each successively forced comedy onto the back burner and put sci-fi at its centre. After a break of four years and the departure of Rob Grant, season 7 added filmization and Lister’s ex-girlfriend

Series VIII: "Gunmen of the Apocalypse"

Kochanski, and dropped both Rimmer and the studio audience, while season 8 saw the return of both. However, resurrecting the whole crew of Red Dwarf during season 8 undid the original premise of the show and meant that Lister was no longer the grossed-out slob of a last human.

Though neither season hit the comedy notes that the earlier shows had, they still rode on high-sci-fi concepts: the crew encountered a version of Earth where time is running backwards; destroyed a White Hole which was spewing time into the universe; crashed onto a moon that terraformed itself according to Rimmer’s psyche; and fought a computer virus via a virtual reality version of the Wild West.

But where Red Dwarf worked best was in the combination of its ‘Odd Couple’ sitcom set-up with a science fiction premise that allowed for the ultimate Lister-Rimmer antagonism. In season 5’s “Back to Reality“, Grant and Naylor hit the nail on the head. The crew is killed and awakes from a virtual reality video game named, of course, “Red Dwarf”. Having scored a pitiful 4% in the game, they have to come to terms with their new “reality”, including the revelation that Rimmer is Lister’s half-brother.

More Philip K. Dick than anything else, the episode has remained a fan favourite and one of BBC 2’s highest-rated broadcasts.

With a new season in the works, we can only hope that some of Rob Grant’s writing finds its way back into the show, and that the dreary Red Dwarf: Back to Earth specials of 2008 are soon forgotten. After all, in science fiction, anything is possible.

DLR, 02.16.11

PULP Fictions: Crafting the Perfect Pulp

8 Dec

he tropes and types of pulp fiction still populate our pages and screens: femmes fatales emerge from shadows, gangsters claim lone guns on mantelpieces, and gumshoes crack wise on the mean city streets. In his treatise on mystery fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler advised his correspondents:

When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.

Today, PULPable is going to teach you how to craft the perfect pulp. What you need first is:

A Title to Die For

Pulp titles fall into surprisingly few categories, and the best are a form of melodramatic poetry.

1.  A pun based on an idiom or phrase:
My Kingdom for a Hearse (reproduced below in all its glorious technicolor) provides a classic example. Rhyming puns are also popular. If you’re interested in some seasonal pulp, check out my very own guest post over at Darby O’Shea entitled Slay Bells Ring.

2. The classic formulation: The Adjective Noun
Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon are perhaps the most famous of any pulp novels, and inspired countless imitators and hangers-on. The Gentle Hangman is a personal favourite, and is featured in PULPable’s header (look up).

3. A variation on the format, The Man/Woman Who Did Something
Also spearheaded by Chandler with The Man Who Liked Dogs, this has provided some Western-style retribution in The Man Who Got Even With God as well as some variations of my own, including The Woman Whose Chihuahua Blew Away.

4. And if you’re lost as to a pun or a simple formulation, just ensure that your title includes the words “murder”, “death”, “kill”, or any other pulpable term that takes your fancy.

A Dame Called Murder
Kill Now, Pay Later

Love Me To Death, or
Suddenly A Corpse

My favourite might be Death Wore an Astrakhan Hat.


A Simile as Sharp as Paper Dart

Turning a phrase like no other, Chandler unwittingly created pulp cliches like no other. In The High Window, he crafts a perfect paragraph hooked around a simile fully aware of its cheesiness:


Raymond Thornton Chandler

The heart-rending dialogue of some love serial came out of the room behind her and hit me in the face like a wet dishtowel. The bright-eyed woman said: ‘You a friend of theirs?’ In her voice, suspicion was as thick as the ham in her radio.

If in doubt, make a statement and then qualify it with a simile: He was tough. As tough as nails, and half as charismatic. And yes, you can have that example free of charge. Even the best parodists have come up with some classics. On A Prairie Home Companion, one of Guy Noir’s dolls is described by Garrison Keilor:

She wore a knit sweater and jeans so tight it looked as if she’d been poured into them and forgot to say When.

So what’s left? Well, don’t forget to commission:

An Exploitative, Technicolor Pulp Cover

The great pulp artists are no longer with us. Though hipster irony might bring us McSweeney’s anthologies of Thrilling Tales, the unironic, sexually provocative pulp book cover is long gone. Last time at PULPable, we took a look at a classic, Visa To Death, that featured all the classic elements of pulpdom: gangsters, dames, and death!

The original detective novels spawned a plethora of niche pulps.  And these niche pulps have provided some of he best by way of exploitative femmes fatales and sexy gun molls. A damsel in distress evades a bullet; a square-jawed hero, comes to the rescue; and you have (drum roll, please) Romantic Detective magazine.

The angles of the language and the painted lines of the cover art have, inevitably, been lampooned and pastiched into oblivion. But some of the most melodramatic and nonetheless appealing graphic design graced the covers of the original pulp magazines and paperbacks. For all the knowing nods and winks, what pulp did best, and can still do, is pull us out of the humdrum and into the high-stakes, and in doing so, entertain and amuse.

As usual, Ray said it best in The Simple Art of Murder:

The mystery story is a kind of writing that need not dwell in the shadow of the past and owes little if any allegiance to the cult of the classics. It is a good deal more than unlikely that any writer now living will produce a better historical novel than Henry Esmond, […] a sharper social vignette than Madame Bovary, […] a wider and richer canvas than War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. But to devise a more plausible mystery than The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Purloined Letter should not be too difficult. Nowadays it would be rather more difficult not to.

DLR 12.09.10

PULP Paperbacks: “Visa To Death”

29 Oct

A typically dangerous trip to the Brattle Book Shop earlier this summer ended with a slew of original pulp paperbacks gracing our bookshelves, many of which are now part of PULPable‘s primary-colour header (just look up).

In a new series of posts, and in honour of my upcoming, though final, Green Card paperwork, today we celebrate Visa to Death.

A bargain at twenty-five cents, any pulp cover needed to stand out from the crowd, and Robert Maguire’s cover art certainly helps. A mysterious figure bearing an uncanny resemblance to Cary Grant merges into the titular visa, while a somewhat befuddled-looking version of Brando hovers just over the author’s name, as though he would rather be associated with Marlon than Cary (clearly the wrong choice). Throw in some femmes fatales and a common or garden detective, and you’ve got yourself a pulp masterpiece.

Over the years, if you care to click here, it seems that Perma Books cornered the market on schlock cover art. But as important as the illustration is the jacket copy. “The juiciest racket in town needed too many MURDERS!” screams the front cover, as though including both “death” and “murder” at the top of the cover converted always into better sales.

But the back cover, as with most pulps, delivers the goods.

Cary Grant’s double appears again, mirroring his position on the front cover, and introducing a series of non-sequiturs that would be too cliche-ridden even for a Muppets film noir parody. Perhaps it was written by “a real nothing guy who just won a thousand bucks in a slogan contest.” In any case, our colour scheme reverts to a deliciously pulpy yellow, red, and black and white.

Stay tuned for more pulp paperback covers coming soon.


Why PULP? Why PULPable?

25 Oct

pulp (n.) […]
1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.

pulp (n.)
7. A publication, such as a magazine or book, containing lurid subject matter.

PULPable has written elsewhere about the original Pulp magazines and paperbacks, and about the world that gave birth to them. But why, I hear you cry, is pulp still relevant? How does it fit into daily life, and why on Earth should you read this humble blog?

These are good questions, so hold on to your fedoras.

More important than the Pulps themselves is their legacy, a legacy of 3D movies and wizarding academies, of Dragon Tattoos and vampire novels. Whether you bought a romance paperback for 25 cents, or subscribed to Black Mask magazine to read about PIs and femmes fatales, you did so because Pulps offered the comfort of familiar, escapist entertainment. And they achieved this by being generic. Put succinctly, the Pulps gave birth to genre fiction and genre film.

At their worst, detective fiction, science fiction, romance, fantasy or westerns were a “soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter” both figurativelyand literally: lacking focus or depth, they were lowest common denominator fun packaged in affordable, mass market form. But their popularity set the bar for the burgeoning entertainment industries, who recognised that, if you wanted it to be successful, it had to be generic.

For better or worse, this is still used a yardstick in the entertainment industries. Of the current top 5 hardcover and paperback books, there are arguably only a couple of titles that are not genre fiction, and half of the top ten are crime fiction. The highest grossing movies of this year tend toward fantasy, and the highest grossing movie of all time – Avatar – is a distinctly ‘soft, moist, shapeless’ heap of science fiction. But literary fiction or film doesn’t sell. To be successful, a movie or novel needs a hook, and more often than not that hook is genre.

So the Pulps gave birth to popular entertainment, and thus to pop culture. A catch-all term for a collection of modern, mass media myths and symbols – TV characters, artworks, and commercial logos, of movie quotes, video game franchises, and theme tunes – pop culture has become a short-hand for communicating about ourselves. One reference to a pop culture phenomenon immediately connects you to someone else, sets a common frame of reference, all thanks to pulp.

Why should you read PULPable? Well, because we run the gamut, from the original Pulps to politics, from art to comic books (sometimes in the same post), and from pop music to Shakespeare. If you’re new to pulp, why not check out some of our greatest hits:

And stay tuned for features on some original Pulp paperbacks, coming up later this week.


The legacy of pulp is difficult to escape: movie franchises breath new and popular life into vampires and wizards, 3D glasses return to cinemas, and bestseller lists swarm with Hornets’ Nests and Dragon Tattoos.

PULP in Print: A Nearly First Edition “The Big Sleep”

15 Mar

There is most likely an equation out there which calculates how much a first edition book is worth based on the popularity of the title in question. If you plugged in Raymond Chandler‘s The Big Sleep, this equation would turn out a rather large figure.

The Big Sleep first adorned pulp fan’s bookshelves in 1939, and first editions of Chandler’s first novel fetch absurdly high prices on an inflated, interactive marketplace such as the internet.

Forum Books 1st ed. "The Big Sleep", 1946

But with the release of the Bogart and Bacall picture in 1946, Warner Brothers and Forum Books reissued the novel, replete with a slimline dust cover featuring stills from the movie and a bold, colour-blocked pulp design. And I unearthed a 1946 first edition of this original movie tie-in this weekend in Boston’s Brattle Bookshop, which was then purchased for me, kindly and as an early birthday gift, by Darby O’Shea.

Published by Forum Books, the cover boldly proclaims it:

“The novel from which the Warner Bros. film was made, starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall.

The inside front cover, with black and white movie stills

Humphrey and Lauren adorn the cover as detective Philip Marlowe and femme fatale Vivian, but the inside front and back covers feature pulpy stills from the film, the edges of each image blurring into black and fading into another image beside it. The inside front cover blurbs the story in a fashion which Chandler would be proud of:

“Marlowe, the detective, – shrewd, strong, and incorruptible, the healthy force amid the shadows and whispers – is called in to break a blackmail case and ends up to his neck in a series of murders.”

The Cast of "The Big Sleep". Click to enlarge.

Being a movie tie-in series (and, no doubt, one of the first publishers to team with a studio in reissuing titles that were being filmed), the book proper begins with a list of the movie’s cast, from Bogart and Bacall all the way down to Taxicab Driver.

I shall enjoy its ruffled and discoloured pages sleeping the big sleep on my bookshelves.

DLR, 3.15.10

A PULP Preface, 2.0

24 Oct

PULPable is where the many points on the graph of cultural modernity bubble just beneath the surface of popular culture.

If you’re wondering exactly what I’m talking about, then you should go immediately and read A PULP Manifesto, but if your attention span is better suited to Lois  & Clark than to Nietzschean “Supermen” then you should keep reading.

Though one can (and I do) trace PULPable back to the original pulp magazines and even further back to the days of Penny Dreadfuls and mass production, its origins for me were in the literary and musical choices I made as a teenager. PULPable was, to me, the pop culture subtext of a record or a novel, the assumed shared knowledge of a century

A Vogue cover referencing David Bowies Aladdin Sane album

A Vogue cover referencing David Bowie's "Aladdin Sane" album

of mass-produced consumables which underpinned the song you had just listened to or the sentence you had just read.

In The Velvet Underground I found Andy Warhol, and in Warhol a critique of the very culture that had created him. In William Burroughs there were drugs galore, sentences that vomited all over the bar and which were as impenetrable as those that  preceded him in Ulysses or The Wasteland. In Raymond Chandler I saw an America of surfaces and style, and in the Pulp magazines he wrote for were the beginnings of superheroes and comic book villains destined to be deconstructed within a century by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or Jonathan Lethem.

More vital than any other writer, singer or artist in exploring the PULPable style was David Bowie. The list above could go on for several paragraphs, but suffice it to say that the Velvets and Burroughs, as well as Anthony Burgess (and by extension Stanley Kubrick), Christopher Isherwood, Orwell and Huxley amongst others were introduced to me indirectly through obsessive listening to Bowie’s records. He was inspired by that which was considered ‘high culture’ to create that which was considered ‘low’, and in referencing writers and artists, philosophers and bands, he mirrored more closely deconstructive authors than fellow pop musicians.

This sense of an unknown pop culture grid, something that lurked beneath the superficiality of what was ostensibly popular entertainment, piqued my curiosity. Though I read and was forcibly loaned comic books (or, as some insist, Graphic Novels), watched science-fiction movies and TV shows, I also consciously selected books that felt as though they belonged on the graph of culture modernity. If I could piece together Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man with Catch-22, or place A Clockwork Orange alongside L’Etranger then maybe, just maybe, I would be able to begin to connect the points on the graph.

Books, art, music, comics, film: they all interlaced and overlapped. The pop culture surface was immediately graspable,  a series of symbols which began to attain the status of modern myth by virtue of their being instantly recognisable and signifying something near-universal: the Coca-Cola logo, Superman’s costume or Warhol’s “Marilyns”. But beneath the surface, there existed a secondary stream of culture which fed on the popular,

The Escapist mock comic book cover, based on Michael Chabons Kavalier & CLay

The Escapist comic book cover, based on Michael Chabon's "Kavalier & Clay"

sometimes for entertainment (Bowie and Chandler), sometimes for art’s sake (Warhol strikes again), but more often than not for both.

There is no easy definition, for if there were then we would be immediately constrained, and why should we be forced to choose between Superman and Michael Chabon, between Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas? PULPable is where both live together in imperfect harmony. The mainstream will swim on, and, from time to time, those bubbling under will rise to the surface and take a breath before diving for cover once again.

DLR, October 24th, 2009

A PULP Manifesto, Version 2.0

2 Nov

Go to A Pulp Manifesto, Version 1.0 to see how it all started.

LIKE THE BEST LITERARY FICTION, THE BEST PULP FICTION has had a profound impact on both the content and the texture of the arts in the Twentieth Century and beyond. The original Pulps grew out of their Nineteenth Century predecessors, converging at the peak of their popularity in the 1920s and 1930s with both a new direction in ‘high’ culture and arts, and with new technologies allowing for the replication and national distribution of media.

Unwittingly, Pulp took its first lungfuls of air as both Modernism and Popular Culture came to define the century. But what was the original Pulp? And how did it go on to impact ‘high’ art and become a part of the Modernist and Post-Modernist ethos? And how does “PULPable” material survive in the creative consciousness today?

Though the term “mass media” was coined in 1920, the previous century had seen technological leaps allowing communication, production and distribution to become cheaper and easier than ever. Photography, telegraphy and telephony, audio and visual recording technologies: all of these were in their infancy but clearly pointing the way forward. And alongside technological developments, the intelligentsia was beginning to question the social model that had held together for so long.

Where Realpolitik and the Realist movements were once the benchmarks for pragmatic thinking, now proto-Modernists like Flaubert, Manet and Baudelaire were moving into more subjective territory, presenting a more fragmented, fractured human experience.

A Bar at the Folies - Edouard Manet

A Bar at the Folies - Edouard Manet

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution began to undermine religious faith; Marx proposed that the capitalist doctrine was untenable; and Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Superman) in 1883 predated Hitler’s birth by six years and Clark Kent’s by 55. Man’s faith in religion, literature, and philosophy was increasingly decentred.

As the Twentieth Century got into full swing, mass media bloomed. By 1927 we had the world’s first ‘talkie’ in The Jazz Singer, and commercial radio and television was broadcasting from New York and London by the ‘30s and ‘40s. A simultaneous explosion in disruptive counter-realism paved the way in ‘high’ culture: Picasso’s Cubism and Mondrian’s lines and squares, Schoenberg’s atonal codas and Eliot’s Wastelands were all modern and Modernist by being contrary, and anti-progressive by being counter-historical. At the same time, half a century of disruption and worldwide violence were going to be made both more distant and more shocking via radio, newspapers and television.

Whilst ‘high’ culture disseminated this social upheaval and turned political, mass entertainment and the Pulps were born. Duplication and linear production methods had finally made it cheap and easy to print books and newspapers, and by the 1830s pulp predecessors were already providing for the masses.

Victorian ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ usually focused on lurid, sensational news stories or took Gothic novels such as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and rewrote them for the semi-literate.

Sweeney Todd & his fellow Penny Dreadfuls

Sweeney Todd & his fellow Penny Dreadfuls

The upper classes saw them as subversive, ‘low’ nonsense, but they introduced the likes of Sweeney Todd and Dick Turpin to the general public and in pulping ‘high’ art—both literally and literarily—they predated pulp’s tendency to mix and match literature and entertainment. On the other side of the Atlantic, Beadle’s ‘Dime Novels’ appeared in 1860. Their articles were soon replaced by fictionalised accounts of frontiersmen migrating into the Wild West, though the Buffalo Bill ‘cowboy’ archetype eventually gave way to the first pulp ‘detective’ characters and ‘sleuths’.

One of the first Pulp magazines, The Argosy began in 1882 and ran until 1978. Native Mainer Frank Munsey had moved to New York City and, despite financial difficulties, managed to get his Boy’s Own rag off the ground; by 1894 it was publishing solely pulp fiction written by authors more eager to get published than to get paid. Munsey’s innovation was in combining cheap production and distribution methods to provide affordable mass entertainment, and at its peak each issue reached one million readers.

The Argosy, at its peak Pulp power

The Argosy, at its peak Pulp power

But a move in the late ‘40s from pulped to glossy paper was as symbolic as it was financial—The Argosy had gone back to its roots and was once more a non-fiction title.

Perhaps the most famous Pulp magazine (and the inspiration for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), Black Mask ran from 1920 to 1951 alongside a burgeoning Modernist movement and through World War II. But it was the Great War which may truly have shaped it: industrialisation and mass production had simply made it easier to kill more people more quickly, and Modernists felt that the War was an indictment against those who had advocated the cultural ‘progress’ of the Nineteenth Century. In an age before the media could define the course or motivations of a war, it was also much simpler to define the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’, and these fictional archetypes of heroism were soon transposed into the Pulps.

Black Mask, in grand pulp tradition, was started in order to cover losses for another magazine: editors H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan also published The Smart Set, whose contributors were paid much more, and which sold far fewer copies.

on the back row, Chandler is second from left, Hammett is far right

Black Mask staff & writers: on the back row, Chandler is second from left, Hammett is far right

After eight issues, Joseph Shaw took the editorial reins and the era of hard-boiled detective fiction began. Carroll John Daly’s story Three Gun Terry is widely considered the first in the genre, but Dashiell Hammett’s Arson Plus came in 1923 and Raymond Chandler was a late starter with Blackmailers Don’t Shoot in 1933.

One thing that Joseph Shaw shared with his authors was a past in the armed services. They had worn their uniforms during World War I—Shaw as an officer, Chandler in the Canadian services, and Hammett as a medic—and they now wrote of urban soldiers back from battle, wearing a trench coat in place of fatigues and a fedora in place of a helmet. “Once you have led a platoon of men into machine gun fire, nothing is ever the same again,” said Chandler; Marlowe and his contemporaries were lucky enough to be up against mere gangsters and femme fatales. “Having seen atom bombs go off, [people] were ready for something a little stiffer than drawing room mysteries.”

Elsewhere, another type of uniform was being donned by altruistic detective characters turned supernatural: Doc Savage, the Phantom and the Shadow sprung from the pages of Pulp magazines into comic books.

Superman launches a wave of superhero tales

Action Comics #1: Superman launches a wave of superhero tales

In 1938, an old strip created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster made the front cover of Action Comics, and Superman launched superheroes worldwide.

But as television, movies, radio and paperbacks took over in the 1940s, Pulps and comic books waned, while authors moved on to screenplays, long form fiction or journalism. Started in 1941, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine survived only by attempting to combine the literary tendencies of some Black Mask authors with the need for pulp entertainment. As Modernism began to fuse with popular culture, so Ellery Queen fused ‘high’ art with the Pulps’ sense of fun.

As the Second World War drew to a close, reality began to determine modern innovation: rations continued through the ‘40s, whilst mass production helped to rebuild ruined cities. Paper shortages during the War, coupled with the growth of television and the bankruptcy of major Pulp publisher the American News Company, brought Pulp’s heyday to an end in the late ‘50s.

But their cultural echoes—and the evolution of “PULPable” material—were near at hand. What was modern was now also popular. British ‘Mods’ listened to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or the Who referencing Modernist poets and poetry in their lyrics. In the United States, ‘high’ art fused with popular culture as a young Andy Warhol exhibited mass-produced,

Dylan at Warhols Factory

High & low converge: Dylan at Warhol's "Factory"

multiple images of consumer items and consumed celebrities, Warhol—like Lichtenstein—using the dot-printing method that comic books and the illustrated Pulps had used.

Vietnam also became the first ‘living room war’ and paved the way for a darker, more cynical view of the black and white heroism of the Pulps. Where comic books had once been the domain of supernatural detectives, they now became more complex or more issue-driven—Stan Lee’s X-Men were a thinly-veiled allegory for the civil rights movement—whilst on television pulp echoes were similarly felt—Star Trek went boldly, and Batman went camply.

Those working in the popular spheres drew on both the new mythology of Pulp entertainment and the ‘high’ culture preceding them to create a cut-up view of the world. Central to this became self-conscious referentiality: on the one hand, Warhol’s pointillised Marilyns referenced popular culture in ‘high’ art, whilst Dylan’s lyrics about Eliot and Pound referenced ‘high’ culture in popular music. Modernism had flourished in consumer and capitalist societies, and the Warhols and Dylans were the beginning of “PULPable” artists.

The fusion of ‘high’ and pop culture brought a new, post-modernist creative philosophy: a lack of objectivity, complex and inter-referential texts and an undermining of one’s own authority via parody, pastiche and irony did away with Modernism’s central ethos. But where the Post-Modern and the “PULPable” differed was the choice of cultural yardsticks. “PULPable” creators took the comic books, movies, television shows and mass entertainment of the last half-century and jumped right in:

a post-satire world?

The Onion magazine: a post-satire world?

as David Foster Wallace put it, “about the time television first gasped and sucked air, mass popular US culture seemed to become High-Art viable as a collection of symbols and myths.”

As artists became “products of more than just one region, heritage and theory, citizens of a culture that said its most important stuff about itself via mass media,” a reference to Superman or Jimmy Stewart bore as much endowed meaning as a reference to anything predating them. And as mass media reached even more people, it became inevitable that these references would form the basis for an important arm of the creative arts.

As the original Pulps had come of age against the cultural and technological developments of the Nineteenth Century, so their “PULPable” influence has lived on in the nexus between ‘high’ and popular culture. Pulp magazines and comic books saw many ‘literary’ writers producing Pulp fiction—Tennessee Williams, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, and Rudyard Kipling—but also saw those such as Raymond Chandler, Isaac Asimov, William S. Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle move out of the popular and onto the periphery of the literary canon.

Mass production and distribution turned those authors, but also their characters, into modern-day icons, and as Modernism twisted into Post-Modernism, they became a recognisable frame of reference for the disjointed narratives presented by their successors. Though the direct descendants of the Pulps live on in the form of unironic comic books or adventure films such as Star Wars, it is the “PULPable” philosophy—Post-Modernism with a popular twist—which fuels much of the creative arts and remains most fascinating.

So somewhere in a self-conscious nexus between ‘high’ and popular culture, Alan Moore is writing a comic book about an un-hero, David Bowie is writing a song about a sci-fi novel, and Joseph Heller is writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel about a novelist. So sit back and realise that—no matter how hard you pray to Superman—there is no certainty, that—unless you are man from Mars—Pulp is your most handy frame of reference and that—if you were in a Tarantino film—this would be the beginning of article again.

DLR 02.11.08