GutterGeek Review: FIRST WAVE AND PULP FICTION (Part I)

Posted by on June 18th, 2010 at 8:53 PM

First Wave and Pulp Fiction (Part I)

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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 us Watchmen, 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.

 

 

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.

 

[This is the first of a two-part review of DC’s First Wave project. This segment provides background about some of the pulp characters in comics. The second segment, which offers a more specific review of the current First Wave books, can be found here.]

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3 Responses to “GutterGeek Review: FIRST WAVE AND PULP FICTION (Part I)”

  1. Chris Reilly says:

    Citing Warren Ellis in Planetary #1 is a perfect example why this dull, cold fish should not exist. Ellis really knocked this out of the park so you would figure in order to bring these guys back they would have a higher concept than tossing just tossing Batman into the mix. When dealing with archtype character a creator probably should not use the literal interpretation and just over simplify them.

  2. emb021 says:

    you know, if you’re going to do an article on pulp heroes, it helps to do some research

    “Kenneth Robeson” is a house pseudonym. The Avenger was created & written by Paul Ernst. Doc was created by Lester Dent, who wrote most of the novels.

  3. Alex Boney says:

    Please click on the Justice Inc. picture that goes with my attribution of that name. O’Neil (or the editor) used that name on that cover to sell the book, and it’s an insiders’ wink to the fans. I know Robeson is a house name, but I didn’t want to bog this thing down with the minutiae you’re asking for. The context I was wading through was dense enough, and there’s really no need for this kind of snarkiness in response to an article calling attention to the characters you seem to like. If people care to look into the O’Neil series and the pseudonym leads them back to the original pulps, isn’t this a good thing?