Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pulp to Comics -- A Bridge or a Chasm?

You might think with the masks and vigilante spirit they share, pulp heroes and comic book heroes would be successfully wading back and forth into each others' waters all the time. The numbers, however, show a different tale (equally dark and bathed in mystery, some might say).

Somehow, with all the trappings they share in common, pulp heroes just don't seem to successfully make the jump into the four color world of comic books.

Curious about the whys and what-nots behind this, I turned again to the pulp and comics writing community to pick their brains... to glean the following:

Considering the similarities between pulp characters and mainstream comic book characters, you'd think comics featuring pulp heroes would perform better in the marketplace. What do you think is holding them back?

Chuck Dixon: It's a matter of marketing and presentation. Most of the classic pulp heroes are at back bencher companies that don't have the budgets to attract major art talent or for marketing.

Bill Craig: One thing, and this is of course my personal opinion, the quality of artwork these days is horrible.  Too many comic artist have gone to japanese manga style art,  There is no realism such as you found in Jim Steranko's work or even later Paul Gulacy's stint on Master of Kung Fu.  Steranko's work on Chandler: Red Tide was pure pulp entertainment.  Comic companies want dark and gritty, they have forgotten that readers came to characters because while there was the over the top danger, there was a lighter side to the heroes.  This is something that I think is very evident in the lack of sales of many Marvel titles.  They have forgotten how to have fun, where DC on the other hand has brought back the fun in their characters with the new 52.  Another thing is that the people that have been put in charge of the titles had no familiarity with the subject matter and wanted to re-invent the wheel in their own image rather than honoring the source material.

C. William Russette: I think it boils down to the editor. You need a great story (writer) and an artist that will render it faithfully. If the editor doesn't 'get' what the target audience wants then he won't recognize the solid tale when he finds it nor will he find the right team who then screw up  the project and you get crap sales.

Lee Houston Jr: While part of it is finding the right creative team to handle the character "properly", sadly the biggest factor in wooing and wowing an audience today is the passage of time.

The golden age of pulp is basically from the Great Depression to the end of World War Two.

Generations later, most people who are aware of characters like The Shadow (my personal favorite) and Doc Savage, et al; consider them classics and period pieces, despite the fact that they were originally written as contemporary tales of their day. Those same fans hold any attempts to revive the characters to very high standards; while those fresh to the properties compare them to more modern contemporaries (like The Shadow versus Batman, for example) and wonder what all the fuss about the past creations is about.

M.D. Jackson: The simple answer to that question is this: costumes, colour and sex. Comics have all three, and traditional pulp heroes don't measure up.

According to the Diamond Distributors website, the top selling comic books for 2011 were, variously, Justice League, Batman, Green lantern and -- the only Marvel character to make a showing in the top ten this year -- Spider-Man. All of these titles feature muscular (or buxom) heroes in skin-tight costumes in a rainbow of colours. The line up of the Justice League is a splash of the traditional four-colour printing process: red, green, blue and black. The costumes are skin-tight -- practically body paint. The artists are effectively drawing nude, brightly coloured, heavily muscled, adonis-like figures.

Let's face it: If you have a body like Schwarzeneggar's (in his prime) and perform feats of athleticism in public wearing body paint and a mask -- you're Mr. Sex.

Comic characters have also rolled with the times. Despite many of them having begun in the 1930's or 1940's the comics have stayed updated, modern and fresh. The same can't be said for the pulp characters. Most of them are still stuck back in the 1930's, in their heyday. That's a big barrier for modern comic book buyers. 

Erwin K. Roberts: Part of it is the costumes. Or lack of them. They were mostly black, a form of camouflage as they worked in the dark. Great for prose. Not so good for panel art. When MLJ Comic's Black Hood moved into pulps they added a black cape so that he could hide his mostly bright yellow uniform at night.

Plus most of the hero-pulp characters operated in disguise. Even Doc Savage, at times. Some, like Secret Agent X & the Phantom Detective spent all, or almost all of their time wearing somebody else's face. The (Green) Ghost usually wore a very forgettable face. But with makeup, special lighting, and facial contortions he could "turn on the Ghost" and look like an animated skull. And, like the Phantom (Detective) and even the Black Bat, that skull face got relegated to observer status in the backgrounds of pulp covers. (I've even resorted to the same tactic with my disguise artist hero, the Voice). But, can you imagine, month after month, if Lex Luthor, or Terra Man, launched new crimes or attacks with Superman just glaring at them from afar?

So, what's an artist to do? For DC Comics' Deadman, the characters he inhabits have a yellow glow about them. DC also gave the Unknown Soldier a "tell." He sometimes scratches at his collar that causes his mask to itch. As for Secret Agent X, Rob Davis of Airship-27 sneaks the letter "X" onto signet rings and tie clips as a sort of inside joke. With G-8, in his one Silver Age comics appearance, Gold Key sort of cheated. G-8 was drawn with very deep-set eyes. When he impersonated someone they would acquire those sunken eyes that looked sort of like a domino mask. But nobody in the story noticed. Anybody got other ideas?

Derrick Ferguson: What's holding them back is that we have a generation, possibly two that has grown up with the manufactured angst and drama that infests most comic books today. Like another genre, the daytime soap opera (which comic books actually have the most in common with) comic books are no longer a vehicle for telling interesting stories about interesting characters. Now they are simply vehicles for writers to demonstrate how much they hate superheroes.

What's the constant thing you see whenever a pulp hero is revived by DC or Marvel? It's that hated word that will appear in the first paragraph: "relatable." It's always stressed that the pulp hero is being made "human" so that readers will "relate" to him. We're talking about readers who have been raised on Spider-Man who lost more often than he won and spent just as much time agonizing over how he was going to pay the rent as he did worrying about how to beat The Green Goblin. And that's why Spider-Man has his fans because they relate to that. And that's okay. Me, I'd rather relate to Tony Stark who is the smartest guy in the world with his own warehouse of high-tech armor, buys a dozen Ferraris when he's in the mood and babes lined up outside his door since the week before. Or Thor or Superman. That probably says more about my ego than anything else but I digress.

My point is that comic book fans are conditioned to reading about characters who don't win no matter what they do. Spider-Man makes a deal with The Devil and his marriage is wiped from existence and those mothercussin' X-Men are still BMW-ing [editor's note: bitch, moan, and whine - it took me a minute too] about how humanity hates them and why can't we all get along and Wonder Woman is still figuring out who she is and what she's supposed to be doing. Because comic book readers think this constantly recycled soap opera crap is drama. But the classic pulp heroes weren't built along those lines and don't subscribe to a whiny "woe is me" philosophy.

So now, we give them Doc Savage. The most perfect example of humanity: the smartest and strongest guy on the planet who travels all over the world fighting the forces of evil with his five best pals. Should be simple to do that comic each and every month, right?

Nope. Because the comic book fans of today and even worse, the writers throw up that word; "relatable" They insist that a Doc Savage who is written as he's supposed to be written is no good to today's world because he's not "relatable" and he has no flaws and because the writers aren't good enough to work their skills to write Doc the way he's supposed to be written, they tear away everything that makes Doc and his world interesting and then they wonder why nobody wants to read the book.

The Shadow doesn't have that problem because he never gets watered down like Doc and The Avenger. After all, The Punisher and characters of his ilk are similar and The Shadow was there before all of them, performing .45 caliber lobotomies before they were born.

Me, I'm like Benjy Stone in "My Favorite Year" when he yells at Alan Swann that he can't use him life-sized, he doesn't need him life-sized. I'm that way with most of my heroes; I don't need them to be "relatable." I can't use a Doc Savage who worries about paying the rent or where his next meal is coming from. That's not what I read him for. Like Benjy, I need my heroes as big as I can get them. But not comic book fans. They're used to reading about heroes crushed by life and losing all the time. That why most pulp heroes don't work for them because that's not real to them.

Percival Constantine: I think the main thing is a lack of recognition. People have definitely heard of characters like Doc Savage, the Shadow and the Phantom. But they aren't as familiar with them as they are with their superhero successors. And in today's market with comic prices being what they are, it's difficult to get readers to take a chance on something they aren't as familiar with when they've got so much familiar material to choose from. For instance, a Batman fan would definitely have many reasons to like the Shadow and would probably get into the character once they got some exposure to him. But how can you get a Batman fan to pick up a comic featuring the Shadow when they've got at least half a dozen Batman comics to choose from?

Jim Beard: The ADD of consumers and their need for flash and bang. WE all know what weight the pulp characters hold, but I suspect the general populace gets a whiff of the age that's attatched to them and they turn instead to look at the newest sparkly thing. Here's the irony: the pulp heroes came out at a time when the country was feeling the bite of a Depression and readers could act out their frustrations through the blood-soaked adventures; these days, why take the time to, you know, READ when a video game is so much easier to lock-and-load? We are experiencing the kind of atmosphere that pervaded the 1930s right now, yet reading has taken the far back seat to more "immediate" media and entertainment. I fear that no education on our part of the merits of the pulp genre -- in PRINT -- will be enough to counteract the pervasive ADD of potential consumers. But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying.

John Morgan Neal: Luck, timing and the same thing that holds back second tier characters at DC and Marvel. The majority of fans are going to buy what they know. That's why the big icons like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and The X-Men have sold the best. But The X-Men themselves took off in the '80s after a lackluster first run and the Teen Titans and The LSH took off in the '80s as well. The old pulp guys are just not as well known anymore and weren't even as well known by fans in the '70s and '80s by that point. Many of the comics made in those years were very very good but in the end just didn't sell as well as others. 

What could be done to improve the showing of pulp heroes in the mainstream comic book world, to win over both the retailers and the fans who don't know much (or anything) about The Spider or Doc Savage and their compatriots?

Chuck Dixon: It's a tough sell. There's a rapid attrition of folks who recognize these characters over time. Absent a hit movie or TV show or game, I don't see how these characters can re-enter the mainstream through comics. Hell, most COMIC BOOK characters can't find a steady audience.How many re-boots of Firestorm are we expected to suffer through?

Bill Craig: You need some dynamite art and writing that will open the story with a bang and then through the course of the story reveal the background and origins rather than shoving it down the reader's throat at the beginning.  They need to engage readers and retailers first, then tell them who these characters are!  In my opinion that would do a lot towards making the titles successful.  Also, keeping the price below 4 bucks for comics that used to cost 12cents to 50 cents for annuals.  I recently saw an annual title from one publisher that had a 6.00 cover price.  The comics are rapidly pricing themselves out of the market.

Lee Houston Jr.: The best thing that can be done is to find the right creative team (writing, art, editing, etc) possible for each project and have them tell the best tales they can make with modern production methods (printing, lettering, coloring, etc), staying true to the original characters and concepts, while not playing towards any preconceived notions of the properties, in hopes of achieving the biggest reader/fan base possible. Moonstone should be commended for their overall efforts.

While the recent "First Wave" attempt failed, DC did great in the 1970s by giving Dennis O'Neil the writing assignments for The Shadow and Justice, Inc. (The Avenger). But then again the results prove my point because he and the artists involved were from a generation raised on the pulp genre.

Marvel took a good approach by using the genre techniques with new characters on Mystery Men, and I hope they keep the same creative team on any future stories with those characters.

Dynamite has done The Lone Ranger, Zorro, and John Carter to critical acclaim and praise; and I'm waiting to see how Garth Ennis handles The Shadow.

So doing pulp within the comics format is possible. It's just a question of bringing all the right elements together in the process.

M.D. Jackson: I think the best way to improve the showing of pulp heros would be to drag them into the 21st century. I know that most pulp fans cringe when they hear that. Most pulp hero fans are purists, but if you want the pulp heroes to reach a wider audience, then you have to make the hero go to the audience.

A 21st century setting, a modern attitude, a colourful costume and a dash of sex is what would do it, I believe. Most pulp heroes are pretty straight arrows. That would have to change. They would have to be more morally ambiguous, perhaps a bit sinister. At the very least they would have to have a more dynamic emotional range.

However, if you do all that to attract the comics reading audience, do you lose the essence of what made the pulp hero great in the first place? Unless it was done very carefully, quite probably. The operation would be a success but the patient would die.

It can be done, however. Witness the recent British TV series SHERLOCK. That has successfully transplanted a Victorian pulp hero into modern times, given him a modern edge and even made him sexy, all without losing the essence of who the character is. It is rare when that happens and it takes great skill, but when it does happen the results can be spectacular.

Can it be done, making pulp heroes more popular as comic books? Probably, but what you end up with may no longer resemble the hero you started out with. The question is then is it worth it? Are you willing to sacrifice all the things you love about these old pulp characters just to make them more popular? 

Derrick Ferguson: The simplest thing to do, which of course nobody is going to do because it makes sense is to put these characters in the hands of creators who know them, love them and will do them right and present them as they are. I know, I know, we've got Moonstone who is doing that and a few other "smaller" comic book companies. But the fact is this: if it ain't The Big Two, most comic book fans ain't even going to look at it. And like everything else in this cold ol' world of ours -- if you ain't got the numbers, it don't mean a thing.

Marvel's recent "Mystery Men" series shows that pulp can be successful in the mainstream comic book world. Marvel had the good sense to hire a writer and artist team that obviously loved what they were doing because it showed in the artwork and story. You can't hire writers with contempt for the characters they're writing about or artists who couldn't care less because it shows in the work.

I myself feel that the best way to win over retailers and fans is to do what politicians have known since the time of The Roman Empire: there's nothing yet that beats kissing babies and pressing the flesh and getting out there in public and explaining to folks why they should be reading pulp in all media, not just comics. How many times have you met a writer you may not have had the slightest interest in reading anything he wrote but after meeting him in person you picked up a book or two of his? Just because he shook your hand and chatted with you for five or ten minutes. All of us have, sure.

And maybe that's something we all should remember, we're all ambassadors of pulp. It behooves us all to behave as such when we attend professional publications or write in our blogs and Facebook pages and websites and what-not.

Erwin K. Roberts: To adapt most 40,000 word pulp novels is going to take quite a bit of cutting and 64 page graphic novel. At a minimum. For Airship 27's All-Star Pulp Comics I wrote the first ever Jim Anthony strip. With only eight to ten pages there just wasn't time to have Jim save the world. So I took a minor character from one of my stories and told how she met the Big Boy Scout. If I did a prose version I doubt I'd reach more than 7000 words.

To make an intricate pulp style story work you probably have to dump today's every-panel-a-page style of storytelling. Then research how Will Eisner drew the Spirit. Or how Steve Ditko crammed huge amounts of plot and dialog into an eight page story of the Question. In my opinion, otherwise you may end up trying to play football on a baseball diamond.

Percival Constantine: Despite the problems in execution, DC had a good idea with First Wave to introduce them in connection with a Batman book. One thing that would help would probably be getting big name creators (who have an appreciation for the characters, of course) to write these titles.

Another thing that would help is more mainstream (and successful) media adaptations. If we have more films that treat the pulp characters in the same way they've been treating superheroes as of late, I think that would definitely be a shot in the arm. The upcoming John Carter film, if successful, will likely get people interested in the John Carter comics that are coming. Shane Black is set to bring The Man of Bronze back to the big screen, and I imagine if DC (assuming they still have the rights at that point) puts out a stellar Doc comic that treats the character with the same respect that Black seems to have, it will do very well.

There is definitely a mainstream market for these characters. The longstanding popularity of Indiana Jones and Batman shows that people would respond well to Doc Savage and the Shadow, provided they're done well.

John Morgan Neal: We have to sell them. We have to educate them. We have to let the characters shine. Show they can be just as relevant today as they were in their era. The best we can do is try and get as many people to discover these old characters and see them as something not so much as old but as timeless and be willing to give them a chance and perhaps they can find the magic of them like we all have.

Jim Beard: Keep putting out better and better books on a professional level that rivals that of mainstream comics, etc. That's paramount to our cause, I think. If there's even the hint of poor graphics on covers or typography or the like, the audience will turn away. Yes, the insides matter, of course, but we need to hook them with slick, professional dress and get them to crack that cover. Also, I believe that we should continue to look at creating new genres within pulp by melding existing themes and looking for key avenues of expression. What are the trends today in comics and video games? Can they be adapted into the pulp world? What would happen if they were? Would it still be pulp? Can we remain true to our pulp principles? These are questions that need to be answered so that pulp can grow and thrive, yet retain all the wonderful uniqueness that makes it what it is.

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Want to see what's up with the creators who took part in this interview? Just click on their names "Heavy Hitters" list on the right.