Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Changing Face(s) of Pulp: Does New Pulp Make Heroes for Every Reader?


It’s often said about TV shows and movies: “The heroes never looked like me. I just never felt represented.” Books without pictures didn’t have the problem to the same extent, but it’s no surprise that the classic pulp tales that inspired New Pulp were by and large a very white, very male place to be. But with new heroes like those in Asian Pulp and Black Pulp, Dillon, and others, pulps' colors are changing, and readers are finding more and more heroes they can identify with.

How important is it that pulp stories become more reflective of society -- even when the stories are set in times past?

Perry Constantine: I think it's very important. Representation matters. Think of that little black boy who went up to President Obama with awe in his eyes and asked in such a quiet voice, "I want to know if my hair is just like yours" and then the President bent over and asked him to touch it. Can you imagine how important that must have felt for that child? Can you imagine how it must have felt for his parents who never had a figure like that? The same is true for fiction as well. It can help shape our morals and our ethics. I was recently contacted by a woman who read the description of my new novel, FALLEN IDOL. It's set in Japan and the protagonist is a female private eye named Kyoko. The woman told me, "I had to buy it right away because my step-daughter's name is Kyoko and I couldn't wait to show it to her."

Derrick Ferguson: As New Pulp writers we're trying to emulate the fantastic fun and rip-roaring action of Classic Pulp. But without the mistakes of Classic Pulp. Those stories that we love so much were written for another time, one that we like to think was less enlightened (although I look around at the United States today and I ain't all that sure of that) less tolerant and less understanding.

Gordon Dymowski: It's very important - we're much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about certain social aspects. Nothing is written in a vacuum, and writers have a responsibility for reflecting current social norms and behaviors. Even if we're writing about something that happened in the past, we have use our current perspective to inform how we present the past. "Cowboys and Indians" might be a great concept for a ten-year-old to have, but it reeks as slightly awkward when you're older.

It's not an easy job marrying a style of writing that most readers today are unfamiliar with and yet try to stay true to the cultural changes that have taken place in the intervening years but that's part of the challenge of making New Pulp work and bringing it to the masses to read and enjoy. But as writers we wouldn't be honest if we didn't acknowledge the society we live in now and do our best to represent that society today.

As for writing New Pulp stories that are set in the past...I myself believe that writers have to be faithful to the time period they're writing in. It doesn't work to try and write 1930s characters but have them voicing modern day attitudes and opinions. In my character of Fortune McCall who lives and works in the 1930s he's a black man of extraordinary wealth and influence but even so, he's still a black man and there are still lines he can't cross. That's not to say he doesn't have the brains to work around those lines but that's the fun of writing a black adventurer in the 1930s. It's not only possible but essential for New Pulp writers who write stories set in the 1930s/40s/50s/Whenever to shine a new light on multiculturalism and portray characters of different races, religious affiliations and sexual preferences in as honest as possible in a way that they couldn't have been portrayed back in the heyday of Classic Pulp. But still keeping an eye on the fact that you can't take a man or woman from 2017 and drop them back in 1937 and think you're striking a blow for Political Correctness and leveling the playing field by making up for all the racist/sexist/intolerant fiction written in the past. Because Political Correctness didn't exist back then.

Characters still have to be written as being true to the time period they live in. That's not to say you can't have characters push the envelope. Of course they should. Otherwise why bother writing about them? But put some thought into it and do your homework.

Let’s compare classic and new. How receptive are readers to these multicultural protagonists? Or does the new still lag behind the classic heroes in general popularity?

Gordon Dymowski: I think that there's still a general lack of awareness about New Pulp among those outside our usual circles. I once had to berate someone in a conversation because he felt that Hollywood was "spending too much time making movies about stuff that nobody knows" Doc Savage and John Carter. I think there's a general willingness to accept characters of color who have a slightly pulpy flavor (say, Dennis Dun in Big Trouble in Little China or Taimak in The Last Dragon), but I think there's a general lack of awareness about classic pulp for newer audiences...

And I think that, even in New Pulp circles, there's still a reluctance to accept multicultural characters -- witness how many pulp fans complained about Dwayne Johnson being cast as Doc Savage, and that Chris Hemsworth should have been cast....without realizing that Chris Hemsworth doesn't open movies unless they're made by Marvel. I don't think a lot of pulp fans really notice cultural differences unless they're done to "major" characters.

All in all, I think readers are receptive to multicultural characters when they're well-written. When there's an effort to go beyond obvious stereotypes and create well-rounded characters who are informed by their immediate culture. (Think Walter Moseley's Easy Rawlins).

Derrick Ferguson: Well, what readers are we talking about? My perception and experience is that fans of Classic Pulp have no use or need for New Pulp in any way, shape or form. But that's okay. New Pulp deserves and needs new readers that are eager for new heroes that represent them no matter what their race, age or gender may be told in a breathless prose that doesn't give them a chance to catch their breath. And those readers are out there. I hear from them (occasionally) on Facebook, Twitter and by email. I myself think that New Pulp has produced characters that can stand beside Classic Pulp heroes with no shame at all. And readers who don't know anything about Classic Pulp characters have embraced the idea/concept of these multicultural protagonists if the popularity of "Black Pulp" and "Asian Pulp" is an accurate measure of their enjoyment

Perry Constantine: I think there's still lag. As unfortunate as it is, the market is still over-saturated with white dudes as the heroes and that's in large part because that's what readers are buying. Hollywood is slowly starting to realize that they can make movies that don't just focus on white dudes, but it's something they're still slow to come to grips with.

Why have new characters of various races been successful in pulp without all the noise that comics are getting when they interject new multicultural heroes into the mix?

Derrick Ferguson: Because comics are surviving now by being a sideshow act. It's not enough to just tell good stories with good art (I'm talking about Marvel and DC here). There's a respectable number of independent comic creators who are producing excellent comic books with multicultural heroes and heroines. It's only Marvel and DC who still treat it as if they're breaking the Internet when they announce they've got a new black hero, a new Latina heroine, a new gay and/or lesbian hero. When I created Dillon and Fortune McCall and Sebastain Red I knew full well it was going to take years for them to catch on. And Dillon's been around for 15 years now and I'll still get emails from new readers who inform me that they never bothered with the character before because they thought; "it was some blaxploitation thing." And I think that's the mindset of writers: we're marathoners who realize that we have to put in the time and work to get readers to turn their heads in our direction. And I think that after a floundering around period we're finally starting to learn how to make The Internet work for us. There's a whole lot of other writers who have mastered that and did it years ago. Especially the Romance and Street Lit writers.

Perry Constantine: Depends on how you define success. One of the reasons I've stopped my pulpier series is because the market is still extremely small. So I'm not so sure I would say that they've actually been successful. But as for why there's not as much noise, I think it's because there isn't as big of a readership as comics. There's no big pulp news sites along the lines of CBR or Newsarama where these things grab headlines. If you're a pulp reader and you hate the idea of minority pulp characters, there's so much other material out there so you can easily ignore it without getting headlines popping up in your news sites.

Gordon Dymowski: I call major league shenanigans on this are you defining successful?

Because most of the fanfare around comics injecting new multicultural heroes (especially Marvel) has been due more to changes in their readership than in any kind of "noise". And reader feedback has relied on the complaint that "diversity is being forced upon them". My advice - look out the window. Actually drive ten to fifteen minutes outside of your neighborhood - we're living in a multicultural society.

I think comics are better at it because there's a greater receptiveness towards multicultural efforts. When I read a fellow pulp fan declare "Yellow Peril, baby!" in a similarly-themed conversation, that is a huge red flag for some fans' unwillingness to let go of nostalgia. (And yes, it actually did happen).  I think it also means bringing in more diverse writers - Pro Se's Black Pulp and Asian Pulp are great first steps, but if we want more diverse pulp books, we need to encourage more diverse pulp writers. Because having those perspectives means a wider storytelling palette, which then means more opportunities for great stories.

But comics are not "less successful" than pulp - they're just making more of an effort towards inclusion.

We’ve seen racial changes with New Pulp, but what about in terms of other societal changes such as gender and sexual identity? How ready do you feel New Pulp is to reflect those evolving cultural identities?

Gordon Dymowski: I think gender/sexual identity issues are coming along a lot more slowly, but only because those issues are more nuanced. We've made huge strides - Barry Reese's work with a character in his Lazarus Grey series is light-years beyond Mickey Spillane's infamous revelation in Vengeance is Mine.  Trying to encapsulate that experience - or any experience of the "other", to use more academic terms - is very difficult within a pulp milieu. It means being more empathetic and sensitive, and given some of the more culturally conservative aspects of New Pulp... I think it's going to take awhile.

It will take authors working hard, doing the work of actually meeting and understanding those other perspectives, and not using them as just another category. (Or "the Captain Planet approach", to put it simply). Pulp has always reflected its times, and right now, we're at a time when previously marginalized groups are standing up and claiming their voice.

We need to welcome those voices as authors in the New Pulp movement...because then we'll be on our way to becoming more inclusive and representative of our audience.

Perry Constantine: There's representation of different genders and sexual identities as well. I think there are more than a few female pulp characters these days who are getting their own stories. As far as sexuality, that's been a little less touched on. I know Adam Lance Garcia and Barry Reese have both written gay characters, but I can't think of many more examples. But I don't think "is New Pulp ready for that?" is really the question we should be asking. Was comics ready for a black superhero? Was it ready for a gay one? A Muslim one? A lot of people at the time would have said no. Instead of asking "is New Pulp ready for this," writers should be asking themselves, "why not do this?"

Derrick Ferguson: New Pulp is more than ready. The talent is there and I'm optimistic enough to believe that the audience is there as well. It's only a matter of New Pulp being able to crack that wall that's holding it back from being known by the mainstream.