Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why Do Pulp Heroes Fade...and Then Return?

Scott D. Parker

Two articles online this week merged with a feeling I was beginning to have about Jack Bauer, the pulp hero of “24”: I’m not sure I care about him anymore.

Let’s state the obvious: Jack Bauer is a pulp hero. He’s a modern-day Doc Savage, James Bond, Tarzan, what have you. Jack gets himself in a tight spot, you know he’s getting out. He may get himself beaten or tortured (just about every season) but he’ll bounce back. Don’t worry.

With the Olympics this year, I found myself recording two episodes of “24” to watch after the Olympics. When it came time to watch these taped episodes, my wife and I looked at each other and asked the same question: do we care?

The plot lines this season haven’t been stellar. Frankly, they have a distinct tinge of “we’ve already seen this before.” You could make similar cases for previous seasons with the exceptions of seasons one and four. The first season was good because of the then-new concept of a ‘real time’ show and the fact that the writers killed off Jack’s wife in the final minutes of the finale. Season four was just all sorts of good, with lots of twists and turns and culpability that ended in the White House. The narratives threads this year, however, have paled in comparison. It’s like a soap opera with guns. There are story arcs that I just don’t care about. My wife and I agreed that we’d be happy with a retitled show called “12” and just show Bauer’s story.

Our disenchantment with “24” got me to thinking about classic pulp heroes and stories. I’m still reading Doc Savage #2 but the template is apparent. Doc and his team get themselves into a dire situation and emerge mostly unscathed. Repeat the next month. Same for Tarzan’s books, Sherlock Holmes, comic books, etc. Modern police TV shows and series characters in novels are not immune. Shows like “CSI: Miami” are less police procedurals than visual comfort food.

How was it, then, that pulp characters like Doc Savage and The Shadow and Perry Mason lasted so long with essentially the same format? Were readers back in the 1930s and 1940s less sophisticated than we are? Is it that we have more choices?

In a recent article, Charles Ardai, co-founder of Hard Case Crime, asks whether or not the pulp fiction stock market is set up for another crash. He cites that in the years since the pulp fiction heyday, periodic revivals have emerged, with his being the most high-profile in recent years.

My main question here is this: why does pulp fiction return? Why does the appetite of readers start to hunger for shorter novels with punchy characters? Good question. One reason I’ll posit is that pulp fiction revivals are a reaction to the dark and gritty material that is, at times, too dark and too violent.

Over at io9, there is a rant against “superhero tragedy porn” in comic books and why it’s bad for the industry. Right off the bat, author Cyriaque Lamar criticizes comic book writers for dark and gritty stories that attempt to make these stories more adult merely by injecting violence in the tales. The problem with comics, however, is the capacity to overindulge the violence. “24” does this, as well, with the inevitable torture sequence either by Jack of of Jack.

In the DC Comics world, there now seems to be a trend of lighter fare, of a return to some of the glory days of comic books before the dark times--the mid-1980s onward, the post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight Returns era. Perhaps DC is seeing something the reading public is craving: pure, fun, escapist stories. The thing is that this kind of storytelling does get repetitive and boring, too.

I’m not saying that dark material is bad, in comics or elsewhere. It has it’s place and it is powerful when used correctly and judiciously. But there has to be some sort of middle ground. We can’t have overly dark stories all the time but we tire of stories with characters that never change and never face anything dark.

Is the fading of pulp heroes and the rise of darker material just a natural trend that ebbs and flows with the passing decades? I think so. But I’d like to get your take, too.


David Cranmer said...

My great Uncle Charlie use to say "Too much of anything, good for nothing." In America we burn ourselves out on practically everything and then bemoan the fact it's gone. I think the Brits do it best. Example: The UK OFFICE has fourteen, picture perfect, funny episodes. In the US, we will run the Steve Carell version right straight into the packed earth. Same goes for films, books, and music. There are other reasons to answer your question, but for me, that’s numero uno.

John McFetridge said...

I think you're right, "It has it’s place and it is powerful when used correctly and judiciously."

Here in Canada a lot of people critisize what we call "CanLit," our so-called important literature, as having decided that sad=deep and rarely going beyond that.

Now, it's true, the kind of things that concern me have changed quite a bit over time and become more personal and closer to home and I guess people who write pulp heroes go through that, too.

David Cranmer said...

Kinda odd I mentioned a comedy show (as an example) when we are talking pulp. But I have analogy issues.

Mike Dennis said...

The very purpose of a successful TV series is to continue repeating what made it successful in the first place until all life has been drained out of it. Anyone in the corridors of network power who suggests "taking a chance" by changing it up even slightly is ignored, fired, or worse. No chance-taking allowed.

I would imagine the same mindset exists in the comic book business.