Pulp original graphic novel
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist/Cover artist: Sean Phillips
Colors: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $16.99 US
At first glance, this book seems as though it’s Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ foray into the Western genre, and to a limited extent, it is. But it’s most definitely not limited to that. The title refers to the broader umbrella of genres that were featured in the pulp fiction of 1930s America, just before the emergence and rise of comics. The creators bring together a Western outlaw and the urban anti-hero that would arise decades later and combine them into a compelling protagonist. While the plot and characterization are engrossing, the title and the two-pronged approach to the story belie the fact that this is an experiment in and commentary on the notion of genre in general.
Max Winters is a talented writer, earning his freelance living in the pulp-magazine scene in 1939 New York City. What his readership and unscrupulous boss don’t realize is that the secret to his compelling Western stories is the fact that he lived that life, as he essentially chronicles his own thinly-veiled adventures as an outlaw in the American West decades earlier. But as his tenuous financial well-being and ailing health open his eyes to the dead end to which he’s headed, someone from his past turns up unexpectedly, offering a chance at the happy ending he needs — as well as an opportunity to mete out a measure of justice.
The ease with which Sean Phillips brings the dark corners of New York to life comes as no surprise. His talent with noir storytelling has been well established in the past. As such, my attention was drawn more to the slightly looser style with which he conveys the Western action. The subtly different approach and lesser level of definition serves as a clear signal as to the differences between those two time periods and backdrops, but there’s also a haziness to that grants those scenes something of a dream-like quality, as Max’s memories capture the longing for his heyday, for a time when he felt more in control of his life. Of course, our memories of times gone by tend to be sugar-coated, as the script reveals later on, because we tend to lie to ourselves about our past choices and experiences.
Jacob Phillips’ colors are vital to the two-toned approach to the storytelling here. I love the oranges and reds in which he bathes the Western scenes. While there’s a dulled, aged look to those colors, they’re still much brighter and more vibrant than the blacks and sullen greys of the 1939 scenes, communicating the greater relish with which the main character lived his life in those times. The manner in which those flashback colors are presented is interesting as well, with rough strokes and an almost unfinished look, making it seem like an illustration out of the cheaply produced pulps for which Max writes.
One aspect of the book I appreciate is the fact that it’s historical fiction. The main plotline is set in 1939, so the buildup to the war is a key element in the story. It specifically references a Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden at the time. Furthermore, Brubaker weaves pop culture into the fabric of the book as well; I specifically enjoyed the reference to the popularity of Robert E. Howard’s Conan prose stories. That element brings credibility to Max’s craft and freelance work, but it also demonstrates early on how intelligent, observant and thoughtful the character is while also pointing to the larger industry of pop entertainment outside of the small office in which he meets with his editor/publisher.
Brubaker revisits a familiar premise in this latest yarn, and that’s the notion of the abused writer/artist. Max is clearly passionate about his characters — they reflect him and the people from his life, after all — and so the work-for-hire situation in which he finds himself ends up punishing him, beating him down, robbing him. His return to this concept clearly flows from his personal experiences. Brubaker was at the top of DC’s and Marvel’s stables of writing talents, but he’s left that behind — and he’s done so to his benefit, given the successes he’s had with his creator-owned work. It’s safe to say Brubaker is writing what he knows, undoubtedly looking down at Max or other creations who feel trapped professionally with some measure of pity. He doesn’t overstate or pontificate about these small injustices, and as a result, they ring incredibly true.
Another important theme explored in the story is the notion of aging. Max was once the epitome of vitality and daring, and how his body won’t allow him to stand up for his sense of justice. Max is portrayed as a flawed man who nevertheless can’t abide by any kind of prejudice. His need to fight back against an unjust society is hindered by his ability. It’s something to which all us can – or eventually will – relate.
The most fascinating aspect of Pulp is how it combines two seemingly disparate genres. One would think a dusty, arid Western would be as far removed from the dingy, crowded world of a noir crime drama, but Brubaker balances the two genres incredibly well here. In fact, he manages to demonstrate they can share so much in common that they’re not really different genres at all. They’re both crime stories, just presented in different places, different times. It’s one story, embracing different genres, and in the process, expanding beyond those genres. It’s a fascinating experiment, though it comes as no surprise that Brubaker and Phillips would be the creators to pull it off with seeming ease. 9/10