The Hideouts & Hoodlums RPG just got reviewed at James Maliszewski’s Grognardia blog The Grognardia review was relatively good, although I think it would have been better had it been written by someone who is actually familiar with the source material (Mr. Maliszewski himself points out his unfamiliarity once or twice in his review).

H&H’s Scott Casper appended a comment to the review which has been banging around in my head for the last eighteen hours or so:

Most of H&H’s small but spirited fanbase are actually bigger pulp hero fans than comic book superhero fans. I’m not even sure why myself, but they just are.

That’s an interesting observation. I won’t try to recount in detail my long personal history with the pulps, other than to say that something went “pop” in my head (maybe a mild stroke?) sometime in mid-1982 and I began to collect and read everything pulp-related I could get my hands on: Doc Savage, The Avenger, The Shadow, The Spider, G-8 and his Battle Aces, as well as all of the pulp-based RPGs available (most notably FGU’s Daredevils which was released in the autumn of ’82). That was also the autumn in which the awesome series Tales of the Gold Monkey debuted on ABC (as well as the deservedly less-fondly remembered CBS entry Bring ‘Em Back Alive). It also helped that I’d been a fan of a lot of related material since adolescence: Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the all-time great Robert E. Howard.

I’ve also been a fan of Golden Age comics ever since DC used to reprint the old stories in their 80 Page Giants and as a second feature in the back pages of books like Justice League of America back in the 1960’s. Ever since I was about seven or eight, I’ve known that Alan Scott can fly green rings around Hal Jordan and Jay Garrick is about a hundred times cooler than Barry Allen and Wally West combined.

In short, I know the material. But I hate writing reviews, even when I get paid to do so (speaking of which I have to bash one out later today – sigh). However, this does put me in an excellent position to comment on Scott’s comment — and that’s what’s been pinging around in my head since yesterday noon.

Why would much of Hideouts and Hoodlum’s core fan base be pulp fans instead of Golden Age comics fans? As a huge fan of both, that question caused me to step back and take a fresh (for me) look at what made the genres tick, and why the pulps dwindled in popularity as escapist entertainment as the popularity of comics grew.

In answer to the apparent conundrum voiced by Scott, I think there’s an obvious answer. Although comic books today are still a readily-available (albeit dying) medium, they are significantly different in style, substance, tone, and content from their Golden Age predecessors. Furthermore, those Golden Age comics were, for all intents and purposes, unavailable to the average reader for decades (other than in scattershot reprinted form, as I related earlier) until the advent of the Internet — in other words, people just plain didn’t see them. The pulps, on the other hand, tend to always be around. Although the pulps wax and wane in popularity (which somewhat affects their overall availability), tenacious readers can always find one or two on the shelves of even moderate-sized used book stores and (aside from the Bantam Doc Savage paperbacks, which today sell for grossly inflated prices because of their cover art) they tend to be no more expensive than any other used paperback book. Most of my relatively extensive collection of pulps have been purchased inexpensively in used book stores from about 1982 onward. So the sheer relative availability of the material would explain the disparity in numbers between fans of the two genres.

But as a historian I’m compelled to ask the deeper question: why did comics thrive while the pulps died? Again, the short obvious answer is that pulps required more of a “time and effort” investment on the part of the reader; each Doc Savage or Spider magazine was actually a complete novel. Comic books were a more visual medium and, while reading the average 60+ page Golden Age comic could easily chunk out a major portion of the reader’s afternoon, they didn’t require anywhere near the time expenditure demanded by a pulp magazine. In other words (and in colloquial terms), people always take the path of least resistance especially when it comes to their forms of entertainment.

If I’d thought about this topic a month ago, I’d have settled for that short answer. But after reading a couple of the Spider novels I think there’s more to it, and if somebody hasn’t yet written an advanced-degree thesis on this, they should.

Here’s what the Spider has to do with it. Prior to reading The Spider (at the encouragement of my lovely bride), most of my print pulp exposure (excluding radio, movie serials, and other media) had come in the form of Doc Savage stories, G-8 and his Battle Aces, some of The Avenger tales, and the two-fisted adventures of Robert E. Howard. A fair bit of this stuff is pretty benign as far as its content. Howard’s stories contained some restrained sexuality but nothing that surprised or shocked me even as a teenaged reader. The Doc Savage novels were actually intended for twelve to sixteen year old boys (in an era when youngsters traditionally didn’t get that interested in the opposite sex until age sixteen or seventeen). But The Spider? Holy crap! I’m fifty years old and relatively jaded (I laughed all through the movie Sin City; I still think it was intended to primarily be a comedy, and the 1970’s Fleischer Wrath of the Spectre comics are some of my all-time favorite comic books), but when I read The Spider, I was actually kind of shocked at the violence — not so much the violence itself, but the level of it and the manner in which it was portrayed. The infamous subway scene in Secret City of Crime (discussed here) is really quite disturbing, even today.

While discussing this with my lovely bride (who has read far more of The Shadow than I have), she informed me that the Doc Savage novels are the exception rather than the rule — most of the pulps positively wallow in buckets of blood.

And that’s when it hit me. Although the pulps are generally looked upon as “juvenile” entertainment today, for the most part they were never intended for kids.

Even the criminal dialogue in Doc Savage books was liberally sprinkled with “damns” and “hells” (excised in the Golden Books hardback editions, which explains why they read a little wonky), but I think that was to give a thrill to the fourteen year old reader, that cachet of “maturity” or “taboo” (“Mom’s gonna skin you if she catches you reading that!”) which made the magazine just that little bit more appealing.

But, for the most part, pulps were for grownups. That seems weird now, but you need to remember that this was at a time when most people considered reading as a primary form of entertainment and information gathering. The “golden age” of the American short story was during the 1920’s and 1930’s; the newsstands carried a truly staggering array of fiction magazines. I remember when I was about 18 or so, I saw a complete listing of every magazine to which Robert E. Howard sold a story — the length of the list and the diversity of the titles blew my mind. There were dozens of magazines specializing exclusively in sea stories, westerns, boxing stories, Oriental stories, horror and fantasy — that doesn’t even include general interest titles and the myriad genres to which Howard never turned his talents. Man, people really read in those days.

If we limit the discussion to crime and adventure pulps, though, we do see a certain sameness between them. If we exclude Doc Savage, we can create a sort of template for the pulp “mystery man” upon which we can hang certain gimmicks (much as in today’s dreadful d20-based RPGs in which you pick a cookie-cutter manikin “characters class” and then “customize” it by draping skills and attributes on it [I’m looking at you here, Mutants and Masterminds]).

  • Wealthy
  • Dresses in evening clothes or some variation thereof
  • Has a special power, ability, or costume gimmick

There’s not a huge difference between The Shadow, The Spider, and The Green Hornet. All are reasonably wealthy, dress in either a suit & trenchcoat or “opera clothes”, and have a gimmick. The Shadow wears a hat, bandanna, and trenchcoat, and has the mysterious ability to “cloud men’s minds” (which I always thought was a sad waste of a perfectly good gimmick; clouding women’s minds would have been far more fun). The Spider wears opera clothes and uses a fright mask to scare the crap out of the underworld hoods he battles. The Green Hornet has a badass car and a cool mask. But there’s not a world of difference between them. One might even throw in Richard Benson, The Avenger, who could mold his face like clay and thus disguise himself as literally anyone (he made a one-panel appearance as the great Rondo Hatton in an 1980’s Shadow comic book, by the way, and [as a really cool useless piece of trivia] Rondo Hatton was from my hometown. What’s cooler than that?).

There was likely a common thread running through the minds of the readers of the day: wouldn’t it be cool to be rich and fight bad guys? And, since this was the 1930’s after all, maybe the question was really just “Wouldn’t it be cool to be rich?”

Things began to change in 1938 with the advent of the “long underwear crowd” in four-color comic books. That’s when Superman made his debut, changing the world and also proving the adage that authors seldom come up with anything truly original: the just reshape what they’ve read elsewhere. Superman stops a half-click short of outright plagiarism. Originally he didn’t fly — he leaped “over tall buildings” and had amazing strength because he came from a planet with higher gravity than Earth, ya-da-ya-da; it was a direct steal from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter on Barsoom” tales which ERB began to write and serialize in the 1910’s (at the dawn of the “pulp era” as we think of it now, although the “penny dreadfuls” had already been around for ages). Superman had an Arctic retreat called The Fortress of Solitude, which was a blatant rip-off from the Doc Savage stories, right down to its name and location. Many of Superman’s other abilities (heightened eyesight and hearing) came straight from Doc Savage as well. Even Superman’s girlfriend was a ripoff from The Shadow’s main squeeze Margo Lane. (That’s why the whole lawsuit against DC Comics really annoyed me — it was a case of thieves suing someone else for “robbery”).

What Superman did do differently, though, was wear his underpants on the outside instead of wearing a trenchcoat or opera clothes. It was different, and it was perfect for the four-color comics medium which was, almost by definition, infinitely more kid-friendly than the pulps had ever been. But, by and large, Superman was just cobbled together from bits’n’bobs of tried and true pulp adventure tropes.

Batman, who arrived a bit later, is completely and utterly a character of the pulps. If only he wore his boxers under his big boy pants he’d be able to take his rightful place alongside his spiritual brothers The Shadow and The Spider as a rich guy in a mask using gadgetry and intellect to fight crime. That’s why Batman (despite his popularity) often seems oddly misplaced in today’s comics: at his core Batman’s really a pulp character.

The early (pre-1940) comic characters often seemed to be heavily influenced by (if not outright retreads of) their pulp cousins. That’s why the “line” between the two genres is more like a blurry smear: for a three to four year period (starting, really, around the time of the introduction of The Crimson Avenger [who was a blatant knockoff of The Shadow] as a comic book character), the two genres were essentially one, with the only real difference being that one medium was primarily verbal while the other was primarily visual.

And here’s where the potential masters or doctoral thesis topic comes in: I believe the real sea change in the transition from the pulps to comics was driven by socioeconomics. Here’s the short version…

1930’s adventure heroes tended to be fabulously wealthy. The practical reason for this was to free up the writers to create the tales; after all, who would want to read about some guy who had a real job and thus wasn’t able to chase criminals and supernatural menaces all over the globe? (Remember, this was decades before that hopeless nebbish Peter Parker made his debut: “Sorry, Doc Ock, but I can’t fight you right now; Aunt May says I have to be home by 10”). But as the 1930’s dragged wearily on and the Great Depression neared its ten-year mark, perhaps people were tired of reading about characters who possessed an endless supply of money, people who could just globetrot around on a whim.  How about it? How happy would you be to read about a guy today who gets to jet all around the world, having swell adventures, dressing expensively, making love to beautiful women, and it’s all paid for by his hefty Neiman-Marcus and Bank of America investment dividends — corporations who got us into this economic morass in the first place?

Screw that.

By 1940. costumed adventurers started appearing who were regular people. Let’s look at just the characters I’ve chosen to write about previously in this blog. Jay Garrick was a college student when a chemical accident turned him into the fastest man alive. Another chemist (a working stuff, not some wealthy dilettante playing around with his expensive chemistry hobby) gets fired, but during his two-week “grace period” starts jacking around with gamma radiation experiments and becomes Captain Future. A factory girl is fired by her crooked boss; later, through spunk and sheer moxie, she reveals him to be a fifth-columnist, and is publicly and widely acclaimed as a heroine: Pat Patriot.

Just as we saw a common economics-based thread connecting the 1930’s costumed pulp characters, we see a new one connecting many of the 1940’s “mystery men” and superheroes — they’re regular everyday working people (even in some cases the unemployed) who become heroes and crimefighters. Characters gradually stop being based on the incredibly wealthy and start to slide along the scale to a point closer to Woody Guthrie. To put it in somewhat more grandiose terms, it was a more populist approach to adventure storytelling. You didn’t have to be some rich guy to be great — middle-class and poor people could achieve a measure of greatness too. And, if we want to carry this train of thought a bit further, perhaps that idea took root and helped fashion the generation of young people who survived the worst economic disaster of modern times, fought and won a global war against tyranny, and went forward from that New Deal to form a Great Society (which we, unfortunately, seem to have abandoned starting with the 1980’s “Decade of Greed” and the dawn of the “me” generation).

Coming full circle to the start of this post, maybe my sense of this is what caused that “pop” in my head thirty years ago when I began to immerse myself in the pulps and Golden Age comics, as well as in other aspects of c. 1930-1946 “pop culture”.

I don’t know, but my hat’s off to you if you’ve read this far. In any event, blame Scott Casper’s post on Grognardia. See what you started, man?

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.