"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
If you’ve been reading this weekly thing of mine for any length of time at all, you know that I am as fond of pulp fiction and the old pulp heroes as I am of comic-book adventure stories and superheroes.
I’ve written before about the hero pulps of the thirties, and the recent wave of ‘new pulp’ revivals that’s come with the advent of the internet and new printing technologies.
Those two factors, along with a lot of the old pulp heroes falling into public domain in the last decade or so, allows both reprints and new adventures to show up in paperback or as ebooks with minimal publishing costs. Today, it’s a golden age for fans of pulp heroes.
But… it’s not my Golden Age of pulp fiction.
The conventional wisdom is that pulp-hero magazines started in the early 1900s with Buffalo Bill and Nick Carter, peaked in the 1930s with characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage and all their various imitators, and then died out in the early 1950s when television and paperbacks came along.
Which is accurate enough, as far as it goes. But if you take a closer look, you see that pulp superheroes never really went away. They just changed addresses, moving from the magazine shelf to the paperback rack in grocery stores and drugstores.
Throughout the sixties and seventies, the great pulp heroes came around again and again in paperback; usually just reprinting the old stuff. The big successes there were Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian, but the Shadow, the Spider, and others all made respectable showings on the spinner racks of the time as well.
That in-between time, the paperback pulp boom of the late sixties and early seventies– that’s my Golden Age, it’s where I found the stuff. I came in through the pulp-based comics, of course. When Batman met the Shadow, right around that time.
When I realized there were prose books with those characters and not just comics, I was all over that. It was hitting me at exactly the right age– when I was around thirteen– and right when I was getting old enough to earn my own money, so I didn’t have to beg my parents to subsidize my book-and-comics habit. (I already told that story, here, and I covered most of the Golden Age comics revival in the seventies here, if you are interested.)
That particular paperback pulp-revival era was almost as much of a pulp renaissance as the one we’re seeing today. Something I really loved about it, that tends to get forgotten, is that there were many, many original superhero-type adventure paperback series populating the racks along with the various reprints and revivals. New characters done in the old-school spirit.
Probably the most famous of these would be Mack Bolan, the Executioner. A close runner-up would be Remo Williams, the Destroyer.
Both of whom made it to comic books, as it happens. Bolan had a brief mini-series from Innovation and then one from IDW a few years back, and Remo had a short-lived Marvel magazine run in the 1980s and a comic-book miniseries that came after.
The Executioner and the Destroyer were such smash hits that they spawned dozens of knockoffs. Even classic pulp characters like Nick Carter and the Spider got Bolan-style makeovers in order for their respective publishers to cash in on the trend.
The Spider books were just reprints of the old stories with a new cover slapped on, but the Nick Carter: Killmaster stories were brand new paperback originals, and some were quite good. Nick’s Killmaster incarnation was a success that only comes in second to the Executioner himself: there were 261 Nick Carter novels published between 1964 and 1991. These were ghosted by a variety of authors, some of whom went on to bigger and better things. No author is ever credited on the books themselves, but Dennis Lynds did a few, and David Hagberg and Jim Lawrence did as well. And before he hit big with Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith had a couple of Killmasters to his credit.
I have read many of these and enjoyed them, along with the Executioners and Destroyers, but honestly, a little goes a long way. I have no real desire to own all two hundred-fifty plus of the Killmasters, let alone the hundred and fifty Destroyer books and well over eight hundred Executioners.
Anyway, as much fun as those books are, really my heart lies with the more superheroic takes on the pulp hero. I like things a little weirder, a little more fantastic… and I’ve always had a soft spot for the more obscure ones. I thought I’d take some time this week to point out a couple of my favorites.
Here’s a series that won me over just on the strength of its title– Cap Kennedy, Secret Agent of the Spaceways.
Cap was an agent of an interstellar peacekeeping outfit called F.A.T.E. — Free Acting Terran Envoys. The Envoys are empowered to intervene in any situation which threatens the peace of the Terran Sphere, an interplanetary federation based on Earth. Cap is allowed to act as judge, jury, and occasionally executioner. Thanks to his defeat of a planetary despot in Slave Ship from Sergan, Cap is independently wealthy to boot.
Operating from his small scoutship, the Mordain, Kennedy is assisted on his missions by engineer Penza Saratov, veteran scientist Professor Jarl Luden and alien navigator Veem Chemile, a humanoid chameleon who claims to be descended from the Zheltyana, an ancient race that dominated the galaxy long ago, before vanishing without a trace. This was an ongoing mystery throughout the series, and Cap and his crew often stumbled across this or that Zheltyana artifact that served to launch them into their next adventure.
There were seventeen of these in all; even though “Gregory Kern” was really just one guy, E.C. Tubb, the quality is all over the place. Sometimes they’re serious-minded SF and sometimes they’re straight-up space opera with running laser gunfights against evil lizard warriors. There is little of actual literary merit to be found here. But I like them.
Europeans did too, especially England and Germany. In England, the series was repackaged as “F.A.T.E.”
After Tubb quit, the series was picked up by a German publisher and slightly revamped, and other writers did another forty books for the German market. For these, Kennedy was changed to “Captain Scott.”
Another series I was very fond of was an oddball adventure entry called The Aquanauts. (I was a big Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea kid back in the day, so anything with submarines at least got a look.)
There were eleven of these in all, by Manning Lee Stokes under the pen name “Ken Stanton.” Very tough and cool books, about equal parts James Bond and Sea Hunt. These are the stories of the United States’ elite Secret Underwater Service, whose existence is known to only a handful of men including the President. I’m particularly fond of Ten Seconds to Zero, in which Aquanaut “Tiger Shark” Martin kicks serious Commie ass. Tiger and his one-man sub KRAB are sent deep behind the Iron Curtain to find out how the Soviets are destroying American nuclear submarines. It turns out the only man who can really stop the attacks is a Russian scientist who wishes to defect to the West, but only if Tiger can break into the palace where the scientist’s wife is being held and bring her to safety! Tell me that doesn’t sound awesome.
Speaking of awesome, say hello to Black Samurai.
This series by Marc Olden was an amazing confection of blaxploitation, martial-arts movie tropes, and old-school weird-menace pulp fiction. Here’s the setup, from the back cover of #1: On leave in Tokyo, American GI Robert Sand is shot trying to protect an old man from a quartet of drunk American soldiers. As Sand passes out, the old man springs on his tormenters, beating them senseless with frail, wrinkled fists. He is Master Konuma, keeper of the ancient secrets of the samurai, and Sand is about to become his newest pupil. Over the next seven years, the American learns martial arts, swordplay, and stealth, becoming not just the first black man to ever take the oath of the samurai, but the strongest fighter Konuma has ever trained. One night, two dozen terrorists ambush the dojo, slaughtering Konuma and his students as the first step in a terrifying assault on world peace. Though he cannot save his sensei, Sand escapes with his life and a gnawing hunger for vengeance. All he has is his sword, but his sword is all he needs.
Man, you can just feel the Fuck Yeah! built into that, can’t you? But it gets better and better.
What I love about these is the sheer audacity of the plotting; it’s all such seventies Marvel superhero stuff. Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s the blurb from #6, The Warlock:
When a voodoo priest bewitches Sand’s beloved, the samurai goes on the warpath!
Black magic orgies. Human sacrifices. Necrophilia. These are just a few of Augustus Janicot’s special skills. This charismatic sadist has built a formidable following, convincing politicians across Europe that his voodoo ritual can win them office. When they consent to his bloody rites, he films them, and uses the footage for blackmail. On the verge of obtaining unlimited power, the Warlock is about to make a fatal mistake. Janicot’s next target is in Vietnam, and for Robert Sand, this is too close to home. An American trained in the ways of the samurai, Sand fears for the safety of Toki Jakata, the granddaughter of his late samurai master and the only woman he has ever loved. Sand has never been able to win Toki’s heart, but he will do anything to keep Janicot from pulling it out of her chest.
They’re superhero stories in everything but name. Amazingly–well, maybe not, it was the seventies–Black Samurai was even a movie, adapting (very loosely) my beloved volume six in the series.
Jim Kelly starred as Robert Sand, Bill Roy was the evil Janicot, and Essie Lin Chia was Toki. You’ll notice the movie poster pretty much shamelessly cribs from the original book cover, even including the cross-dressing S&M dwarves. I’ve been trying to see this for years, but in my heart I’m certain it can’t possibly match the wonders of the original novels.
I could go on and on. Big Brain, The Baroness, Agent of TERRA, Captain Shark… there were lots of these schlocky neo-pulp paperback series out there.
They are largely forgotten today, and most of them deservedly so– as much as I adore, say, The Baroness or Black Samurai, I’m not such a fool as to claim any lasting artistic merit for them. But I’m firmly convinced that without these books and the reprint pulp adventure series they were imitating, we wouldn’t have the “New Pulp” movement that exists today.
Because, well… when you grow up on this kind of gonzo awesome adventure fiction and then people stop making it, you find out that you miss it so much that you eventually have to make more of it yourself.
See you next week.
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