The Pulp comics of the past had a major influence on the superhero genre that can still be seen several generations later.
The dominance of the modern superhero genre today is undeniable. Essentially every mainstream title is a DC or Marvel superhero book. Even some of the top performers at Image and Dark Horse are either superhero books or counter-cultural commentary on the superhero genre. But whatever happened to Pulp?
Pulp was one of the major players in comics all throughout the early 1900s. They were called pulp magazines because they were made very cheaply using wood pulp paper. As a genre, Pulp was diverse, including horror, noir, western, and classic science fiction stories. Because they were cheap, more risks could be taken with their storytelling and world-building concepts. Pulp was often times synonymous with schlock, but there are several standouts of the genre that still survive today. Two of the most influential are The Phantom and Doc Savage.
The Phantom Was One Of The First Costumed Superheroes
The Phantom is one of the very first superheroes, first appearing in a comic strip titled The Phantom (by Lee Falk) in 1936. He is inspired by the likes of Tarzan and the popular pirate adventures of the time. The Phantom lived in the jungle, wore a skin-tight purple suit, and vowed to rid the world of piracy. But his most interesting trait would be his moniker; The Ghost Who Walks. In the universe of the Phantom, he has stalked the jungle since the golden age of piracy, yet he exists in the modern era (the 1930s).
He accomplishes this by passing on the mantle of the Phantom to an heir, so every generation has a new Phantom. This motif is used constantly in modern superhero comics, whether it’s the mythologizing of a character to appear more than human, like Batman, or to establish a character’s title as more important than the individual beneath the mask. This is an idea that is very prominent across properties like the Spider-Verse or every other multiverse lore at the moment. The Phantom is also one of the very first heroes to wear tights. Previously, heroic character designs were inspired more by cowboys or swashbucklers.
Doc Savage Is The Template For DC’s Superman
Doc Savage is by far the best example of how pulp magazines influenced the modern superhero. Created by Henry W. Ralston, John L. Nanovic, and Lester Dent, Doc Savage, explained simply is the perfect man, or as he is called in the books, the man of bronze. He was raised by super scientist parents to be the superior physical, mental, and spiritual specimen. Doc Savage is an exact template for Superman. He is stronger and smarter than anyone and even has a secret remote base called the Fortress of Solitude.
Original pulp books often told stories of magic, super science, and unimaginable worlds, yet they still felt more grounded than comics today. Fans have grown used to multiple reboots or the many multiverses of Marvel. It’s beginning to feel like every event is a new attempt to jump an even bigger shark. When the stakes are always universal in scale, there may as well be no stakes. Pulp books maintained a certain level of realism in their storytelling. The characters felt like real people and when they had powers they didn’t suddenly become gods. This principle is what makes so many modern heroes great. Stan Lee was famous for saying that he created characters with human problems, it helped make Marvel heroes so timeless. It feels like this wisdom has been lost in the modern landscape of comics and many should look towards comics’ pulp roots.