Camera Obscura, Writing and Reading with a Pulp Sensibility
by Jonathan Mills with additional editorial material by Steven Williams
Comics may have superseded the written pulp, but there are still plenty of writers out there with a pulp sensibility. Comics could be their natural home - if only someone would show them the way.
The weird pulp is pretty solidly dead these days. Funnily enough, comics played a part in their demise. Comics were a purer hit of the same sort of drug - faster, brighter and harder, and you could buy them without having to buy a newspaper or a book.
So Sherlock Holmes gave up the ghost. Dickens had packed it in a while before anyway. The rest of them carried on for a while as books, but The Man of Bronze was always going to be beaten by The Man of Steel.
are pretty insipid and weak things these days. Even the ever-popular "widescreen" approach is at best a temporary stopgap, and once that's probably been pretty well stamped on for the time being. People are leaving in droves, looking for a better high. TV, cinema, videogames; whatever is sexier and shinier in the eyes of the media today.
Me, I don't much care for TV, I haven't seen anything good at the cinema in months, and my Playstation is dusted off once in a blue moon because I'm putting off doing something more important. Yet I've still got something that gives me a better high than comics.
A bit bleeding obvious, really, but let me explain. I don't mean just any books. There are books I read because I love the writing. Iain Sinclair, Derek Raymond, Ian Rankin, Iain Banks, people like that. There are books I read because I'm fascinated by what they're talking about - non-fiction mostly, big books of history and science. There are books I read because I want to be informed about the world, or because I'm researching for my latest writing project, or for the philosophy, or for dozens of other reasons.
And then there are the books I read because they're fasted-paced, untaxing, hard as nails and twice as sexy. Fun. Pulpy. I can read one in a couple of hours, which means that most people can probably get through them in a day or two.
The pulp isn't dead. It's just changed a bit - done the cycle, grown up a bit and become respectable. You encounter them every so often - those books that you just can't put down, even though you know it's not exactly a Great Novel. Indulge me for a moment while I talk about a few of my favourites - there's a point coming on the other side of it.
Christopher Brookmyre writes absolutely cracking stuff. Quite Ugly One Morning, Country of the Blind and Boiling a Frog chronicle the misadventures of the rather unorthodox Scottish journalist Jack Parlabane as he investigates murders and uncovers government corruption and conspiracies. Not the End of the World is set in LA and is about porn stars, religious fundamentalists, and a madman planning to drown LA and claim God did it.One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, well, allow me to quote the jacket blurb: "The touching story of what happens when the former pupils of an ordinary Glasgow high school are reunited after fifteen long years; reminiscence, reconciliation, old secrets, rekindled passions, joy, laughter, hijackers, murder, vengeance, machine-guns, rocket launchers... that sort of thing.
Welcome to the party. Dress Casual. Bring your own Bullets."
It's set on a oil rig. I had to put it down several times because I was laughing so hard.
Joe Lansdale shouldn't be a terribly unfamiliar name. Bad Chili. Mucho Mojo. Savage Season. Fast paced crime stories set in backwoods Texas, murderers caught and defeated by his heroes Hap and Leonard. Easy, effortless stories set under sprawling skies.
Bill Bryson doesn't write fiction. He's a travel writer, and a very witty one at that. Never afraid to make himself look a fool, he entertains with tales of the strange and wonderful things he finds and people he meets in all sorts of places.
There are others. I'd file Harry Potter in with that lot. Christopher Fowler's horror novels. Some of Iain Banks stuff. Odd books I've picked up here and there.
The brighter ones among you will have worked out what my point was a few paragraphs ago. I can't get this from comics. Lest you think that this is yet another tiresome rant about the limited genre range in comics, let me assure it isn't. No, I'm confused about something else.
It seems to me that most of these people would be perfect for comics. They can write fast-paced, tight, modern stuff. What I really can't fathom is why no one has gone to them and said, "Here's some money. Write what you want. We'll help you make it work as a comic, and we'll publish it."
Oh, I know Pratchett's stuff has been adapted, and I know Lansdale has done a fair few comics, but all of them have had the faint ring of someone desperately trying to "do comics" rather than just tell a story. They're genre pieces that often seem quite confused about what they want to be or do. (I know I'm being unfair here - Jonah Hex got acclaim, but I've not read it. Most of my opinion is based on the less well-received Blood and Shadows, a confused and strange piece of writing if ever there was one.)
And, to be fair, I'm not thick, either. I'm sure Pratchett can make far more from his novels that he ever would from comics. He's got no reason to do it. But someone like Christopher Brookmyre? I'm given to understand that there's not generally a lot of money in being a novelist, unless you're one of a few best-selling authors. It's why we've not seen Alan Moore's second novel yet, for example. He can make more money doing comics, and I don't think he's atypical in that.
So why isn't anyone going after these people? They come with a built-in audience, for god's sake.
There are people who made their name as novelists who working in comics - Greg Rucka and Robert Weinberg spring immediately to mind. What I find myself wondering, though... well, I wonder several things. Firstly, and most importantly: Were these men courted by comics, or did they fetch themselves up upon our doorstep? Because in all honestly, I rather suspect the latter. I also wonder why both of them are working, for the most part, on company owned titles. And I wonder what sort of effort is being made to reach the fans of their novels and to advise them to read the comics these men generate.
And, of course, I do wonder, even if we are reaching their non-comics fan base, how many of the people that enjoy Mr Rucka's crime series are going to take Batman very seriously? Maybe they are very fine crime stories, but when Joe Average sees a man in a pair of tights I'm willing to bet that a fine crime story is not what he think he's going to get.
Maybe that's why we're not chasing these people. We're not bright enough to know what to do with them when they get here.
Alasdair Watson is the author of the Eagle Award-nominated webcomic Rust.
Ninth Art endorses the principle of Ideological Freeware. The author permits distribution of this article by private individuals, on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.
Joe R. Lansdale
Terence David John Pratchett aka Terry Pratchett
Sir Terence David John Pratchett, Officer of the Order of the British Empire
Derek Raymond aka Robin Cook
Other pulp writers and series of note
Pulp magazines aka pulp fiction
Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan
Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard
Philip José Farmer
Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton books
Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton universe
Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer
The Page of Fu Manchu