NOTE: tongue should be kept firmly in cheek while reading this article.
Back in the old days, when heroes were an everyday occurrence on the pulps, Doc Savage Magazine published a series of articles on the minimal physical exercise you needed to become like Doc himself.
In 23 installments, between 1935 and 1937, the Doc Savage Method of Self Development offered readers young and old a variety of physical exercises, but also an introduction to speed reading, to practices akin to what we’d refer today to as “mindfulness” and “cold reading”, plus other techniques of mental discipline and observation, the lot together with a moral and ethical set of guidelines.
Later, in 1938, came the Doc Savage self-defence course.
But what do you really need, to be a pulp hero?
Let’s take a look at a random sample of pulp heroes and heroines, in no particular order, off the top of my head, and let’s summarize their basic skills…
Tarzan – superior physical training, indomitable will, animal friendship
John Carter – indomitable will, martial arts
Sexton Blake – analytical mind, enciclopaedic culture, criminal mind, martial arts
Biggles – air combat experience in WWI, worldly knowledge, borderline crazy courage
Doc Savage – encyclopaedic culture, superior phisical training, martial arts, super-science
The Shadow * – air combat experience in WWI, mystical training in a Tibetan lamastery, years of experience in the criminal underworld, powers on mental suggestion, two big guns
The Spider * – mystical training in the East, martial arts, indomitable will, two big guns
Domino Lady * – sex appeal, worldly knowledge, a syringe filled with truth serum
The Phantom * – mystical training in the jungles of Bengalla, indomitable will, knowledge of the ancient mysteries, two big guns
Mandrake – knowledge of the ancient mysteries, mystical training somewhere or other, powers of mental suggestion, years-long experience as a stage magician
Athena Voltaire – air combat experience, knowledge of the ancient mysteries, sex appeal, martial arts, worldly knowledge
Sheena, queen of the jungle – sex appeal, superior physical training, indomitable will, animal friendship
Capitan Future – superscience, indomitable will
Patrick O’Malley – air combat experience in WWI, borderline crazy courage, ethilism
Buckaroo Banzai – superscience, zen, rock’n’roll
Jack Burton – borderline crazy bravery, mystical knowledge acquired in the alleys of Chinatown, worldly knowledge (pork chop express)
The Rocketeer * – air combat experience in WWI, borderline crazy courage, a big gun
Indiana Jones – knowledge of the ancient mysteries, fieldwork experience, teaching experience, bullwhip/fedora/gun combo.
Rick O’Connell – two big guns (plus ample selection of other firearms), borderline crazy courage, worldly knowledge
Sky Captain – air combat experience in WWI, supercience (end user), borderline crazy courage
Gabriel Hunt – knowledge of the ancient mysteries, indomitable will, a big gun
[starred characters have a Secret Identity]
Can we notice an emerging pattern?
Can we define a curriculum, a training path, that anyone of us could follow to become a pulp hero?
After all, this is the Twenty-first century, the age of information!
Can we become pulp heroes in one year spending less than one hundred bucks?
Well, that’s exactly what we will be doing here: we’ll list books, online courses and resources and what not to become a pulp hero, in one year (or if you’re really set on the idea, in a single summer) and spending less than one hundred bucks.
Always remembering that
“Heroing is one of the shortest-lived professions there is.” – Will Rogers
This is not hard but it is vast. Our best bet is to get a library card and start haunting the bookshelves, reading as much as we can, as wide as we can.
This being the 21st Century, we can also go online – Wikipedia is an obvious first stop, followed by OpenCulture and the Internet Archive, and the Project Gutenberg (whose books will give a nice vintage tint to our general knowledge.)
To talk with real people and compare experiences you can join topical forums, or enlist in a MOOC and get social while following a university-level course.
There’s no substitute for experience, but The Art of Manliness (both the book and the website) is a close second – because being pulp heroes does not mean being less than gentlemen.
And believe it or not, there’s also a book called What Would MacGyver Do, out there.
Throw in the (free the last time I checked) A Little bit of Everything for Dummies and a good DIY handbook, and we have a basis to build upon.
Mystical experience, Zen, and Indomitable will
Can’t do without them, and luckily these are pretty cheap to acquire.
For about a cent we can get a used copy of the Handbook for the Urban Warrior, by British author Stephen Russell, alias Barefoot Doctor.
Ok, this is not the equivalent of spending years in a secluded monastery somewhere in the snowy Himalayas (but you can get that too, in three days, with The Invincibility Training, again by Russell), but it’s a start.
Seriously, this is a fun book offering a very down-to-earth take on Taoist philosophy and practices. And it has a cool title.
As an extra, we can throw in The Zen Experience by Thomas Hoover, which is available for free through the author’s website and on Amazon.
Mindfulness is today’s buzzword, and mindfulness self-training can be easily obtained. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Mindfulness Survival Kit seems a good reference, and there’s an excellent Mindfulness free course offered online by Monash University.
Air Combat Experience in WWI
This is a tough one – but, of course, you can look online for some flight simulator.
Also, the wonderful Teach Yourself to Fly, published by Hodder & Stoughton, can still be found second-hand with ease; it was designed to give new flyboys the basics during the Battle of Britain, so it should work all right.
Add a biography of the Red Baron, and you’re all set.
Archeology and ancient mysteries
This one requires some time and money.
A fistful of dollars can get us The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Lost Civilizations.
It’s a good start. We can add Archeology for Dummies, to put some order in our ideas.
The classic Archaeology is Rubbish, which was originally designed as a textbook for a distance learning course, is highly recommended, and can be found used for cheap.
There’s a number of Archeology courses free online, offered by various universities. Check out the MOOC List from Open Culture to find one that suits you.
For serious students, Teach Yourself Complete Babylonian looks like the perfect self-teaching course. The Teach Yourself line also offers (cheaper) courses in Latin and Ancient Greek. But Babylonian’s cooler.
The recent Fortune and Glory by Osprey is also a good one to carry in our backpack.
My Tai Chi teacher always said that Tai Chi is the basis of all martial arts. And who am I to deny what the sifu said?
There’s an infinity of handbooks and video courses available. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tai Chi and Qigong or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tai Chi might be all that you need.
If you are serious, I suggest the Tai Chi Manual by Bob Parry, which gives you the short Yang form and it’s absolutely fantastic – and you can find it used for really cheap.
And then a classic: the David Carradine DVD, Complete Kung Fu and Tai Chi Workout for Beginners.
The man on the case is obviously Japanese physicist Michio Kaku. Let’s invest a few bucks in Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel and the equally promisingPhysics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.
Kaku is a wonderful writer, and while you’ll need a basic knowledge of physics, his books are fun to read.
I’d add a copy of Chaos, by James Gleick, another great read, expanding our field of investigation further.
If you go for the more hands-on side of superscience, then get Inventing for Dummies, and fill your secret sanctum with robots, death rays and what else.
Stage magic and Mentalism
You can’t go wrong here – Dover Books has a fine catalog of magic books by none other than Walter B. Gibson, the man behind The Shadow. Because we are not rich playboys like Lamont Cranston, we can check out the New Magician’s Manual, that covers all the basics.
Get the book, two packs of Bicycle cards, three billiard balls and a spring-loaded bunch of flowers, then start exercising.
Hypnotism might be useful, and a copy of Fell’s Official Know-it-all Guide to Hypnotism can be had second hand for two bucks, and has everything Mandrake knew.
No doubts about it: The “Gun Digest” Book of the 1911: A Complete Look at the Use, Care and Repair of the 1911 Pistol is what we need, because a 1911 is the weapon of choice of the likes of The Shadow and The Spider. Accept no substitute. There’s also a Volume 2, which brings the total count to 600 pages of information. Depending on your preferences, similar books can be found covering the Mauser Broomhandle and the Webley and Colt revolvers.
They will not teach you how to shoot straight, but all the theory you need is covered, and then some.
Jungle and the Wild
My one-stop resource is An Explorer’s Handbook by Christina Dodwell – survival, catering, expedition logistics, risks and countermeasures, field medicine and field cooking. A compact, fun read covering all the basics, from the woman that crossed Papua New Guinea on foot and inflatable raft.
Also, get a used copy of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, 5th Edition, which is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s dated, but well worth having at hand.
It is very likely that any handbook teaching you how to build a secret identity is against the law, but you can still get How to Disappear which explains… well, you can guess it.
I can’t claim to be an expert, but there’s an interesting book called How to be sexy, published by a company called Infinite Ideas, which might be a good starting point. And yes, it might be somewhat sexist, but these are, after all, the pulps.
Get yourself a copy of Misha Glenny’s McMafia: Seriously Organized Crime, and you’ll cover organized crime, racket, digital crimes, various trafficking… we are miles away from Chicago speakeasies or Shanghai opium dens, but we must keep up with the SOTA.
And that’s more or less it.
Now you’ll need a sidekick and a sexy fiancee, but I’ll leave you to your own devices about that.
The only thing we have not touched upon is, of course, the borderline crazy courage – but anyone seriously trying to face Evil armed with this reading list does not need any further training for that.
Note: this article does not feature any commercial link.
But if you liked it and you would like to help, I’ll be grateful should you decide to buy me a coffee. Thank you!