East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Leave a comment

My favorite classic pulp characters

Good ideas don’t grow on trees.
The good idea behind this post was stolen from author Barry Reese‘s blog.
A top ten of my favorite pulp characters.
Why not?

captain_future_1940fal_v1_n4I normally say that I came to the pulps in a very circuitous way – but the fact is, I’ve been reading pulps for most of my life (say, the last thirty six years), only I did not know it.

Starting at the age of ten, with Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space, I read a lot of old SF – stuff that was published in pulp magazines like Astounding, or Amazing. Then, when two or three years later I discovered fantasy (through the books by Lyon Sprague de Camp), I started reading things that came from Unknown and Weird Tales.
And then, of course, there were hard boiled mysteries – Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade…

And the movies and TV, of course – Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, Guy Williams as Zorro…

And what about TinTin comics, or Terry and the Pirates?

What I really missed until much later were “proper” hero pulps – The Shadow, The Spider, Doc Savage etc.
I was more of a strange worlds/exotic locales sort of reader.
As a consequence of my reading history, my top ten heroes list is strange.

Therefore, in no particular order…

black_mask_197408. Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark
. Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future
. Norvell Page‘s The Spider
. Robert E. Howard‘s Solomon Kane
. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan
. Walter B. Gibson’s The Shadow
. Lester Dent’s Doc Savage
. C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith
. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op
. (various authors) Sexton Blake

Double-feature special mention
. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter
. Robert E. Howard’s Conan
. Norvell Page’s Wen Tengri aka Prester John

“Is this actually pulp?” special mention
. Russell Thorndike’s Captain Clegg aka Dr Syn

And there’s still a lot of characters I have to read seriously – next on my list is Henry Kuttner’s Thunder Jim Wade.
Such was the amount of solid fiction published by pulp authors, there’s truly a world worth exploring out there.


Vengeance, Unlimited.

One starts thinking about pulp tv shows, and soon finds himself at the end of a very short list.
But maybe it’s just a matter of looking sharply at old series.

Now, when I think about pulp, I think chiefly about adventure pulpIndiana Jones sort of stuff.
But there was much more, to the pulps, than Indy-style adventures.

What about the great avengers of pulp fiction?
The Shadow, The Spider, the aptly named Avenger, with his Justice Inc.

Well, at the end of the twentieth century, two writers and producers, John McNamara and David Simkins, created a show for ABC, updating those avengers of old.
The show was called Vengeance Unlimited, and it featured Michael Madsen in the role of the deceptively suave, and downright menacing Mr Chapell.

The premise is simple – if you have a problem, and the forces of Law and Order cannot help you, you can hire Mr Chapell.
For one million dollars, your problem will become his problem.
And he will solve it.
If you do not have one million handy, there’s an alternative deal – you agree to owe Mr Chapell a single favor.
He will call you.
He will tell you what to do.
You’ll do it, and you’ll be free of any other obligation.

The show is a tight, unusual crime drama – the stories are ingenious, the set-up is classy, and Mr Chapell, who “once had a very bad Monday” is a wonderful mix of ice-cold logic and of scary madness; and admittedly, few actors out there can do scary-mad-but-nice better than Michael Madsen.
The character has obvious debts with the Shadow (the “I saved you, now you’re mine” premise), with the Spider (the over-the-top gusto with which Mr Chapell hits – phisically and psichologically – his foes) and with the Avenger (the hinted trauma in the main character’s past, the idea of a corporation devoted to justice, or vengeance).

English: Head shot of actress Kathleen YorkThe cast includes a lot of well respected TV stalwarts, and Kathleen York, as the only other recurring character, is an unusual foil for Madsen.
The nocturnal sets, the quiet of suburbia being shattered by crime and violence, the humor and the spirit of the series marked this as an excellent show, one that should have been allowed to find its legs and start running.
But once again, the show did not last long, and after just sixteen one-hour episodes, the series was canceled.

Was it the violence?
Was it the idea of a hero acting outside of the law, to hit those bad guys who could work the system against itself and evade normal justice?
I do not know.
But as someone that once had a very bad Monday myself, I always loved this show, and its intelligent update of a classic pulp standard.