A few years ago I came across Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal: The Last of the Innocent. The ways that Brubaker and Phillips use the medium of comics to examine the ways that nostalgia influences the ways that we perceive the world really stood out to me as I read through the series. Recently, I picked up their latest release, Pulp, and as I read Pulp some of the same themes surrounding the ways that we think about the past arose. While Criminal: The Last of the Innocent focuses on nostalgia, and its fleeting nature, Pulp focuses on the ways that the historical narrative gets reinvented, morphing into something more palatable for the prevailing narrative, in this case the narrative of the West and of World War II. Today, I want to look at the ways that Brubaker and Phillips address these issues in Pulp.
Pulp takes place in New York in February 1939, and it tells the story of Max Winter, a pulp writer who pens thinly-veiled stories based on his exploits as an outlaw in the West. Max struggles to make money as a free-lance pulp fiction author, getting paid only two cents per word for each story. All of this takes place during the lead-up to World War II as the Nazis march across Europe in preparation for war. Pulp brings the mythologized, romanticized narrative of the Old West into the narrative of World War II, the narratives that present each period as either idyllic or the pinnacle of patriotism. These myths of each era, though, collapse in on themselves over the course of Pulp.
At the start of Pulp, Max talks with his editor Mort about his latest story, a story where the main characters grow old and ride off into the sunset. For Mort, this narrative doesn’t sell, and he pushes Max to rewrite the ending to fit in with the “shoot ’em ups” that the magazine Six Gun Western is known for with its readers. Mort also tells Max that due to a decrease in circulation he has to pay Max two cents a word, down from the usual rate. Max makes a hundred dollars for the story, and on his way home, he loses it when he stops a group of white men from attacking a Jewish man.
During the attack, Max suffers a heart attack and is in the hospital. When he gets out, he tries to write more, and he brings Max a new story, hoping to get the money back that the men stole from him. Mort tells Max he’ll read it, but he already has “three more Red River kid stories lined up.” This shocks Max, and Mort tells him that he’s had his nephew, Sydney, and some other men writing stories for the magazine with Max’s characters. Mort and the company own the rights to Max’s characters, and thus to Max himself, constructing the narrative that they want to construct in order to sell magazines. Max didn’t realize that the contract he signed gave the rights to the publishing company, and this news causes him to have another heart attack.
The narratives based on Max’s life get constructed through the lens of the staff writers and for the purpose of the magazine, not for the purpose of relating the realities of events, or the reality that Max wants to tell. Rather, the mythologized version of the Old West comes into focus, a version constructed for the reader to sell magazines, a version constructed to promote, to a certain extent, a view of justice in the lead up to the war. These moments come together with the German American Bund’s “Pro American Rally” at Madison Square Garden in February 1939. This event serves as a backdrop to the narrative arc of Pulp.
After Max realizes he can’t make enough money to leave Rosa if he dies, he decides to commit a robbery, and before he can do it, a man from his past, Jeremiah Goldman, stops him. Goldman was a Pinkerton, pursing Max and his brother. However, he never caught them. Now, Goldman wants Max to help him rob the Bund, relieving them of the donations that countless people gave them to support the German war machine, while the rally takes place at Madison Square Garden. Max agrees, but it turns out that Goldman doesn’t want the money and no money is in the office. Goldman wants to list of donors.
The heist leads to Goldman’s murder, and even though Max is mad about not getting money from the robbery, he does not hold a grudge against Goldman. Max understands Goldman’s anger, his desire to stand up against the anti-semitism of the Nazis and their sympathizers in the United States. Thus, when he gets out of the hospital, Max enacts revenge upon Goldman’s murderers, dying himself in the process.
Max’s life moves from the Old West to World War II. He moves from the mythologized image of cowboys on the frontier fighting for “justice” and a better life to the beginnings of World War II and the patriotic actions of millions in the fight against fascism. Along the way, Pulp highlights the constructed nature of Max’s story, the fact that the characters that Max created for his stories were thinly-veiled representations of his own actions. We know these narratives are fabricated because Max tells us and we also see what really occurred. We know that he constructs the narratives for readers, to sell magazines, to make money, to create the myths.
While the “Pro American Rally” serves as the backdrop for the heist that Max and Goldman conduct, it serves in a similar manner. The narrative that the United States tells itself about World War II is that it was the heroic nation saving the world from fascism and evil. What it fails to tell itself, though, is that there were those in the United States who sympathized with the Nazis and supported them. It constructs the myth of the United States as without any trace of evil or blurring of the lines. In this manner, it creates a feeling of superiority, a feeling that the United States is rightfully better than other nations because it fought to defeat Hitler and won. This narrative, though, obfuscates the truth, a dirty messy truth that needs to be told. Just as the mythologizing of the Old West needs to be deconstructed, and has been, the mythologizing of the heroic United States in World War II needs to be deconstructed. In a way, Pulp does that by highlighting the “Pro America Rally” and the fact, that as Max’s partner Rosa tells him, “You know [the Nazis] are here in New York.”
Just like Criminal: The Last of the Innocent, Pulp is a crime thriller, but behind the tropes of the crime narrative, Burbaker and Phillips call upon us, as readers, to question the constructed narratives we tell ourselves, the narratives that we need to deconstruct. There’s more to say, but what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.