It was a time as strange to us as an alien landscape. America had not yet swaggered out onto the international stage with its dramatic intervention in World War I. Factories were sweeping in a generation of workers, and a generation of barely literate blue collar workers were looking for something to read. Into that world, filled with massive machinery, parochial understanding of the globe, and great, innocent dreams, came the pulp magazine.
Named for the cheap paper on which they were printed – “The story is more important than the paper it’s printed on” according to Frank Munsey, a pulp publisher – the magazines presented a variety of dramatic, simply written stories about adventure, mystery, and excitement that appealed to an audience unprepared and uninterested in “literature.”
Those stories sparked the imagination, promising adventure and romance in the great unknown. The pulps spawned Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.L. Mencken, and Robert E. Howard. They provided dreams at bargain rates through the Great Depression, tantalizing a struggling population, not with an analysis of harsh reality, but with the hope that mystery and heroism were still waiting in the unmarked areas of the map.
In the complexity of the wake of World War 2 with its shattered heroes and limited space for adventure in the unknown, the pulp faded and died, yielding to television and gradually releasing its stories into neutered, often patronizing realm of young adult literature. But the basic themes running behind the lurid stories of the turn of the Twentieth Century did not die.
And now, in a new age with a generation of barely literate smartphone users looking for something easily accessible, Disney is betting that the pulp is back. With America, and indeed the Western world, increasingly uncertain of its place and an economic crisis far too easy to compare to the Great Depression, audiences need heroes. They need to once again believe in the blank spaces on the map – the potential for heroism and adventure. After having hit a box office nerve with the unapologetically pulp adventure of Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney is looking back through the glass of history to the pulp and serial for its inspiration in hopes of connecting with audiences in a new – and financially lucrative – set of stories.
Standing at the forefront of that wave, of course, is John Carter, Disney’s 2012 high budget interpretation of a tale by the king of the pulp – Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs proudly broke the first rule of the high school/college writing class: he wrote nothing he knew. From tigers in the wilds of Africa (oops) to scantily clad princesses on alien landscapes, Burroughs chose the exotic over the unknown, creating his heroes as mighty men whose innate humanity triumphed over bestial chaos and made them greater than the paltry civilized world limited by its habits and traditions.
Beyond the big budget special effects, it is that sense of the exotic, of a hero finding his humanity in the worst of circumstances that Disney hopes to take to the bank. In their day, pulps, and their children the TV serial and the comic book, were criticized for being optimistic and simplistic, but in a world of uncertainty and white collar brutality, perhaps that is exactly what we need.
That return to the pulp is underscored by the upcoming release of a special showing at the El Capitan with appearances by the film’s cast and crew, it seems that rather than finding the film an embarrassing box office flop, Disney is seeing new potential in a movie that missed its time and may resonate for a new office.
Similarly, the wrangled-over Lone Ranger is an unabashed nod to the Television Serials of a bygone age, albeit stripped of its discrimination and jingoism. Disney may not be willing to sink $250 million into the white-horsed heroism of the masked man, but they are interested in making movies about heroes and the adventure at the edges of the known.
With security increasingly scarce and audiences feeling that every space on the map – and in the employment line – has already been filled, Disney’s choice to return to the world of pulp for its inspirations is an interesting decision. Perhaps, in a world where smartphones and tablets have replaced the cheap pulp paper, there are still consumers who are interested in simple stories that keep their interest rather than in literature.
With the purchase of Marvel and the return to Pulp and serial Heroes, Disney seems to be looking into the past for resonance with the present. Often culture seems to find a new understanding of itself in the metaphor of fiction, and it appears Disney is hoping to bank in on that resonance with a new generation of old heroes – with a sense of loyalty, courage, and an overwhelming dose of the good in human nature.
What do you think – will these old fashioned stories of adventure and hope resonate with a new audience, or will Disney be bankrolling failures?