Pulp Review: The Past Never Lets Go

Jul 31, 2020
Cover of Pulp original graphic novel

At this stage of the game, new material from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is 'buy on sight', regardless of the genre, no questions asked. From their early collaboration on Wildstorm's Sleeper, through to the likes of Incognito, Kill Or Be Killed and, of course, the peerless anthology series Criminal, there exists a creative synergy between them that few other writer/artist teams can get near to. Recently they've begun to branch out into original graphic novel territory in between their miniseries - in 2018 we had the Eisner-award-winning My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies and now, in 2020, we have Pulp.

The title hints at the content on a number of levels. Obviously, it deals with familiar tropes from pulp fiction of the nineteen thirties and forties that has proved to be a fertile era for these two creators (even when transporting essential elements into more modern settings) but then we have lead character, Max Winter, a man in his later years who makes a meagre living writing cowboy stories for pulp magazines, which, unbeknownst to his publisher, are based on his escapades in the twilight days of the Wild West. It's 1939, the world is on the brink of war, the Nazis are posturing in Europe and gaining support in some quarters of the States, and Max is now at perhaps the final crossroads of his life, where falling back into old habits to make ends meet is an appealing alternative to struggling along the same path he has walked for the last few decades.

Max has tried to do the right thing, to provide for his wife and attempt to push for artistry in his writing, where his publisher only wants generic shoot-em-ups, but he's faced with coming to terms with his own mortality and realising, finally, that time is running out. It's a tale of man doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, trying to recapture his youth, but realising the romanticised  view of the past through rose-tinted glasses, particularly when it comes to violence, is dramatically different to the reality of shotgun blast to the head.

Page from Pulp original graphic novel

Brubaker's protagonists are frequently quintessentially noirish, and Max - a man burdened by his past - fits right into this category, but, while the writer's characters often have similar traits, he humanises them to such a degree that they thrive individually on the page with rich, tortured inner lives (the first person narrative he regularly employs helps define these varied but relatable perspectives). Phillips' illustrations are, as always, infused with a melancholic ambience, a sense of inevitability hanging above the characters, Max's weariness conveyed brilliantly. Jacob Phillips gives another superb demonstration of how well his colours compliment his father's artwork; greyish, sombre tones for the present tense, more rustic reds and oranges for flashbacks and fictionalised rememberings.

There are plenty of pleasing pulp thrills in this book (Nazis! Gunslingers!) but it rises above simple genre classification because of the trademark depth and complexity of the characters, and how even in their darkest moments they tap into familiar human truths. The Brubaker/Phillips partnership remains as strong as it ever was, perhaps more so with each new project, and reading something of the quality of Pulp can only increase the eagerness to see what they rustle up next.

Writer: Ed Bubaker
Art: Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillps
Image Comics $16.99


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