New to the Levitating Leviathan – whoops sorry, Flying Fortress – I find myself already lost in the nebulous sea of what makes dieselpunk as it is. So, what better to hit things off with than comics?
Mr. Fortress is a good friend of mine who’s shown me some of the beauty that comes along with dieselpunk. But I have some different areas of interest as flyingfortress, and wish to shine some light on other aspects that have yet to be fully assimilated into what is considered diesel. I am first choosing to flesh out the idea on how much pulp magazines affected the formation of dieselpunk’s principles. I should warn those temporarily bound that this analysis deviates from what is a typically era-restricted dialogue as I attempt to look at the nascent concept of dieselpunk as exogenous of a particular time or place.
While having not exactly grown up on The Shadow, Lone Ranger, or Green Hornet as my father had, I and those of my generation had our own collection of fictional heroes to draw upon. But the buried history where your Spider-man and Incredible Hulk characters came from drove me to dig deeper into their pseudo-forefathers and to what extent the pulp medium ripples through time (e.g. Batman being an amalgamation of ‘The Black Bat’ and ‘The Shadow’). Pulp is a medium that was brought to an end – perhaps poetically – due to the restrictions put on paper materials for World War II. The unyielding adventure the stories held for audiences, the plain-spoken story-telling, and the breadth with which subject matters could be adapted into pulp were all facets cherished by fans of the medium in times where there were troubling global issues to handle. What does all this have to do with diesel you may ask? What remains of dieselpunk’s style, philosophy, and culture in modern times is just as important to the sentiment of diesel as is its roots in the 1930s and 40s.
Apart from the romance, macabre, and nigh-pornographic genres of pulp, the mainstays such as sci-fi, westerns, and adventure all heavily relied on the typical “damsel in distress” formula for assorted hero types to save. In a time before superpowers made superheroes with their respective mythologies, it was the wits and ingenuity of these men (by and large all men) from which their power and success originated. It’s easy to see the correlations between these heroes and their “modern” comic book counterparts such as Captain America and Batman; champions as symbols, embodiments of their beliefs, but also normal men with lives apart from their heroic deeds. Yet those characters came along around the same time as your typical Buck Rogers, but have persisted decades after their inception while nearly all pulp iterations have fallen by the wayside, if not become a pastiche of their former glory.
Heroes of Men
Captain America and Batman are both modern American icons in their own right, but have much to thank for in their pulp predecessors. They are the veritable Doc Savage and The Shadow put in circumstances both more realistic and unrealistic than anything dreamt of decades ago. The stories may be yoked due to canon continuity or a semblance of practicality in the world that the more brazen pulp were quick to disregard, but the concepts of intrigue into the unknown remain the same. Adventures are far grander and worldly in scope if anything; genres such as horror, science fiction, and fantasy still have their representatives in modern comics, and passionate men (and now women) seeking their own justice and knack for discoveries with their intellect above all else have returned in full force.
During pulp, the “Ambitious Man” was alone compelling enough. The difference now is it the route typically taken for a hero is someone superior to the average person, many times by leaps and bounds, who happens to have great, very human inner strength. So what makes the heroes of dieselpunk such is not their rocket packs or two-way wristwatches, but their determination to attack their problems in the same tenacious, uncompromising way the Wars and the Depression were. Batman makes for a more compelling character because he must stop the same type of villains as Superman with a congruent moral compass but without the powers. It is the character of a hero – their thirst for adventure, mystery, justice, and peace – that propels their triumphs. This idea has found its way back into modern comics in a strong way in the past couple decades as superheroes are tested ethically and morally in ways their powers cannot punch the problem away. Superman is almost boring in his overpowered state, but can meet his greatest match in trying to live up to the ideal of Superman. It is this tenacity and unrelenting push for what is good to become what is better that represents dieselpunk’s heroes.
Where pulp ends and comics begin is a thin line at best. The Phantom could be considered a linchpin in the transition being borne of the pulp tradition, but holds the trappings of a modern superhero; a body-hugging, recognizable outfit replete with mask, an origin story in his ancestors, and a home base in the Skull Cave were all unorthodox characteristics in the crime-fighting pulp. The Shadow also similarly strayed from the pulp formula with powers of pseudo-hypnosis and a notable rogue’s gallery. Both characters saw a largely ho-hum attempt at silver screen fame in the 1990s portrayed by Billy Zane and Alec Baldwin respectively. But with Hollywood just beginning to get superhero movies right, the relatively blasé abilities of pulp heroes gave little incentive for crowds to choose the realistic adventures over those more spectacular. Dick Tracy and the Rocketeer, in part due to their A-list stars and higher budgets, allowed for some blockbuster-like penetration in the market, albeit ephemeral.
So where does this leave diesel, and its stories of intrigue, mystique, and venture? Like all things cultural, pulp has evolved beyond its original form into a pool of blockbuster ideas for an unfamiliar audience, comic book cameos sometimes as a homage and other pastiche, and some all but forgotten save that gentleman I ran into in Manhattan selling an exorbitant amount of notable and obscure pulp. It’s difficult to pinpoint what pulp remains as today lest it be an intentional throwback much as many things considered dieselpunk are. It is easy to forget that Conan the Barbarian, Zorro, throwaway Dime Western heroes, and plain-looking Moon Men all co-existed in the pulp medium. What made the magazines big sellers at the time were their cheap thrills in a way that would likely be seen as too simplistic by today’s standards. With the properly guided hand, perhaps the Ambitious Man hero could be appealing again, despite competition with the “capes”. Instead of artificially inflating the fantastic elements of a journey (I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), the right story elements that emphasize the resoluteness in seeing something done and the wonder in what can be accomplished with cunning wit and ingenuity could not only give a resurgence to pulp-like chronicles, but also further hone the emphasis on the hero as someone with an indomitable spirit rather than relying on his/her gifts as a crutch (i.e. The Dark Knight. Iron Man to a lesser extent).
Pulp can be simplistic fantasy, convoluted realism, and all other types of escapism in between. It is also a resilient embodiment of overarching sentiments in the time periods of their duration; continuous discoveries in all fields of knowledge and the implicit danger and titillation that comes with understanding a bit more about the many things still unknown. While but a ghost of its former self, pulp will live on as the undying resolve in powered and non-powered heroes alike.