The Flying Fortress

Dieselpulp

Posted in themes by seraphimish on August 5, 2009

Doc Savage Rocketeer


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.

Comic’s Ancestry

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.

Simple Wonder

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.

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18 Responses

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  1. Piechur said, on August 6, 2009 at 7:53 am

    There was at least 50-year gap between the last scientific romance and the first steampunk story, so it’s pretty easy to define steampunk as a separate subgenre. It’s not so easy with dieselpunk. The continuity of pulp and dieselpunk makes it almost impossible to set the time-frames for each of them. So how can we discern the dieselpunk? Or is it just another name for pulp?

    • flyingfortress said, on August 6, 2009 at 8:58 pm

      Do we really need to separate the two? I think Seraphimish’s characterization of pulp heroes as non-super, normal men who do extraordinary things fits nicely into dieselpunk’s belief in what ordinary people can accomplish (which is my own interpretation of dieselpunk).

      While one could write a pulp-style story without any other dieselpunk elements or vice-versa, I’d consider pulp to be another item in the dieselpunk toolbox, along with dystopia, occult, and so on.

      • Piechur said, on August 11, 2009 at 1:00 pm

        If they are really the same (pulp=dieselpunk), this is the argument against the use of name “dieselpunk”.

        • Tome Wilson said, on August 13, 2009 at 9:17 am

          Dieselpunk, to me, is a love/appreciation for an era that wasn’t previously defined under a single term.

          This era encompasses post-WWI through to the 50’s/60’s and has been labeled “diesel” in relation to that time period’s rise of automobile culture.

          The “punk” euphemism applies to a contemporary sub-culture’s adoption of this era’s pop culture elements in an effort to stand apart from what is considered normal/typical by modern-day standards. Or, as I like to put it, when mohawks are the norm and 70’s punk culture is for sale in the mall, does it still count as “punk?”

          In addition to pulp fiction, which I find many dieselpunks find entertaining or inspiring for their artwork/clothing, I also feel that Futurism, Classic Car Culture, Noir fiction, Jazz/Big Band/Swing music, and an appreciation for technology that was still serviceable by the masses play a part in dieselpunk culture.

          • seraphimish said, on August 13, 2009 at 2:09 pm

            Well put sir.

            Like flyingfortress said, pulp is but one of the many facets that is used to exemplify what dieselpunk really is.

            We’re trying to flesh out what it is that makes this idea a bona fide concept in the same way that there are Sinophiles, Steampunks, and other types of countercultural movements. So far, we’ve got the umbrella of dieselpunk solidifying. Now the types of things we want to invite into this web is up to us to figure out.

          • Piechur said, on August 23, 2009 at 9:42 am

            I don’t think there’s something like “dieselpunk subculture”. I also can’t see any modern subcultures adopting 1920s-1950s fashion.

          • Tome Wilson said, on August 23, 2009 at 10:35 am

            So, you haven’t seen http://www.dieselpunks.org yet is what you’re saying?

          • Piechur said, on August 23, 2009 at 2:20 pm

            180 members won’t turn a web-forum into a subculture. Especially when compared to 19 million members of Gaia Online (do they form a subculture?).

          • flyingfortress said, on August 23, 2009 at 7:43 pm

            Whether Dieselpunk is a subculture is not defined by the size of the group: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/subculture

            Still, Piechur’s hesitation to call dieselpunk a subculture at this stage is well-founded, since we’re only just starting to define what dieselpunk is. There is no reason to get caught up in labels at such an early stage.

            However, I don’t see any reason why some people won’t be drawn to 1920s-1950-era fashion. They’re content to dress up in Steampunk’s frilly and foppish Victorian styles or Rockabilly styles (http://forums.thefashionspot.com/f112/rockabilly-pin-up-hair-tips-styling-trends-61155.html). In fact, most of the hits this blog has gotten has been from searches for “1930s fashion” and “1940s fashion.”

          • Piechur said, on August 24, 2009 at 3:14 am

            Let’s wait until dieselpunk fits this definition:
            “A cultural subgroup differentiated by status, ethnic background, residence, religion, or other factors that functionally unify the group and act collectively on each member.”

            A propos “Victorian rockabilly” – the name was “Teds”:
            http://steampunk.republika.pl/arch/logo-e.html

          • Tome Wilson said, on August 24, 2009 at 1:44 pm

            I am flattered that you feel Dieselpunks.org’s website membership catalogs every dieselpunk on Earth, Piechur.

            Give us more than 3 months. We’re working on it.

            I’m assuming that you’re not actually trolling, being that you’re socializing here on one of the best dieselpunk websites out there. Let’s assume you’re playing Devil’s Advocate and hoping that we can define ourselves.

            From the same page you cited as a reference, a subculture is “a group within a society that has its own shared set of customs, attitudes, and values, often accompanied by jargon or slang. A subculture can be organized around a common activity, occupation, age, status, ethnic background, race, religion, or any other unifying social condition, but the term is often used to describe deviant groups, such as thieves and drug users.”

            While I’m not a drug user or a thief, I do identify with the DIY custom, attitude, and value of dieselpunk. I’m inspired by other artists that share similar values, such as the Flying Fortress team and Doctor Steel, and I’m inspired by the art movements of the “diesel” era. I interact socially with others that are similarly inspired and adopt the fashions and ideas set forth by the group when suitable to the situation.

            Does this make me special? Not at all. I’m simply part of a larger group that enjoys the same things. We share similar interests and can discuss a range of things not typically known by our contemporaries despite the main cultures we originally stem from.

            So, before I write a poorly edited book on this subject, as Devil’s Advocate, what is your opposition to the term “subculture” in regards to dieselpunk, and more importantly, why is this important in regards to your stance on the subject?

          • Piechur said, on August 24, 2009 at 1:57 pm

            At this stage Dieselpunk is only a poorly defined subgenre of sci-fi. But you, Mr. Wilson, seem to follow the Brass Goggles’ modus operandi. Does every genre must turn into a subculture concentrated around a website? Do you believe that a subculture is better than a fandom? Is the name “Subculture” ennobling or something? I’m not trolling.

          • seraphimish said, on August 24, 2009 at 2:37 pm

            I believe I’m starting to see where you’re coming from Piechur. Granted, all those who are even aware of the dieselpunk term may only reach into the hundreds, making it far removed from more popular, recognizable mainstream movements such as Ganguro girls in Japan, death metalheads, what have you.

            But with the internet, a multitude of micro-groups (subcultures, fans, subgenre aficionados, call them what you will) are possible. It’s more than likely that what we call dieselpunk will be nothing more than a quality of setting, fashion, and technology that we see parts of in a few films, comics, et cetera. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that we all enjoy the same thing, and wish to expand upon the narrative of what is dieselpunk.

            Naming the movement is subjective semantics. But I think it’s safe to say that it’s existent and gaining steam (pardon). Maybe this is on the same level as Trekkers, but look at how exhaustively comprehensive that mythology is! I would be proud to see dieselpunk with that kind of foundation to it.

          • Tome Wilson said, on August 24, 2009 at 3:10 pm

            While I can see some aspects of dieselpunk fiction falling into the sci-fi genre, that’s simply a small part of a whole you seem to be ignoring in your commentary.

            Where does the pre-50’s car culture come into sci-fi? Where does the jazz and crooner music come into sci-fi? What does Futurism have to do with sci-fi? I feel you have an idea of what dieselpunk based on your exposure to some works of fiction. I also feel that your concept of dieselpunk is not as encompassing as what the interested community believes dieselpunk is.

            Do I believe that a subculture is better than a fandom? I think they’re two seperate things. For example, I am a fan of certain television shows, but my interest in those shows does not dictate behavioral changes askew from my society’s mainstream culture. At the same time, a heartfelt connection with dieselpunk as a cultural basis is a reality. I do listen to the music of the dieselpunk era. I do dress in the fashions of the dieselpunk era when possible (as much as my wallet can allow). I do create art inspired by the dieselpunk era. And I am in contact with others that do the same outside of my example or leadership (to differentiate us from a cult).

            I think the line between being a fan of an idea and growing a subculture around an idea is the difference between theory and practicality. It’s a line that can be crossed by example, or simply the ability to put your money where your mouth is. If you talk about it, you’re a fan. If you do it along with others, it’s now a part of a subculture.

            I find this discussion enjoyable, and I thank you for your time. You’ve given me much to think about.

          • Piechur said, on August 24, 2009 at 3:11 pm

            Seraphimish – let Dieselpunk develop naturally. Let’s not force it to become this or that. Let’s be propagators rather than trendsetters.

            I’m afraid that this damned “punk” suffix works like a lure. “Steampunk” or “Dieselpunk” sounds so much cooler than “VSF enthusiast” or “pulp lover”. This may be one of the reasons why these genres are so attractive for self-appointed subculture gurus.

  2. Lord K said, on August 8, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Inreresting and very readable. Thanks.

  3. seraphimish said, on August 10, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    To supplement, great fan-made Cap vid http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClBTG5_NU-Q. Now to get the movie made.

  4. Dark Void. « The Flying Fortress said, on January 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    […] blog, and that is precisely why I wanted to briefly discuss Dark Void. In his excellent piece on Pulp as it relates to Dieselpunk, Seraphimish discusses the Rocketeer, among other pulp […]


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