Saturday, 11 May 2013

Pulp Manifesto: Archaeology of the Masked Hero - The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Been doing some research into the early years of pulp heroes lately. And by ‘research’ I mean reading classic adventure stories and watching old movies. Why? Because if you trace back far enough, along the long line of recent superhero movies, past the martial arts stars of the 90s, beyond the gung ho gun-packing 80s action stars, all the way through the silver age of comics, past the early genre films and movie serials, back into the golden age of pulps and right to the early years of the storytelling medium… way back there in the formative years of modern hero storytelling there were older stories influencing what people wrote, why they wrote them and how. I’ve always wondered what lay at the bedrock of contemporary hero storytelling and it was about time I found out. What I found was a bloke called The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I imagine there aren’t too many my age who know much about the Scarlet Pimpernel. I certainly didn’t. I’d heard the name a few times and had an inkling that the character was ‘swashbuckling related’ but beyond that I didn’t know too much. What I did know was that if you went back far enough along the superhero genealogy tree you got to Batman. And Batman was influenced by a series of pulp ‘dark avenger vigilante’ heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, The Green Hornet and, as Batman fans will know, masked vigilantes like the Lone Ranger and Zorro. What I eventually discovered was that you go one step further to reach the hero known as The Scarlet Pimpernel.

This is an actual Scarlet Pimpernel, a common roadside flower.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was written in 1905 by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It was a tale about a mysterious hero who did his thing all the way back in 1792. This was during the ‘Reign of Terror’ following the French Revolution, a stretch of history where the tables were turned and the arrogant aristocracy suddenly became a hunted species. It is during this Time of Infamy (you have to say that in an old-timey radio serial voice) that, according to the story, the Scarlet Pimpernel became famous for sneaking into France to rescue aristocrats headed for ‘Madame Guillotine’. However, in order to maintain his feats of liberation the Scarlet Pimpernel had to lead a double life, one in which he pretends to be an aristocratic fop by day who is at the centre of London’s elite social life, but so bone lazy and shallow he is the last person anyone would suspect of being an infamous hero. Then, when no one is looking, he sneaks into Paris in disguise and makes fools of authorities by preventing the wholesale slaughter of the upper classes.

Yeah, if you’re looking for the origin of ‘fool by day, hero by night’, the Scarlet Pimpernel is where you stop your search.

The book (which started out as a play) was an immediate success and saw the Baroness churning out dozens of sequels for decades to come. It also inspired many a movie adaptation during the early years of cinema and successfully seeded the idea of the hero with a secret identity, a trope that still dominates a huge swathe of hero writing today. But for some reason the initial popularity of the Pimpernel has been unable to sustain itself up to the present. At least not the way The Three Musketeers or even the Pimpernel’s  initial clones, Zorro and the Lone Ranger, have been able to. For some strange reason you just don’t see that many Scarlet Pimpernel movie remakes these days. (The latest was a British tv series. I’ve seen it. It was okay. But far from awesome)

But, ignoring the untapped remake potential of the story, what can we learn about hero writing from The Scarlet Pimpernel? Especially, what can we learn about secret identity heroes? Just to keep things simple I’ll keep my list of things I’ve learnt to four.( I could talk a lot more about them all but then I’d end up with another 5 article essay ala my James Bond series):

1. Elitist Fantasies.

Some of the most fascinating elements of the story are related to the author herself. Orczy was a Baroness writing at the turn of the 20th century, a time in which the European aristocracy was perhaps enjoying its last great fling before two World Wars decimated their influence across Europe. This is significant when you consider the subject motivation of the hero – he’s an aristocrat rescuing aristocrats.

I find this fascinating when put in light of some of the criticisms put forward about Batman. People who delve into the politics of Batman often claim that the character is a form of right wing, elitist power fantasy in which a rich American capitalist, sick of the way the legal system is failing to do what he thinks it should be doing, goes out on the town every night to beat on poor(er) people who he blames for everything that is wrong.

I’m not really sold on that particular interpretation. Batman doesn’t exactly have any rich friends that cast ‘his people’ in a good light, and his ‘richness’ only exists as far as it does empowering him to do all his ‘Batman stuff’, not for him to actively participate in ‘his world’ or fight ‘them’ from the poor regions of Gotham. But it is an interesting idea in light of both the source of ‘hidden identity heroes’ – The Scarlet Pimpernel – and the halfway house between them, Zorro. All three characters are wealthy, heavily into the symbolism of heroism, and always end up doing audacious things in order to save the day. None of them decided to join the police force and fight crime the old fashioned way. But how does this ‘hero must be rich in order to be empowered to fight crime’ trope effect how heroes in general are portrayed? Is this a lazy trope, and are there alternatives that haven’t been explored? Was that a significant part of the success of the rise of science fiction based super-heroes, freeing them from the need to have large bank accounts because the power was within their bodies instead of their inheritance?

I think it’s an interesting facet of the billionaire hero trope that becomes clear once you know their heritage. And once you know the rules, you can break them J

2. Ladies kicking it in pulp.

One of the most surprising things for me reading the story for the first time was that the story is actually told from the perspective of the wife of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Marguerite. This gives the story a strong sense of romance as The Scarlet Pimpernel is an unknown hero she longs for well before she learns that he is in fact her husband, a man she has quite a few problems with. The mystery of the character – and the subsequent romance and rumour projected onto him – are significant parts of both the plot and Marguerite’s motivation. In a funny way it also pre-dates the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, skipping over Batman to inspire the ultimate masked hero dilemma – the two person love triangle.

It makes me wonder why more Superman stories aren’t written from the perspective of Lois Lane. It’s a proven formula. Not only was one of the first pulp hero authors female but she probably cracked the cross-gender hero story well before superhero comics made it such a problem. Learn from your history or you will be doomed to repeat it…

(Note: not that the story is straight up fair on female characters. Some of the writing, read from a contemporary perspective, could at best be considered ‘quaint’. Other times it’s downright ridiculous concerning female gender stereotypes, a fact not helped by the thick layer of swoony romance)

3. A Status Quo of Injustice.

Another thing I noted reading the Scarlet Pimpernel was the interesting way 18th Century France becomes the perfect setting for vigilante heroism. Mostly this is because it’s so different from your typical urban hero setting where it’s all about taking on crime. In the Scarlet Pimpernel the injustice is of a political nature, existing in another country that the hero has access to. France therefore becomes the ‘generator of injustice’ which in turn provokes so many different stories of vigilante adventure. Batman has Gotham, which is so full of character and meaning in its own right that great Batman stories pretty much write themselves. But other heroes suffer under a weak ‘vigilante concept’ because they don’t have that injustice status quo to draw on. So they all end up in Gotham anyway. Maybe what these characters need is a different form of injustice to fight, another location of injustice with a different form of injustice to differentiate them from their peers. The Scarlet Pimpernel had the French Revolution, Robin Hood had the taxation of the Sheriff of Nottingham, Doctor Syn had the taxation and press gangs of the Dover region, John Carter had the political complications of Barsoom, etc etc. Maybe the problem with some characters is that they need a similarly unique location and status quo of injustice to define them better. Maybe writers need to try harder to create them.

4. No swashbuckling!

The Scarlet Pimpernel has no sword fights! I know, right? Bizarre. Here I am reading one of the original swashbucklers and there’s nary a sword in sight. Plenty of deception and espionage, but no sword fights. Which goes to prove that swashbucklers, contrary to their name, aren’t about sword fighting. A buckler maketh not the genre. Having watched a lot of swashbuckler movies while reading The Scarlet Pimpernel it’s become clear to me that the swashbuckler genre doesn’t actually depend on sword fights to make it what it is, that’s just the inevitable result of the settings in which these stories are usually told. No, the actual foundation of the swashbuckler genre is… audacity.

That’s the common theme amongst swashbucklers films, or to be more precise, swashbuckler protagonists – they’re audacious. Cocky, verbose and daring, the cavaliers at the heart of these movies aren’t just fencing their way to victory but swinging around on ropes, climbing everything in sight (Fairbanks – that man was a climber), racing horses, disguising themselves in order to sneak past their enemies, and generally pulling off outrageous gambles in order to save the day. In the end it’s not so much what they’re doing that makes a swashbuckler movie, but how they do it. They do it with elan, guile and daring. They are audacious. That’s what makes a swashbuckler.
Blokes like this were the inspiration for the genre. But that doesn't mean writers can't go beyond them for more contemporary characters.
 From this I take it that you could readily make a contemporary swashbuckler story without the need to reinvent the sword. You just need an audacious hero who embodies the elan of those earlier heroes such as the Fairbanks, Flynns and Kellys of yesteryear. Give your protagonist a sense of honour to keep their actions ‘pure’, a sense of fun so they get into the spirit of what they’re doing, then unleash them on injustice in a modern setting. Voila! You’re tapping a past genre staple in a way that will probably be fresh and new to most contemporary readers.


Reading The Scarlet Pimpernel as a research project has been really fascinating. Not only do I have a firmer grasp on the primordial underpinnings of most contemporary heroes but I also have a stack of new character and story ideas I’d like to explore. The story isn’t perfect, and there’s plenty to roll your eyes at sometimes, but seeing the hero genre taking form there on the page has made it easier to grasp what came afterwards. If you’re serious about your swashbucklers then I recommend getting a hold of the story and taking some notes. It’s a classic and free on the internet for anyone who wants it so there’s no excuses. You just need the audacity to try :)

ePulp Review of the Week - Dodge Dalton in the Shadow of Falcon's Wings by Sean Ellis.

The Adventures of Dodge Dalton in the Shadow of Falcon's WingsThe Adventures of Dodge Dalton in the Shadow of Falcon's Wings by Sean Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*Pulp Warning* All my e-reading is e-pulp related so my reviews are thus minded. Reader beware :) *Pulp Warning*

Overall: 3 stars (You might like it)

Although this story had all the classic pulp adventure elements it seemed to drag relative to other examples of the field. As a mainstream adventure story it does the job with plenty of the good stuff the genre has to offer but as e-pulp it seems to drag in an unnecessary way I found frustrating.

Pacing and Action: 3 stars.

This was a bizarre reading experience for me because while the story seemed to have everything I could want in a pulp tale it became really hard going by the halfway mark. The action was often described from a distance, the character perspectives were complicated by a timeline that would jump back and forth, even on cliffhanger chapter endings, and the characters seemed to be constantly reflecting on things and telling rather than showing. There also didn't seem to be any logical drive to the plot so things would drag out over chapters without any sense of where we were headed. The overall effect was bulky and wordy and I found it very frustrating.

If you're not especially pulp inclined then add another star as many of these things won't bother you. But I was expecting some high pulp and this wasn't really it.

Pulp Concept: 3 stars.

The pulp concepts were fairly simple with the stereotypical period setting and some whacky, fun pulp sci fi elements but the constant use of meta-style self referencing was a bit of a drag. I don't know if the writer was trying to say something or just so wrapped up in the pulps that his hero had to be a pulp writer as well but it caused some logic kinks that had me stopping to wonder if I was supposed to be reading something into this or not. Either way it slowed things down further and heaped on the frustration.

Again, if you're not pulp obsessed a lot of this won't matter but for me it was really disappointing.

Character development: 4 stars.

This wasn't too bad. The character is actually going on a journey and, while clunky at times, there ends up being a fairly solid cast of characters by the end. The story also plays some interesting kinks into the stereotype of the Doc Savage clone by making him a support character. It was an idea that had some interesting potential. But considering the protagonist's journey was the strength of the story it highlights that the style of writing was more your traditional prose writing than a more pulpy style or storytelling. Even if all the characters and setting etc were pulp sourced.

Production: 4 stars.

Good cover with its old-school adventure feel and good editting. One thing that stood out was the random use of some extraordinary words. Words like 'imprecations', 'bellicose', 'demesne', and 'coruscating' are all used and, thanks to my Kobos handy dictionary, I know they were all used in the right context. But they serve as a good illustration of how the writing style can be a bit flamboyant and dense at the expense of what is going on.

Series Potential: 3 stars.

I just don't see anything here that would warrant a series, beyond wanting more pulp to read. Although the setting and characters are certainly there and ready to go. And as there is already two stories in the series the ability to read on is available.

Wrap Up.

Certainly not my favourite reading experience of the past year but I think less fussy readers will get a lot more out of the story than I did. This story made me realise that, A, there is such thing as pulp snobbing and, B, I'm starting to do it while I read. I'm guessing this will make my reviews more discriminating but make it harder to look at myself in the mirror :(

Check this out if you need a quick Indiana Jones-style fix. But if you're a pulp afficiando there is better stuff out there.

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Sunday, 5 May 2013

ePulp Review of the Week - The Sting of the Silver Manticore by P. J. Lozito.

The Sting of the Silver ManticoreThe Sting of the Silver Manticore by P. J. Lozito
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*Pulp Warning* All my e-reading is pulp skewed so my reviews are too. Reader beware :) *Pulp Warning*

Overall: 3 stars (You may get something out of it)

First up, I didn't finish this book. It was just too much. This is, personally, a 2 star book - one that has major problems with the basic writing craft, regardless of the story being told. But I rated it a 3 because I think that if you are a hard core retro pulp fan you may get something out of this. But for everyone else I recommend you try something else.

Pacing and Action: 2 stars.

This was a very slow story and not because of the action scenes etc. This is a slow story because there is endless exposition (at least for the first 48% I read). Six or seven of the first ten chapters are, without a word of exaggeration, exposition chapters in which two or more people sit in a room and explain things to each other. It's incredibly frustrating. Explanation after explanation after explanation. Much of it concerns character biographies, historical events and plot points that occurred before the story even starts which is bizarre as I was under the impression this was the first book in the series. It also leads to a convoluted, twisting plot with motivations I couldn't recall. It was frustrating and it was slow. And eventually I just had to put it down.

Pulp Concept: 3 stars.

This is where things get really frustrating. For all the confusion and lag in the story this appears to be one of the best researched pulp stories I've ever read. It is clear that the author is a massive pulp fan and student of the era. And this is where nostalgia-pulp fans will get a kick out of the story – the story is riddled with little anecdotes of the era, information about various experiments or scientific breakthroughs that were occurring at the time and brand names or popular culture references dropped in at every turn. It’s thick throughout the story and really does help ground the story in the era. But if you’re not a fan of the era and not playing pulp-era bingo then it slows the story down even more with obscure references to unnecessary information. Again, very frustrating.

The pulp concept is also very derivative. I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of nostalgia-pulp characters but even I know a blatant Doc Savage clone when I see one, right down to his offsiders where there is no attempt to hide the fact they’re clones. This is largely a fan fiction story about the time the Green Hornet teamed up with Doc Savage. There are few original ideas and that offsets a lot of good research.

Character Development: 2 stars.

As mentioned before, most of these characters are straight up ports of other characters so there wasn’t a lot of character development to speak of, but I will qualify that by pointing out I only got half way through the book. But with all the exposition going on there was plenty of ‘telling’ and not much ‘showing’ which, again, was very frustrating.

Another aspect that was done well was the characterization of the bad guys but it’s a complicated ‘well’. The Oriental villains are characterised well in that they really do feel like the Fu Manchu-style characters from the serials etc and as a piece of fan fiction the story reproduced them well. But those representations are fairly uncomfortable in a modern context. The characters are freed from much of the racist baggage of their peers through various stretches of exposition and some clunky dialogue sequences but it was still awkward to read. That’s not on the author so much as the lingering shadow those old characters cast but it was a little uncanny to read.

Production: 3 stars.

Again, not great. Spelling and grammar mistakes everywhere. It needed a much better edit before being published. Saving grace was the cover which I didn’t think was too bad and helped it stand out from other pulp offerings. An extra star for the cover. But that didn’t help what was past the cover.

Series Potential: ? stars.

I didn’t make it to the end of the book so I can’t say for sure but if the characters are all knock offs then I can’t imagine why you would want to read further adventures. Not when you can read the real ones. I do think that the writer has potential to do this sort of project in the future, learning from their fairly simple beginner mistakes to write another well researched, style-accurate nostalgia-pulp character series. But this character may have already done its run.

Wrap Up.

There really is some quality stuff in this story but it’s lying under a thick layer of beginner writing that really ruins the experience. If you adore the genre and the era then you will love all the references and probably get a chuckle out of the way it so clearly references the classic pulp characters. But for someone unfamiliar with the old pulps or too young to get anything out of the nostalgia aspect you are better off trying something else.

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Thursday, 2 May 2013

A Truly Gorgeous (Automotive) Thing...

At the moment I'm editing the second Tommy Thunder book which has one of these in it:

That there, flappers and khans, is a dual-cowl phaeton Model J Deusenberg, one of the finest four wheeled automotive machines the world has ever seen. *Big sigh of longing* The 'dual cowl phaeton' is the design of the coach with the rear seat separated from the front with it's own windscreen.

Oh so Dieselpunky gorgeous...

Pulp Cover of the Week - Flying Aces.

Dieselpunk Song of the Week - C2C's Tribute to Mr Armstrong.

Short but awesome: