For those who know the Western genre inside and out, will know that the Wild West wasn’t the Wild West. By that, I mean it wasn’t a romanticized period where cowboys were the cool, roguish archetypes that would dominate the decades-long wave of western fiction during the 20th century. Whether you like the clean-cut westerns starring John Wayne or the spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, they are not the most accurate depictions of the real American Old West. The discussion of what the West was and how it has been dramatized is one of the central themes of Pulp, the latest graphic novel by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips at Image.
Once known as the Red Rock Kid who travelled the West participating in robberies and gunfights, Max Winter is now dramatizing his past events as a pulp writer in 1930s New York. With other pulp magazines rising as competition, Max is struggling to gain enough money from his publisher to support himself and his partner, Rosa. As the world moves to the brink of war, with Nazis marching across Europe and in the streets of New York City, Max, now at an elderly age, makes his non-glamorous return as an outlaw.
Pulp is set in 1939, which may be the year of the creation of Batman, but superheroes haven’t quite blown up at yet, and westerns are still the most exciting stories to read in the pulp magazines. Since the magazine that Max writes for is called Six Gun Western, there is a formula to follow to satisfy readers who just want gunfights, no matter how romanticized, much to our protagonist’s chagrin.
Throughout reading this, I was reminded of the two Clint Eastwood-directed movies Unforgiven and Gran Torino, both of which star the actor playing violent men who are past their prime and make a brief return to their past whilst feeling retrospective. Through his narration, you may not get every detail about his backstory, but Max is a compelling enough figure who is aware of his vulnerability and past mistakes as a killer, with the hope of redemption before his impending final breath.
I’ve reviewed a number of Brubaker/Phillips titles, from Kill or Be Killed to the Criminal one-shot graphic novels, and they can sometimes succumb to a similar formula, which leans too closely towards the conventions of crime noir fiction. Not since The Fade Out have the two creators been able to go beyond those conventions, and now comes Pulp. Although you do get the heavy narration from Brubaker, at least it is Max telling the story throughout, as his flawed personality shines through. In terms of subverting Western tropes, Max pairs up with a former lawman who tried to catch him in order to rob some Nazis. As always with Brubaker/Phillips comics, the climax is ultimately a robbery, but they take the story into unexpected territories, whilst still delivering the pulp sensibilities you get from their narratives.
Combining the crime and western genres, Sean Phillips’ art and Jacob Phillips’ coloring do a great job showing the two time periods, each with their own identity. In the western period, every character and environment are defined by one color palette, with the exception of the Red Rock Kid, with his red top standing out. With the majority of the story taking place in 1930s New York, Phillip’s art shows us not a city of the glamorous Art Deco, but the drab and murky streets where the coloring is more muted as well as punctuating on the moments of violence.
In sixty-seven pages, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips give us a short, but multi-layered masterpiece that meshes two genres to tell a story about one old man looking back and repeating his past sins.