Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bill Finger-- the plagiarist who "created" Batman

On May 6, Hulu will be debuting a documentary called “Batman and Bill,” created to document writer Bill Finger’s contributions to the Intellectual Property currently known as “Batman.” Someone at a site called Fansided offers this description:

Bob Kane has always been given sole credit, but Finger also had a major hand in creating and co-creating some of the Dark Knight’s most lasting characteristics.

Here’s the trailer:

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, can be seen at one point intoning, “Bill Finger was the dominant creative force… of Batman.” At the Television Critic’s Association press tour back in January, Nobleman said,

“Bob Kane’s version of the story had been told for 6 decades…and that was wrong, and I wanted to tell the story from the right perspective.”

He also claims that regarding Batman, “creatively it was 98% Bill.” He goes on to analogize:

“The example I like to give is if you just stop a random grandmother on the street and say name something that you know about Batman, she’ll know something, everyone knows something, and whatever that person says will be a Bill Finger contribution. He was that pervasive in the creation of Batman.”

Well, let’s look at this. Because it’s largely revisionist, ahistorical bullshit.

If the trailer’s any indication, they’re going to liken Finger to a superhero, and Bob Kane, who owned the studio that produced Batman for National Comics, as a villain—a glory hound who took credit for other peoples’ work. And he did sign his name to everything his studio produced, giving the impression that he was the sole auteur behind those comics.

But in fact, Finger himself took credit for other people’s work. He just wasn’t a glory hound. Which I suppose is why he’s seen as such a “hero” today-- who can't sympathize with the boss who takes credit for the work of an underling?

Almost everything that the fictive “random grandmother” referenced above knows about Batman was stolen from other characters. Most notably The Shadow.

I’ve already written about how much the comics stole from the pulp magazines in their early days. Batman, in fact, was one of the worst examples of this institutionalized theft.

In 2007, Nostalgia Ventures published a reprint of Partners of Peril (buy it!), a novel featuring the hero The Shadow. The Shadow appeared in his own pulp magazine, each issue of which contained a novel of varying quality. Most of these novels were written by a man called Walter Gibson. Peril was written by Theodore Tinsley. Tinsley deserves at least as much credit for Batman’s creation as Finger does.

Finger cagily admitted that, “My first [Batman] script was a take-off on a Shadow story.” Which is putting it mildly. Finger lifted Peril whole cloth, taking almost every major story beat and cramming them into six pages.

But what the hell—it’s just one story, right? Actually, Finger did more than just swipe this one story. He stole almost every element he contributed to Batman from other pulp sources.

The Shadow volume that reprints Peril also features three essays discussing the extent of the theft in the “creation” of Batman. In one, “The Shadowy Origins of Batman,” Will Murray quotes Finger as saying, “I was very much influenced by The Shadow and Doc Savage, The Phantom, things of that sort… We discussed Batman’s potential. My idea was to have Batman be a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, and Doc Savage as well.” In his Foreword, Jerry Robinson, who worked in Kane’s studio, says that “Bill Finger was a devoted fan of ‘Maxwell Grant’ [the house pseudonym for The Shadow’s authors].” Murray quotes Kane as saying, “…Bill had it down pat… He was a pulp reader. As a matter of fact, I read all the pulps that Bill Finger read. He’d give me his magazines and I did read them. I was influenced by Doc Savage and the pulps, to some extent.”

Finger was an avid reader of the pulp magazines of the 1930s—which were soon to lose their cultural dominance. In part because of the influence of the comics.

For years, comics fans have gotten big laughs over the story of Kane’s original conception of the character who would grow to become the Intellectual Property now known as Batman.

The Man of Steel had cornered the market on BLUE tights and BLACK hair, so Kane decided to give his new hero RED tights and BLONDE hair, plus a Phantom-style domino mask.

Mimicking the HAWKMAN characters seen in Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (pictured left and right), Kane would add a pair of mechanical wings, and call his creation... “BIRD-MAN.”

“Red tights and blond hair”? LOL amirite? What a dummy. It’s a good thing Finger was there to, well, to list off a bunch of characteristics of other pulp characters.

Then, as recorded in The Steranko History of Comics, Finger recalls, "I got Webster's Dictionary off the shelf and was hoping they had a drawing of a BAT, and sure enough it did. I said,

'Notice the ears! Why don't we duplicate the ears?' I suggested [Bob] draw what looked like a cowl. I had suggested he bring the nosepiece down and make him mysterious and not show any eyes at all. I didn't like the wings, so I suggested he make a cape and scallop the edges so it would flow out behind him when he ran and would look like bat wings. He didn't have any gloves on. We gave him gloves.”

Finger claims that he turned “Bird-Man” into “Batman,” or actually it’s spelled “Bat-Man” in those early stories. He gave him a cowl and a cape and made the color scheme darker. And he gave him gloves. Not the scalloped gloves, however—in Bat-Man’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 he had a pair of little dress gloves, and then in his second appearance in Detective Comics #28, he went gloveless. The gloves issue is kind of interesting, because it leads into something that Murray mentions in his essay:

“At virtually the same time, a nearly identical hero emerged in a pulp called Black Book Detective. Norman A. Daniels created the black-cloaked crimebuster under the house name ‘G. Wayman Jones.’ Like Batman, the Black Bat wore an ebony hood a long bat-ribbed cloak. ‘There was a lawsuit almost pending,’ Finger recalled. ‘They were ready to sue us and we were ready to sue them. It was just one of those wild coincidences.’ Inexplicably, Batman soon took to wearing the finned gauntlets first worn by the Black Bat.”

There’s a lot of ironic richness in that paragraph. First of all, it’s ironic that Finger, who totally plagiarized Partners of Peril for the first Bat-Man story, would suggest that the Bat-Man gang might sue someone for stealing their ideas.

Second, Murray deliberately obfuscates the timing of the Black Bat’s appearance. “At virtually the same time,” he writes. The “same time” as what? The “creation” of Bat-Man? Bat-Man's first appearance in print?

Wikipedia notes that there was a “first Black Bat” who appeared in pulp magazines (and remember, Finger was an avid pulp magazine fan and reader) between 1933 and 1934. The title of that particular pulp was Black Bat Detective Mysteries. (Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that the great Murray Leinster wrote those stories. I guess if you’re going to swipe, swipe from the best!)

Wikipedia then says that the “second Black Bat” appeared in July 1939. (Actually, Wikipedia isn’t clear on whether that’s the cover date or the date the issue appeared on stands. But it looks like it was the cover date, meaning that it probably appeared three months earlier, so May 1939.) Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 was cover-dated May 1939 and released in March 1939. Which means that the Bat-Man team and the Black Bat team must have been working on their stories simultaneously. Parallel thinking, right? Two independent groups of creative people coming up with remarkably similar ideas at roughly the same time!

Except, there was that “first Black Bat” from six years before.

And get a load of the Black Bat’s origin story:

Tony Quinn was a district attorney until an angry criminal threw acid into his face leaving him blinded and scarred. Quinn vowed revenge and began to train his other senses and his body. He later secretly received an eye transplant from a slain police officer. His new eyes allowed him not only to see, but he now had night vision due to his time spent as a blind man.  
Tony decided to use his new ability to become a costumed hero known as the Black Bat. He carried twin .45s and often would leave a bat shaped scar on his victims. Black Bat used a secret crime lab and drove a heavily modified car. Law officers were against his vigilante activities and tried to deduce his identity. One officer in particular, Captain McGrath, believed Tony and the Black Bat were one and the same and tried to prove it.

That’s essentially the Batman villain Two-Face’s origin story. Two-Face was of course “created” by Finger and Kane. The “secret crime lab” was a “bat cave.” The “heavily modified car” is the Batmobile.

And the Black Bat had those finned gloves. And Will Murray has the audacity to claim that it’s just so “inexplicable” that Batman’s “creators” would steal that element for their own character. This is in the same essay in which Murray notes that Finger stole the “utility belt” from The Shadow, and stole the “Bat-signal” from another pulp character called the Phantom Detective. He also notes that,

“The coincidences did not end there. In the same month Batman was being created, the Phantom Detective battled a Batman-like foe called the Bat in The Yacht Club Murders, dated January 1939. This Bat wore a whalebone-ribbed cloak, face-concealing mask and Shadow-style slouch hat.”

"Dated January 1939" means that it actually appeared on the stands earlier, maybe in November 1938. That’s plenty of time for the Bat-Man “creators” to do their swipe—for Kane to do his “Bird-Man” drawing, and Finger to add his touches—the original source material was probably available for purchase at the very same time!

Yet Murray calls it a “coincidence.” That the fact that Bat-Man would appropriate the Black Bat’s finned gloves was “inexplicable.” In his essay “Spotlight on the Shadow: FORESHADOWING THE BATMAN,” Anthony Tollin makes this “inexplicable” claim:

“While his initial Batman story was lifted from Partners of Peril, Bill Finger quickly developed into one of comics’ most innovative scriptwriters.”

In his Foreword, Robinson also works hard to convince readers that Finger didn’t steal everything he ever wrote:

“I’m astounded to learn how much of Bill’s first Batman script borrowed from that novel [Peril]. Of course, at the time, Bill was just beginning his career, and struggling to shift from humor to adventure strips, just as Bob Kane was with the art. Bill was fast becoming the most inventive scriptwriter in comics, and would soon create Green Lantern with Martin Nodell and Wildcat with Irwin Hansen.”

“Wildcat” was of course another Shadow knock off. And Finger’s original Green Lantern (who was apparently created by Nodell, with Finger being brought in to write scripts after his creation) was the one with the green cape and the red tights who carried a railroad lantern around. His weakness was wood.

You can read those first few years worth of Bat-Man and Green Lantern stories if you like. They’re available in DC Archive editions. There’s also the paperback Batman Chronicles books. You can see how “innovative” they feel to you. Sadly, it’s impossible to know just how much Finger, and all the other Golden Age creators, stole outright from the pulps. The Shadow stories are still being reprinted, as are Doc Savage’s. A few other small outlets are bringing out other pulp material. But it would take a dedicated scholar years to sift through everything to find all the swipes.

But we do know of one more major swipe that Finger and the rest of Kane’s studio committed. The Joker was also cobbled together from other sources. The Shadow volume reprinting Peril also features another Tinsley story, “The Grim Joker,” featuring another pulp character called “Bulldog” Black. In Tollin’s essay, he notes,

“Three years before the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ debuted in Batman #1, police detective Bulldog Black encountered a white-faced crime boss called The Joker in the July 1937 issue of The Whisperer (whose alter ego as Police Commissioner James Gordon was borrowed by Bill Finger for Batman’s police contact).”

Did you just read that? A criminal boss with a white face called THE JOKER appeared in a pulp three years prior to Batman #1, in a magazine that featured a character whose real name was “James Gordon,” which is the name of the Commissioner in Gotham City.

For crying out loud did Bill Finger EVER have an original thought???

Not only that, in March 1939—the very same month that “Bat-Man” debuted in Detective Comics #27—The Shadow Magazine published a story called Death's Harlequin, featuring a villain described as “a living corpse in the costume of a gay Harlequin! With a wide-muzzled gun. And a jeering laugh that made the silence in the room crawl with menace.”

And of course we’ve all seen the still of the great actor Conrad Veidt in the classic film The Man Who Laughs. There’s not a single original element in the Joker.

In his Foreword, Robinson, who’s credited as “Joker-creator” in the bio, notes that,

“Bill Finger was comics’ best writer, but he was a slow, meticulous craftsman who spent lots of time doing research. Artists loved his scripts because he was the most visual writer in the business, and frequently included photo reference with his scripts so we could see exactly what he had in mind.”

Yeah, I’ll bet. It takes a long time to read a story in a pulp magazine and then convert it into thirty-six panels.

One could argue, and I’m sure that many people would, that Finger’s use of those elements was "transformative." Plus, you could argue that the elements that Finger stole from these other characters were each in and of themselves small—even though taken together they add up to one whole stolen piece of Intellectual Property. (Batman is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, comprised of elements stolen from other characters.)

However, you could also argue that by swiping so much from other characters, Batman hopelessly undermined those other characters. Since his pulp magazine heyday it’s been impossible for The Shadow to gain any real traction. Why read about this dark avenger of the night with his face covered and a long flowing coat when you could read about this masked avenger of the night with a dark costume and a cloak?

In the trailer for the Hulu documentary, Cop Out and Jersey Girl director Kevin Smith, says that there was a lot of reluctance in the comic book industry when it came to correcting the story of Batman’s creation. I think that’s probably true, although not for the reasons that Smith might think.

The full story of Batman’s “creation” would reveal the extent of Finger’s appropriation. Maybe the reason he was so reluctant to put his own name on it, at least at first, was because he knew just how much of "Bat-Man" and his iconography and associated characters he’d stolen.

Then, as the character took off and all the characters from which he’d stolen fell by the cultural wayside, Finger might have wanted some credit. He’d gotten away with stealing—now was the time to get his name out there. But it was too late. Kane’s name was on everything. And this is somehow seen as an “injustice.”

This post took on a much darker tone than I’d originally intended. Artists are influenced by everything they see. They appropriate from a wide range of sources to create something new. This has gone on for millennia. Homer swiped. The Bible is full of swipes. Shakespeare swiped. Rimbaud swiped. Nabokov swiped. I can't think of any comics artist that hasn't swiped. Remix culture and mashups are perfectly valid artistic techniques that have produced some wonderful, enriching material. What frosts me about this movement to turn Finger into some sort of “visionary” “creator” is that it deliberately ignores the fact that almost nothing that he allegedly contributed came from him. “Batman” isn’t a unique character. He’s not even a character, actually—he’s Intellectual Property.

Which brings me to the other aspect of this story that really frosts me. The weaponization of copyright. Thanks to collusion between huge corporate Intellectual Property owners and governments all over the world, the kind of swiping that Finger committed in helping to “create” Batman could never happen today. Artists aren’t free to use elements within the culture in the same way that they have for generations. They aren’t free to appropriate to create transformative works. Try it yourself. “Batman” appeared shortly after the first appearance of a character called “The Bat.” They took that villainous character and made him a hero, and slapped the word “Man” on the end. Try creating a villain called “Batman-Man” today and see how far you get before WB lawyers come calling.

See how far you’d get if you took Batman’s origin and grafted it onto a villain that you yourself “created,” the way Finger and Kane did with Two-Face.

And now, those elements that Finger and Kane swiped are locked into the Intellectual Property known as "Batman." The movement to give Finger his "due" is a distraction from the fact that he, and just about every comics creator of that era, stole almost everything they "created" from the pulps.

It’s shocking just how much of the Golden Age of comics was stolen from the pulps that had appeared just a few years before. Those pulps were seen as ephemera. The comics, too, were looked at in that way, in the early going. They just wanted to churn out stories—they weren’t giving much thought to posterity. But today we’re in a situation where so much of our popular culture is built around comics. Which means that our modern popular culture was stolen. The movement to get “credit” for Bill Finger represents a larger, and extremely depressing flaw in our culture. It’s a way for some to congratulate themselves for their empathy and insight and knowledge (as Nobleman menacingly says above, "I wanted to tell the story from the right perspective"), without fully understanding what’s really happening, and ignoring our history while pretending to celebrate it.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine by Ron Goulart

A few years ago, the great writer and deconstructor Alan Moore said this about modern culture:

“…I found something worrying about the fact that the superhero film audience was now almost entirely composed of adults, men and women in their thirties, forties and fifties who were eagerly lining up to watch characters and situations that had been expressly created to entertain the twelve year-old boys of fifty years ago. I not only feel this is a valid point, I also believe it to be fairly self-evident to any disinterested observer. To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”
Movies and TV are so expensive that going with a “known quantity”—something with decades of fandom goodwill behind it—rather than trying to build a franchise organically goes a long way toward ensuring a return on investment. Then there’s copyright law, which has been weaponized by huge corporations, in conjunction with the government, to protect corporate interests

I believe that we’re living in a very decadent era, and the fact that every other movie and TV show seems to be based around comic book concepts created circa 1940 is, as Moore suggests, extremely worrying. It’s even more worrying when you consider that so much of what was “created” in those early days of the comics was DIRECTLY RIPPED OFF from the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s. Which were themselves highly derivative.

I was thinking about this a lot while reading Ron Goulart’s Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines (reprinted as an Ace paperback under only the subtitle, but with "Magazine" singular). Goulart mentions a couple of times throughout the book that the comics helped to usurp the pulps because their were drawn more than written, allowing the stories to get right to the action as quickly as possible, and to help the reader visualize that action, rather than having to go through hundreds of words of text, and page after page, to get to a single, static illustration. The comics also just outright stole from the pulps. Here’s something from Chapter Six, Doc Savage And His Circle:

“They didn’t think of using him as a comic book hero until 1940 [Doc Savage first appeared in his eponymous pulp magazine in 1933] and by then there was Superman. It’s obvious Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had recognized Doc Savage’s potential much earlier. Dedicated pulp readers, the two young Cleveland boys borrowed considerably from [Lester] Dent’s character for their own super-hero. It isn’t because of coincidence that Superman’s name is Clark Kent and that he was initially billed as the Man of Steel.”

Doc Savage’s first name is Clark. Doc Savage was called The Man of Bronze. Goulart leaves out that Doc Savage had a “Fortress of Solitude” in the Arctic, which is mentioned in his very first adventure.

In original advertising, Doc Savage was actually called "SUPERMAN." Siegel and Shuster weren't even trying.

Then there’s Batman, whose creators shamelessly “borrowed” elements from the Shadow and Zorro (weirdly, Informal History only mentions Johnston McCulley once, and I don’t think he ever mentions his famous creation—although I could be wrong). Both wore dark clothes, they had alter-egos who were wealthy (the Shadow actually had several different alter-egos at first, and Lamont Cranston was only one of them—and wasn’t even intended to be the “real” alter ego to be aviator Kent Allard). They wore capes that masked their faces. But Batman stole even more—for instance, left out of Goulart’s book is the fact that the Shadow had an antagonist called “The Joker,” who dressed as a clown. The Shadow was called “The Knight of Darkness” in his pulp adventures and of course Batman is “The Dark Knight.” Batman’s first appearance is an out-and-out rip-off of a Shadow novel called “Partners of Peril.”

(UPDATE AND CORRECTION 4/26/17: The above paragraph has a glaring error and now that I've actually read Nostalgia Ventures' Partners of Peril reprint I can correct it. The Shadow's clown antagonist was called the Harlequin, and appeared in the issue of The Shadow Magazine that appeared on the stands the same month that Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27. That Shadow story was written by Peril author Theodore Tinsley. Tinsley wrote another story featuring a pulp character called "Bulldog" Black called "The Grim Joker," featuring another homicidal clown--a crime boss called "The Joker." See my post Bill Finger--the plagiarist who "created" Batman for more information.)  

As popular narrative shifted from the pulps over to comics it was necessary to retain the archetypes that the pulps were exploiting. In Chapter Two, Heroes For Sale, Goulart points out:

“A good many of the products of popular culture have always been generated by the preoccupations and anxieties of children and adolescents. This means that the mass entertainments of any period will invariably be much concerned with action and identity… As kids move through the precarious territory between childhood and adolescence their absorption with roles and occupations grows. ‘They are sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are,’ writes Erik Erikson of young people in their later school years, “and with the question of how to connect the roles and skills cultivated earlier with the ideal prototypes of the day.” Popular entertainment that is going to appeal to youth, then, has to offer both distractions from and simplified solutions to some of the problems involved in getting from ten to twenty. One basic cultural product that offers both action and alternate identity is the fictional hero.”

This ties in neatly with what Moore says in the quote above, and, though it was first published in 1972, it could have just as easily been written last week. In the world of “antifa,” “the pussy hats,” “Russian hackers,” “twenty seven genders,” and “punching Nazis,” we have a popular culture that is dominated by adults obsessed with putting off taking on adult responsibilities in favor of a preoccupation with how they appear in the eyes of others—and in forcing others to see them as they see themselves. Introspection is scary and it’s even unnecessary when you KNOW YOU’RE RIGHT and everyone else is evil. So why face “reality”? Why not create your own? Trump didn’t win the presidential election—in fact, he lost the popular vote because RUSSIAN HACKERS. John Oliver and Samantha Bee told me so.

Also, there’s a new MCU movie opening in a couple of weeks.

In Chapter Three, Soldiers of Fortune, Etc, Goulart introduces us to a writer for a pulp called Adventure magazine, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson:

“Major Nicholson, an ex-Cavalry officer, is the man who played an important part in killing off the pulp magazines. In 1934 the Major, after writing many pulp novelets about army action and an occasional historic yarn about the Borgias, decided to start his own comic book company. No one had as yet made a go of original, not newspaper reprint, comic books. Major Nicholson worked up a format combining pulp plots and action with funny paper directness. He hired out-of-work old-timers and young art students, paid little, and got out a line of magazines… The Major himself went broke and so it was his creditors who carried on with his line and its new titles Action and Detective. There are the comic books that introduced Superman and Batman and drew huge audiences away from the pulp magazine.”

In Chapter Eleven, Super Science, Goulart notes,

“When the rising Superman-DC company decided to expand they hired, significantly, a good part of [Thrilling Wonder Stories editor Leo] Margulies’ staff away from him. Editorial personnel like Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff and staff writers like Alfred Bester and H.L. Gold.”

So the comics, which have provided so much of our modern culture, were originally created by people who graduated from the pulps, and people who ripped off the pulps. (Mort Wesisnger, by the way, was the editor responsible for the 1950s version of Superman, who was a surreal and hilarious character. See the Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane comics for evidence.)

If you look at the bit I quoted from Chapter Three of Goulart, you’ll see a hint of another problem with our current, decadent culture. Major Nicholson is described as “an ex-Cavalry officer.” Indeed, most of the writers of the pulps had colorful, eventful lives full of real adventure. Goulart sketches out the backgrounds of many of them, of working as cowboys, soldiers, laborers, aviators, and so on, before breaking into writing. This is no longer common—many of our most successful writers today came up in academia, and got hired to write out of college. They spend their time on Twitter making snarky political statements in between writing sit-com scenes or comic book stories. They’re not drawing from their own unique experiences—they’re drawing on what they’ve already read, and simply re-writing it.

Re-booting, re-imagining, re-packaging, re-processing, re-cycling, re-configuring existing Intellectual Property.

This is certainly true of Moore, quoted above as being so worried about the state of our culture. He’s absolutely right. He’s also, as I described him, a deconstructor. Everything that he’s most famous for—Watchmen, Killing Joke, Swamp Thing, From Hell, Promethea, Lost Girls—is a “deconstruction”. His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen actually deconstructs pulp heroes in the public domain. Moore is a skilled artist and his work is miles above most peoples’. But he is still very much a theorist. He’s no Jim Tully, that’s for sure!

The entire concept of “adolescence” is fairly recent. When the pulps’ antecedents were born in the 1880s, most people got a few years of schooling, if that, then started at backbreaking, laborious jobs to help the family pay the bills. By the time the pulps were exploding in the 1920s there were people in cities who could afford to put off taking on adult responsibilities. Today we’re in an unprecedented time where kids can “be kids” until they hit their mid-20s, in many cases. And even adults with full-time jobs have, historically speaking, massive amounts of free time. And then, we have record numbers of people not working. And a culture that fetishizes youth. Combine all of these things with the seductive need for movie studios to produce mass entertainments and you get—well, you get 2017 in the United States.

If you’re at all interested in pulp magazines (and why the heck wouldn’t you be?) or if you’re interested in modern pop culture, An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine is must reading. It’s full of fascinating information about the concepts, creators, and publishers who built our modern culture, quite by accident, and often at less than a penny a word. Goulart writes in an easy-going, conversational style.

That style can actually get surprisingly snarky, and even judgmental. Take this for instance from Chapter Twelve, Odds & Ends:

“There is considerable torture carried on in the latter day horror pulps and a great deal of fascination with pain. Deformities, maimings, disembowelings are all presented in explicit, often loving detail. You’ll have to take my word for this, since this is one genre I am refraining from quoting. Various civic pressures, and the  real horror of the new World War put an end to most of the horror pulps by the early ’40’s. Fortunately, unlike what has happened in the case of the relatively literate Weird Tales, none of the material from any of the weird menace pulps has been preserved in books or else where, and the gruesome stuff is now as defunct as a mad doctor at the end of a Dime Mystery novelet.”

That sounds like an angry schoolmarm confiscating verboten reading material circa 1945. Considering that this book features a reminiscence by the great pulp author Bruno Fischer, who got his start writing some genuinely violent and gruesome stories for just such magazines, it’s a little bit hypocritical. Or at least ironic.

And in Chapter Ten, Tarzan and the Barbarians, Goulart quotes at length some awfully violent Robert E. Howard stuff. Just for starters—Goulart quotes a lot of violent action throughout the book, usually approvingly. Goulart’s making a judgment about the quality of the writing or maybe the attitude behind the writing. In his mind, the violence is “celebrated” in a way that he personally finds distasteful.

Also, in Chapter Eight, The Dime Detectives, he runs several excerpts from Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective stories. Which were filled with horrible violence and casual racism. Death is treated like a punchline, and Dan Turner isn’t above tying a woman up and threatening to rape her if he doesn’t get the information he’s looking for. However, Goulart approves of these stories, and doesn’t refrain from quoting them. As he says:

“The first person style Bellem devised for these detective adventures of Dan Turner is so colloquial, flippant, tough and high-speed that Turner comes across as the best parody private eye ever done.”

So the Dan Turner stories, which include over-the-top gunplay, beatings, rape fantasies, and racism come across as “parody.” But the stories from the lesser known “weird” pulps are simply beyond the pale.

This is not to criticize the Dan Turner stories. They’re very amusing—but they are also very much of their time. But that’s kind of the point that Goulart seems to be dismissing here. The “weird” pulps were very much of their time, too. And there’s no reason not to reference them. Goulart almost comes across like a modern SJW, here: Using his position of authority as a scholar to decide what information his readers should have access to. It's a "weird" attitude to take (so to speak), especially so near the end of the book. It leaves a bit of a sour taste behind.

But don’t let that deter you from reading the book, if you’re interested. We’re living through a pulp era, even though the pulps are dead. The remnants are all around us: In the form of movies, video games, comics, and even popular fiction (Jack Reacher is certainly a “pulp hero”, which reminds me: I wrote a parody of the Jock Reacher novels entitled Melee Child: A Jock Scratcher Thriller. It’s available for Kindle and as a paperback, and it is so funny you will laugh and laugh while you read it). An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine is a great jumping-off point if you want to understand our current culture, or if you’re looking for some “new” authors or characters to track down. As it turns out, Doc Savage is still publishing new adventures. The Shadow's are being reprinted.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster by Ennis Willie

In the Ennis Willie entry in Brian Ritt’s indispensable Paperback Confidential it says that “Willie cranked out twenty-one books between 1961 and 1965, then burned out and stopped writing…” The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster was originally published in 1964, along with six other books (!), with one single book being published in 1965. Meaning that by the time he’d written Loaded Garter Holster, Willie was already an old hand in the pulp game, and it shows.

The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster is some kind of masterpiece. I don’t just mean that in the Renaissance, put-everything-you’ve-got-into-one-work-to-show-off-your-skills sense, but also in the this-is-a-heckuva-fine-piece-of-work sense. It is entertaining and twisty as hell.

The book is the seventh (of eight) to feature Sand, “the man nobody walks on,” who was once a member of an organized crime syndicate. Somehow he managed to extricate himself from the criminal gang, but he has to remain constantly on the move because there are a lot of people who want him dead:

They had told him, Quit the organization and you’ll die, Sand. Nobody gets out. Especially not you. You’re big. You’re slated for the top. You’re tough. Some say you’re maybe the toughest man alive, but you gotta sleep, sometime you gonna need a woman. Quit and the organization will get you Sand. Walk out and you’re a dead man.

Loaded Garter Holster opens with Sand arriving in Miami with an “ugly .45 automatic riding in a snap-draw holster under his left arm.” As soon as he lands, he’s picked up a tail, but he can’t worry about that. He’s there because a young girl of eighteen or nineteen, Carmen, has died, apparently of a drug overdose—and he’s there to find out how she died and to avenge her death.

Sand’s interest in Carmen is personal. Her father saved Sand’s life when a hitman tried to kill him on  beach in Cuba. They killed the girl he was with, instead. But they did get him in the thigh. Sand, losing blood, ends up in the home of a scientist called Dr. Ramon Sanchez, who nurses him back to health. With the revolution in full swing Dr. Sanchez is worried his days might be numbered, so he asks Sand to look out for Carmen should anything happen to him.

Not long after arriving in Miami Sand gets a visit from Virginia Widner, a woman with a very fit body and freckles. To ensure she’s not keeping any secrets from him, Sand instructs her to empty her purse, then remove all her clothes. This she does, of course, and Sand is surprised to see that she keeps a .25 caliber pistol, “In a garter holster, no less!”

Virginia warns Sand to stay out of matters that don’t concern him, although she doesn’t reveal what her own interest in Carmen’s death. Sand doesn’t listen to her and starts his investigation. First it leads him to a man called Jack Cristy (sometimes spelled “Christy”), whom he finds on a boat with a young Cuban girl. Sand kicks the crud out of him.

Cristy was a bad boy. He liked to flash his pretty teeth and flex his muscles for the girls. And when he got mad he liked to break things. Right now he was pretty mad.

He came off the couch with a roar, his head lowered and his shoulders bunched under his T-shirt. He charged like a bull, with his eyes closed. He was a bad boy, but he was stupid.

Sand took his time and kicked him in the face. There was the smack of leather against meat, and then a thump as Muscle-boy’s fanny hit the floor.

Cristy tells Sand where to find Carmen’s ex, a guy called Greggory Brooks. This sends him up to Atlanta, and Sand detours to the apartment building where Carmen had had a room. He knocks on the Manager’s door and it’s opened by a beautiful blond who’s in the process of zipping up her dress. But: “She got a good look at his face and stopped trying. It was a chemical thing. They affected each other.”

Selina, the woman in the unzipped dress, happens to be the one who found Carmen’s body. She contradicts the idea that Carmen was working as a prostitute to pay for her heroin habit. She tells Sand that she stayed in her room most of the time, seeing very few people because she was apparently afraid of someone, or something.

In the meantime, Sand and Selina are affecting each other:

There was a feeling between them. It filled the room, the entire apartment. It was the thing they had both known immediately, the chemical reaction. They played with it silently and watched it grow.

And grow it does.

The taste of her red lips was real. The pressure of her warm breasts against his chest and the hollow of her sweeping back under his hand… real.

And maddening, because that was the way it was meant to be. This was still the buildup. The surge would come later. the explosion.

“Your face is hard,” she said. “You’re hard all over, every muscle. Are you a very bad man, Sand?”

“Sometimes I am very bad,” he said.

Her lips moved against him. “I don’t care. I want you. I want you so much I’m dying. Save my life, Sand. Squeeze me until I can’t breathe. Crush me! Bruise me! Crumble me into little pieces!”

As the above excerpts show, Willie was adept at writing both hardboiled and sleaze. Loaded Garter Holster is full of bursts of brutal violence and steamy passion. It’s also got some genuinely surprisingly plot twists. Sand meets Carmen’s ex, Greggory, who is a drunken mess after Carmen’s death. Sand begins working with the CIA, who are looking for some of Dr. Sanchez’s papers—documents that they think Carmen might have brought with her to the United States. Sand is also forced to break the heart of a woman who falls in love with him:

“You see all those men back there in the city? Their car’s not paid for and the house they left has a mortgage, but it also has a lawn they mow every weekend and afterwards there’s cold beer from the refrigerator that tastes good and they feel clean. They don’t even know it, but that’s because they’ve never wallowed in filth or sweated cold fear or killed a man before breakfast. That’s the kind of guy you need… A man like me could ruin that for you.”

He didn’t look at her because he didn’t want to see her cry. He knew that was what she was doing, not the loud willing they do when it’s mostly an act, but the gentle flowing of tears that come from somewhere deep inside.

I should also mention that Willie manages to do all this in a breezy one hundred twenty-seven pages, with nice wide margins and fairly large print. There might be 35,000 words to this novel. It’s entirely possible that Willie had more than just artistic considerations in keeping things so spare. First of all, if you’re writing novels of that length, it’s a lot easier to get seven of them done in a year. Second of all, I’ve heard stories that Camerarts, publisher of the Merit Books imprint, was edited by someone with very little consideration for artistic choices.

Camerarts might or might not have (allegedly!) been connected to an organized crime network in some capacity, perhaps as a means of laundering money. And it’s entirely possible that the editor wasn’t much interested in “editing,” and so when he was told to keep books under a certain page count, he would just rip out every page of any manuscript that went over that page count. Meaning that a lot of their books had, shall we say, abrupt endings.

The back page of the book has a Merit Books house ad dedicated to Willie’s books. There were seventeen available, with eye-catching titles like Carnal Madness, Twisted Mistress, Politician’s Playgirl, and So Naked! So Dead! At the top of the page there’s a blurb attributed to “Editor, RASCAL Magazine” (how could I have missed that one?) which states:

Unquestionably one of the top three popular fiction writers on the stands today. His women are voluptuous, earthy creatures whose unrestrained passions make them worthy of his 100% virile heroes. I, personally, read every Ennis Willie book I can get my hands on.

This book was published in 1964, meaning that this editor was putting Willie up there with Ed McBain, Richard Prather, John D. MacDonald, Dan J. Marlowe, Vin Packer, and so on. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the case, but if The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster is any indication of Willie’s writing he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. I plan on reading more, tough as that's going to be-- Willie's books aren't widely available. I'm happy to see that at least two "Sand shockers," Sand's Game, and Sand's War, are currently available from Ramble House.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Some notes on the Jack Reacher books--men's adventure for women, and on Jock Scratcher

Women buy anywhere from 58%-64% of all books. For some genres that number is even higher—as much as 90% for romance novels, for instance, and around that number for erotica. So if you’re going to have a bestseller, it helps to appeal to women.

That is a big part of the genius of Lee Child. In the Jack Reacher books, he’s written men’s adventure novels for women. (Check out the Goodreads reviews of the Jack Reacher books and see how many of them are written by women.)

Jack Reacher is, like the Executioner, a drifter, going from town-to-town, and getting involved in one adventure after another. However, he’s not a brooding, rage-filled masochist who’s on a mission to avenge his family’s death at the hands of mobsters.

Reacher just doesn’t want to be tied down.

My friend Ed Gorman once told me a story of how he was invited to take a stab at writing an Executioner novel. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the Executioner books sold fantastically well, and publishing at a rate of one per month. They were formulaic, of course: Mack Bolan goes into a town and destroys it in his quest for revenge against mobsters, terrorists, what have you.

Ed wrote the first three chapters of a proposed novel. In the first chapter there’s a scene in which Bolan, in Miami, watches an attractive young woman get out of the pool, wearing just a skimpy bikini. Bolan notices how attractive she is. The editor called Ed and said this won’t do—the Executioner is driven by vengeance because his family died. Ed pointed out that the Executioner’s family had died ten years before. Eventually he’s going to start noticing attractive women again. It's human nature.

No, the editor said. The Executioner is focused. On vengeance. HE'S NOT HUMAN!

Jack Reacher is, by comparison, very human.

When Reacher travels to a new town, generally on a whim, he often drifts into the life of an attractive young woman, say, 28-35, who is a highly competent professional who has succeeded in life on her own terms. She might be in military or intelligence or private security or whatever—she’s Reacher’s equal intellectually and usually in experience. Or she’s on her way.

And here comes Reacher, an enormous, attractive man who doesn’t make plans. He helps the woman with whatever problem she’s having or investigation she’s spearheading. Along the way they become romantically entangled. Then, Reacher leaves town. She remains behind or goes back to the normal life she’s built for herself, to her highly successful career. (The exception is 2015’s Make Me, in which Reacher and his love interest, Michelle Chang, seem to take to the road together at the end of the book. Is Reacher going to “settle down”? Readers are still hanging on that particular cliffhanger, since the 2016 novel, Night School, was a flashback.)

Attractive, muscular, mysterious drifter blows into town. Meets attractive, professional, highly competent woman. They have a whirlwind romance and share an exciting adventure.

That is the plot of every other romance novel ever written. Almost every Jack Reacher book takes the romance novel template and grafts it onto a men’s adventure book. Jack Reacher isn’t an emotionally damaged sadist. Yes, he’s not shy about killing people, but all the people he kills have it coming. He’s not twisted by a desire to revenge or vengeance. He’s seen a lot of death from his military days onward, but it hasn’t scarred him. He’s a practical guy who doesn’t want to live a nine-to-five life. Doesn’t want to be tied down. He doesn’t play emotional games—he’s totally open and honest about “not making plans.” The women accept that. They’re intrigued by Reacher.

They sleep with Reacher.

Some of the sex scenes are—well, uhm. Here’s a little something from The Affair:

“We stood up again and kissed again. By that point in my life I had kissed hundreds of girls, but I was ready to admit Deveraux was the finest of them all. She was spectacular. She moved and quivered and trembled. She was strong, but gentle. Passionate, but not aggressive. Hungry, but not demanding. The clock in my head took a break. We had all the time in the world, and we were going use every last minute of it.” (Chapter 43)

There are a couple of pages of breathless undressing moving lower and “coming up for air” before we get to this:

“Then it was time. We started tenderly. Long and slow, long and slow. Deep and easy. She flushed and gasped. So did I. Long and slow, long and slow.

Then faster and harder.

Then we were panting.

Faster. harder, faster, harder.

Panting…” (Chapter 43)

This is romance novel stuff.

There’s also some fighting. Reacher survives on his wits and his understanding of human nature. This understanding is often—well, it’s questionable. Take this from Never Go Back:

“Whereupon he saw the two guys take up what he assumed were their combat stances, and then he saw them change radically. Tell a guy you’re going to fight with your hands behind your back, and he hears jut that, and only that. He thinks, This guy is going to fight with his hands behind his back! And then he pictures the first few seconds in his mind, and the image is so weird it takes over his attention completely. No hands! An unprotected torso! Just like the heavy bag at the gym!” (Chapter 37)

I haven’t been in too many fights in my day, I’ll admit. But if some boner told me he was going to fight me and my buddy, while keeping his hands in his pockets, my first thought would be “I’m going to take your legs out from under you, you dummy, and kick the crud out of you.” But not in Reacher’s world. In Reacher’s world, the rednecks he’s fighting, well, they picture the first few seconds in their mind, get distracted, and then Reacher TAKES THEM OUT!

There’s another scene in another Reacher book (sorry I can’t remember which one) in which Reacher pushes a door open with his foot because, according to him, it’s human nature to crane your neck around an open door to see why it opened. So when the armed villain does just that, Reacher TAKES HIM OUT!

There are also lots of chatty villains who make bad decisions. At one point in Make Me, some villains have Reacher and Chang and the family of a young man that they’re trying to find trapped at gunpoint in the family’s home. But they don’t know which of the three they’re supposed to kill, so instead of just killing them all, the villains—uhm, well:

“We could kill you all. That would guarantee the correct result… But it would be five dead for the price of three. And that price was agreed upfront. Count your change before you leave the store. No renegotiation after the fact…”


The guy looked at Evan, and said, “What do you do for a living?”

Evan started once, and started again, and got it out the third time around. He said, “I’m a doctor.”

“Do you work for free?”

“No, I guess I don’t.”

“Dumb question, right? Doctors working for free?”

“Some doctors work for free.”

“But not you, right?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Do you think I should work for free?”

Evan breathed in, breathed out, floundering.

The guy said, “Doctor, it’s a simple question. I’m not seeking a medical opinion. Do you think I should work for free? When you don’t?” (Chapter 41)

And so on. And after all of that the hired killers not only don’t kill their intended targets, Reacher TAKES THEM OUT!

As you might be able to guess from the above, the Reacher novels are full of padding. There’s a lot of dialogue written in a clipped style so that, at least superficially it appears that Child is using very spare language. (One of the blurbs that they keep using on the Reacher books is this from the Chicago Tribune: “Child builds suspense in a deceptively spare, wiry prose style that doesn’t waste a word or miss a trick.” We’ve heard of #FakeNews— that is a #FakeBlurb.) There’s a lot of this kind of thing, from Bad Luck and Trouble:

“O’Donell’s lock was broken.

Or, more accurately, O’Donnell’s lock was OK, but the door jamb was broken. The wood was splintered. Someone had used a wrecking bar or a tire iron to lever the door open.” (Chapter 70)

First the narrator, who should know, says the look was broken. States it unequivocally. Then he says that the lock wasn’t broken. In the VERY NEXT SENTENCE he says the lock was OK. This is a bizarre example of the “unreliable narrator,” and this was done to, I don’t know—try to create suspense?

Reacher’s coolness under pressure, his ability to intuit every move an opponent makes before they do (except when he can’t, as necessitated by plot considerations), his success with attractive and successful women, and his ability to live a life totally unencumbered by responsibility aren’t the only things about him that male readers can find aspirational. Reacher also doesn’t have to work out to keep his physique, and he eats whatever the hell he wants without gaining any weight. He drinks a ton of coffee and eats a lot of cheeseburgers.

Anyway. I’ve written a parody of the Jack Reacher books called MELEE CHILD: A JOCK SCRATCHER THRILLER. It is about half as dumb as a Jack Reacher book, and has twice as many laughs. And unlike the Reacher books, the laughs in Melee Child are all intentional. It’s available from Amazon in both a $2.99 ebook and an $8.99 paperback.

It has a really cool cover:

Here’s some more information:

Former elite military intelligence police officer Jock Scratcher lives the life of a drifter, traveling from town to town, staring danger right in the face, and then head-butting it. And kicking it in the groin. And drinking plenty of cups of coffee and bacon. But now, a sinister plot has forced Scratcher to give up his itinerant life in exchange for a nine-to-five office job and a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. It’s pure hell for a man of action.

Even worse: Scratcher is on a collision course with the Melee Child, a three month-old baby who happens to be Eastern Europe’s deadliest assassin, leaving a trail of dead bodies and dirty diapers in his wake.

Also, Russians hacked the presidential election. That’s a totally real thing that actually happened.

Melee Child is an intense thriller with danger at every turn. Before it reaches its senses-shattering conclusion, Scratcher will race against time to uncover the most startling truth that will have him questioning just who he can trust—and who he can romance.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

New parody novel Melee Child: A Jock Scratcher Thriller coming soon!

Coming soon to Kindle and to print: A parody of the Jack Reacher novels entitled Melee Child: A Jock Scratcher Thriller.

This is less a book than a kick to the crotch. Read it accordingly.