Editor’s Note: In Part 1 of this series, Ritesh explored Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber and team’s DC Comics series Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, which led to an exploration of Fraction’s “American Fiction” trilogy released over the last few years. Today, the journey concludes with Adventureman, the Pulps, and circling back to the comedy of Jimmy Olsen!
Adventureman and The Pulps
“It’s about saying ‘Look how great America is going to be in the future!‘ It’s almost, I suspect, the tendency in older nations, when we wanna big ourselves up, is we reach back to the past, to something imaginary in the past, like King Arthur or something like that. America hasn’t got that amount of history. So, in some ways, what America needs is science-fiction. When we’re trying to say ‘Look at what we were!‘, America more or less has to say ‘Look at what we will be!‘ And so their science-fiction, from the 1920s, with the boom of The Pulp Magazines, is all of this bright, optimistic new-frontier stuff, where it was gonna be Cowboys and Indians all over again, only it was gonna be Earthmen and Neptune instead. You could just go through the tropes of the Western genre and pioneer fiction, but in space.” – Alan Moore
It’s no secret that The Pulps are the fundamental archetypal ascendants and predecessors to the American Superhero, whether it be Doc Savage and Superman or The Shadow and The Batman. It’s no secret either that those characters are riddled with problems, as they’re artifacts of their period; bearers of a racist, sexist, and imperialist ideology that is opposite of inclusive. Not necessarily always, but if you play them straight and uncritically, yeah. From the fascistic tendencies of The Shadow, this rich white vigilante with guns in his hand, who can read people’s minds because he learnt it from Asian people (NOT THE WORD THOSE STORIES USE), to Doc Savage, the ur-white savior who trots about the world. (It’s not an accident that I didn’t list an antecedent for Wonder Woman, and it’s because there is none.)
Even getting beyond the specifics of the American pulp magazines and comics, let’s take a look at the biggest pulp hero of modern American culture:
Indiana Jones is a lot of fun! He’s the quintessential cultural icon in the modern era of the pulpy adventurer, who trots about the globe, uncovering and exploring corners unfamiliar to us…or well, most white people, I guess. I say that because for all the appeal and lovability of Harrison Ford/Steven Spielberg/George Lucas/Lawrence Kasdan’ creation, he’s a deeply racist white-savior who’s an absolute sh*t-bag. Even from the get-go, the supposed hero is introduced to us as a man who was with his mentor’s extremely young daughter, which is always deeply uncomfortable, and gets even worse when you hear the revered old white men who made him discuss the subject:
Even that aside, the entire premise and framework, of the white-man hero explores the ‘exotic’ cultures, the ‘other’ and comes back with some treasures or rewards is…riddled with issues, which isn’t helped when you have all of them embodied in films like Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom. This is a movie that has no clue as to the cultures it’s portraying, and is deeply, deeply harmful in its horrific depictions of Indians and Indian Culture. Its horrific racism, regardless of intent, is hurtful to the highest degree. Then again, portraying brown people and black people as uncultured savages and monstrous brutes who eat snakes, eyeballs and whatever nonsense a white dude imagines that day? That’s not new. That’s exceedingly common.
These pulp narratives always cherry-pick and paint a deeply caricatured and racist vision of so much that they engage with, and claim to ‘explore’ or ‘excavate’, as the white-man hero of the imperial nation of white people is applauded for his ingenuity. It’s a narrative you see repeatedly, from Doctor Strange (who prior to Lee naming him Stephen Strange was arguably coded Asian) to Iron Fist. The white-savior who engages with the ‘other’ culture is everywhere.
And the thing about Indiana Jones? It’s a film that casts an actual Indian actor of note. It’s got Amrish Puri, a man who I grew up watching in almost every classical Indian film my dad showed me as the bad guy.
The man was the go-to villain performer, and perhaps his most iconic performance was in what I can only describe as a sort of pulpy Indian superhero film: Mr. India (1987), wherein the lead character gets an Invisibility Watch from his Super-Scientist dad who’s passed away, and uses it to fight the terror of General Mogambo (played by Puri) who wants to CONQUER INDIA!
So the idea of this man showing up in a big Spielberg/Lucas Hollywood blockbuster as the villain against Harrison Ford? That’s exciting. And on some level, it still is. But alas, he plays a racist mess of a character, performing bizarre human sacrifice rituals. It’s a wholly depressing enterprise, when all is said and done.
But the other key thing about Indiana Jones? It is deeply influenced by the American pulp magazines and heroes, as well as two primary sources of pulp narratives: Tintin and Duck Comics.
Tintin, Duck Comics, & Indiana Jones
Tintin isn’t American, of course, but it is very much in the pulp space, and also has its own fair share of racist history, given its by a white man writing a white lead, from roots in right-wing papers to being produced during the Nazi occupation of Belgium. But nevertheless, it got absorbed and taken from, alongside the classic Duck Comics, which also feature tons of pulpy adventure and exploration.
From straight-up awful blackface to tons of racial caricatures, with black people as cannibalistic monsters to every other offensive and stupid thing you can imagine, it’s all there. The imagery should pop up easily enough with a single google-search, if you wish to see it, as I don’t want to re-post it here and risk hurting any POC reading this any further. Suffice to say, neither Indiana Jones, nor its influences are clean. And while Tintin isn’t American, Duck Comics are, and specifically their key character (beyond Donald), Uncle Scrooge is nothing if not American.
“I think the reason Carl Barks’ stories have endured and have had such international appeal is primarily their strength on good stories. Yet on a deeper level, they display American characteristics that are readily recognizable to the reader: ingenuity, integrity, determination, a kind of benign avarice, boldness, a love of adventure, and a sense of humor. Even the foreign reader is given a certain perspective on American Culture.
Sociologists have studied comics as reflections of the society of their times. In addition to the artistic pleasure given by comics stories and drawings such as Carl Barks’, comic art has something to say about about the culture that produces it. What I think I enjoy most about Uncle Scrooge is that he is so American in his attitude. These comics are one of the few things you can point to and say: Like it or not, this is what America is. And it is just for this reason that they are a priceless part of our literary heritage.” – George Lucas
Lucas’ quotes here, while uncritical of the work itself, are absolutely dead-on, in that these comics are a total encapsulation of their period, the culture that made them, and the American perspective, as delivered by the likes of Carl Barks. That there is an entire book done by academics discussing the imperialist nature of a lot of the stories within should be telling.
I say all of the above with all the love possible towards these things, as I do love Indiana Jones, I do adore Tintin (the Spielberg film in particular, which is a nice bit of cyclical progression, is maybe my favorite comics-based media) as I’ve enjoyed a great number of Herge’s tomes, and Duck Comics are incredibly important to me. Yet they’re full of all this…mess. (And for those curious, Raiders Of The Last Ark in particular takes inspiration from the Uncle Scrooge story The Seven Cities Of Gold, collected in Volume 14 of The Carl Barks Library.)
Even the iconic Don Rosa work that came much later on Uncle Scrooge had its own share of racism, as its reverence to Barks was high. I recall having a conversation with Aditya Bidikar, when he was first getting into Duck Tales (2017), wherein he expressed pleasant surprise at the fact that when other cultures were depicted, they weren’t ‘othered’, whereas Barks would’ve exoticized the whole thing up the wazoo. I love Duck Tales, it is maybe the best piece of comics/superhero television out there. It’s magnificent, moving, beautiful, and plays Scrooge as a fun Pulp Adventurer mentoring the next generation…and yet it too is not free, as it adapts some of Barks (and Rosa’s, as he repeats and puts his own spin on it) racist Bombie The Zombie stuff for an episode, and it doesn’t deal with or resolve the mess there. It is by far the worst episode of the show.
All of which isn’t to say The Pulps are bad, or that one can’t like them. I’m fascinated by the pulps. I love them dearly, because you can take them and say things with them a lot of the old white men that made them never could. You can tweak them, change them, and accomplish so much. In the hands of POC, who rarely get to play with them, they can be something vital, fascinating and excitingly new. The point here is, they’re a key touchstone of culture and they succeeded and proved resonant, and their problems are mixed up in that, but so are some vital attributes we adore, and interpreting them for the now, tweaking them and doing them for an audience of 2020 without those problems? That makes sense.
And that’s precisely what Adventureman by Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, Clayton Cowles, and Leonardo Olea is, or hopes to be.
Adventureman’s Approach to Pulp
“It’s with Terry and Rachel Dodson and it is everything that I love about Image. It is a big, broad genre comic when the genre is ‘all of the above.’ It’s an adventure story and it stars a family. We want it to be our Raiders [of the Lost Ark], we want it to be our Hellboy, we want it to be our Tintin. It’s world-spanning, globe-trotting, high-adventure kind in a very traditional way at its roots but it’s done our way, but hopefully in a new way.
The archetypes all came from the world of the pulps, which encoded so much of modern superhero DNA. Even the best of them, though, can read as colonial, imperialistic, racist, sexist, and radiating a general kind of ignorance to modern eyes. So, we wanted to strip all that away, and create a cast of good guys — and bad — that looked like [they] came from the world we live in, while acknowledging how exclusionary the past material has been, to the point of calling the book “Adventureman” but having Claire, a woman, as the main character. Where his story ends, hers begins.” – Matt Fraction
It should be noted that Claire Connell, our lead, beyond what the team describes here, is also a disabled woman. The kind of character who’d be mocked or joked about or ridiculed and treated as a side-show in narratives like these. But here, she’s front and center, and her deafness isn’t treated poorly, as should be expected given Fraction’s history, portraying Clint’s deafness well in the likes of Hawkeye. Although, it also ought to be remembered that Adventureman is a project that precedes Hawkeye, and these two books come out alongside, as it’s been in slow development hell for a decade now, with Fraction only getting to it now.
Beyond Claire herself, the work is about her large family, a crew of adopted sisters from a plethora of backgrounds, to showcase racial and cultural diversity. A true family of adventurers who celebrate their rich backgrounds, who do not get ‘exoticized’ or ‘other-ed’ and are all kin.
And much like November, it is technically not done. It’s still an unfolding, serialized story. But whereas November’s a very contained story told across 4 volumes, Adventureman is designed to be perpetual, everlasting, for the team. You can tell any number of Hellboy or Tintin stories, and thus, you can tell any number of Adventureman stories. Or at least that’s the idea.
Nevertheless, we’ll be discussing the first 4-issues, which will soon arrive as a single collection, so we’ll effectively be discussing Book One. The obvious inversion approach to the genre, ala November, where the old troublesome men are no longer the focus or pov, as we shift perspective to these common women doing everyday things, who are now thrust into a world of pulp adventure, ought to be quite clear. But beyond that, Adventureman feels a bit like Matt Fraction’s Flex Mentallo but for The Pulps’ in terms of what it’s doing, wherein it’s explicitly about the fictional heroes we read, and about what they mean to us, and how they can help us.
What do we take from them and what do we not? What’s useful about them? How real is the fiction, this fictional construct, and what does memory have to do with it, and how do we remember it? The idea of the very ‘fall’ and ‘erasure’ of The Pulps, which gave way to the superheroes, is kind of made into a whole event unto itself, to explain their absence and irrelevance in real world publishing.
All that said, I don’t think this is working for me either.
Adventureman, much like the rest of the works of Fraction’s is clearly well intentioned and ambitious, but for all of that…I find myself dreadfully bored by it. It feels and reads quite dull, lacking the soul and energy of the works tackling Pulp mythology that I have read. And it read to me as though Fraction had merely wiki-ed a bunch of the Pulps, and when I read in the backmatter that he read Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip José Farmer, things made perfect sense.
Adventureman’s chief riff and inspiration is, of course, Doc Savage. He’s the key leading icon of The Pulps, and the one with the grandest scope and greatest scale, so it makes sense. And Farmer’s text, His Apocalyptic Life, is basically a Doc Savage wiki, before wikis were ever a thing (the internet hadn’t been invented yet!). Now, that’s not necessarily bad, it’s actually a smart move, to just bone up on the subject, and know all you can. But the lingering sense I get throughout is that there just isn’t much being said about The Pulps, because I do not get the sense that Fraction’s actively interested in or passionate about The Pulps beyond an academic interest. Which is also not a bad thing, but like I said, I don’t know that anything is actually being said or done as story. It’s more so the colorful genre and meta-textual choices that make up the premise, the high-concept, but the actual execution of that concept to make a statement feels…muddled. It’s not bad, mind you, just…empty, at least for me.
I want to love Claire Connell, our lead, and The Connell Family, but I walk away with a sense of apathy, which I know shouldn’t! I want to love these people. But there is this weird detachment so far, as the work is so preoccupied with showing off its high-concept, dumping exposition and moving the pieces on its chess-board, maneuvering to get to a place in the plot where it actually wants to be, that I’m not getting anything meaningful out of it, despite the oversized issue format.
In a sense, a way I would describe this book, albeit reductively, is as Matt Fraction’s Tom Strong. It’s his ABC era work. It’s him tackling that fundamental root of American hero fiction, and contemporizing it and trying to de-problematize it, to the best of their ability. Which brings me to the other problem I have with the book. It strikes me as…deeply white. Yes, it’s got a potential cast of diverse WOC from varied cultural backgrounds. But they’re all on the side, as the work is squarely focused on the white mom and her son for the most part, and Fraction does his best to portray a large cast in a multicultural household, but…there’s a number of moments wherein as a POC, you’re reading the work and it’s unmistakable that a white person wrote this, regardless of how much potential consultation they may have done.
The Diwali mentioned here (if you’re unaware, it’s the Indian festival of lights), for instance, feels like a very tryhard attempt to shoehorn in a reference in a way that feels like ‘I know that thing!’ And my response when I read it is ‘Who says that?!’ which is to say, it’s technically not a wrong thing to say, but it reads more as the distant reference a white person would make than any brown person I know would. Which isn’t to say no one would or that I’m entirely right, because it’s just my perspective and experience, and we’re not a monolith and this might land entirely for someone else. But for me, it kind of rings hollow. Well-intentioned, but hollow, as I can spot lived-in vs read-up-on. And that last line more or less sums up my thoughts and relationship with the work.
Even plotting wise, it feels like a chaotic mess that lacks the finesse of Jimmy Olsen and November, and reads to me as though Fraction, a writer I quite love, is lost in the weeds. He and his collaborators are having a great deal of fun, clearly, as the Dodsons color their own work for once here, and establish a distinct look and palette for the work here, as letterer extraordinaire Clayton Cowles, who also does Jimmy Olsen, gets to try out and riff on lettering and fonts that evoke the pulp novels and magazines, and test out different tricks. But it’s not really meshing and coming together for me the way I’d like and hope, despite my interest in the team and subject matter, and my desire to enjoy the work.
Of this whole trilogy of sorts, this entire phase of trying to wrestle with popular American forms, this strikes me as the weakest entry.
The Crux Of Comedy
“For me, the jokes are the smoke bombs that let you do the real storytelling. You can distract. It’s the spoonful of sugar, as it were. I also don’t think the jokes work unless there’s an underpinning, unless there’s something serious to it,” he says. “There has got to be some kind of gravity — and not enormity, but gravity. So, yeah, it’s hard to be funny, and I think comic book funny is rarely funny. It’s comic book funny, which is a very qualified kind of funny. Just as a storyteller, the challenge for me was like, ‘If it ever just feels like I’m doing jokes, then I’ve screwed up,’ right? It’s the story of a friendship. It’s the story about a guy who wants to literally be anyone else but himself. All of that is what compelled me to do it in the first place. That was the Christmas tree; the jokes are kind of the ornaments. And the thing about the jokes is they’re kind of not really jokes. There’s precedent for almost everything in the book, you know? And I think the DC Universe is in a very dark, very grim, very horror movie kind of place of blood and thunder right now, and there was nothing like that really around, you know? So it felt like, if nothing else, this is a dollop of crunchy amongst a lot of chewy, or something. It just felt like this is a contrapuntally placed thing to the rest of where the universe is. So, that was fun, and that gave it a kind of energy that I don’t think we would have had, had this book happened at a different time.” – Matt Fraction
Charles Schultz’ iconic strip of Charlie Brown and his little gang of peers is evoked and assimilated into the fabric of this larger mechanism that Fraction/Lieber/Fairbairn/Cowles are building, in this grand tribute to the old. But here’s what I find deeply interesting: It never strikes me as nostalgic. It’s never about the past, as much as how can we take tricks and techniques, the methods of storytelling, the formal tools, and apply them in fun new ways, to shake things up.
As I read the book, only one term popped into my brain to describe Jimmy Olsen…
Neo-Retro Pastiche…or Not!!!
For all that it may be riffing on Peanuts, for all that it may use the iconic 6-panel grid of the Silver Age era, the book feels ever forward-facing. It’s constantly bringing forth new ideas, and rewriting the past, to make something genuinely new. ‘Neo-Retro Pastiche’ is the term that popped into my brain as I was reading, and not a moment after, the book itself said it. Sneaky little thing.
But to explain that term and not sound like a madman, ‘Retro-Pastiche’ is essentially how I would describe a number of the works by, say, Mark Waid or Kurt Busiek or Jeff Parker. They pull things from the past and try to sell the work by steeping it firmly in the old-timey elements, from retro designs and aesthetics to the history. It’s less about using the formal elements of the past, and more so about the feeling, sense and idea of the comic. So it’s presentation of the old, with the implicit appeal being that it is kind of a throwback. This sort of comic school is not to be confused with the kind of work done by Geoff Johns and Mark Millar, who are a different school entirely, while the likes of Grant Morrison, Kieron Gillen and Al Ewing are a whole another.
It’s not really about evoking the old. It’s like assuming All-Star Superman is about evoking the old. This is making something definitive and fresh, which grabs elements across the board, but especially from a certain era, to re-assemble them into something relentlessly contemporary. When Lieber draws the days of youth in a style evoking Peanuts, the purpose isn’t to say ‘Hey remember that?’. The homage isn’t the point, which it is in many other works, such as in Dial H:
Fraction’s Hawkeye kicked off the decade strong, setting the tone for the 2010s superhero texts. And its success and vitality led to bolder books, wherein creative teams would experiment, they’d take these smaller characters and do them akin to indie comics, they’d go bold. It’s no secret that books like Superior Foes Of Spider-Man, The Vision and plenty more exist because of Hawkeye. Even on the DC end, you had DCYou emerge, with The Omega Men and Grayson, which showcased a similar approach and spirit, as Marvel’s success with the smaller books and hits of this tradition was paying off.
If Hawkeye kicked off and informed a whole era, defining the beginning, then Jimmy Olsen is the book to close it off. It’s the book to come at the end of the era, to take stock, and ask ‘Well, where else can we go from here?’ from the same creative voice. It’s the period at the end of the sentence, with an ellipsis. It’s the damn Post-Script to it all. That’s why it’s the defining superhero text of the 2010s.