My love for the old pulp heroes — characters like Tarzan, Doc Savage, Professor Challenger, and the Shadow — came early, and when it took hold, it never let go. First loves are like that.
It started, like so many of my early loves, on Saturday morning.
I was watching TV with my dad — the Tarzan adventures with Ron Ely. Back in those days, there used to be shows, like, say, The Six Million Dollar Man, that Dad and I could could watch together, and both enjoy.
Dad explained that Ron Ely wasn’t the real Tarzan; that was Johnny Weissmuller. (And Clayton Moore was the real Lone Ranger.) I didn’t know if Dad was right or wrong, but I didn’t care. Ron Ely’s Tarzan delighted me.
After that, Dad led me to The Phantom in the newspaper comics, and told me about The Shadow and Doc Savage, characters I would discover for myself in later years. When I was a bit older, he introduced me to James Bond.
These characters were the first superheroes … they came before Superman and Batman and their legions of followers. They fought without costumes or superpowers (well, arguably a few like the Shadow and Mandrake the Magician might have had what you could call powers, but even they weren’t exactly leaping tall buildings with a single bound) … just extraordinary skill. They were the peak, the very best ordinary men and women could become.
As you’ve probably heard, Superman owes much of his mythos to Doc Savage — the Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel, Clark Savage and Clark Kent, the Fortress of Solitude and the, uh, Fortress of Solitude … you get the idea.
The superpowered crowd, with their bright capes and primary-colored, skin-tight costumes, might have driven their predecessors, with their fedoras, loincloths, and ripped shirts into relative obscurity, but they’ve never quite gone away. Superman, after all, had been flying for years when I watched Ron Ely’s Tarzan with Dad. There’s a new Tarzan film out now. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite some decidedly mixed reviews, I intend to. Like I said, those early loves go deep.
Shane Black, one of the most interesting filmmakers working, is bringing Doc Savage back to the screens, and Sam Raimi was working on a new version of The Shadow, although (alas!) that seems to have vanished into development hell. Sherlock Holmes is everywhere these days — and yes, I consider Sherlock Holmes a pulp character. To me, the golden age of the pulps begins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Holmes and Challenger characters, and ends with Ian Fleming and his famous creation, James Bond.
Most pulp adaptations, successful or otherwise, share one thing in common — they are period pieces. This year’s The Legend of Tarzan film, for example, is set after the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. The 1994 film version of The Shadow was set shortly after the first World War.
Frankly, I think that’s a key part of the charm of the old pulp hero stories. They are relics of a time past. Something about that very inaccessibility makes suspension of disbelief easier somehow. You can kind of believe, almost, that Tarzan was raised my jungle apes, or that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger could find dinosaurs in a mysterious lost world in South America … when those stories are set in decades long past.
In the days of Google Earth, we know, all too well, that there are no more hidden plateaus or lost cities of gold in the deepest jungles. We live in a world where mysteries are vanishing.
Indeed, attempts to modernize the pulps never really seem to work. Moving Tarzan from the jungles of the late 1800s to, say, modern Manhattan, usually comes across as downright silly.
Sure, there are exceptions. There are two modern takes on Sherlock Holmes that are working beautifully … although I have a hard time imagining that Professor Challenger would have the same luck.
My pal Tim Byrd has written a series of wonderful middle grade/young adult novels called Doc Wilde, a not-even-thinly-disguised homage to Doc Savage. Tim’s stories are set in modern times, but his Doc Wilde isn’t the Doc Savage we know and love … it’s his son, and the main characters include the first Doc’s grandchildren. So while Tim’s stories are decidedly modern, they have deep roots in the past.
But these seem to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, pulp adventures seem to work best as period pieces.
Even the venerable James Bond series, at least until the “reboot” that came with Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, seemed a little … out of place when divorced from the cold war era. In fact, I remember reading that the producers actually considered, at least briefly, making Craig’s adventures period pieces and returning them to their cold war roots.
So my question is this … can a modern pulp series work in a contemporary setting? Could Indiana Jones have gone after the Ark of the Covenant in the 1980s, or was the World War II setting necessary?
Are the pulps doomed to be just quaint relics of a vanished age?
I ran into this problem a few years ago, when my pal Bob Robinson and I were thinking about developing a pulp pastiche for television. I wanted to make a period piece, but Bob wisely pointed out that budget and audience demand made that idea impractical at best. So my task was to come up with a modern take on the pulps, without losing the charm and adventure. After all, we still have a need for wonder … we need modern myths for the information age.
Bob and I never worked together on that project, but I never let it go.
The idea became Challengers, a TV pilot and bible I wrote. It’s spent years in Hollywood development hell (that’s frustrating, but despite what you hear, the process made the story at least a thousand times better). The TV version is still kicking.
Just this year, though, I turned the first episodes into a series of novels. My literary manager, super agent Peter Miller, has meetings in New York literally even as I type this to shop the first book, The Secret of the Serpent’s Eye.
So how did I solve the period problem? Glad you asked. Challengers tells the story of the great grandchildren of the pulp heroes. Their great grandparents could have those amazing adventures because … the world really was different then.
Something has changed.
The nature of that change is the secret history of the world.
The lead character is a 25-year old billionaire and adventurer named Tom Reilly. Twenty years ago, Tom’s parents learned a secret no one alive should ever know. They were found murdered. Only one thing was missing — a leather bound journal belonging to Tom’s great-grandfather, the founder of the Challengers, Professor Phineas J. Reilly himself.
In this first adventure, Tom recovers the journal. Desperate to learn the secret it contains, Tom gathers his diverse team, a magician, a shaman, a daredevil pilot, an inventor, a spy, and an assassin (also the great-grandchildren of pulp-era adventurers), and begins a journey that will take them to a lost temple, where they find a key that seems to alter the nature of reality itself.
One of the producers who worked with me on the television version of this story, called Challengers Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Joss Whedon as introduced by Grant Morrison, which thrilled me to no end.
As I say on my Web site, in the era of Google-earth, when we know all too well that there are no more undiscovered dinosaur plateaus in South America and no last enchanted forests waiting, still, to be found, we live in a world bereft of wonder. And perhaps more than ever, we’re hungry for the sacred stories that, like Ariadne’s thread, show us the way out of life’s dark labyrinths.
So like Tim Byrd, my stories have deep roots in a mythic past to create new archetypes in a world starved for wonders.
So what do y’all think? Can the pulps, or pulp-inspired characters, work in a modern setting? Would you want to see an Indiana Jones or Doc Savage remake set in 2016?