Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

More Game Changers

I enjoyed writing last week’s reminiscences so much I thought I’d add a few more. For those who came in late, I’m talking about those moments stumbling across a book or a comic or whatever that opened up whole new possibilities for me… and in a couple of cases literally changed the course of my life. Given the current state of so many of these genre things I grew up loving I found it really cheering –and therapeutic, frankly– to spend some time looking back on that joyous moment when I fell in love with the stuff in the first place.


Pulp fiction.
My introduction to the pulp heroes was Marvel’s magazine version of Doc Savage from Doug Moench and Tony deZuniga.

It was part of a little wave of nostalgia/pulp hero comics that happened in the early seventies.

None of them lasted, but it sort of put the stuff on my radar. “Pulp heroes” and “pulp fiction” were often referenced in the letter columns and so on…but I didn’t really get what they were referring to. Certainly I was familiar with the concept as it’s used generically; but at the age of thirteen, when I first stumbled across the real thing, I really had no concept of what the pulp magazines’ original incarnation looked like.

It’s not as dumb as it sounds. You have to remember, in 1975, there was no internet and thus no Wikipedia or Google or anything like that to instantly whistle up examples. We were getting the stuff in paperback reprints, usually found on drugstore spinner racks.

And there wasn’t a lot to distinguish the pulp reprints from all the other disposable series paperbacks of the time. In fact, that was a deliberate strategy; publishers clearly wanted readers to think these were new books. The Spider even got a Mack Bolan makeover at one point.

There really wasn’t anything on the covers or the trade dress indicating these were reprints.

To my teenaged self, they just sounded cool.

So it was really only from picking up contextual clues in the articles in the Doc Savage magazine and so on that I gathered that these things were revivals of some sort of 1930s magazine publication. It wasn’t until I acquired Phillp Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage biography that I got a sense of the things.

But the real epiphany came a little later, a double whammy of two trade paperbacks. The first was a facsimile edition of the Shadow from Dover Books.

This was my first look at actual pulp pages with the illustrations and ads and everything. NOW it all made sense.

At the same time I acquired Peter Haining’s magnificent anthology, The Fantastic Pulps.

This book had a wonderful cross-section of pulp stories and also a lot of great historical annotations from Haining himself, as well as reprinting Charles Beaumont’s brilliant essay on pulp magazines. From that day to this one, I’ve been all in on the stuff.


Alan Moore/deconstructed superheroes. I am as guilty as any comics fan of getting caught up in the grim-n-gritty comics wave that swept superhero comics in the late 1980s.

But in my defense, it really was an electrifying revelation right there at the beginning. The trouble was that everyone took the wrong lessons from what guys like Alan Moore were actually doing. Instead of amping up the violence and sex to absurd levels, the thing that really caught my attention was the idea of stories with consequences, and the rigid, hard-SF style of extrapolation of what a genuine superhuman street brawl would actually be like.

In 1985 I’d sort of heard about what this Moore guy was doing over on Swamp Thing but I wasn’t really very interested. When I came across Miracleman #2, though, I was intrigued. Picked it up on a whim.

I’d read about it in Amazing Heroes (a magazine I still miss; sigh) and I didn’t really know what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t THIS:

If you weren’t there at the time, I really can’t put across what an amazingly heady brew this was. The adult, ruthlessly logical science-fiction approach got me right where I lived. I immediately tracked down #1, and all of Moore’s Swamp Thing run as well.

Sadly, it wasn’t to last. One of the difficulties so many of us have with Alan Moore’s work is that he gets bored with what he’s doing and wants to move on long before the rest of us do. This is certainly not Mr. Moore’s fault; if anything, it’s an admirable quality in a creator. But there’s no denying it costs him readers.

And to a lesser or greater extent this was kind of the same problem with the whole deconstructed-superhero trend. It was a victim of its own excesses. I am aware of how hypocritical this sounds, considering how I’ve excoriated fans for this attitude myself in columns past… but honest to God, Moore’s early stuff is still the best as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes the old stuff really IS better. To this day, I think Miracleman Book One is one of the finest superhero stories Moore did; yeah, better than Watchmen. I’m dead serious. Pity it didn’t last.


Mysteries and thrillers. This is a hard one to nail down because it feels like I always liked those things. The earliest I can remember– that magic combination of the excitement of a suspenseful adventure with an actual fair-play puzzle that the reader was invited to solve– would have to be a tie between Sherlock Holmes, who I first discovered via the Educator Classic Library…

…and the Hitchcock juveniles, which I wrote about here.

Of the two, though I remain a Sherlock Holmes devotee to this day and have even contributed to the literature of the subject in a small way myself, I’d have to give it to Robert Arthur and the Hitchcock juveniles, particularly the Three Investigators.

Those books, in particular the first two, The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, are easily two of the best-constructed mystery plots I’ve ever seen — not the best juveniles, the best EVER. Terror Castle, especially; the solution is the best kind of mystery writing.

The most satisfying mysteries, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t the ones where you get it ahead of the detective. Those are mostly annoying. (Looking at you, Castle.) Nor are they the ones where the detective is ahead of the reader because of unfair advantages conferred by the author. (Every Agatha Christie ever.)

No, the BEST ones are where you get there simultaneously with the protagonists, you are making the connections as they do. Those are the plots that leave you feeling triumphant and a little breathless. And Robert Arthur was a master of those. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.

As it happens, my wife Julie is also a huge mystery fan and I asked her what her first magic moment was. Without hesitation, she said, “the Ellery Queen TV show.”

“Really? That late?” I was surprised because that show was on when we were in high school.

“Uh-huh. I’d seen the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but they were too boring. Ellery Queen made it cool.”

Cool? Well, okay. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, she married a writer who is easily distracted by a random train of thought, lacking in social graces, and is a sucker for an interesting puzzle. I’m usually as vaguely disheveled as Hutton’s Queen, as well.


And there you go. I think that’s enough for a while. I hope you enjoyed these as much as I enjoyed revisiting them, and one hopes you find something cool and heretofore unknown to you, as well. Because that’s what we’re really about here at the Junk Shop. Back soon with more cool stuff. In the meantime, feel free to share your own personal epiphanies in the comments.


Health report…. well, people DO ask. Every Friday after getting irradiated I have a consultation/check-in with my oncologist and he always says, “so how is it going?” Last Friday the report went like this…

Well, you know, I still have cancer, so not really that great. Sorry, I can’t help it, being snide is how my people cope with adversity.

Uh, I guess it’s going as well as can be expected. Still stuck with the walker, I can’t stand on my own for any length of time… And the fatigue you warned me about is making itself known. Part of it is the constant sort of… listening to my body and wondering what is going to work today and what isn’t. That’s exhausting in itself. So I don’t know if that counts or not but you asked. Plus we have a shitload of forms for financial aid to fill out and that’s sucking all the energy out of everything because it’s such a goddamn labyrinth to try and navigate.

In yet another moment of reluctant adulthood, I’m having to come to terms with the fact that the new normal might be permanent. Or at least, that I’m not going to bounce all the way back, and won’t be able to go back to work in July. …certainly not as any kind of driver. So we have applied for disability, and it looks like it’s going to sail through. ‘Cancer’ is apparently the magic word.

I hate this. I really loved that job, helping people and being useful…and now that I’m on the other side of it, seeing what Julie goes through getting me to the endless doctor visits, I can see how important it was for all the patients I drove. But… it is what it is. Now we have to rejigger the insurance, AGAIN.


So, basically everything every cancer patient is fighting with I guess. All that being said, well…At least I still have the books and the column to occupy me, so I’m not completely useless yet. I’m still getting writing work done. I’m apparently not dying from this. I’m still able to make my wife laugh. Real food is allowed now, according to your nurse here. Trying to take the win where we can.

And that about sums it up. Application went in today. We’re taking all of this one day at a time, still. I can’t guarantee I’ll be back here next week but I’m sure gonna try. Until then.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    The first time I encountered the pulps was in Batman #259, on of the 100-pg comics, where Batman encounters the Shadow. That coincided with DC house ads for the Shadow comic, which looked really cool. Didn’t get to see an issue until years later, when I got the hardcover reprint of the O’Neil & Kaluta stories. A little later I saw the second issue of Justice, Inc, which a friend had. Liked his HQ set up, thought he looked a bit bizarre. I finally got to read some of it in college, when I got my hands on The Man of Bronze, the first Doc Savage Bantam paperback and it grew from there. It was sort of in my wheelhouse though, as I was a big fan of the Phantom, who was pretty pulpy, if less lethal.

    For mysteries, it was Columbo. I loved watching Peter Falk’s detective lieutenant talk to the suspects, who I knew were guilty (I saw them do it at the beginning of the program!) and catch them out in lies, until he lays it all on the table for them. Brilliant lessons in observation, human nature, logic and just sticking to a problem until the answer reveals itself.

    I agree on Miracleman being superior to Watchmen, the whole thing, though book I is the best, overall. I pretty high on Book II, as well. That one seriously plays with your expectations. I also like Moore for reconstructing those heroes, going back to the basics, with his ABC line, especially Tom Strong. A nice mix of a pulp hero and a sci-fi adventurer, with bits of Tarzan and Superman, Doc Savage and riffs on classic comics. Top Ten was another favorite, both for the sight gags and characters. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was what I loved about Victorian sci-fi & adventure, but with a less imperial eye, ala Michael Moorcock and his Oswald Bastable tales. That was another for in-jokes and easter eggs. Kind of lost me, though, with Black Dossier and some of the subsequent was hit or miss. I read a little Farmer (Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage, His Apocalyptic Life, and was reading more as Moore dug into this stuff and I got into the whole Wold Newton thing, both his and subsequent writers. That led me to the Tales of the Shadowmen anthologies, which I devoured, as well as Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula and Diogenes Club meta-fictions.

    At the same time, I don’t feel Morrison really topped Zenith, but more the early stuff. The later volumes didn’t wow me and looking at it reminds me a lot of Moore & Davis, on Captain Britain. I would almost add All-Star Superman; but, so much of it, to me, was him playing in the sandbox of Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin in the Bronze Age.

  2. JHL

    I’d seen some Shadow comics (from DC I think) at comics shops but tended to avoid picking up direct market only comics since I did not yet have regular access to a comics shop and mostly depended on spinners, so despite some intriguing covers I’d always give them a pass. But one time while staying at my father’s for a couple of weeks over a summer I noticed he had about a half dozen Shadow paperback reprints sitting on a shelf. They largely ended up saving the stay since I was alone most all day and there was nowhere interesting to go within bicycle distance.

    I’ve generally enjoyed Farmer’s work so I really should find copies of the Doc Sampson and Tarzan bios.

    Tom Strong and Top Ten were certainly my favorite of the ABC books. LXG was a fun idea that never seemed as good in execution as I was hoping it would be.

  3. For mysteries, Perry Mason — I snuck “Case of the Duplicate Daughter” out of my Aunt May’s suitcase during a visit and read it overnight. Holmes came later
    For pulps, the Doc Savage novel “Devil on the Moon.” Not one of his better ones, but it hooked me. Captain Future and Bantam’s reprints of the Shadow followed.
    I read the first arc of Miracleman and hated it. It felt way too smug about how edgy and deconstructionist it was (YMMV). Moore did much better later.
    LXG? Bogs down the further along it gets, largely due to Moore becoming a grumpy old man about comics and pop culture. And the amount of rape is … not good.

    1. I read the first arc of Miracleman and hated it. It felt way too smug about how edgy and deconstructionist it was (YMMV). Moore did much better later.

      See, I had that reaction to Watchmen. Too mannered, too concerned with technique. But the early Miracleman is all about story; it still strikes me as a young writer on fire with the possibilities that open up if you’re willing to go there. (I’m talking about that first arc, #1-3.) But since nobody in fandom agrees with me about this–well, maybe one or two; bless you, Jeff–I’m content to live with my heresy.

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Don’t necessarily agree about the Marvelman/Miracleman vs. Watchmen assessment. Much as I like the former, I think Watchmen a stronger work, a genuine novel that hits you at a number of levels. But I doubt the nature of our disagreement on this one point is the stuff of pitched geek debate…

    As for pulp fiction, I came to through the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard and didn’t stray far beyond that (mainly other pulpy sword & sorcery and early SF pulp stories) for the longest time. Unless you count Weird Heroes (I read the first one back in 1980 or 1981), I finally read some original prose (i.e., non-comic book) Doc Savage and Shadow stories for the first time in the mid-to-late ’00s. With a few original Spider novels sitting as yet unread on my shelf of shame, I’m definitely playing catch-up in that regard.

  5. Jazzbo

    That issue of Miracleman blew me away as a kid. I got it randomly in some variety pack of comics, and it was the only issue of Miracleman I ever read until Marvel just recently reprinted all of them. I had only been collecting comics for a couple years when I got it, but it definitely was a game changer for me as far as what stories could be done in a comic. I think I picked up the trades of DKR and Watchmen shortly after.

  6. jccalhoun

    I was reading Swamp Thing before Moore came along so that was my introduction to his work. I didn’t read Watchmen until it was out in trade paperback. It is an amazing work of literature – I mean that in the sense that when I read it, I get the same feeling I get from reading one of the classics of literature: I know it is really really good but I can’t say I enjoy it. Miracleman, though was exciting and thrilling. Of course, being a Swamp Thing fan, I loved the Totleben issues. It is such a shame his vision meant he can’t really work.

    I came to the pulps from the Doc Savage and Shadow comics. I had also heard some of the Shadow radio dramas. I don’t think I heard of the Spider until Tim Truman’s miniseries.

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