Pulp (Graphic Novel) (2020)
A big story in a small package
I wasn’t sure what to think when I decided to read Pulp. The cover seemed like I was in for a good old fashioned Western. Except…I’m not a big fan of westerns. They make me feel like I need a shower after all the dust and dry heat and tumbleweeds. Still, Pulp made a few ‘best of’ lists for 2020 so I decided to give the graphic novel a shot.
I’m glad I made that decision because Pulp is not what I was expecting. It turned out to be a lot more than just a Western.
So how would I describe it? Was it a cowboy heist? A ‘one last adventure’ romp? A working-class ‘stick it to the man’ story? A Nazi hunting escapade? A simple love story?
In all of just 72 pages, it was a little of all of those.
Max Winters was once a Wyoming homesteader turned outlaw. Now, as an aging and ailing pulp writer in 1930’s New York, he spends his time worrying about his health and finances, and what will become of the woman he loves when he’s gone. When someone from his previous life in Wyoming approaches him with a plan to solve his financial problems, he’s forced to act quickly and decisively.
As a reader, I felt like I was directly over the shoulder of Max as he navigated his world. Pulp has readers experience Max’s day-to-day struggles in New York; flashbacks to his outlaw days in Wyoming; and even his characters’ adventures in the pulp fiction stories he writes. In fact, as I was reading, Max’s experiences often felt real to me.
Ed Brubaker did a superb job of bringing him to life. Max is written as a fleshed-out and nuanced individual who has made and continues to make questionable decisions. At no point are readers asked to feel pity or anger or sadness. Instead, the story is presented in a matter-of-fact way. Here is the situation. This is what happened in the past. These are the decisions made. And ironically, by having readers dryly experience Max’s life as it unfolds, the overall impact is intense.
Strangely, my biggest emotional concern as I was reading was the length of the graphic novel itself. ‘Why am I so close to the end?’, I thought. ‘This story can’t possibly be wrapped up so soon.’ But to his credit, Brubaker did an expert job of tying up the narrative in a satisfactory way.
The artwork of Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips also made this story feel incredibly grounded. The attention to detail in the ‘present-day’ panels put me right on the streets of 1930’s New York, or directly in Max’s apartment, or his office. The world Max lived in felt…well, lived-in. By contrast, the flashbacks and fiction panels felt intentionally sparse and vacant. The coloring mostly bled outside the lines in those dry and dusty Western tones. Only Max in flashbacks and Red (the main protagonist) in Max’s fiction writings were given detailed red shirts.
Pulp is a short read but one that stayed with me long after I was done. I will definitely re-read this in the future. It’s an impactful story, written with nuance and drawn and colored with purpose.
Source: Pulp (Graphic Novel) (Image Comics) (Brubaker and Phillips) (2020)