Thursday, February 8, 2007

Back in my day, we had *really* fantastic stories.

In many ways this is the Golden Age of popular culture, if only because so much of our popcult past is now available. When clips of Sapphire and Steel and fan-made trailers for Quatermass episodes are accessible at the click of a mouse, and when formerly unfindable rarities (and that’s putting it nicely) like Anthony Skene’s Monsieur Zenith the Albino and George Brewer’s The Witch of Ravensworth can be easily and affordably purchased, what else can we call this era?

And yet, and yet.

It can be (and has been) argued that the war between the geeks and the mundanes is over, that we’ve won, that science fiction (and more generally, the fantastic) has conquered the mainstream. And certainly the most popular television shows--American Idol, Grey’s Anatomy, the various CSI iterations, and of course Heroes–have science fictional elements to them. But with the sole exception of the much-beloved (and rightly so) Hiro Nakamura, the science fiction and fantastic available now is, for the most part, of the grim, serious, and ultimately dreary variety.

Which is why–and I’m not saying Kristine Kathryn Rusch is right, because she’s not–-the Aughts are not the best years for lovers of the science fictional and the fantastic. No, that title goes to the 1930s, which were in fact the greatest decade in the history of popular culture.

Don’t believe me?

The 1930s gave us the following:

In The Startler, Ray Mon Hai, the white South Seas Tarzan-alike, who fought evil while riding on the back of Gooloo, his intelligent pet shark.

On the radio show Nemesis, Inc, a female private detective who took her marching orders, via a filter microphone, from her dead father, in a Charlie-in-Charlie's Angels arrangement. (Only it didn't, y'know, suck).

In Spain, a "pulp americano" treated readers to the sheriff of an Arizona town fighting the forces of Fu Manchu, capturing what appears to have been Captain Nemo's Nautilus (while clad in ten gallon hat and chaps), and then, after being killed, rising from the grave to continue fighting crime, this time letting his Chinese assistant take the lead.

In the heldromans, the German version of the pulps, several authors, working for a variety of publishers, decided to create a shared pulp world (and what's more, seem not to have told their publishers about it), so that, throughout most of the decade (until the Nazis put the boot on the neck of the industry), you could demonstrate, via published crossovers, that everyone from Captain Mors, Der Luftpirat to Sun Koh, the Nazi Doc Savage, existed in the same world.

In Lisbon, Reinaldo Ferreira, the Lester Dent of Portuguese pulps, wrote a series of stories about a Portuguese aviator who went a.w.o.l. from the Spanish Foreign Legion so he could fight for Abd el Krim and the Rif rebels. The aviator was aided by his 16-year-old Japanese copilot, who was also the aviator's lover. Later, the aviator fought the international crime syndicate, "Trust Z," the Trust's diabolical leader, Dr. Xavier Montanha, and Montanha's gorilla assassins.

Graphic Arts, of Minneapolis, gave us the pulp Vice-Squad Detective, which can be fairly described (it's how I described it for McFarland) as a "Spicy weird menace mystery pulp," which surely is a good example of the axiom that too much is too much, but way too much is just enough.

In Argosy, Will McMorrow described the adventures of Terry Kilroe, industrial efficiency expert, whose job is curing sick businesses: "his is the job of the expert diagnostician, the trouble-shooter, the minute-man, called in to combat waste and carelessness and crooked dealing and the vagaries of human nature. He does not think in digits."

And, most gloriously, the single greatest achievement of humanity:

A baby gorilla is caught in Africa and brought to the United States. In Colorado the baby gorilla is sold to Johnson, a prospector. Johnson is a kind man and treats the gorilla well, naming him "O'Neil" and feeding and raising him. O’Neil grows up to love Johnson. Johnson teaches O’Neil how to dig, fetch firewood, haul up buckets of water, cook, clean, and load and fire a revolver. Unfortunately, Johnson is murdered for what he knows about "the great motherlode." When O’Neil finds Johnson’s body, he swears revenge. O’Neil straps on a bandolier and two six-shooters and begins tracking the murderers across a hundred miles of Colorado mountains and badlands. He picks them off one by one, meanwhile discovering a talent for holding up stagecoaches and using them to chase fleeing gunmen. The death of Johnson is ultimately avenged by O'Neil, better known as...Six-Gun Gorilla!

Now, be honest. Which would you rather watch and read: the ritual humiliation that is American Idol, the celebration of bad writing, bad acting, and appallingly unlikable characters that is Grey's Anatomy, and the fetishistic investigation porn of CSI, or stories about chimpanzees enforcing the law on the streets of London, zombie sheriffs, and dead men telling their daughters about what their next case is going to be?

Thought so.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the superiority of the 1930s.

(Information on all of these characters and 4500+ more will be found in my Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes, due out in Fall 2008 from MonkeyBrain Books).


Roz said...

The important thing is that we don't have to choose. We can luxuriate in the 30s stuff for that remorselessly ingenious creativity and yet value both what is actively good in current stuff and what is not excluded or only gets by under the radar. I want my popular entertainment to have at least the option of speaking to my experience as a middle-aged transdyke, say, and I am sure that readers of colour feel that they want to read their stories just once in a while...

And I know you are being deliberately outrageous in some of what you are saying here - Gray's is hardly the acme of current television after all, though it has more moments than you give it credit for. If you want happy fluff that is also brilliantly plotted and endlessly inventive - and completely without any fantasy element save its own batshit melodrama - you should be watching Ugly Betty (which is also quite the prettiest show on TV)

Jess Nevins said...

I chose those tv shows because they're the highest rated, but also because, again excepting Hiro, I just don't see the gonzo fun now that the 1930s produced.

But you're right about representation--the 1930s were not a good time for pop culture that dealt with anyone who wasn't a straight WASP.

Maybe Grey's has improved from the early episodes I saw--I hope so, anyhow. But those episodes instilled in me a deep and unquenchable loathing for everything having to do with the show. I'm unbalanced on the subject of Grey's, I admit.