Sex And The Single Pulp Hero

My pulp brother Barry Reese (author of The Rook series, among other things) has started a conversation at his blog on the subject of sex (and romance) in the pulps…

In the classic hero pulps, there wasn’t a whole lot of sex. You’d have the occasional lurid cover, with some scantily clad woman (usually with stockings showing) in distress while our hero moved to protect her but for the most part, guys like Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Avenger were not very interested in knocking boots. Doc occasionally in later years would display a kind of boyish interest in the fairer sex and The Avenger’s love for his wife was constantly being referenced but even in the first book where you see The Avenger alongside his wife and daughter, you didn’t exactly get the image that they were passionate lovers. They were partners, friends and spouses, yes, but there was no sign of “heat” in the relationship.

There were some exceptions, of course. Jim Anthony was basically Doc Savage with a sex drive but by today’s standards, he was still a bit tame. In fact, the idea of Anthony was racier than the truth — he liked to lounge around at home in a speedo while working in the lab. Hell, what guy doesn’t?

The fantasy pulps (like Conan) got a lot of mileage out of ladies whipping one another and there was no doubt that Conan and others got into lusty embraces. But I’m focusing on the hero pulps because those were my favorites and that’s where most of the New Pulp writings out today fall into place.

So…

Now we’re in the age of New Pulp. Writers are now bringing in more modern ideas about race, gender relations, etc. into their pulp-inspired writings.

But we still don’t have much in the way of S-E-X. I’m not saying we *need* it, I’m just surprised there’s not more variety out there.

Sex and pulp fiction (in that order) are two topics I spend quite a bit of time thinking about, and I’ve given some thought to their interaction too. I commented on Barry’s post:

I’m with you 100%.

One of the things I enjoy about The Spider is the fact that you get the sense that not only are Dick and Nina  rabidly loyal and utterly romantically enraptured with each other, they’re fucking like bunnies. I was bugged by Doc Savage’s apparent pre-adolescent state even when I was reading the books as a kid, and it bugs me even more now.

In my Doc Wilde series, Doc is a widower, but over the course of the stories he will start to develop romantic connections again (indeed, we’ll see some of it in the second book). But he’s already a warmer, in every way more emotional, hero than his literary ancestor. And his parents are very old but still quite youthful, and enjoying each other just as much as The Spider and his lady. (And I’ve already made reference to the fact that the elder Wilde, the “original” Doc Wilde from the pulp era, used to be very stoic and humorless, but his wife opened him up emotionally, making him more loving and playful, and, frankly, human).

Making my characters as human as possible is very important to me, and the stolid sexlessness of heroes like Doc Savage (and even the skirt-chasing antics of his sidekicks, who acted like horny thirteen year olds) is, to me, one of the unfortunate failings of those tales I love so much. (It reached its nadir in the terrible seventies Doc Savage movie, in which the most romantic thing Doc says to the gorgeous jungle princess is “Monja, you’re a brick.”)  Sex, romance, emotion in general, are all very interesting to readers because they’re human themselves. And it’s hard to take a hero completely seriously if he’s unable to function fully as a grown-up in the emotional world.

Granted, with Doc Savage’s background as essentially a cloistered lab experiment, it does make sense that he may not be emotionally mature, though it would have been nice to see him undergo an emotional puberty through the years and become more fully adult.

Of course, this literary neutering of the heroes resulted from an attempt to pander to young readers, just as through editorial edict Doc Savage very early on stopped killing bad guys on his adventures. In his earliest exploits, he was a lot more pragmatic, taking down mooks when he had to, but very quickly they made it so that he never killed anyone, relying heavily on non-lethal methods and gear, though many a villain did bring on their own demise and Doc didn’t shed a tear for them. They did this for the kids. But in those early stories, there is a jagged vibrancy that goes away when Doc gets too pacifistic, and as a horny thirteen year old (and as a horny much older year old) I missed that.

Just as I kept wishing Doc would actually bed one of these perky beauties who threw themselves at him all the time. Didn’t have to see it in detail. Coulda happened off-screen. But it would have been nice to know, for instance, that he was getting his ashes hauled by Princess Monja every time he got down to Hidalgo…

Far as I’m concerned, maybe he didn’t let Lester Dent know, but that’s exactly what was happening.

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4 comments on “Sex And The Single Pulp Hero

  1. Bill Craig says:

    You need to check out my Hardluck Hannigan books Tim, Hannigan has had some pretty physical love scenes with his female associates and has even fathered a child with one and he is definately New Pulp.

  2. In my Doc Hazzard pastiches, I try to make it clear that Doc has normal desires but chooses to refrain from sex as a matter of principle, akin to the religious vow of chastity. His philosophy is that sexual and romantic involvements are more trouble than they’re worth and that he can satisfy all of his needs by exercising his own imagination and ingenuity.

    He does, alter all, famously exercise every muscle in his body every single day…

    Paul Simon summed up what imagine Doc’s attitude to be in his 1973 song “Kodachrome”:

    “If you took all the girls I knew when I was single
    And brought them all together for one night
    They’d never match my sweet imagination
    And everything looks worse in black and white”

    Doc Hazzard is “woman-proof” (and, presumably, girlyman-proof) because he’s made a conscious decision to use physical and mental discipline and knowledge of human biology and psychology to effectively satisfy his needs before they can ever become problematic. He’d know better than to try and repress or suppress his desires, so he’d find a way to express and relieve them rather than succumb to them.

    There may also be some element of sublimation in his tinkering and immersion in science, to say nothing of his two-hour daily fitness regimen, but I see him as being fully aware of the potential problems of emotional and physical entanglement and taking proactive measures to minimize them.

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