A while ago – it might have been right around the time that the new reboot Conan the Barbarian movie was hitting U.S. theaters – I was thinking about pulps (as I’m wont to do) and their protagonists and narratives. Mostly the protagonists, as it seems to me that although we tend to think of pulps as exceptionally plot-heavy pieces of entertainment, the plots are all the same standard adventure boilerplate with a bad guy up to no good, a love interest who ends up directly threatened by the bad guy, and the pulp hero soundly defeating the bad guy and getting the girl and living happily ever after. There can be some fun to be had in the particulars of the details, but I don’t tend to think of pulp plots as being terribly memorable. Whereas the protagonists are what pulp lives and dies by. If anybody cares at all about a new Conan movie, it’s not due to an investment in a specific story of Howard’s that they want to see adapted, it’s due to an investment in the character. It could be the origin story for the gazillionth time, a synthesis of multiple canonical stories, or some brand new adventure dreamed up by a screenwriting committee, and it doesn’t matter. Getting the character of Conan right is what matters. (Full disclosure: I didn’t see the latest Conan so I don’t know if it succeeded on that level or not. Moving on.)
The other hallmark of the classic pulps, of course, is their exotic and/or imaginary settings, which to a large extent is inextricable from the protagonist or the plot or both. Conan is a barbarian swordsman who fights wizards and monsters so, clearly, he has to exist in a world that has those things. Again, the outcomes of those fights is by and large a foregone conclusion, so really the aspect of them most likely to be memorable or interesting is in the trimmings and trappings, e.g. battling not just a lion but a demon-lion, atop an outcropping of rocks overhanging a quicksand sea, or somesuch.
At any rate, as a result of all these musings I was thinking about what would go into the creation of a new pulp-style hero, to come up with something moderately interesting or original. I started dreaming up a post-apocalyptic fantasy world where soldiers were bred and alchemically modified to be living biological weapons, chimeras with the ability to produce (and, by necessity, resist) natural poisons. Where much of the wildlife, plant and animal, had mutated as a result of all the experimentation, and the global biochemical war had wiped out most of civilization, except for a few of the chimera-soldiers including the protagonist. Everything deadly and dangerous, and … you know … bad guys, love interest, save the day and get the girl and scene.
Sometimes I have ideas like that and they fail to inspire me to take them any further. And sometimes the main reason for that is because I think my ideas are so niche and so weird that I’m the only person in the world who would find them worthy of attention, and really what’s the point of pursuing a project that will never have a receptive audience? I pretty much tucked away the poisonous-soldier idea in that too-weird filing section. But I was thinking about it again recently, probably because there’s a John Carter of Mars movie coming to U.S. theaters soon (I detect a subtle pattern emerging) and at the same time I discovered something compelling, courtesy of my obsession with statistics and metrics and whatnot.
All of the posts on this blog are archived and available, and could potentially turn up as results on a search engine. And some of the older posts are more frequently visited than others. I have some analysis tools available to me on the back end of the blog, and one thing I can take in at a glance is the top five posts in terms of views, over a week or a month or all-time. When looking at the all-time list, these are the top three eyeball-grabbers:
- A post about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toys
- A review of the movie Zombieland
- A reflection on my desire to be a good paternal role model and the fate of my Mr. Yuk t-shirt
At the risk of being pedantic, let me explicate that a little more. He-Man is a bit of a bland cipher as action figures go, but he’s deeply indebted to the pulp traditions of Conan, John Carter, Tarzan and so on, an indefatigable protagonist in an exotic fantasy setting (populated, to be fair, with a wildly diverse array of allies and enemies). Zombieland is a comedy, but it is technically set in a post-apocalyptic world which is insanely, lethally dangerous. And Mr. Yuk is the symbol for poison control, who adorns one of my more hipster d-baggy t-shirts at least in part because of a fascination with mortality and things that are bad for us.
It’s not surprising that I’ve written about these kinds of things before because first and foremost I keep this here blog for myself. It’s just slightly eye-opening to find that those particular topics have clicked so many times with other people, as well. Maybe, outside my own head, there is still a wider audience for epic heroic fantasy adventure? For post-apocalyptic nightmare fuel? For the fear and fascination inspired by poison? Or for all three wrapped up in one? It’s at least got me thinking about it again, for whatever that’s worth.