Are Batman and Superman Pulp Characters?

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The first films that I posted to the site were the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. This wasn’t just due to the fact that I have a soft spot in my heart for them or because they have fallen into the public domain. These films were released in the early 1940s at the height of the Pulp Hero era. The character of Superman was only created a few years earlier. Just as his contemporary, Batman, was in the late 1930s. Both characters spent more than the first ten years of their existence in the pulp era, but does that make them pulp characters?

Batman (1939)

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics issue #27 back in May of 1939. This was at a time when there were literally dozens of magazines and comics dedicated to Dime Store Detectives. Detective stories did not only dominate the pulp genre but mainstream culture in general. This is why Batman was known as the “world’s greatest detective.” He was a product of his time. I feel like this shows in Batman’s first on-screen appearance. Which was a 15 chapter film serials made in the early 1940s.

Superman (1938)

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 back in 1938. After the Fleischer cartoons, his first live action appearance was in a film serial in 1948. After that, just like Batman, a sequel serial and TV series followed. Except, unlike Batman, Superman’s TV show was made closer to the production of the serial and had a more similar tone than the Adam West Batman series had to the Batman serial.

Yeah…But Are They Pulp?

Even though they were conceived and popularized in the pulp era I wouldn’t call them pulp. These are two characters that are able to change with the times and be what the fans need them to be. That is why the Adam West Batman series is the way it is. It works because it easily adopts the aesthetic of the time it was made in. It could only exist in that way during that time period and never again. That is why I find it funny when people complain that Batman is no longer “the world’s greatest detective. The only reason he was one is because that was the time he created in. The landscape was filled to the brim with detectives. It only made sense for him to be one too. That public yearning for detectives is not what it used to be. That is why he no longer is one.

I like to put things in two columns: things that are pulp and things that are inspired by pulp. Something like Star Wars is inspired by pulp. George Lucas borrowed the text crawl and transitional wipes from film serials, as well some story elements from pulp fiction works, but added enough for Star Wars to be it’s own thing. It simply isn’t a contemporary of pulp cinema, but an evolution of it. Something like Indiana Jones, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a piece of pulp fiction. Steven Spielberg says that he loved film serials and wanted to make a film that was just like them and he did. Nothing is really changed from the works he was inspired by and what he created. Indiana Jones exists in the pulp era, he’s a classic pulp hero, and he’s never changed with the times. No matter how old he gets he always remains the same.

Unlike pulp characters, Batman and Superman change with the times. They are what we need them to be in that moment and never stop evolving. They borrowed a lot from their contemporaries at the time, but they are still around and few people can remember The Shadow or The Phantom. I believe Batman and Superman will still be around long after I’m gone. They will serve whatever the audience will be at that time. Though the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons will always be my favorite.

One thought on “Are Batman and Superman Pulp Characters?

  1. I saw yes, if you consider how they behaved upon their initial release. They stories were definitely lightened version of The Shadow and Doc Savage (definite influences on Superman Siegel and Shuster).

    My personal theory: Superman’s Earth name Clark Kent came from Doc Savage’s (Clark Savage, II) and The Shadow (whose real identity in the Pulp’s was Kent Allard – Lamont Cranston was just another assumed identity).

    Also, where Savage was The Man of Bronze, Superman was The Man of Steel.

    So again, I believe there is no doubt they started as pulp characters but we’re redefined over time.

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