In New York City in the 1930s, Max Winters is spending his autumn years writing pulp western stories for five cents a word and struggling to make ends meet. But four decades earlier, Max lived those stories as an outlaw gunslinger. The Red Rock Kid goes for one last ride in Pulp, the original graphic novel from blockbuster creative team Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
Max stops a pair of hoodlums from harassing a Jewish boy on the subway, but ends up beaten, robbed, and in the hospital after a heart attack. He finds himself living on borrowed time and worried about providing for his wife. Then, an old adversary appears with a lucrative proposition (steal from the pro-Nazi German American Bund headquarters in New York), and Max finds himself on the wrong side of the law, but for the right reasons.
Pulp is not a Criminal book, but fans of Criminal will no doubt recognize the treasured hallmarks of the award-winning franchise. Pulp features Brubaker’s razor-sharp and engaging narration, as well as Phillips’ painterly and evocative artistic style.
Pulp is a marriage of western and noir fiction. As such, the book is set against two familiar backdrops: the fading American west and the restless urban powder keg on the brink of war. The majority of the narrative takes place in New York City (and even includes the real-life American Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden as part of the story), but Alex is a classic western hero. He was an outlaw in his former life as the Red Rock Kid, but he lived by a code. He does what’s right even if it means doing something wrong, and he’s not solely motivated by personal gain. This sets him apart from most of the main characters in Criminal books.
The flashbacks to the old west are the pulp within the pulp. Not much time is spent in the past, but the narration and illustration both hint at a rich backstory between the panels. Phillips and colorist Jacob Phillips create a beautiful contrast between the two disparate settings. Scenes in the west have wide open spaces, with warm and expansive vistas stretching out endlessly in front of the Red River Kid and his partners. But New York is cold and claustrophobic, with sinister buildings suffocating Alex and tightening around him.
With Pulp, Brubaker and Philips celebrate two genres and elevate both with a thoughtful meditation on violence. Pulp is more than a gritty shoot-em-up, and Alex is more than an anachronistic cowboy out of place in “modern” times. It’s a story about what’s right and wrong in an unjust world. Alex is a complex character, doing illegal things, but for justifiable reasons. And certain things that he stands against, like racism and hate, should never be tolerated, no matter the time period.
Creative Team: Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist), Jacob Phillips (colors)
Publisher: Image Comics
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