August 12, 2020

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Exploring the Path to Mortality in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s Pulp

By Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips

“The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

Andrei Tarkovsky- Sculpting in Time


Most stories of cowboys, desperadoes, and gunfighters end with them still living their final days as that cowboy they once were. Young cowboys just become old cowboys and the west never ends. Maybe they’re a bit sadder, worn by time but they’re still part of that wilderness that defined them in their youth. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny in Unforgiven; he’s old and grizzled but he’s still part of that frontier world right up to the end. The man and the wilderness are inseparable. In Pulp, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips tell that same story, the last days of the gunfighter, but shift Max Winter’s experience just enough-- he’s not spending his old age on the frontier. In his 60s and living in pre-World War II New York City, Winter makes a meager living writing his story in cowboy pulps. Through his frontier tales, he tells stories of his youth as that desperado, trying to straddle what really happened and what he wished happened. In his writing, he gives himself a happy ending, retiring to the good life down in Mexico, with his best friend by his side. He’s literally the hero in his stories when, at best, he was just another man trying to survive a world that was constantly throwing obstacles in his way. Every heroes’ story needs to come to an end. Even for those of us who just want to be the hero but fall short, the end comes sooner or later. Max Winter falls more into the latter group than the former, more someone who wanted to be good rather than someone who actually was good. At least he tried.

In 1939, a few years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winter’s New York City could sense that the war was coming to America and that in many ways, it was already here. The Nazis weren’t just a fascist force an ocean away; they were in the city but the city was fighting their sinister influence. But Max was just a writer, trying to eke out a living telling stories that are a bit more like the west truly was even if his editor just wanted sunny tales of heroes and villains. His own body fought against him; when he tried to protect a Jewish man on a subway platform from a couple of anti-Semitic thugs, his reward was a beating and a heart attack. Trying to live up to societies’ laws and expectations, he just keeps getting reminded of what he is; a man who had made tough choices just to survive. He wasn’t not a hero or a villain, just a man who did what he needed to do to survive. And in his old age, as the pulp work was drying up, being given to younger and less experienced writers, his next choice would return to the life he once knew, having to rob and steal to be able to survive.

By Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips

Pulp is a western, just not a western that takes place in the west. It’s a New York western, complete with its own desperados (in this case, Nazis) and it even has a Pinkerton, a staple of many a western tale. There is even the equivalent of a bank robbery and the need for revenge when the job doesn’t go as planned. So the book is a western, just set in a big metropolitan city rather than the west, but it’s no less wild or untamed. Remembering his past in sequences with hazy, dreamy colors by Jacob Phillips, Winter shows us his past and the choices that he needed to make just to survive. And those choices in 1939 and in New York aren’t that different. Brubaker pulls back on giving us too much of Winter; he writes just enough that we understand the character and his sadness but allows Max to keep things to himself. Once or twice, Max mentions a wife, a daughter and some regrets related to them but the author and the character never divulge those regrets. It’s enough that we understand that they’re there.

Brubaker and Phillips share just as much of Max as the character is willing to share with the reader. An old man who knows he’s nearer to the end of his life than he is to its heyday, Max is a well-worn character; he’s lived a couple of different lives, probably four or five of them if we read between the lines, but is only interested in talking about one or two of them, making connections to the past and the now. Max is an old man who wants to talk and wants to share his stories (they’re right there in the pulp stories that he writes and that everyone assumes are just fiction) but he doesn’t want to reveal too much about himself. There are stories and secrets that he wants to keep to himself. His current wife and his editor don’t even know how much of himself he’s putting into his writing.

Over years and years of partnership with Brubaker, Sean Phillips artwork could almost be mistaken as being rote by now, as being what it is but it’s fascinating to see how restrained he is here; his steady hand gives this story of age and aging a solid foundation. For all of the action and adventure in this story, it’s not a story about either of those. Pulp examines that time at the end, giving a man a chance to reflect even as he has final and lasting decisions to make. So Phillips gives Max room for that reflection, to be able to have those final moments before the end to set things right and proper. Sean’s work is quiet, restrained, and reflective, allowing Jacob Phillips to punctuate this story with his carefully orchestrated colors. His natural colors and lighting help ground Max’s story but these sudden bursts of red and other bright colors throughout the story tie together Max’s youth and old age. As much as the past sequences look different than the present ones, Jacob finds methods in his colors to remind us that we’re reading one story of a man’s life, not separate ones with no ties between the past and the present.

The book opens with Max telling us about the third time he almost died. The first time was when he was just a young buck, shot in the back and having to rely on some frontier doctor to heal him. The second time was only a bit after that, after his best friend and him had made it down to Mexico for a “small and human” life. He doesn’t go into too much detail there. And then the third time was years later, on that subway platform, trying to save another man from a bullyish beating. Throughout the book, Max is experiencing death, maybe not a final death but the journey towards it.

From the very first page, Max is dying. It may not look it as you’re reading the whole book but that’s the story, the death of a man and the death of an idea of the west, of the frontier, of independence, and of survival. The plains and untamed terrain of the late 1800s is replaced by the crowded New York streets and buildings. Max reaches the end of his usefulness to his publisher and is replaced with younger, cheaper writers who are just regurgitating his ideas. But there’s one thing that remains with Max up until the very end— the dream of a home. That’s what he wanted to find one the frontier and that’s the last thing that he wants for him and his wife. Brubaker and Phillips show us Max’s life at these two different ages, young and old, but find all of these fascinating ways to connect them and to show us that this man is still struggling to find fulfillment, even in his last days.

Pulp’s central concern with dying and how we live a life preparing for death give Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips a road to mortality in this book that is more authentic and present than what’s previously been in their work. Their comics have always been focused on the choices we make (see The Fade Out or My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies) but their characters before this have always had hope in the future; maybe tomorrow will be better. And that’s all the difference here; Max hopes for a future, one he knows that he probably does not have.

By Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips
Pulp
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
Colored by Jacob Phillips
Lettered by Sean Phillips
Published by Image Comics