Last week I mentioned that I was very hyped to read Adventureman #1 from Image Comics, and the next day my editor sent me an advanced copy to review. Fate? Destiny? Holistic intervention? Whatever cosmic force wanted me to read this book take note: Your wish has been granted!
Here’s the blurb:
A CATACLYSMIC ADVENTURE DECADES IN THE MAKING! In this WILDLY AFFORDABLE TRIPLE-LENGTH FIRST ISSUE, revisit how the legend of the greatest pulp hero of them all, ADVENTUREMAN, ended in a heartbreaking CLIFFHANGER with our hero facing execution at the vile hand of his ultra-nemesis BARON BIZARRE on the eve of the MACABRAPOCALYPSE…or did it?!? Eighty years after his apparent demise, single mother Claire and her Adventurefan son Tommy seem to be the only two people alive that remember the thrilling ADVENTUREMAN sagas…but from that memory burns THE SPARK OF RESURRECTION! WHERE HIS STORY ENDED…HER STORY BEGINS! This sense-obliterating, earth-shaking, imagination-quaking adventure that spans generations comes to you from MATT FRACTION (SEX CRIMINALS, Hawkeye) and TERRY & RACHEL DODSON (RED ONE, X-Men/Fantastic Four)!!!
Trying to encapsulate the excitement and energy of Adventureman #1 into a text review is very much like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. In true pulp fashion, we begin with a city under attack by a villainous super scientist and an army of classic villain tropes so perfect they would make Mike Mignola weep. Our hero, Adventureman, is called upon by the police commissioner to wrangle up his team of eccentric heroes, everyone from a New York brawler to an immortal Turk, not to mention a burlesque dancer ghost, a gentleman magician, and an ace female fighter pilot. Together they join Adventureman in drinking a secret potion that grants all of them his strength and abilities, and off they go to fight the evil forces plaguing their city.
The battle is hard-fought, but just before it ends, and all hope seems lost, the book ends, and I’m not talking about the comic. You see, it turns out that the first half of this comic is part of a pulp fiction novel that mother Claire Connell is reading to her son Tommy, the last Adventureman pulp ever written. To Tommy’s frustration, the story ends right before the climax, and the hero’s fate is left unknown. Why it ends like that is a mystery, made even more mysterious when Claire is visited the next day by a very familiar-looking woman with a very distinctive speech pattern who hands her a seemingly new edition of Adventureman, and then disappears as mysteriously as she appeared. As the blurb says, Claire and Tommy are about to be thrown into a wild mystery involving Adventureman, the book, and a bizarre figure hunting them in the night.
Adventureman is just, wow. I was hooked from the very first page. It really is a love letter to classic pulps in every way imaginable, from the character designs to the art deco cityscape, and even the incredibly dubious science that manages to somehow be completely grounded and completely bonkers at the same time. This book is a treat for anyone who was a fan of classic pulp stories and heroes, and a great way to introduce the genre to younger readers who don’t know much about it.
For those of you who are little fuzzy on just what pulp books and magazines were, let me give you a brief rundown and explain why this is so exciting to nerds like me. Emerging at the tail end of the 1800s and lasting until the 1950s, pulp magazines were the place where geek culture began, and where many of the heroes we know and love today can trace their roots. The magazines were cheap (hence the name pulp because of the low-quality paper used to print them) full of lurid illustrations and even more shocking and scandalous stories. The heroes in these pulps were larger than life strongmen like Doc Sampson, Tarzan, and Conan the Barbarian, as well as supernatural and mystical heroes like The Phantom and The Shadow. These heroes leapt off the pages and into the minds of an entire generation of young readers, who in turn grew up to be the comic book authors and original founders of nerd fandom we all know and love from today. Terms like “fan” and “science fiction” come directly from these magazines, and folks like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster pulled a lot of Superman from the heroes in those magazines.
Pulp heroes generally fell into a few categories. Some were men of learning and science, who went on fantastic adventures full of thrilling adventures and ridiculous peril. Others were violent, hard-boiled detectives, on the outs with society and driven by a need for justice as strong as their need for their next fix. Whatever path they took, these heroes spoke to a generation ravaged by war and the depression and managed to simultaneously show the hope Americans had in the advances of science to improve their lives and the bitter cynicism that tainted their views of justice and politics.
These heroes were frequently accompanied by exotic sidekicks (of dubious racial sensitivity) or femme fatales, all of which fed a hunger for the different and the exotic, fantasy fodder for millions of Americans from all walks of life. Tough as nail dames and street smart urchins also appeared frequently to help or distract the heroes. It was a whole new and uniquely American genre of media.
We don’t have a lot of heroes like that anymore, larger than life figures who are shown to be men and women of action and learning, and it’s a shame. DC Comics are much more enmeshed in the pulp ideology than Marvel was, so there are some traces of that pulp mentality in their comic lines, especially older characters like Superman, Shazam, and Batman. I think the closest thing we have to a true, modern-day pulp hero that people would really know well would be Indiana Jones, and sadly he’s slipping further and further from memory.
It’s not that there haven’t been attempts at reviving the idea of the pulp hero (the ill-fated League of Extraordinary Gentleman comes to mind, as do the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies) but in our more cynical day and age, it’s hard to believe in characters like that anymore. In fact, it was the cynical disbelief, best exemplified by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic 4, that pushed a lot of those heroes out in the first place and is the reason Marvel doesn’t have as much reverie for pulp traditions as DC does.
If any author is going to have the skill to bring pulp back and make it relevant it’s Matt Fraction. As I’ve said in other articles, his Jimmy Olsen run is astonishing, not only in the way it weaves together a constant string of seemingly unrelated plot points into a satisfying and complete narrative but also because his approach to the Jimmy Olsen comics mimics the classic pulp feel that Jimmy’s original comic run had. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen was a perfect pulp comic back used to be printed in a way that makes it accessible and interesting to modern readers. Fraction is a treasure and Adventureman already feels like one of those career-defining pieces.
And last, but certainly not least, is Adventureman‘s art by Terry and Rachel Dodson. The art, my god the art! The Dodson’s are already among my pantheon of the greatest comic artists of all time, right up there with Jack Kirby, Dustin Nguyen, Greg Capullo and Nick Derington (an eclectic list I know). The Dodson’s were the perfect choice for Adventureman and it shows. Not only is their work beautiful, but it also perfectly fits the pulp aesthetic. Terry Dodson has produced art that looks like it was ripped from classic pulp magazines, and this book is finally the place where he can let that artistic impulse carry him wherever he wants. It’s a fantastic ride that I am glad to be a part of!
So good news, comics are back and there are some amazing indies on the horizon! Tell your LCS to order you a copy of Adventureman and give it a read. You know now that books are flowing your LCS needs your support more than ever, so why not have them order a triple length book for you that is under $4?! It’s a win-win for everyone.