Pulp is good. I would’ve liked it a lot more with a different ending, instead of the same ending writer Ed Brubaker has used at least once before—but it’s such a distinctive, painfully obvious a reveal it sticks with me a decade after I first read it in Criminal. Though maybe he’s just trying to make the twist work, doing it over and over until it does the work it needs to do.
Real quick, the reason it doesn’t work is because it requires the narrator to be unreliable for the entirety of the piece. The narrator’s reveal is just another ruse, another manipulation and it keeps Pulp locked in its genre, a mix of a Western (though barely, just some flashbacks) and a pre-WWII crime thriller.
The narrator’s name is Max Winter; it’s so much from his perspective, I didn’t even realize he had a name until I got to the back cover. I guess people are always yelling out, “Max,” when he has heart attacks. Max has multiple heart attacks in the comic because Max is an old, breaking man. Hard-living is finally catching up, only in 1939 New York City when Max has got a wife at home in his tenement apartment and he wants to at least get her out of there before he dies. Hard-living didn’t catch up with him, for example, when he was an outlaw some forty years earlier.
Brubaker does have some nice narrative tricks, like how he introduces some of the story between Max and his brother (they led a gang or something) with Max talking about his Western stories and his plans for them—the Pulp in the title refers to Max writing for a story magazine in the Golden Age of story magazines—before actually introducing the brother, before explaining Max’s first-hand knowledge of the Western stories.
It’s nicely done, with Brubaker keeping just the right balance with the present and the flashback. Max narrates in a mix of past and present tense, just enough so you don’t know how it turns out. I don’t think Brubaker’s ever done a Sunset Boulevard but there’s a first time for everything. But whatever Brubaker does with the narration—and he does a good job of it, old man in 1939 experiencing that era—gets derailed with the twist at the end. Even with Brubaker muting it, putting it off as long as possible, trying to get to a… Pulp ending.
A lot of the plot concerns the American Nazi movement in 1939. The biggest action set piece involves them, they’re in the background to all the action, they even have to do with one of the twists. Because so many twists. Some of it is how Brubaker structures the narration, which gets to be personable while still writerly thanks to the narrator being an experienced writer.
The writer stuff doesn’t figure into Pulp much. There’s this initial impetus with Max having to write more stories to make up for getting mugged and losing the previous book’s pay. But he just effortlessly cranks them out, even though his wife mentions his all-nighters. Brubaker wants him to be a writer but isn’t really interested in him being a writer. Outside some interludes with the editor, which turn into a C plot by the end.
The wife’s extant but not present. Again, Brubaker makes it work by just making it about fitting in the genre.
Pulp would’ve worked better as a longer limited series. It’s rushed.
But good enough. High highs, not too low lows. Fantastic art throughout from Sean Phillips. Making it a series would’ve meant more Phillips 1939 New York art, which is gorgeous. Great colors from Jacob Phillips too.
Maybe twenty pages into Pulp, I started getting more invested in it because I thought it was going to be really good, like maybe Brubaker had really figured it out this time. So I was an extended disappointed… not to mention that familiar final “twist.” But it’s good. Like, real good. It’s beautifully paced, looks great, and has a strong first person protagonist.
It’s just not singular and it seems like it should be.