Chapter Two

Out of the Past

From little acorns…

The Terranauts was, in hindsight, a proof of concept exercise. Its development proved that the 7TV ruleset was ideally suited to adapting and pastiching Burroughsian-styled worldbuilding and pulp plotting. It was only a small step to consider the wider implications of that suitability. If The Terranauts could lovingly capture the flavour of one of the twentieth century’s most influential pulp writers, then perhaps a new boxed set could embody the essence of a greater range of pulp fiction. Just as 7TV encapsulated the spirit of the British spy-fi film and tv of the 1960s and 1970s, so 7TV: Pulp could encompass the archetypes, narrative events, conventions and situations of American pulp. This would not only give players a different period in which to play, but also a very different ‘feel’ that would inform the Star Qualities and Special Effects of the character archetypes.

Defining Pulp for 7TV: Pulp

A great deal of Anglophile popular culture is built on a foundation of wood pulp and silver nitrate, on the conventions established in the pulp magazines and film serials of the first half of the twentieth century. This highly combustible combination exploded in the 1930s and set a fire that has burned continually ever since. It has not burned consistently, however. It has guttered and flared and sent out sparks, setting smaller blazes throughout fiction, film and tv. Pulp conventions and tropes are now so much a part of our cultural landscape that elements of pulp can be found in many popular or cult productions from Doctor Who to Game of Thrones.

Hence, ‘pulp’ is a problematic term, often meaning different things to different people. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, pulp’s original meaning and application has undergone a fair amount of slippage. This is partly a consequence of pulp’s significant influence on popular culture and partly because of an inclination to apply the term to describe anything that has wide or cult appeal. We can talk about pulp magazines and pulp paperbacks, neo-pulp, proto-pulp, steam pulp, diesel pulp, and so on. However, pulp was not originally defined by its narrative conventions, character types and story structures: pulp was a medium (notably wood pulp paper) and a sensibility. From the very beginning of the project, Karl and Peter wanted to go back to what was originally conceived as ‘pulp’: the American fiction magazines published from the mid-1890s to the 1950s and their cinematic analogues, the cinema serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Given 7TV’s focus on the visual media, the central emphasis of 7TV: Pulp would be on developing a pastiche of the cinema serials produced during the 1930s and 1940s by Republic, Universal and Columbia.

The pulp years gave popular culture many of its memorable heroes, notably Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy and The Phantom (all adapted into serials from newspaper strips), The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, and Zorro. More importantly, pulp consolidated many of the genres with which we are now familiar. In the 1920s, there was a gradual move away from general fiction magazines like All-Story and Argosy to specialist pulps like Amazing Stories (1926; science fiction), Weird Tales (1922; horror and supernatural tales) and Air Stories (1927). The detective genre had its own publication in the US, Detective Story Magazine, from 1915. Collectively, these pulps established the storytelling conventions of much of the popular fiction, film and television produced over the last century. Indeed, it could be argued that the development of television provided pulp with a new medium of mass communication as its old form – the magazine – was dying back.

If pulp is reducible to a core of defining features (and perhaps it is not), it is arguably escapist, sensational, masculinist, and fairy-tale like in its juxtaposing of unequivocal good and irredeemable evil. More critically, it is often clichéd, repetitive and poorly-written, and reinforces many of the cultural prejudices and stereotypes of its time. Among its catalogue of forgotten writers, there are notable exceptions. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were more skilled than many of their contemporaries, and their work has lived on long after many pulp writers have been forgotten. Regardless of the successes and shortcomings of pulp, it is bound together by a tremendous energy, by a restless dynamism that crackles through its stories. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ best work, this manifests in breakneck plotting and a wild inventiveness; in Chandler it is found in a magnificent use of language and characterization; in Howard, it lies in tone, muscular action and worldbuilding; and in Lovecraft, it is the dark energy of existential terror.

Why Pulp?

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the golden age of the cinema serials and pulp fiction provides a rich vein of wargaming and model-making possibilities: interplanetary travel in rocketships to strange, alien worlds and their peoples; lost cities in jungles and deserts; shadowy streets and hidden lairs; exotic locations in far-flung and dangerous countries. Populating these adventure sites are a memorable cast of heroes and villains: square-jawed protagonists, brave G-Men, beautiful assistants, hardboiled PIs, daredevil pilots, sinister spies, enemy agents, merciless mobsters, cunning masterminds, masked vigilantes, eldritch horrors, gangsters, molls, cops and killers. Their plot structures, punctuated by unlikely escapes from improbable cliffhangers and an abiding sense of thrilling adventure, lend themselves readily to unpredictable, entertaining tabletop skirmishing.

How could we resist?

For Karl and Peter, adapting serial film and pulp fiction was an opportunity to go back to the ancestors and precursors of the series pastiched in the core 7TV game. With its larger-than-life personalities, pulp hinted at exciting possibilities for character profiles that would be fun and challenging to play; its varied locations and story-types offered considerable potential for different types of game, and for wargames tables that could deliver weird, gritty, exotic or claustrophobic model-making opportunities; and its narrative structures invited prospects for new rules that would evoke the nature of pulp plotting.

It was a great idea, but Karl was busy developing 7TV: Apocalypse and Peter was a full-time academic with other commitments. The project was on a knife-edge. Without outside help, it was doomed…

See ‘Rescue from Without’, Chapter Three of the 7TV: Pulp Design Blog.

Some inspiration to fill the hours until next week’s thrilling instalment…

The Vintage Library – What is Pulp Fiction?

The Pulp Magazines Project – So What is Pulp?

‘Serial Films’ on the AMC Filmsite

Screening the Past: Flash Gordon and the 1930s and 40s Science Fiction Serial

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