For most people, when they think about pulp fiction, they think about period pieces. They picture men in tailored clothing driving vintage Packards, going from swanky cocktail party to party, pausing only to could mens’ minds and then shoot them in the face with a .45 before flying off on a rocket pack or autogyro or something. This is probably a natural association, as most of the classic pulp stories were published in the early 20th century, back when if a man wanted a little titilation, he needed to purchase a nickel story about a pulp hero rescuing a scantily-clad dame in chained dangers. You know, as opposed to today, when a man can pound his fist on his computer keyboard and see pictures of women and fine china, but not using it in a way that Lamont Cranston would find appropriate.
But that’s not necessarily what pulp fiction is at all. For your standard debonair urban pulp vigilante, all you need is a rich socialite, preferably an industrialist, with resources, an ally or group of allies working with him in his crusade on crime, and some kind of costume for his nocturnal activities. Oh – and a gun, and the willingness to use it. Sure, sometimes it’s better to place it in the 1930s or 1940s, when the idea of a guy being able to run around killing criminals without being caught made more sense since most people believed that a “fingerprint” was some form of sex act, possibly related to a Rusty Trombone, but the era doesn’t matter if you have the core elements at place.
So by that measure, The Spider #8, written by David Liss with art by Ivan Rodriguez, is most decidedly a pulp story. Richard Wentworth is a wealthy industrialist with a bodyguard who helps him in his adventures, a Margo Lane in reporter Nita Van Sloan, and even a gimmicky nemesis. And he has a pair of guns to completely make the nut. And it does it all set in good old 21st Century urban America… but it also does it with the worst of pulp tropes: a plot twist so obvious that a blind man could see it coming. For all the cool modernized pulp elements of The Spider #8, it most decidedly will not cloud any man’s mind.
Wentworth has discovered that one of his company’s warehouses has been leaking parts – the kind of parts that can be assembled into things that can kill a whole bunch of people. He confronts Harold Jenkyns, the right hand man for his father when he ran the company, who finally admits that the stolen components could be turned into a dirty bomb. In the meantime, both Wentworth and Van Sloan are dealing with the aftermath of having slept together, he by putting on his Spider costume and killing a bunch of scumbags, and she by investigating a series of unexplained suicides. Her investigation gets her the attention of villain The Hater (yeah, this is taking place in the 21st Century; what the matter, Hater? Someone else already grab “The Pwner?”), who has a mad-on for Van Sloan’s husband, and has decided to use her to kill him. And while this is going on, someone has broken into Wentworth’s corporate headquarters and planted bombs in the basement to bring the building down, which put Wentworth into his Spider costume and directly into The Hater’s path.
What The Spider #8 gets totally right is an old pulp feel, while being set in the recognizable present in a standard American city. Richard Wentworth is a standard pulp hero in his civilian identity: imperious, arrogant and self-assured, with a recognizable inability to control what he does with his wang. One of the things that separates pulp stories from regular superhero stories is the more adult nature of the characters. This includes the willingness (if not enthusiasm) to kill, but it also includes the sexual exploits. After all, Clark Kent pined for Lois Lane, but Lamont Cranston nailed Margo Lane, so having a hero making an ill-advised stop in Van Sloan’s bedroom is a perfect inclusion in a pulp story.
Further, despite modern cars and machinery and firearms, having some self-styled villain with the power of hypnosis and a harem full of babes could come straight from the pulps. Sure, The Hater’s “origin” is kind of ridiculous (you learned hypnosis in prison, Hater? Really? A sharp blow to the back of the head in the prison shower is less “hypnosis” than it is a “Donkey Punch”), but it’s exactly the kind of quickie, one-and-done origin story that was used back in the day to create a nemesis for a pulp story. The only thing The Hater is missing is a silly cloak to go with his hypnosis powers, and he just feels like a pulp villain, down to his imperious manner of speech, which Liss even calls attention to in a funny little gag to point it out.
And the action when Wentworth goes full Spider is, frankly, kind of delightful. This is a guy in what amounts to a superhero suit, going into action… but what he does is so counterintuitive to what you’d see in a superhero battle it’s damn refreshing. This guy just flat-out kills guys. And he does it while telling himself he needs to interrogate them, whacking them out one at a time and saying, “CRK! Okay, I won’t be interrogating this him. Next one for sure… [CRK!] Maybe not this one either.” And to me, that’s pulp hero action versus superhero action: there is evil, there is an obstacle, and they must die, no question and no problem. The combination of the action, the violence and the entertaining monologue makes the whole sequence just good, clean, angry fun.
But then there’s the twist, and the twist if so obvious and telegraphed that it kind of sucks. I don’t want to give it away, but The Hater gives Nita a post-hypnotic suggestion that is ambiguously worded, to the point where once you see it, you know exactly what is going to happen. And doing something like that is just about the worst thing you can do to a suspense story. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: the first time I saw The Sixth Sense, I thought I had the twist figured out during the dinner scene with Bruce Willis’s character and his wife… and I spent the enter rest of the movie sitting restlessly, just waiting to get to the end to see if I was right. Once I saw the twist, the rest of the story became just this thing I had to sit through to see if I was right or not… and The Spider #8 suffers the same problem. Once you see the hypnosis scene, it will distract you for the remainder of the issue to see if you were right, and worst of all? You will be. It was a major misstep in an issue that I generally legitimately enjoyed.
Rodriguez’s art is decent, straight-ahead comic art, if not really pulp-inspired or pulp-reminiscent. He works in a fine, but simple line, with realistic figures and expressive faces, without ever getting particularly stylized or over the top. On some pages, he gets creative with his panel borders, making the page layout somewhat non-standard, but not particularly difficult to follow, even in the action sequences where he goes full off-kilter panel shape and uses spider webs to indicate the gutters. In this case, it’s really the color work by Alexandre Palomaro that makes the visuals stand out, giving all the panels and figures a painted look to give a somewhat old-school art look to what is really simple, competent comic art. The entire effect makes the book look like a well-produced comic book, while not elevating it to be reminiscent of a real pulp illustration.
If you’re a pulp fan, The Spider #8 gives you all the elements, from a killer hero with the right personality to a villain with the right simple motivations, origin and power gimmicks. And it does it all without resorting to a period setting to help sell the feeling of a real pulp, which is refreshing. But that twist… that Goddamned twist… was enough to make me want to rush through the back half of the book to prove I was right about what it meant, even though it wasn’t clever enough for it to have turned out any other way. Sure, it’s one misstep in what is generally an enjoyable, authentic story, but it’s a big misstep. It’s not enough to make me not recommend the book… but it’s enough to make me tell you: yes, what you think will happen when The Hater commands Nita is exactly what is going to happen. Take it on faith, and plow through it. The rest of the book is good enough to give it a shot.