Will Murray spoke tonight as the keynote speaker at the opening of the Brown University weekend long celebration of the pulps, Pulp Uncovered: How Pulp Fiction Changed America. Providence has always had a special relationship with the pulps, as famous horror author HP Lovecraft made his reputation by being published in Weird Tales, the classic horror pulp of the 1930s. Murray kept his comments on Lovecraft to a minimum, apparently aware that the uncontested world’s greatest Lovecraftian scholar, ST Joshi, was in the audience, and would be addressing the topic the next day at noon.

Murray kept the talk general, and said little that fans of the pulps don’t already know. He talked about how modern audiences see the word pulp as somehow being related to being beaten to a bloody pulp, or see it as an homage to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but Murray revealed (surprise!) that the word pulp comes from the kind of paper these stories were printed on. I doubt anyone in the audience didn’t know this already. Of course, it’s difficult to gauge an audience before hand, and Murray could only guess at how familiar the audience was with the material. Perhaps a more technical and less general discussion was called for.

Murray showed how one character, Nick Carter, made the transition from dime magazines to pulp magazines to paperbacks; in a way tracing the entire evolution of popular literature. He called Nick Carter an “American Sherlock Holmes” (odd, since Nick Carter started a year before Holmes) and one knowledgeable member of the audience (who shall remain nameless) muttered, “you mean Sexton Blake.” It’s a tough audience that knows the subject as well or better than the speaker.

Murray did drop one bombshell. As co-editor of the Shadow and Doc Savage reprints currently underway at Venture Graphics he recently decided to investigate how great an influence the Shadow was on the development of the Batman. In short order he discovered a story that was absolutely the basis for the first appearance of the Batman in Detective Comics #27, and will be reprinting the results later in the summer. It turns out that the Batman wasn’t so much influenced by as ripped off from the Shadow.

The death of the pulps is laid at the feet of competition from other mediums, the comics, the paperback, and especially television. It’s no accident that television in the 1950’s was wall to wall westerns, westerns were the most popular pulps at the time, and their transition to TV is a product of what Murray calls “all one continuum, all one popular culture” no matter the medium.

The art exhibit, at the John Nicholas Brown Center on 357 Benefit St was interesting, albiet small.

Pulp fiction, it seems, isn’t a genre, or a collection of genres, or simple melodrama, or even popular literature (or illiterature, as Murray quipped.) Pulp fiction is an attitude, a point of view. It’s entertainment at its most basic and distilled form. Pulp fiction is still here, in the movie 300, in the series Heroes, in Marvel’s Civil War and many other places. I’m glad the Brown University is doing this great retrospective.