Pulp Appeal: Pulp Modern Summer 2019

I’m not just covering Pulp Modern’s latest issue because Matt has a story in it. Honest. In fact, although Matt and I have been friends long enough that we started this publication together, he’s not even the reason I picked up this issue. Nope, I picked it up because I wanted to read more Adam S. Furman, Rex Weiner, and C.W. Blackwell, all of whom have graced our own pages. I’m a touch jealous, but damn if these stories don’t deserve to be read. And not just those three, but all of them.

The issue starts off with editor Alec Cizak’s foreword. Other reviews have highlighted his discussion on imagination and done so better than I would, so I’ll just leave it to them. I did want to highlight his discussion on world psychology and how we in 2019 are entering the same headspace as people a hundred years ago. Without getting political, you can see this both in the governmental world and in the entertainment industries. Rapid changes in delivery and content have altered the way we produce and consume media, and megacorps are standing up much like they did until broken up by anti-trust decisions. I think Cizak is on point here, and the reason we have so much escapist art of late is that there seems to be so much to escape from.

In the first story, “A Pinto, a Hooker, a Gun” Rex Weiner takes readers to the Sunset Strip and the divorced sheriff’s deputy Skull Snyder working a homicide case involving organized crime, a femme fatale, and some convoluted backstabbing. It’s a ride.

Russell Thayer is next with “The Killer,” a noir starring Maggie, a nineteen-year-old waitress, as the heroine standing up to a couple of drug kingpin enforcers. This story is rich with implied backstory and now I want to read more about Maggie and Mrs. Valentine. I’ll be on the lookout.

C.W. Blackwell’s “Her Name Was Larceny” is pretty much exactly what it says on the label. A girl named Larceny gets busted for theft, but there is a lot more to her story than that. And it has my favorite dialogue exchange in the issue. “You killed two men in my county. What side are you on?” “Two and a half.” “What?” “I killed two and a half.”

Prostitutes feature frequently in crime fiction, but rarely are they the heroes of the stories. Diana Andrews, the protagonist of Albert Tucher’s “Modesty” is one of those rarities. In this story, a completely naked Diana gets swept up by some goons and encounters a homeless camp, with the most realistic version of a homeless person I’ve read or seen in years. Tucher does a great job here, and I’ll be adding his name to the ever-growing list of people whose work I need to read.

Next up is Matt’s story “The Price of an Offer Refused.” While it might seem like I’m just stumping for a friend, I have to say I’m super stoked for Matt. I first read this story awhile back in its draft stages, but its inclusion in this issue drives home how much I love the Ariadna character. And it’s a nice change of pace from the previous stories, all of which are hardboiled crime fiction.

Kokoro, the samurai protagonist of Scott Forbes Crawford’s “Heart of a Samurai” stops a group of men on a rampage and befriends a cute white kitten, but not all is at it seems. This cautionary tale is a classic example of the fallacy of “shoot first, ask questions later.”

If I’ve read a story by Adam S. Furman and didn’t immediately question my own self-worth as a writer, have I truly read a story by Adam S. Furman? Man, he’s good. And “Rosetta” is more of the same high caliber work I’ve come to expect from him. Why isn’t he famous yet? I mean, this opening line–”MIKH4IL drank the serenity of the starfields.”

“Odd Jobs” by Adam S. House is a classical horror tale, with echoes of the work of Roger Corman and Wes Craven, but that’s not meant as a criticism. I love Corman and Craven both. If you know your Scottish lore and the tale of Sawney Bean, you’ll get even more out of this story.

With another Celtic reference, this time to Irish folk hero Cú Chulainn, we have “Chulainn” by S. Craig Renfroe, Jr. This story is set during the American Civil War, and follows Patrick, a former preacher turned rebel soldier and his company’s ill-fated journey through his old hometown of Sumerville.

I neglected to mention the art pieces earlier, but Ran Scott, Dan W. Taylor, Alfred Klosterman did some great illustrations for each story. The cover by Rick McCollum is a suitably unsettling depiction of a plot point from “Chulainn.” And the four cartoons by Bob Vojtko are much-needed humorous little palate cleansers.

I have two minor complaints, and they are very minor. I wish the story genres weren’t chunked together as they are. It’s a stylistic choice to be sure, and while there’s a great variety of stories here, I’d prefer them being a bit more interspersed. The other is ragged right edges instead of justified text. Again, it’s a stylistic choice, but I prefer the text edges to be smoothed out as it’s easier on my eyes for some reason.

Overall, this is a really strong issue and Cizak has done a phenomenal job curating this selection of stories.

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Pulp Appeal: Switchblade #9

We’ve covered Switchblade before, and editor Matthew X. Gomez even had a flash piece published in Issue Seven, but that’s not going to stop us from covering their latest, Issue 9.

We start with a poem by Willie Smith taking us down to New Orleans in Voodoo Spider which crosses that line between noir and horror with the reader guessing which side of the line it’s on.

“Lucky Fuck” by Jack Bates follows a twisting, small town tale of car accidents, revenge, bitter recriminations and regrets. You’ll be left wondering if the main character is actually lucky, or just unlucky enough to keep from dying.

“Death Letter Blues” by Mark Slade could have used another round of editing, in this editor’s humble opinion, but is a twisted little tale of a man who lives in a reality adjacent to, but not fully in synchronicity with, this world. It’s self-delusion and violence in a tight little package and the right man in the wrong place.

Switchblade : Issue Nine by [Marks, Paul D. , Bates, Jack, Slade, Mark , Risemberg, Richard , Rohr, J, Smith, Willie, Knott, A.F., Kojak, John, Rock, Fred, Styrsky, Stefen]
Still one of the best overs out there.

Richard Risemberg waxes poetic in “Prisoners” and delves into how doing a thing for what you think are the right reasons can lead to problems down the road. Worth the price of admission for the language alone and how the experience of the past can lead to the tribulations of the present.

“Stanley” by A.F. Knott follows a life-long loser as he wakes up on the beach after a bender and as he pieces together the puzzle of the night before. A noir piece in the classic style where it starts bad and just gets worse the further down the rabbit hole you go.

“Black Flies” by Stefen Styrsky is the most ambitious piece in the collection, going back and forth in a “how we got here” kind of way. Falling in with the wrong person, pulling a crime that goes sideways, the way relationships can fall apart even when you think they are going strong… this is a crime story that has a bit of everything in it and sucks you in to the bad decisions that lead to the main character’s present.

Paul D. Marks brings us to “The House of the Rising Sun” and a New Orleans themed brothel in Hollywood and introduces us to Vivien who works there. A piece on unanswered dreams, bitter regrets, and what happens when a woman realizes that tomorrow is never going to be as good as today. A dark, bitter piece of fiction that goes down like cheap Scotch and that makes you wonder how many other lost dreamers are just going day to day.

J. Rohr is a writer we’ve featured before in Broadswords and Blasters. It is always fun to get a chance to read his work and “Unanswered Prayers” is no different following a man called Priest who isn’t a priest as he navigates an underworld he’s all too familiar with… trying to make amends for a previous life of inequity. A bit of a redemption story, but also what happens when a bad man tries to make good. Well worth the price of admission, and makes me want Rohr to have a full novel out already, or at least a collection of his short fiction.

“Squaring Up With Eddie” by Fred Rock is the first bit of flash fic in the collection. A story of a hit with a few twists, it manages to use the economy of language to set the scene and get out, a terrific amuse-bouche of fiction. I think I’d almost prefer Switchblade to intersperse these between the longer pieces, though it might be like a chaser of gasoline after Mad Dog, so maybe its best these come at the end.

“Bobby ‘Eggs’ and Grady” by Glenn A. Bruce is a somewhat convoluted crime trail of who knew what and when, and the ending left me feeling like I got kicked in the gut. It is a highlight reel of sudden violence and the cost it extracts on both sides of the law, and one I felt I had to read twice to get.

“Going to California” by John Kojack. I feel that fiction should, most of the time, at least, have a point. If I was to try and pin down one for this piece its that when a relationship goes south, it might be better to bail than try to keep the thing going. Otherwise you might find yourself outside a road side diner after a hold up, trying to decide your next best move.

Overall, the writing continues to be strong, the view points as seedy as you’d expect and my only complaint is for a bit tighter editing to move this from a good publication to a great one.

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Pulp Appeal: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes (Guest Post by Anthony Perconti)

Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys good stories across many different genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in Swords and Sorcery Magazine and DMR Books Blog.

Cover of Chester Himes novel A Rage in Harlem

Chester Himes, an African American expat living in France, published his first crime novel in the United States in 1957 under the title of For the Love of Imabelle. This book was eventually re-named to its current moniker, A Rage in Harlem. This is the first book in what came to be known as Himes’ Harlem Cycle (alternately known as the Harlem Detectives series), that was awarded the French Grand Prix de la Litterature Policiere. The main protagonist of the book is Jackson, who resides in Harlem with Imabelle, the love of his life who he plans on marrying. He has a steady job at the local funeral home (owned by H. Exodus Clay) and by all accounts is known as an honest, hardworking, pious man, who is highly devoted to his lover. This being a hardboiled crime story, those descriptors are shorthand for Jackson being a sucker of the first degree. Or as Himes describes him, a “five cornered square.” Jackson gets roped in by a group of grifters using the con known as The Blow (you take the mark’s cash, then blow town). Ten dollar bills are “raised up” to hundred dollar bills through a phony chemical process involving an oven. With the encouragement of Imabelle, Jackson drops his life savings of fifteen hundred dollars into the con. At the point of the cash being “raised up’, one of the grifters, posing as a U.S. Marshal, storms the apartment, while simultaneously, the oven explodes, leaving Jackson in the lurch to take the fall (everyone else present, including Imabelle, has split). The fake Marshal shakes down Jackson for more money on the pretense that he will not arrest him, forcing the poor dupe to steal five hundred dollars from his boss, Clay. As a way to try and get out from the burden that he is under, Jackson enters a late night game of craps and ends up digging himself deeper in the red. As a last resort, with no one else to turn to, Jackson seeks out the help of his brother.

Image by Jim Rugg – https://www.jimrugg.com/

Goldy is Jackson’s twin brother who is known on the street as Sister Gabriel of the Sisters of Mercy. He is running an ongoing scam in which he impersonates a nun in order to fleece people of their donated alms while also charging people a dollar for a literal ticket into the Pearly Gates. Himes gives Goldy some great pieces of dialogue; he is constantly dropping either some misremembered or made up biblical quote. It’s hard to tell which; “By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire and by the smoke and by the brimstone which issued out of their mouths.” Goldy lives with two other female impersonators; Lady Gypsy, a fortune teller and Big Kathy, who runs a bordello (named The Circus). The three are known collectively around the neighborhood as the Three Black Widows. In addition to being a con-man, Goldy is also a raging heroin addict. While the two are physically identical in appearance, the brothers are the direct antithesis of each other when it comes to how they live their lives. Jackson and Goldy have nothing but disdain for each other; one because he is a square, while the other is a criminal. But when push comes to shove, Jackson knows that Goldy can help him in finding the whereabouts of his girl and get him out of trouble. Goldy is able to locate the grifters (Hank, Slim, Gus, and knife-wielding Jodie) through the services of Big Kathy’s bordello and finds out that they are wanted for murder in Mississippi. The intelligence that is gathered from The Circus is that the crew is hatching a new scam in order to lure suckers into buying shares of a non-existent lost Mexican goldmine. The pivotal part of this hustle, the part that really passes it off as legit, that gets Goldy’s spidey sense tingling, is that the crew has a trunk of gold ore on hand as proof to lure in potential investors. Coincidentally, it is revealed by Jackson, that this trunk of precious metal belonged to Imabelle’s ex and is now in her possession (wow, what are the chances?). With the pieces and players all laid out on the board, Himes punches down on the accelerator, blasting the plot forward. I don’t want to give away too much of the novel’s intricacies, but suffice it to say, with this MacGuffin in play, along with Jackson’s quest to get his girl back, tensions escalate into all out war between these rival factions. Matters become further complicated with the arrival on the scene of Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.

The through line of the entirety of Harlem Cycle lies with the dual protagonists of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. This team of African American detectives is assigned to the Harlem beat; they carry matching nickel plated, long barreled .38’s, and each man is known by his distinct catchphrase: Coffin Ed’s is “Count off!”, while Jones” is “Straighten up!” These partners are of the shoot first and ask questions later school of policing. They are a throwback of sorts, Old West gunfighters through and through. This pair would feel right at home administering prairie style justice in a frontier mining town. Even their warnings towards the small potatoes hoodlums they are arresting are direct and to the point, in Judge Dredd, Dirty Harry Callahan sort of way: “’Don’t make graves,’ Grave Digger cautioned.” Johnson gets taken out of action when he gets acid thrown in his face by Hank leaving it up to Coffin Ed to bring the murderous grifters to justice (Johnson returns in later novels, albeit bearing the acid scars on his face). Himes continually ratchets up the stakes of this deadly game of cat and mouse between the various players, until events reach a violent and blood soaked critical mass. And when this tipping point is reached, Himes does not shy away in depicting the real life consequences of violence. A fairly gruesome scene unfolds later in the book involving cutter Jodie.

Image by Chris Visions – http://www.chrisvisions.com/

The worldview that Chester Himes posits in this novel is quite a cynical one; the vast majority of the characters are out for themselves, everyone has an angle and is running a scam of their own devising. Even Jackson’s minister, the aptly named Reverend Gains, who is supposed to be the moral steward of his congregation, is living a life of luxury while his flock gets by from hand to mouth. It is very telling that the only honest man in the tale is dupe who is (willingly?) blind to the machinations of the woman that he loves. Everyone else in the story sees Imabelle for what she truly is; just another scammer trying to score. All the while, quietly looming in the background is Jackson’s boss, H. Exodus Clay, laughing all the way to the bank. Murder and death are good for business. This pervading cynical outlook is a traditional touchstone in hardboiled fiction and film noirs; the world and its inhabitants do not have your best interest at heart, they are predatory in nature. In addition to constructing an intricate plot, Chester Himes deserves credit as a lyrical wordsmith; his turns of phrase are elegantly constructed.

In setting a series within a specific time and place, coupled with his ample skills as a stylist, Himes” writing shares some parallels with what James Ellroy[1] created decades later with his initial L.A. Quartet and continued to expand upon in his Underworld U.S.A Trilogy. Both authors have a distinct bebop, staccato cadence to their sentence structures. For example, “Jackson looked up at the clock on the wall and the clock said hurry-hurry.” Or this, my favorite tidbit that sounds like a snippet out of The Big Nowhere or perhaps American Tabloid: “Ready! Solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log, and take any rape-fiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high- yellow heart.” In addition to stylistic similarities, I believe Himes and Ellroy are also simpatico when it comes to their shared philosophy of the world; you’re a predator or prey, a scammer or a mark. The choice is binary. Himes states; “[I]n the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.” That statement sums it up succinctly. Crime fiction doesn’t get any more hardboiled than that. I would encourage readers to track down and purchase the Penguin Modern Classics version of this novel. This United Kingdom edition sports a fantastic pulpy cover by Aaron Robinson with an informative introductory piece on Himes by Luc Sante,[2] an author, professor, and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. The Penguin Modern Classics edition is readily available on Amazon, for roughly the same price as the American Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard edition. Clocking in at a svelte two hundred and ten pages, you can rip through this little hardboiled gem in a rainy weekend.

[1] I might catch some flak for saying this, but I am of the opinion that what Himes did with his Harlem setting, Ellroy followed suit with his portrayal of Los Angeles. Certainly Raymond Chandler got there first, but Ellroy’s L.A. is bursting at the seams with a manic populous comprised of scammers, chumps, ambitious starlets, Mafiosi, cops on the take and several species of stone killers. Chandler’s city seems downright idyllic compared to that of Ellroy’s and Himes’. Philip Marlowe, beware!

[2] Luc Sante is the author of 1991’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Fans of crime fiction, folk history, or of old New York in the bad old days should check this out. This book is a chronicle of the movers and shakers of the city’s criminal underworld from 1840 to 1919. This work is a direct descendent of Herbert Asbury’s 1928, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. The two works bookend each other perfectly.

If you’d like to submit an article, send us a pitch. Payment is one digital copy of your choice of any issue of Broadswords and Blasters.

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Pulp Appeal: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

So we’ve talked about John Wick before, but with Chapter 3: Parabellum having just been released, we figured it would be a good idea to revisit the franchise. Some spoilers will follow.

For anyone that doesn’t know- John Wick, prior to the events of the first movie, was a retired assassin, the one you sent to kill other assassins in fact. Over the course of the films, he is brought back into the underworld of crime, only to find himself on the wrong side of well, just about everyone. The third movie picks up exactly with where the second one left off, with John tired and wounded, with an hour to go before an open bounty of fourteen million dollars is called. What with being in New York, people are coming out of the woodwork to collect.

Image result for john wick chapter 3
Yes, Keanu Reeves rides a horse in this installment. Yes, it is glorious.

A highlight of the film is the introduction of Halle Barry as someone who has a past history with Wick, down to her having been an assassin herself, and one who owes John a favor. John is able to talk her into helping him, even though she risks putting herself at odds against the rest of the underworld.  Seriously, there could be an entire movie centered on her character of Sofia, instead of the scant twenty minutes the audience is given.

Also, Mark Dacascos[1] as the villainous Zero creates an excellent foil to Wick. Where Wick is a one-man army, Zero has an entire school of assassins at his command. Where Wick is coldly stoic throughout, Zero has moments where he is outright gleeful, unable to suppress his joy at getting to meet and fight Wick. It gives what is an otherwise relentless movie a bit of humor, giving the audience a chance to breathe between the frenetic action sequences.

Speaking of the action sequences, the same philosophy that governed the first two installments continues here as well. The camera stays focused on the action instead of going with quick cuts. A lot of the action is at close-quarter range, and there is more of a focus on edged weaponry this time than in the previous two films[2] including some sword work with wakizashis. The film does require a bit of suspension of disbelief, given that murders in the middle of Grand Central go unnoticed and there is no police presence notable at any point in the film. Then again, given the level of lethality demonstrated even by the homeless faction in the movie, well… maybe they are just exercising good judgment.

Image result for john wick chapter 3
Yes, Sofia (and her dogs) totally deserves her own movie.

In talking about the film, a few people admitted that they hadn’t see the first two, and would it matter if they went into the third movie cold? Honestly, I think it depends on what you are hoping to take away from the movie. If all you are interested in is gorgeous stunt choreography and Keanu Reeves stoically making his way through one obstacle after another, then yes, you can skip the first two and dive into this one. Some of the finer plot points might go missing, but then are you really there for the plot anyway? However, I can say that it is really enjoyable to watch the world building that had to have gone into making these films gradually be revealed to the audience. There is no long exposition detailing the history of the High Table. There is no outright exposition tying the underworld to the historic and near-mythic Order of Assassins, but enough clues are dropped here and there for the connection to be made.

There are also plenty of shout-outs in the film to keep anyone happy. Be it John having to sever a finger at an important moment (bringing to my mind at least ideas of the Yakuza but also the Assasins’ Creed franchise) to Wick having to battle a giant assassin in a shout out to Bruce Lee’s fight against Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game of Death. There’s also a glorious moment when Wick tells Winston that he’s going to need “Guns. Lots of guns.”

Image result for john wick chapter 3 mark dacascos
Mark Dacascos. Excellent chef. Killer shinobi.

And while the third movie ends on a cliffhanger, with still a lot to be resolved, the good news is that a fourth film has already been greenlit and is scheduled to appear in theatres May 21, 2021. I, for one, cannot wait to see what they’ve got cooked up for us next.

[1] The fact that we just talked about Brotherhood of the Wolf last week is not lost on me.

[2] There is an extended knife fight… which manages to avoid the pointy-end always landing first as you can clearly see some of the knives bouncing off the combatants instead.

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Pulp Appeal: The Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups)

The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) is a French language ahistorical fantastic retelling of the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan. It is what happens when French moviemakers (director/co-writer Christophe Gans and story creator/co-writer Stéphane Cabel) emulate Chinese wuxia, Gothic Horror, and a touch of the American West as seen through the eyes of Sergio Leone. It’d be reductive to merely call it French wuxia, as I’ve seen it described online, since such description misses the presence of both the spaghetti-Western ironic aesthetic and also the distinctive flair of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. The convoluted overlapping plot threads of those stalwart Gothic novels is absolutely in play in Brotherhood, as are the shifting allegiances and dramatic irony of Leone’s The Man with No Name trilogy. Also, while there is definitely wire-work involved in the fight sequences, it’s not quite as over-the-top as House of Flying Daggers or the Shaw Brothers’ masterpiece The 36th Chamber of Shaolin[1]. If you haven’t seen this film yet, and your mouth isn’t yet watering over the idea of a fantasy Gothic Horror spaghetti western with kung fu fight sequences, what even are you doing here? Go read some lit magazine or waste your time on tabloids, paparazzi, and reality television. This here is a pulp magazine, and The Brotherhood of the Wolf is pure pulp.

But before we get too much further into the weeds, perhaps a some background for those people who might not have seen this cult-favorite, critic-satisfying, award-winning commercially successful 2001 box office release.

The Beast of Gévaudan is a French legend of a wolf that terrorized the region of Gévaudan, present day Lozère in the southern Occitanie region of France. The area is a mountainous, relatively unpopulated rural county (the French call them departments) far from the main cities of the nation. In the mid 1700s the area was said to be stalked by a creature or creatures responsible for attacking hundreds of people, killing and eating many of them. Since many of the victims had wounds to throats, the beast was considered to be a wolf or wild wolf-hybrid. Much of its legendary status has been incorporated into werewolf lore, including the concept of silver bullets, which were supposedly used to kill the beast. The legend has been referenced in modern urban fantasy fiction like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels and Patricia Brigg’s Alpha and Omega series, as well as the MTV Teen Wolf tv show.

In The Brotherhood of the Wolf, the main character is a knight by the name of Fronsac, who has spent time in America on the frontier. His traveling companion is an Iroquois Indian named Mani, a martial arts master played by Mark Dacascos, probably most well-known in the US as the “Chairman” on Iron Chef America.[2] Fronsac and Mani are enlisted to capture the beast which has been terrorizing the area and quickly find themselves enmeshed in a conspiracy including the French aristocracy, a female Vatican spy, and a cult called the Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is secretly trying to undermine the French king. Suffice to say Fronsac wins the day and takes down both the Brotherhood and the beast itself (I don’t want to spoil the reveal, but I will say it’s definitely pulp in nature. It wouldn’t be at all out of place in an Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard story), but not before suffering his own losses and indignations.

Monica Bellucci on set
Monica Bellucci on set

The film was my introduction to actress Monica Belluci who hit more mainstream fame in the US with the release of The Matrix Reloaded. She later starred as a Bond girl in 2015’s Spectre after becoming a cultural phenomenon because of her excellent acting and, as superficial as it seems, her physical beauty. Yes, I know she was one of Dracula’s wives in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, but to be honest, I really dislike the movie and only watched it through one time. Perhaps it deserves another viewing, particularly as Keanu Reeves has grown on me. At the time I only saw Ted Theodore Logan and Johnny Utah (and I *hate* Point Break). But that’s neither here nor there.

The Brotherhood of the Wolf is almost pure pulp, as it’s a plot driven, genre bending fantasy-horror-wuxia-western action flick that reads almost exactly like the kind of story one might have seen in Weird Tales. I’m not saying you should write the same story for us when we open back up this fall, but I do think it’s the kind of story we would publish.

[1] The inspiration for the Wu-Tang Clan’s foundational album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), perhaps unsurprisingly one of my favorite rap albums of all time, especially “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Bring Da Ruckus.”

[2] I first came across Mark Dacascos in Only the Strong, a martial arts film about an after-school program where the leader teaches kids capoeira, the Angolan-Brazilian fighting style that might simply appear to be an elaborate acrobatic dance. The style has been popularized in the Street Fighter and Tekken games series, too. Dacascos was also in the disastrous Double Dragon, based on the fighting game series. Maybe not as bad as the Super Mario Bros movie, but it’s up there.

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Pulp Appeal: Kung Fu Hustle

Pulp Appeal: Kung-Fu Hustle

KUNG FU HUSTLE, directed, produced, written and starring Stephen Chow, is perhaps the most over-the-top, troperific, batshit insane kung fu movie to not strictly be a parody. It features dancing criminal gangs, old kung fu masters hiding out in slums, evil kung fu masters hanging out in insane asylums, musical assassins, over the top action, and even a sequence straight out of a Looney Tunes short.

Set in 1940s Shanghai, the city is controlled by gangs, none more feared than the notorious Axe Gang. Sing is a low-level crook trying to get in good with the gang, and through his attempts to get in good with the criminals, he ends up creating an escalating conflict between the Axe Gang and the impoverished residents of Pig Sty Alley… which just so happens to be the home of a number of powerful martial artists, not the least of which is the two landlords… played by Wah Yuen and Qiu Yuen. The escalation is such that the Axe Gang ends up recruiting the Beast, a feared master who hangs out in an asylum because he feels there are no other challenges to be had.

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Just wait until she starts yelling…

Sing’s motivation is that he attempted a good deed earlier in life, and ended up literally being pissed on for his efforts. As a result, he decided that being a bad guy was the only way to get through life.

For as much as it is a comedy film, the action sequences are fantastic to watch even as they indulge in clearly supernatural feats. As well, the character of Sing goes through a tremendous character arc, fueled in part by being beat to within an inch of his life multiple times. Granted, that is what ends up clearing his chi to become a grandmaster of kung fu, but it is heavily implied that he wouldn’t have survived if he wasn’t a natural genius of kung fu to begin with. Chow is willing to let tragedy fuel the comedic aspects, and he refuses to let the story take itself too seriously all the time as he throws in comedic jabs even in the middle of otherwise serious scenes (such as when the three kung fu masters say good-bye to each other).

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Gangsters rarely look this good.

The movie overall is an excellent treasure trove of how comedy can be fused to an action movie while keeping meaningful stakes. For example, Sing wants to become part of the Axe Gang, but to do so he must prove himself. To be fair, all of his actions put him in a worse position. The Landlord and Landlady want to enjoy a (relatively) peaceful existence in obscurity, but that is threatened when the Axe Gang tries to make inroads into Pig Sty Alley. The Beast wants to prove himself as a kung fu master and wants a worthy opponent. All of these desires end up coming in conflict with each other, and it is these tensions that end up driving the plot of the movie as a whole.

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Te Beast waits for the sequel

So if you missed this one, or its been a while, its well worth checking out again. And while there have long been rumors of a sequel, well, the original will have to tide you over until it (maybe) eventually happens.

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Pulp Appeal: Voltron: Defender of the Universe

“From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend. The legend of Voltron, Defender of the Universe.”

LEGO Voltron! I can’t wait for the semester to be over so I can start assembling this 2300+ brick masterpiece.

As a kid growing up in the 1980s I was naturally attached to cartoons. That’s one of the defining characteristics of late Gen-Xers/early millenials (I’ve seen us referred to as a crossover generation, but isn’t everyone really?). For me, those cartoons were GI Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Voltron. I’m sure I’ll tackle the first two at some point in the future, but Voltron is at the forefront of my mind today because one of my best friends sent me a special birthday gift for my 40th birthday (May 4th): LEGO Voltron. (Thanks Kyle!)

Voltron is a mecha series of the super robot[1] subgenre. The show follows a group of five pilots from the Galaxy Alliance, an organization at war against Zarkon, the King of Planet Doom and ruler of the Drule Empire, who is expanding his territory by capturing and enslaving worlds. The first episode follows the pilots as they’re caught by Zarkon’s forces, but escape into a captured slave ship, which is subsequently disabled and ends up crashlanding on planet Arus. After crashing, one of the pilots, a young man named Keith, tells a tale of Voltron, a legendary giant robot that was beaten by Zarkon’s forces and then cursed by Haggar, a witch working for Zarkon. Keith thinks that Arus may be a resting place for the robots that made up Voltron, a set of five giant lions that could combine their power into the legendary Defender of the Universe.

The witch Haggar

The rest of the series follows a pretty clear monster of the week story sequence, where Zarkon’s forces, with the help of Haggar and her “robeasts,” attack Arus, attempting to capture the world for the Drule and to defeat Voltron once and for all. There are subplots where Zarkon is betrayed by his greedy son, Lotor, where one of the pilots is seriously injured and replaced by a princess of Arus, and an overarching structure whereby the Galaxy Alliance begins launching counterattacks to beat back the Drule Empire, but the basic flow of each episode is pretty similar, as is the case with most procedural tv shows. The challenge comes to Arus, the pilots get into their lions and fight, the lions start to win, a robeast grows and begins to beat the lions, and the lions form Voltron, who beats the robeast, sending Zarkon and Haggar back to the drawing board.

The original series was not in fact created in the format Americans first saw it, something I didn’t know until I was in college and someone told me about Beast King GoLion, the original Japanese animated show. In retrospect as an adult it is quite obvious, as there are animation “errors” and plot holes that arose from restructuring the series. But I went back and watched all of Beast King GoLion a few years back and it’s not as though it’s clearly superior or Voltron is obviously a lesser product. In fact, based on finances, Voltron is by far the more popular property.

After the moderate success of the Lion Force, a subsequent series pulled together from a different Japanese show, Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV, became the Vehicle Force version of Voltron, and was focused on Earth rather than Arus. It was not as successful nor as memorable as the Lion Force, and it’s not the Voltron I attached to with any significance, but I do remember having some of the transforming toys to go with my Transformers and GoBots figures. There were apparently plans for a third Voltron series based on yet another Japanese anime, but those were scrapped after Vehicle Force’s perceived failure.

The pulp appeal of the Voltron series is absolutely in its action-forward sensibilities where warring empires fight each other over territory, rights, and responsibilities. The heroes and villains move forward based on their own aspirations and foibles, and the show is rarely left to the navel-gazers, layabouts, and self-pitying ne’er-do-wells. The main cast drives the plot, ideological differences aren’t mere policy disagreements, and identity-defining conflicts result in the sorts of systemic changes that are necessary to impose individual wills on society. It helps that there are giant transforming robots, space battles, alien empires, sorcery, laser blasters, and giant frickin’ broadswords.[2]

The rap genre of music is not where my heart lies (although there are some exceptions), but the nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot (who I first heard mention of by the creators of the Penny-Arcade comic strip) made a loving parody song poking fun at Voltron and some of the infighting that would likely result from deciding who is the boss. I’ll probably be listening to this on repeat when I get to the point where I’m assembling LEGO Voltron’s head in a few weeks.

I’m not caught up on Netflix’s reboot series, but I did watch the first season. Since the series has come to an end as of December 2018 with its eighth season, hopefully this summer I can catch up on it. The animation is stronger than the original series and less built upon reusing cels the way all older animated shows were, and the basic story beats seem more coherent, which is no doubt a product of the story preceding the art instead of the inverse, as was the case for older American translations. I’ve read about some kerfluffle over gender and sexuality portrayals in the modern version, with criticism aimed at Joaquim Dos Santos, one of the main showrunners and veteran of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (which also had a todo about its own portrayals of gender and sexuality), but I’ll make my own judgment when I get to those scenes. In any case, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen and want to go back and finish it, especially as Avatar[3] and Korra rank among my favorite animated series of all time.

[1] Super Robots don’t make any attempt to explain their physics. They often seem to incorporate magic, as Voltron does. The other major subgenre is Real Robots, where the robots pay at least lip service to laws of reality. This subgenre owes a lot of credit to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, especially the foundational anime series Armored Trooper VOTOMS.

[2] Coincidence? I think not!

[3] In fact, Avatar has a place among my favorite tv series of all time, alongside shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Babylon 5, The Wire, and Oz.

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