“Shoot to win can feel so bittersweet. But you can take what you can get ’cause there ain’t no glory in the west.”-from “No Glory in the West” by Orville Peck
Thanks to their work on titles like Criminal, The Fade Out, Kill or Be Killed, and many others, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Philips’ collaborations have been some of my favorite comics to seek out on the stands. And their new Image Comics graphic novella, Pulp, is no exception. Set in New York in 1939 with occasional flashbacks to the turn of the 20th century, Pulp chronicles the last days of Max Winters, an Old West gun fighter and outlaw turned writer of pulp Westerns for the fictional magazine Six Gun Western. Brubaker and Phillips with amazing spot reds from colorist Jacob Phillips blur fact and fiction and show and steadily build up that Winters’ character, the Red River Kid, is a barely fictionalized version of his younger self.
While Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips riff on crime fiction tropes in their usual manner and add a dollop of the “one last job” story, I would consider Pulp to be a straight Western even though it’s predominantly set in New York. This mostly comes from the way Max behaves, especially in crime settings. (Car chases are definitely more stressful than horse ones.) However, Brubaker and Phillips aren’t merely content to do their take on this classic American staple of the Western, but instead recontextualize the genre to be about resistance against those who would exploit others (Basically, class warfare.), especially Nazis and fascists.
They lay the breadcrumbs for this early on as Max stands up for a young Jewish man at the subway station even though it leads to him getting his ass kicked, having a heart attack, and being robbed of his entire freelance paycheck that he was squirreling away to buy a house in Queens for him and his partner, Rosa. This scene sets up Max as a champion of the marginalized as Phillips and Phillips’ visuals convey the righteous fury in his soul as he stands up for what’s right even if no one helps him out when he takes a beating. The fury extends to the salty frankness of his dialogue as he tells the young anti-Semite, stating “Everyone here’s had enough of your crap”. Max is like if Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven had a social conscience, and this informs all of his actions in the narrative, especially in the second half of the book when he decides to fall in with an old foe. And not just any old enemy: a Pinkerton.
Even though they had semi-heroic beginnings as bodyguards for President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War, Pinkertons become synonymous with strike-breaking and cloak and dagger operations to uphold the status quo. Historically, they tracked down the Jesse James Gang and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid so they’re a good fit for baddies in a Western and are still doing private security to this day as part of the firm, Securitas AB. So, basically, Brubaker and Phillips set up the former Pinkerton, Goldman, who catches Max trying to do a robbery in broad daylight as an untrustworthy fellow with a bit of a bitter edge. Sean Phillips never draws Max and Goldman as buddy buddy arranging them in opposition to each other with Goldman as a savvy operator and Max as a cowboy stuck in city alleys instead of the open plains of Wyoming or another Western state.
This visual depiction extends to Ed Brubaker’s plot as what Max thinks is just good old-fashioned stage coach robbery (But with Nazis instead of cattle barons.) turns into something a little more complex as Goldman wants to hit at the names and accounts of Nazis, not just their cash. Of course, Max thinks this is all nonsense, and his captions the 1939 Old West gun fighter version of ACAB. (“Why would I trust a Pinkerton?”) However, Brubaker and Phillips drop in Goldman’s backstory that he had a good job doing accounting work for Henry and was laid off because he was Jewish, which makes him more of a sympathetic figure, and also sets up Max’s final showdown where he takes guns a-blazing vengeance against the fascists and on behalf of his Jewish partner, who was wrongfully murdered, even though he (and we) know that this will end in his demise. But he has that house in Queens for Rosa so he has nothing left to lose.
For better or worse, Max’s actions in both the Western past and New York present of Pulp are consistent. He always fights on behalf of folks that are exploited by those who have the power in society whether that’s settlers and robber barons or Jewish people and Nazis. He even advocates for ownership of his character Red River Kid (Pretty much self-ownership.) and going in a new creative direction with the character instead of retreading the same plots, but as anyone who has read about the history of comics that’s a futile battle. There’s a real Martin Goodman/Stan Lee vibe from Max’s editor Mort and his nephew Sidney, who’s a fan of Max’s Westerns and will do his job for a much cheaper rate. These scenes and Max’s sense of justice lead to more anger and chest pains and is what leads to him to picking up gun again and becoming an outlaw.
In Pulp, Brubaker and Phillips create a strong through-line between the exploitation of capitalists and fascists whose actions are insulated by people “just following orders”. Max is very aware of the banality of evil, and that’s why his final showdown is at German Bund beer hall and not against a veiled stand-in for Adolf Hitler atop a zeppelin. He has put his affairs in order, has set up his partner Rosa for life, just wants to avenge the death of his unlikely friend, Goldman, and put some goddamn Nazis six feet under. Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips up the intensity of the visuals in these final pages with plenty of guns, red, and abstraction while Ed Brubaker’s narration sums up what Max thinks of himself before his death, namely, “We weren’t heroes. We were killers.” Even though Max has good values, it was his quick trigger finger that kept him alive in the Old West, and it’s deteriorating heart that gets him in the end in a bar in New York surrounded by swastikas. But, at least, he went down shooting.
Pulp is a fantastic transposition of the Western to the big, modern city as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips apply outlaw-turned-pulp-writer code of fighting for the downtrodden to championing Jewish people against fascism even before the United States declared war on Nazi Germany. Max’s actions and ideals strike a chord in 2020 where the President of the United States himself called Nazis and white supremacists “very fine people”, and they run rampant both in the street and online. With his vulnerability, tenacity, soft spot for Rosa, and heart for justice, Max Winters is definitely the character find of 2020, and Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Jacob Phillips do a wonderful job making a Western story both exciting and socially relevant.