Feud For Cowboys: Brubaker And Phillips’ ‘Pulp’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

For how much the book plays around with genre, Sean Phillips’ cover seems pretty direct. Anyone picking up Pulp for the first time would think they were getting a western, not a story set on the brink of WWII.

Mixing up genres is a pretty common but the problem with mixing westerns and noirs is they feel lifetimes apart. Maybe it’s the different modes of transportation or, stylistically, how different the two genres look (Jacob Phillips’ colors will attest to that), but a western and a noir can exist in one lifetime. Max Winter is proof of that.

If anything, genre is a misdirect when it comes to Pulp as Ed Brubaker and Phillips actually explore aging and how a cowboy can go from being an outlaw in Wyoming to writing pulp westerns in New York. Visually, Pulp takes a lot after AfterShock’s Undone by Blood, which splits its time between the 70’s and an Old West novel. Pulp, however, is more interested in the relationship writers have with their work than the influence fiction has on readers.

With Winter, the Red River Kid is his stand-in and he gets to have adventures based on Winter’s life, yet when he tries to have the character give up gunslinging, it’s Winter who picks up a gun again. Fired from his job, the only thing Winter knows how to do is be a cowboy and he needs money to support his friend, but there’s a reason Winter gave up being an outlaw and it’s not because the city made him repent.

As Winter learns the hard way when he goes up against some Nazis, his body isn’t what it used to be and when the beatdown causes him to have a heart attack, he almost dies right then and there. Every time you think you know where Pulp is heading it pivots and goes somewhere else instead, but the real power of Pulp comes from the way it differentiates between the restrictions people impose on others and the realities of old age. Physically, Max is in bad shape, but mentally he’s completely together. It’s people who write him off because of his age.

Memory and fiction blend together as Sean Phillips makes Winter almost indistinguishable from his main character, the Red River Kid. In flashbacks the Red River Kid is actually clearer, as Winter’s face is usually heavily inked or obscured. The implication is that Max is free to make things up with fiction. Memory’s not as reliable, but it’s fiction that’s valued in New York City and Winter is feeling the strain.

Pulp is Max’s story. You can tell from the way Sean Phillips has the lettering get fuzzy during Winter’s heart attack, since to anyone else the lettering would stay the same, but as much as this is Max’s story, it’s also a universal story that speaks to the way older people are treated everywhere.

If Feud (the TV show) made people look at how Hollywood undervalued older actresses, Pulp does the same for older cowboys and offers an interesting meditation on aging in a world that wants time to stand still.

Pulp is available now from Image Comics.

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