I have a confession to make: I play miniature war games. Many years ago I got my start with these guys, though I never owned more than a handful. But now I've acquired an army of crusaders for this game, an army which is only slowly getting painted and assembled, but should take the field some time in the spring. However, there is yet a third genre of war gaming which has caught my fancy... Pulps. Yes, like the sleazy dime store novels. Well, sort of. Let me share the description of miniatures craftsman Bob Murch, whose figures you can see below and left:
Pulp Figures and Rugged Adventures are primarily designed for a fictionalized historical setting we call the 'Pulp Era'. The pulps were entertainment magazines of the early 20th century and reached their peak of popularity in the period between the first and second world wars. The pulp magazine venue introduced tough guy detective stories with famed characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlow, occult action/adventure stories from authors such as Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan or Sax Rohmer of Dr. Fu Manchu fame. They also introduced the jungle fantasy adventures of Tarzan of the Apes. Within the pages of the pulps you might join an expedition into distant lands in search of a lost city. You might sail an airship through a polar gateway to a pre-historic world at the center of the earth. It was an action packed world of brave heroes standing alone against sinister villains plotting world conquest, tough dames, spies and even the occasional brilliant scientist with a newly invented rocket ship. It was a brightly coloured world of action packed, spine tingling adventure.
Is it any wonder that folks want to game this stuff? To get in the mood, I've assembled a few films:
Zulu (1964). Too late for the golden age of pulps, this classic film nevertheless has a lot of the key elements: Europeans in nifty uniforms, exotic setting, guns, danger, heroism... The Battle of Rorke's Drift was a tad early, but there are plenty of figures from slightly later decades of the British Empire.
The adventures of Indiana Jones (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008). This fedora wearing, whip wielding, Nazi (and Communist) fighting archaeologist is probably the most iconic pulp hero known to contemporary audiences. He's also the reason any game worth its salt had better include at least a smattering of these.
The Rocketeer (1991). Though this movie came out in 1991, I have never seen it. But clearly the film (and the comic books) were the inspiration for these guys.
Michael Collins (1996). Not exactly a pulp action film, this historical biopic is nevertheless set in a real conflict featuring soldiers and policemen, spies, guerrillas and gun-runners, and a real-life hero.
The Mummy and sequels (1999, 2001, 2008). High cinema? Probably but. But they feature archaeological adventurers. And a librarian. I don't know; maybe I just have a thing for librarians...
The Aviator (2004). It's a movie about Howard Hughes. Featuring a lot of amazing airplanes. Need I say more? Incidentally, this film references a film Hughes made about World War I: Hell's Angels (1930). Which might open the door to these guys. Alternatively, one could envision a scenario built around Hell's Angels involving these folks.
First on the Moon / Первые на Луне (2005). This fictional documentary of a Soviet lunar landing in the 1930s could be quite interesting, if one could get one's hands on a copy (which might not be easy). Space travel? you ask. Sure: mad scientists are a classic part of the genre. Soviets? Well, true, the Nazis are the totalitarians of choice, but sometimes they're so overused they get a bit out of hand.
The White Countess (2005). This is not really a pulp film; it's more of a historical drama. But it's set in one of the wildest cities of the 1930s: Shanghai. I think the film does a superb job depicting that world of American businessmen, Chinese warlords, Japanese spies, Jewish refugees and White Russian exiles that it deserves inclusion here.
Public Enemies (2009). There are plenty of gangster movies from which to choose. Indeed, Bonnie & Clyde (1967) might be a better film, but a gamer's interested in shootouts more than cinematography. Likewise, The Untouchables (1987) also deserves mention.
The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011). Nevermind that this film has not yet been released. The three comic books upon which it's based are quite fun and Tintin has more than enough pulp hero qualities: intelligence, bravado, world-wide travels and a faithful sidekick (even if he is just a dog).
Some people might worry that the pulp fiction genre - along with the movies and games it has spawned - is violent, racist, sexist and jingoistic. This is all probably true. I would, however, note two things. (1) Modern pulps tend to exaggerate, even caricature, these vices, reducing the danger that we might notice them, even while imbibing them. (2) Modern pulps knock-offs often caricature these vices to the point of mocking them. And it's rather hard to accept ideas you don't even take seriously.