Five inspirational pulp heroes

constance
A. Lee Martinez's The Last Adventure of Constance Verity is available from Amazon.

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity is my homage to classic pulp traditions. I love pulp, and I always have. Whether it’s the tough-as-nails noir gumshoes, weird science robots, or fearsome barbarian warriors, I find myself drawn to the genre over and over again. At least half of my novels have obvious pulp influences, some more obvious than others. My newest novel wears those influences on its sleeve from the opening scene, where Constance defeats a cult determined to sacrifice her to a mindless, hungry god. It only gets weirder from there.

Constance herself is an intentional resurrection of the pulp hero. She’s better at (almost) everything than you or me. She faces danger with the resolute determination with complete faith in her abilities.

Constance is human, but that ultra-capable brand of pulp human that never existed in real life. I have a real soft spot for this type of heroes and stories. They say great protagonists are defined by their limitations, but I love finding something human in the extraordinary heroes of the past. Here are five pulp heroes that have undisputed influence on Constance Verity.

TARZAN

I love Tarzan. I know he comes with baggage. Trepidation over the ugly attitudes of the past he might represent aren’t to be dismissed. The original books are surprisingly even-handed and progressive in a lot of ways, which still makes them questionable at times.

But I still love Tarzan. He’s a great character, defined by his unbridled physical power and fearlessness. In a pure physical confrontation, Tarzan is guaranteed victory. Growing up wrestling apes and fighting lions will do that for you. Yet Tarzan struggles in other ways, most typically with civilization.

The books actually address this, and it’s interesting watching Tarzan evolve from an animalistic brute to a thoughtful character. Underneath it all, he’s still a ruthless and dangerous opponent, who expects no quarter and offers none in return. But he loves his wife, his family, his friends. A foolish villain might try to exploit that weakness, but they’ll soon discover the error of that choice.

DOC SAVAGE

The Man of Bronze, Doc is perhaps the embodiment of every ridiculous ideal of perfection. He’s a genius, a master of science, a super athlete. At least Tarzan doesn’t always “get” the civilized world, but Doc strides across his adventures like a golden colossus.

Aided by his cohorts of accomplished scientists and scholars, Doc Savage had all manner of adventures. The problem with Doc is that he’s too good. His adventures were great, but you never had the impression he couldn’t handle them, and even in the calm moments, Doc never seemed out of place. He makes up for it by having some of the wildest adventures, but his inhuman perfection is a problem.

Making a character relatable doesn’t mean they have to be weak, but if they don’t ever have an awkward moment, it’s hard to care. For Constance, the quiet moments are awkward. She can defuse a bomb and outfight a ninja, but dating and just hanging out with friends can be dangerous territory.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN

Everyone knows this guy. The broad-shoulder Cimmerian of the Hyborian Age remains steadfastly part of popular culture. Conan is the archetype of every barbarian since. Like Tarzan, he is a powerhouse of muscle and martial prowess. He’s also quite clever, which helps immensely when fighting evil wizards, strange monsters, and even plain ol’ enemy warriors.

Conan is a wanderer, an adventurer, a man without a kingdom or roots of any kind. That void is rarely explored in any of his stories, but it is why when he eventually finds a kingdom to rule that it feels like a genuine accomplishment when a hero without a home finally finds one.

NANCY DREW

Not really a pulp hero if you want to get technical about it, I still love her and the idea of the intrepid teen detective. Constance was one of these in her misspent youth, and like Nancy, she developed a keen mind and resolve that got her into and out of trouble.

While it made barely a ripple in the pop culture pool, the 2007 Nancy Drew movie played with the idea of a young girl who had more experience with danger and mystery than most hardened detectives. A central conceit of the film is how capable Nancy is, and after years of adventuring, she’d have to be.

It’s tempting to call Nancy a “Mary Sue”, a term all too often misapplied to any character that is consciously written as more capable than ordinary people. There’s definite aspects of wish fulfillment here, but show me a character on this list that doesn’t apply to. Nancy is the only one aimed at young women, and that, along with her enduring appeal, easily earn her a spot here.

TARS TARKAS

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels star John Carter, a hero of superhuman strength and master swordsman. Also, a really boring guy. I love Burroughs, but Carter has the personality of a block of wood. He’s a good guy, sure, and good to have around when the world is falling apart around you, but he’s never been why I love the Barsoom stories.

I love this fantastic version of Mars for its strange adventures and inventive weirdness. I’m fine with hanging out with Carter so long as he’s fighting evil, but when it comes to people I want to spend time with on the red planet, it’s Tars Tarkas.

Jeddak of Thark, Tars Tarkas is one badass dude, leader of an entire tribe of badass dudes. The green-skinned, four-armed Tharks are ruthless, brutal, and endearing as hell. I have my quibbles with the 2012 film, but not with its interpretation of Tars Tarkas, who was everything I wanted him to be. Warrior, leader, father, friend, Tars Tarkas is everything great about the Barsoom stories in one awesome green package.

And I know that Tars and Constance would get along great. Unless my secret drawer full of fanfiction is a liar, and I think that’s highly unlikely.

A. Lee Martinez enjoys juggling, origami, skulking, and time travel.