Bond and the Pulps

by David Morefield

Time’s running out. In mere moments, a diabolical mastermind and his global organization of evil will murder millions of innocents in a mad bid for world domination. But there is hope...even now, the one man who can stop this nefarious scheme is infiltrating the villain’s secret command base, armed with deadly gadgets and the nerve to use them.

James Bond versus SPECTRE? Afraid not. Try Operator 5 versus The Purple Empire. The Spider versus The Fleshless Legions. Or G-8 versus the Vampire Staffel.

Never heard of them? Not too surprising. These days the names mean little to most people, unlike James Bond, the world’s most high-profile secret agent. Suffice to say that years before 007 first whipped a Walther from his Berns-Martin triple-draw holster, these characters were blazing away with Colt .45 automatics to save an unsuspecting populace from evil of unimagined proportions.

These characters were the stars of the "pulps," and in a way they were the spiritual forefathers of James Bond. Though separated from the works of Ian Fleming by time, cultures and philosophy, even a casual examination of the pulps reveals some remarkable parallels to the Bond mythos.

The Bloody Pulps

                                    and his BATTLE ACESSo what were the pulps? Just the biggest thing around between the World Wars, that's all. On any given trip to your corner newsstand in the Depression years, you wouldn't have been able to escape them. Magazines featuring works of original fiction, they replaced the "dime novels" so popular at the turn of the century and thrived for about two decades before losing their popularity to comic books and the pocket-sized paperback novels we know today.

The "pulps" got their name from the paper they were printed on -- invariably the cheapest newsprint a publisher could find -- and were noted for their glossy and colorful (one might say lurid) covers, typically showing beautiful women in skimpy outfits and dire peril. Though they covered every genre from romance to westerns to science fiction, the best sellers were usually the "hero" pulps, featuring a recurring lead character with singular skills who battled a different menace every month, and the detective pulps, with their endless parade of private eyes and G-Men who looked at life through cynical eyes and battled crooks with their own dirty methods.

In both genres are hints of the Bond mythos to come. Whether American pulps had a direct influence on Ian Fleming is unknown, but they did give birth to the detective fiction of his era, spawning characters like Sam Spade and Perry Mason, and launching the careers of authors Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane and one of Fleming’s favorites, Raymond Chandler. In England, the pulps also thrived, featuring the works of authors like "Sapper" McNeile and Sax Rohmer, authors whose influence on Fleming is more easily confirmed.

The Jaded Hero

DETECTIVE TALESAt first glance, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, two-fisted character of James Bond seems a radical change from traditional English heros, those pipe-smoking aristocratic sorts who approached their work with an air of casual disinterest, solving crimes to pass the time until their rose gardens came in.

Actually, Bond’s arrival had been foreshadowed by the heros of the English pulps, beginning with Bulldog Drummond, a six-foot tall British he-man with a frame of "hard muscle and bone clean through." An expert marksman and boxer with a knack for getting captured by the bad guys, Drummond’s love for England was matched in depth only by his distrust of almost all foreigners.

Drummond's adventures were penned by Lieutenant Colonel Herman Cyril ("Sapper") McNeile in a no-holds-barred fashion. In The Final Count, for instance, Drummond sets out to retrieve from the wrong hands a poison that can bring "universal, instantaneous death." The villain of the piece employs an airship and killer tarantulas in his scheme before falling victim to his own deathtrap.

There were also the works of Sax Rohmer, whom Fleming did acknowledge as an inspiration. Rohmer's Fu Manchu was a Bond-caliber villain with more than a passing resemblance to Dr. No, right down to his penchant for centipedes and his habit of torturing houseguests. He also shared the common Bond-villain problem of having female confederates defect over to the hero's side at the most inconvenient moments.

In fact Bond joined a literal plethora of athletic, thrill-seeking, Bentley-driving wine experts in the action game, but what set him apart from most was his ruthlessness. English heros were expected to fight fair, and in that regard Bond was a different sort, preceded perhaps only by Simon Templar, the rather brutal sleuth and adventurer created by Leslie Charteris, a frequent pulp contributor. The "Saint" was the only pre-Bond English hero, for example, to make deadly use of knives, previously a weapon fit only for murderous lowlifes, and foreign ones at that.

Also setting the stage for Bond were the American pulps, which had long ago begun the transition from thinking crime-solvers to the two-fisted variety. "Black Mask" magazine in particular was a haven for all manner of tough-guy detectives, beginning with "Race Williams" by Carroll John Daly and including a virtual who’s-who of private eyes -- "The Maltese Falcon," for example, was serialized in the pulps before becoming an acclaimed novel and legendary film.

The "heros" of the "Black Mask" were typically possessed of a detached cynicism and a certain moral ambiguity, not particularly renowned for using their heads and in fact a bit contemptuous of intellectuals.

The parallels to Bond are obvious. In Goldfinger, Bond decides "It was part of his profession to kill a secret agent who held the rare Double-O was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon." The pulp detectives likewise know the value of a "surgical strike." Race Williams, who amounts to little more than a hired gunman on the side of the angels, kills a man in "Murder From the East" and dispassionately notes the effect on the rest of his enemies. "A corpse is always a good thing to begin with," he muses. "Some pretty tough guys will quit sneering and threatening if you shoot a friend dead at their feet."

Hard to argue with that logic.

What sets Bond apart from these American detectives is his fierce patriotism. Where the private eyes refused to believe in anything, be it love, authority, government or even themselves, Bond was a fervent British patriot willing to put a bullet through a man’s head on nothing more than "M"’s say-so. In this he is actually more like the characters of the "hero" pulps, fellows possessed of a sort of super-patriotism and an idyllic view of their nation. Chief among these was an American superspy who like Bond acted as....

One Man Against Doomsday

OPERATOR #5One of the popular themes in the Bond books and films is that of impending Armageddon. Seems an agent hardly has time to recover from the last attempt on humankind before some new lunatic unleashes an A-Bomb or Omega Virus or the like. To ne’er-do-wells like Drax and Blofeld, human life means nothing in the quest for wealth and power.

Some things never change. In the days of the pulps, mankind was forever on the brink of destruction thanks to some dastardly no-goodnik with a death ray or explosive device, and whereas in the 60's we relied on 007, Derek Flint and Napoleon Solo to save our skins, in the pulps we had Secret Agent X, a master of disguise whose name we never learned, and the invincible Jimmy Christopher, better known as Operator 5.

Employed by a nameless American secret service, Operator 5 fought off a new threat to national security every month, whittling down enemy spy organizations agent by agent until he got to the evil chief behind it all. These nasty little cabals weren’t content to steal secret documents or bug embassies; their goal was nothing less than world domination.

The high point of Operator 5's adventures was "The Purple Invasion Saga," a 13-book long magnum opus wherein the United States of America is overrun by the Purple Empire and enslaved in part one! Before the saga was over, major American cities were laid waste by bomber planes and tank battalions, Mexico and Canada were a shambles, the Panama Canal was blasted to dust and the President of the US had committed suicide in a fit of despair! Operator 5 turned the tables as only he could, taking command of American forces and leading them to victory as Bond later would lead the forces that attacked the strongholds of Blofeld, Stromberg and Drax in the EON films.

The adventures of Operator 5 and those of James Bond share a deep undercurrent of tension that sprang from the headlines of their respective eras. In the case of Operator 5, far-off rumblings of fascism in 1930's Europe were unnerving a nation still smarting from the previous global war. In Bond’s era, the British were feeling the anxiety of being at Ground Zero for World War III. Both heros provided readers a healthy release of these anxieties, but in their own way their adventures merely add to the fear that it’s only a matter of time before our luck runs out.

Which brings us to the creeps who kept putting us in these miserable situations....

The Villains

THE SPIDEREver notice how Bond villains are nastier than any other villains? It’s not enough to have a black heart; Bond villains have to be physically repulsive as well, as if the evil in their souls has grown through their skin to pervert their outward appearance. Consider Drax’s bad complexion and orthodonture, Goldfinger’s obesity and football head, Dr. No’s....well, everything!

Such a hideous collection of slavering ghouls would have been right at home in the pulps, where all manner of demented ogres, gnomes, gorillas and reptiles stretched out their claw-like hands to rend the flesh of innocents. With names like The Yellow Vulture, the Red Skull and the Deadly Dwarf, you don't even have to read the stories to know these guys will never earn the title of "Sexiest Man Alive," much less "Humanitarian of the Year."

At work here, of course, is the primal notion that good people are attractive and evil ones are ugly. One would be hard-pressed to find a character in the Bond books who possesses both a kind heart and an ugly mug (with the possible exception of Quarrel). The same is true of the pulps. Both the Bond books and the pulps tend to handle characterizations in rather broad strokes, and we readers know right away that when we see the fellow with the twisted features and bad habits, he's going to be the villain.

Fleming provides an interesting twist on the theme by "ruining" Bond's good looks with a hint of deformity and thus evil. Bond is a handsome man, but with "a rather cruel mouth" that frightens some women and intrigues others. His features are also somewhat marred by a "faint scar" down the right cheek. The scar is in place from Bond's first appearance in "Casino Royale," perhaps as a tip-off that, although on the side of the angels, Bond harbors a streak of cruelty and evil. In contrast, the pulp heros are invariably pure of visage.

Interestingly, these rules seem not to apply to women. In Bond's world and that of the pulps, even the most beautiful female form may hide the darkest soul of all. Darn those women; at least the men have the decency to wear their evil on the outside!

Sex and Torture

THE SPIDERWhen it came to women, the pulp heros were a bunch of monks compared to 007. They tended to avoid females for various reasons; because they’re dangerous or untrustworthy, because a romance would place them in danger, etc. It’s implied that being a hero means controlling your desires; only the bad guys give in to temptation, and if the good guys succumb, they will lose their omnipotence.

They may have been on to something. In every Fleming novel where Bond goes to bed with a woman in the course of a mission, some disaster ensues to mar his victories. In From Russia With Love, for example, he is nearly killed by Rosa Klebb after his affair with Tania. Vesper Lynd, Jill Masterton and Tracy Vicenzo among others end up dead after dalliances with Bond. On the other hand, in the eight novels where Bond at least manages to hold off sex until the end of the mission, his victories are complete.

"On a job," Bond muses in Casino Royale, women "got in the way and fogged things had to look out for them and take care of them." He seems to agree with the pulp heros on this score, but unlike his predecessors he often fails to take his own advice.

Trouble does indeed seem to follow even the innocent women. In the pulps, they are stripped naked so as to be crucified ("The Pain Master"), thrown to animals ("Death Reign of the Vampire King"), and on one memorable occasion, cooked on a storefront rotisserie ("Judgement of the Damned")! In the Bond novels, naked ladies are smothered in gold (GF), dragged across coral reefs (LALD) and fed to an army of crabs (DN). This torture business is another link Bond has to the pulps. Pulp heros, like Bond, are forever being shot, stabbed, burned, beaten, whipped, poisoned, electrocuted and hung only to somehow drag their bloodied bodies into a final battle with the villain, and prevail.

The Gadget Masters

DOC SAVAGEFacing such fearsome odds, a good guy needs all the help he can get, and that’s where the gadgets come in. Again, the pulp heros beat Bond to the punch by a couple of decades.

Almost every pulp hero had a figure behind the scenes who, as Q did for Bond, outfitted them with a variety of amazing gadgets. The Spider had Professor Brownlee, inventor of state-of-the-art teargas globes, a cigarette lighter with a Spider seal to mark the foreheads of slain enemies, and a pencil-thin silken cord strong enough to lift 700 pounds. Operator 5 relied on an unnamed secret service technician for a sword that fit inside his belt (!) and a death's-head pendant containing lethal gas.

The master gadgeteer, however, would have to be Clark Savage, Junior, a.k.a. "Doc" Savage. Doc was one hero who didn’t need help from a scientific genius, because he was one himself. He designed aircraft and automobiles superior to those of his era (one of his planes was rumored to fly at the then-inconceivable speed of 200 mph!), a submachine gun that fired .24 caliber rounds at a rate of 786 a minute, dissolvable parachutes and oxygen pills for use in lieu of aqualungs.

Every inch of Doc’s giant frame was a potential hiding place for a gadget. Beneath his suit he wore a bullet-proof vest loaded with gizmos of all descriptions. Inside a false tooth he hid a powerful plastic explosive and inside another a tiny saw! A set of false fingernails contained tiny needles laced with an anaesthetic, and the breast pocket of his suit could be converted into a gas mask.

Some of Doc's accessories would end up on the workbench at Q-Branch, including a belt containing a silken cord with collapsible grapnel, a bullet-firing cigarette case and shoes with radio transmitters and radioactive metals to allow his colleagues to track his movements. Perhaps our good Major Boothroyd was a student of the Doctor?

Again, Doc and 007 share a certain kinship despite the years separating their adventures. Each character came to life in a time when readers were excited by the possibilities of science and technology. In Doc’s day mechanical wonders were being churned out in rapid succession -- the world’s fair of 1939 was promising all sorts of gadgets for the average American household. In Bond's era, the Space Age was under way and once again people were convinced that there was nothing modern technology could not do, given a bit of time. Both Doc and Bond were on the cutting edge, sort of "beta-testing" each new device before the rest of us got our hands on them, and providing a lot of vicarious thrills in the process.

Of course, there are two kinds of gadgets; those created for good, clean (if occasionally lethal) fun, but also the products of...

Evil Science!

G-8 and his BATTLE ACESLaser beams, flame-throwers, nuclear missiles, space-launched viruses; all have been thrown at Bond at some point or other.

No doubt it has ever been thus. When the first Neanderthal figured out how to hold a stick, you can bet he used it to bash in his neighbor’s skull. Of course, fellows like Drax and Goldfinger and Stromberg upped the ante quite a bit, but they were hardly the first to use science for evil ends.

Throughout the pulps run a host of anti-social scientists with devices that would never have gotten by the Underwriter's Laboratories. Why, the Spider alone fought off death rays ("The Devil's Paymaster"), flesh-eating gasses ("The Green Globes of Death"), super-powerful explosives ("Satan's Death Blast"), fast-acting poisons ("The Red Death Rain") and gigantic killer robots ("Satan's Murder Machines").

Meanwhile Doc Savage faced villains who had mastered invisibility ("Spook Legion"), could cut off all electrical current to New York City ("Haunted Ocean") and built flying devices that numbed men's minds with brilliant light and a piercing sound ("Meteor Menace"), foreshadowing the "flash bombs" used in real life by Britain's anti-terrorist forces.

Obviously in the pulps, as in the Bond mythos, technology is to be both worshiped and feared, the source of our potential destruction as well as our salvation.

Remember Bond’s Roots

DOC SAVAGEThe point of all this is not to detract from the originality of the Bond novels, nor to suggest that Ian Fleming "ripped off" the pulps. But the Bond saga does owe at least a tip of the hat to those lurid magazines of so long ago.

Some would argue that Bond is too tied to his era -- the fifties and sixties -- to owe much to Depression-era tales. Bond was about the Cold War, they say, a spy for the Atomic Age. That’s true to an extent, but at the same time there is a macabre fantasy element to the Fleming Bonds that’s quite at odds with most notions of a "spy thriller," but right on target for a pulp novel. There are times when the Fleming Bonds seem not so much "spy thrillers" as "fairy tales gone wrong."

Consider characters with names like Pussy Galore and appearances as unlikely as Dr. No’s. Consider concepts like Dr. Shatterhand's (Blofeld's) surreal "Suicide Garden" or Jill Masterton's naked, gilded corpse. Like the pulps before them, the Bond novels adhere to "gritty realism" for the most part, only to suddenly and dramatically veer off into the realm of the bizarre and sometimes even the absurd.

Nowhere is the influence of the pulps more pronounced than in "Dr. No," a novel featuring a deformed and depraved Oriental mastermind (in the pulps we knew Dr. No as Dr. Yen-Sin, Fu Manchu or Shiwan Khan) living on a forbidden island ("The Fantastic Island" and many others) protected by a machine that plays on the superstitions of the gullible (here it’s the "Dragon" tank -- in Doc Savage adventures it was mechanized "sea serpents" and "flying saucers"). The villain likes to torture good guys, puts naked women in bizarre death traps for a giggle, and makes a pet out of a giant squid! If Fleming wasn’t influenced by the pulps, little else short of LSD can account for this book!

DOC SAVAGEUltimately, as noted before, the pulps were killed by the advent of the paperback novel, a format in which James Bond thrived. And just as the pulps were considered disposable entertainment, so too did Fleming downplay the literary worth of 007. Whatever private hopes he may have harbored for his works, outwardly he dismissed them as "adolescent" distractions, aimed not at the reader’s head but rather "somewhere between the upper thigh and the solar plexus."

Except for a loyal but relatively small audience of modern enthusiasts, the pulps have indeed proven largely disposable, whereas Bond endures and thrives to this day. But the influence of the pulps is anything but disposable, having paved the way for the adventures of one of literature’s most beloved heros. The next time you thrill to the exploits of the world's greatest spy, spare a thought for those who went before, who kept the world in one piece long enough for James Bond to get out of Eton and pick up the skills of a Double-O agent. The heros of the pulps.

Related links:

Chris Kalb's "Hero Pulps":
With exciting designs and lots of cool surprises, the "front door" to the ultimate Doc Savage and Spider links on the Web.

Offering a brief history of the pulps and the ultimate list of WWW pulp links.

Operator 5 cover copyrighted 1936, Spider covers 1941, G-8 covers 1940 and Detective Tales cover 1943, all by Popular Publications. Spider, G-8 and Operator 5 characters copyrighted 1966 by Argosy Communications. Doc Savage covers copyrighted 1934, 1937 by Street and Smith Publications, character currently owned by Conde Nast.