My Top 5 Pulp Characters In Comics by John Elle

February 21, 2023 Articles

Anyone who knows me can tell you I am a big fan of old “Pulp” magazine stories.  Some of the older characters had huge impact on the early Super Heroes of the late 1930s.  From Adventure (Doc Samson Man of Bronze), to Crime Noir (Sam Spade Detective), to Horror (Bloch & Lovecraft!) there are so many different genres that have been influenced by these.  Some of my favorite comic book heroes actually even came straight from these pulps.  Here are a few of my favorites.

1. Conan

Ah yes.  Conan.  First appearing in Weird Tales of December 1932, there isn’t a single person who hasn’t at least heard of Conan the Cimmerian.  From the pulps, to the early Roy Thomas Marvel stories, to Dark Horse and beyond, there is no small smattering of our favorite Barbarian turned king.  Savage Sword Of Conan Magazine was one of my favorites growing up as a kid (Yeah, yeah, mature readers, my dad didn’t know the difference and just thought I’d like the covers) and growing up as a child in the era of 80s action movies and Schwarzenegger, the character struck a chord.

Some stories I would recommend from the Roy Thomas years are the adaptations of Red Nails and Queen of the Black Coast.  One of my favorites I wish they would collect into a graphic novel is “The Horn of Azoth” which was the comic version of Roy Thomas’ original story for what eventually became the movie Conan the Destroyer.  It’s a lot different, so if you are iffy on that movie, try the graphic novel. It’s much better.

One set of Conan I highly recommend is The Cimmerian, published by Ablaze.  These are English adaptations of the French licensed adaptions of Robert E Howard’s original pulp stories.  As a bonus, the Hardcovers print both the adaptation AND the original pulp story.  Highly recommended.

2. The Shadow

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows”

First published in The Shadow Magazine April 1931, in the story “The Living Shadow” we are introduced to the legendary character himself.  Originally more of a force of Justice working through his “Agents”, Walter B Gibson’s (Under the pen name Maxwell Grant) character has evolved much over the years.  From the early radio broadcasts (where he was more of a narrator or Grecian Choir) to the early pulp stories, to the Comics, to the Orson Wells radio show there is no format this character has not appeared.  An obvious inspiration for the early Batman stories, it’s a shame that the character currently does not have a title in circulation.

Some I would recommend are some of the pulp reprints (from Sanctum Press, unfortunately now defunct) would be the aforementioned “The Living Shadow” which introduces us to the character and “Gangdom’s Doom” which is The Shadow vs the Chicago Mafia.

Comic wise, there is so much to choose from.  I love the old 70’s issues with art by Mike Kaluta, arguably one of the best artists to ever grace the character.  Another story, originally published in old Graphic Novel format by Marvel, is “The Shadow 1941” by Denny O’Neil and (again) Mike Kaluta.  If you are looking for something more modern however, “The Many Deaths of Margo Lane” or even the crossover with Green Hornet (both from Dynamite) are fantastic reads. DC also did a Batman/The Shadow crossover a few years back, which instantly reminded me of the Animated Series episode “The Grey Ghost”.

3. Solomon Kane

Robert E Howard’s other Pulp “Hero”.  A globe wandering Puritan in the 16th century, dispersing “Gods Wrath” at the point of a rapier and flintlock.  Sadly, much less published work with this character and many story fragments (like Death’s Black Riders), this is a character that ultimately has more dimension that Conan, and a much different morality.  Kane has appeared and had adaptations, if quite a few in Conan and Savage Sword series, as well as his own mini-series from both Marvel and Dark Horse. Also, there is a really awesome tabletop game that was released by Mythic Games a year or two ago.

As for recommendations, Dark Horse really knocked it out of the park with the two books they released Solomon Kane, based on the afore mentioned story fragments, “The Castle of the Devil” and “Death’s Black Riders”.  Currently out of print, but looking like Solomon Kane is finding a new home along with Conan at Titan.  Fingers crossed for some more goodness to come from upcoming releases.

4. John Carter of Mars

Originally written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (alongside Tarzan of the Apes), Carter is another who has crossed publishers and formats. Aside from the (badly marketed and poorly promoted) Disney movie release (which was actually pretty good if you’re familiar with the material), John Carter has been published primarily by Marvel and Dynamite.

Marvel had a really good series in the late ‘70s for the character, however most people will be more familiar with Dynamite’s releases although they tend to focus more on Dejah Thoris (because Dynamite knows what they do) and less on our Warlord of Mars.  As far as recs, I would say stick with the old Marvel series or the recent adaptation of Princess of Mars that they released to coincide with the movie.


5. Elric of Melnibone

Probably the Sword and Sorcery title I recommend more than any other and have had people come back and say “that was awesome!”

Michael Moorcock’s Elric, originally published in Science Fantasy in June 1961, has arguably some of the biggest inspiration on modern fantasy than any other character.  A sickly Albino Emperor of the kingdom of Melnibone, he becomes bound to the sentient sword Stormbringer, an agent of Chaos who will force Elric to kill even those closest to him (this is where D&D’s hex-blade concept comes from) and as a character, is a HUGE inspiration for Geralt of Rivea from The Witcher (which ripped off the “White Wolf” moniker, but that’s another rant).  The character has been the subject of music (fun trivia, author Michael Moorcock used to hang out with Lemmy and Hawkwind) and appeared on many album covers (Thanks Cirith Ungol).

Elric’s first comic appearance was in the European comic book Spirits #1 (1968) drawn by French artist Philippe Druillet.  More well known for his second appearance in Conan the Barbarian #14 in the story “A Sword Called Stormbringer” by Roy Thomas and drawn by the legendary Barry Windsor Smith.  This is where most people were likely introduced to the character.

Some of my recommendations for Elric would be much of the Pacific Comics run by P. Craig Russell, currently available as “The Moorcock Library: ELRIC of Melnibone” in Hardcover from Titan.  Also distributed in America by Titan, like The Cimmerian above, there are English adaptations by the French editions by Julien Blondel, which has had Four Hardcover installments released at this point (also available in box set).  The Blondel editions have arguably some of my favorite art for this character, ever.  Start with The Ruby Throne and Stormbringer.

Sure, there are many other pulp heroes like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and The Phantom (fun 90s movie with Billy Zane too), but if I had to narrow down my favorites, it’s definitely the ones above.  Not bad for nearly 90-year-old characters that have crossed from one medium to another.  If you are looking for some classic well written and adapted tales, you can never go wrong with these.