Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pulp Perusals: Why is a Legend a Legend?

Why is a Legend a legend?

I’ll admit it. I have a problem. I love research. In fact I love it so much that I often find it difficult to find the point when I need to stop doing the research and start doing the story-telling* (As my long in-development Shakespeare-as-a-spy novel can attest too – Hey I still have at least another eight books left on the research reading stack.) So when I signed on to do a Houdini short story for Airship 27 later in the year, one of the first things I did was order a book (or two) on the great escapologist.

A few weeks ago the first of these arrived in the mail, perfectly timed before a business trip, so I spent the time during the following week, while sitting on airplanes and in hotel restaurants, working my way through “The Secret Life of Houdini.” On the whole I found it to be a fascinating (if at times a little fanciful) look at the life and career of Houdini that gave some pointers for my percolating story idea.

Yet one aspect of the book left me feeling dissatisfied. The book carries the sub-title of “The Making of America’s First Superhero” yet less than a couple of pages out of a total of over five hundred are actually devoted to why Houdini should be considered worthy to carry such a distinctive honorific.

In some ways my disappointment was compounded by having just read another excellent biography, this time about David Crockett,** that had promised to separate the real man from the legend. But yet again it failed to discuss why, or how, the legend of “Davy Crockett” had grown, and continued to grow, after his death at the Alamo.

I had been expecting that both of these books would have provided some insight as to why these two men had stayed recognizable names well beyond the time that that they walked the Earth. For me that is one of the things that I find most fascinating about biographies, yet find very few that actually address it. Having an interesting and fascinating life makes for a good story, but why is it that the actions of certain people continue to resonate across the generations, while others become quickly forgotten?

Thinking about why certain famous people remain well known also got me wondering about if the same attributes apply to fictional characters in general, and pulp ones in particular.

A recent online article I read ranked the Top 10 Pulp Heroes and unsurprisingly the top four names listed were:
•    Doc Savage
•    The Shadow
•    Zorro
•    Buck Rogers.

All names that would resonate with most pop-culture fans, and maybe to some extent to a wider audience, yet I feel other names on the list such as; Domino Lady, The Black Bat, Ka-Zar etc. would solicit little or no sign of recognition beyond those of us already steeped in the history of the pulps. What’s the difference between the two groups?

Perhaps the answer lies in the question I asked in the title of this piece, “Why is a Legend a legend?” If we look at the dictionary we find that a legend is defined as “a person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticized tales or exploits.”

At first pass that definition doesn’t seem to help solve my problem, because surely all fictional characters are therefore by definition legends? But on a closer reading maybe it does go someway to answering it.

On reflection its easy to see why men like Houdini and Congressman David Crockett, who lived extraordinary lives, would become the subject of exaggerated stories enabling them to proudly carry the moniker of Legend.

While not real historical figures, characters like Doc Savage, The Shadow etc, have proven their worth as their stories have similarly been retold and embellished over time. They may not have moved from reality to fiction, but they have certainly transcended the medium, Pulps, which birthed them. On that basis can they be reasonably considered Legends too?

I don’t think I’m anyway near having a real answer to my question yet – but it will be fun to explore the idea some more in the coming months.


* One piece of advice I was given was to just plot and write the story first, then go back and do the research to fill in the details. – It sounds like a great approach. I really must try it one day.
 ** David Crockett: The Lion of the West by Michael Wallis.

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