Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Cowboy, a Space Captain, a Private Investigator, and a Barbarian Walk Into a Bar... [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

That could be the beginnings of a really lame joke, but it's something more. All four of these characters, these separate genre icons, share something in common. They are all cut from the same bolt of cloth... the American hero.

The Cowboy grew out of the nostalgia for a Wild West that never really existed outside the imagination of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. You can see the beginnings of him in the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (1820-1850s), but it is Owen Wister who gets credit for the first official Western novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902). After him come all the rest, from Zane Grey to Louis L'Amour, along with his near cousin, the Northern hero: Mounties to gold-miners in the fiction of writers like Jack London or Rex Beach. North or West, the trappings of the Western and Northern include the tough, solitary cowpoke who enforces his own stern code with a shooting iron or a hanging rope. Locales where you'll find him include the wilderness and smoky saloons.

The second of these true, American heroes is the hardy Space-faring Captain. Pinpointing an exact creator is a little harder, for science fiction heroes begin with John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in February 1912 in "Under the Moons of Mars," acquiring all the fighting skill of the old romantic heroes, but then moving on to Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Hawk Carse, Eric John Stark, and the list goes on and on... Best of all of them was CL Moore's Northwest Smith, who hung around the seedy bars of Mars with his pal, Yarol the Venusian. These tough spacers drank segir, slept with alien chicks, and could shoot or punch their way out of any situation. They lead the way to the final icon, Captain Kirk of Star Trek.

The Private Eye was invented by Carroll John Daly in "The False Burton Combs" in Black Mask (December 1922). Daly may have been first, but his work was expanded by Dashiell Hammett, who had actually been a Pinkerton agent, and later by Raymond Chandler, who elevated noir pulp fiction to the highest level. The central hero is, of course, a private detective, who knows the mean streets and follows his own code of justice. This doesn't always match that of the police, who are often as corrupt as the criminals. Mystery tales date back to at least Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murder in the Rue Morgue" (Graham's Magazine, April 1841), but was made hugely popular by British author Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes in The Strand. The Private Eye was America's response to the effete murders in the vicarages over tea that the British cozy mystery was at the turn of the century. None of that middle class snobbery for the PI. He is a creature of independence, often found drinking in an illegal speakeasy.

The barbarian hero of sword-and-sorcery is our last of the foursome. The author who created him was Robert E Howard, in January 1929 with "The Shadow Kingdom," starring King Kull. Kull, like his replacement, and by far, the quintessential icon of S&S, Conan the Cimmerian, was a rough, deadly warrior, who claws his way to kingship. The barbarian is skilled with weapons, a hater of sorcery and evil magic, and a hero, but on his own terms and for his own price, which is often taken in gold, booze, or sex. He marches to the beat of his own drum, whether in a desert, a jungle, a filthy city with its steamy dens of iniquity. Conan walks a dark path and no furry little hobbits need apply.

So why do all these heroes exist, and why America? All of these characters are products of pulp fiction, whether in the early days when they were called weeklies, or in the later, true pulps. Magazine fiction since the 1880s had been driving genre with specialized types of reading. In America, this looked a little different than elsewhere, for North America was a land of pioneers. The sedate, well-established, Oxford-educated type good guy was seen as suspiciously too civilized for a land such as the US. American heroes had to be tough, whether they were in the Yukon or the Arizona desert or in imaginary lands or the quickly growing cities with the new problems of gangsterism and corruption. Only a hard man could walk the line between right and wrong.

World War II and later the Cold War would turn these heroes into sadly dated characters; no longer in style. They could have died in the pages of the pulps that folded and blew away by 1955. But was that really the case? Look at paperback sales in the 1950s and 1960s, and there they are again: the cowboy (Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour sold millions), the PI (whether he was Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, or Mike Shayne), the space captain (he fell on hard times in print but made it on radio and the small screen), and the barbarian (who sold millions of purple-edged Lancer paperbacks with the help of Frank Frazetta).

These characters all became icons, part of our collective culture along with the jungle lord and lady, the avenging swordsman, the secret agent, and the superhero. Love them or hate them, they all serve the same function: a plot Christopher Booker calls "Overcoming the Monster." The hero takes on the the "Big Bad" and wins, whether that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Beowulf. These heroes tells us we are not small, but can win; that our personal code is worth protecting, that there are reasons to charge "once more unto the breach." The hanging around in bars... well, what else is a hero going to do while waiting for that next adventure?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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