Mignola Takes on Science Gone Wrong in Lobster Johnson: Satan Smells A Rat

Lobster Johnson: Satan Smells A Rat
(w) John Arcudi & Mike Mignola
(a) Kevin Nowlan
Dark Horse Comics, 32 pages, $3.50

Thinking about this latest Lobster Johnson adventure has me thinking about into what niche does Mignola & Arcudi’s creation really belong? Is it an homage to the pulp magazine adventures of the early 20th century as I have read in solicits and reviews or heard on podcasts? Or is it a little more kin to film adventure serials like Flash Gordon, those b-movie cliffhangers that inspired artists like George Lucas? When stories I have an interest in (like Lobster Johnson) have been defined as pulp by reviewers, friends, or critics of media I have always been a bit confused, and maybe that is in no small part because, according to Mike Ashley’s essay on pulpmags.org , the use of the word pulp describing any storytelling format can guide the curious (including myself) to cultural connotations of the story being hardboiled and tacky. Who wants to read anything tacky for entertainment value? Not me, and I can with a small degree of certainty ascertain that most people I know do not outside of group bonding or something to have a giggle at a midnight or special screening of a film. I like a lot of the work Mike Mignola and his crew put out, so to think of Lobster Johnson as tacky in a pulp sense somehow does not sit right with me. So what is  pulp, and does it belong as a label for this character of Lobster Johnson?

Pulp as a genre is actually derived from the actual production value of the physical artifact, that is “a pulp magazine was one that was printed on paper made directly from wood-pulp which rapidly yellows and becomes very brittle leaving a shower of confetti on the reader. The pulps were originally a standard size, roughly 10×7 inches, but in later years some publishers changed to a ‘large pulp’ or ‘large flat’ format, roughly 11×8 inches, to match the size of the slick magazines on the stands” (http://www.pulpmags.org/history_page.html ). So we can think of pulp as a vessel, a cost effective production artifact that provides a space for creativity where one may not think to look (hmmm, sounds like a medium I am already familiar with that is often discredited).

So cheap production did not necessarily mean cheap content, especially in those early decades of the 20th century as the pulps gained popularity. Fiction was the order of the day in the pulp magazines early on, short fiction primarily with no pictures (pulpmags.org).  The pulps gave the mass audience the hero decorated in many guises and in many genres, but the one that has the most resonating effect that I believe has greatest correlation with Mignola & Arcudi’s creation is the concept of an urban detective. The pulp urban detective was bound to a code that was unshakeable, even if they demonstrate, as is the case I believe with Lobster Johnson, “values [which] might be no more than a stubborn professionalism and wistful personal loyalty, simultaneously expressing resentment against social failure and obligations to societal norms” (Chambliss & Svitavsky, 2008, p.5 ). In other words, a person driven by a code of ethics or morals that transcend anything normal people can understand. Is this person fighting for the rights of the rest of us? Maybe, but that ambiguity allows for fascinating character moments, and such ambiguity has been sprinkled through out the growing catalog of Lobster Johnson tales. Lobster Johnson hunts down the evildoers, kills with no remorse, and seemingly files it away as what had to be done to exact that “code of ethics” in which he lives. So if you have read one before you know what you are going to get with a Lobster Johnson story, this is the comfort food aspect of it. This adventure, however, still pokes at me.

Killing nazi’s is one thing (as in a previous adventure), but Satan Smells a Rat provides one of those ambiguous turns I mentioned earlier that gives me that twinge that denies me to completely relax with my comfort food, as the evil confronted this time is science gone wrong (something Mignola and company tackled earlier this year with the wonderful Sledgehammer 44 two-part story). The question one is left with in the end is: what are the limits of science if you are testing for the supposed good of all? Are all acts of kindness or solidarity cloaked in selfishness? I can only come to the conclusion for now that the subtextual sucker punch is what makes Lobster Johnson a pulp homage—a mix of action, adventure, and a sense of something more if you want to seek it out.