M.J. Downing.

I was born too late for the real pulp tradition. It survived, though, and came to me in small novels with glossy covers and author names like Kenneth Robeson, Robert E. Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. For me, those novels lasted longer and were hardier companions than my comic books, which were too often destroyed in route up into a tree house or squirreled away in my book bag. I still bought and read comics, but that was mostly to do “swipes” I’d take from them as I learned to draw from Jack Kirby, John Buscema, and Vince Colletta. The small novels, though, introduced me to Doc Savage, Tarzan, and, of course, Conan the Barbarian, and I spend many long hours wrapped up in their exploits. This all came back to me during the pandemic, when my wife and I added Disney to our services and I got to watch “The Mandalorian” in several binge sessions during these cold, sequestered times.

From about the third episode, I recognized the picaresque pulp tradition that informs the wanderings of Din Djarin, the Mandalorian. I referred to them as having a “monster of the week” quality that the hero faces, which took me back to most of the Conan stories I read, long ago. Therein, our laconic hero meets enemies and companions in seemingly random events, episode to episode. Like Conan, too, Din Djarin comes from a lost culture of warriors. True, the Mandalorians are surrounded by Star Wars tech, but like Conan, who follows “the riddle of steel,’ trusting only his tempered sword, they are reminiscent of the decimated Cimmerians, wiped out by the forces of Thulsa Doom’s empire. The evil empire is a key backdrop.

Din Djarin’s exploits are less lurid, since they are in the Star Wars canon. Conan stories almost always featured a love–or at least sex–interest for the hero, but they are most similar in the subtle way they string together episodes, building relationships and enemies along the way in a loosely connected plot. Though no where near as loosely connected as the plot that leads Conan to the throne of Aquilonia, the first two seasons seem to be heading for a third in “The Mandalorian” which puts Din Djarin in some standing for the leadership of his people. But that is mere speculation.

In the novel world, these days, there seems to be little room for this sort of loosely connected plotting. The Pulp tradition, of course, thrived on it, desirous of spinning out tale after tale with no end in immediate sight. That practice sold magazines! It seems that some contemporary writers, Patrick Rothfuss, for one, can get away with long meanderings works and simply call it “world building,” Most others cannot, it seems, since tight plotting in about 100k words is what is required to get a novel read by an agent or publisher these days. Go longer than that or wander from episode to episode and you face rejection or at least much revision.

I suppose that is why I have liked “The Mandalorian” so much. True, its sixteen chapters, so far, are not as loosely connected as Conan’s stories from the pulps, but that practice is as good as anything I know for creating a sense of the larger world in which the lone hero journeys, even if it is from planet to planet, not country to country. I have had a fondness for such stories since I first read them long ago. I delighted in the “monster of the week” thinking behind the early seasons of “The X-Files,” and even more the many episodes of Joss Whedon’s tv series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It creates a kind of immersion that a strongly determined plot that must be touched on it each episode does not. It invites speculation and speaks to the imagination of the reader/viewer, I think.

So, when you sit down to enjoy “The Mandalorian,” remember that your are in touch with a distinctly American tradition that started in The Pulps, which, arguably, were the heirs of the Penny Dreadfuls and Dime novels. Let it remind you that there are plentiful resources available to you which will invite your speculation as they slowly flesh out a world for you. True, some of the writing of the pulps can come off as turgid, hackneyed, but the story ideas will invite you to connect hero to hero in a myriad of worlds. Enjoy them all!

2 thoughts on ““The Mandalorian Meets Conan: The Pulp Tradition is Back!”

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  1. Nice descriptions about an interesting genre. Don’t forget how the end of each episode also builds tension about “what will happen next?” I enjoyed this blog – as usual.

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