Three Rooms Press is thrilled to have co-director Peter Carlaftes interview fabled author Gary Phillips this month and equally excited to be publishing his forthcoming book THE UNVARNISHED GARY PHILLIPS: A Mondo Pulp Collection (on sale October 10, 2023).
Peter Carlaftes: I first met Gary in 2016 at Bouchercon in New Orleans, where he pitched an idea for what became THE OBAMA INHERITANCE, which won the Anthony Award for Best Anthology two years later. So when he came to me with a 17-story collection of his most amazing fiction, I was already signing the contract. I describe THE UNVARNISHED as Sweet Sweetback meets Three the Hard Way with Cleopatra Jones thrown in as well. And we were very fortunate to have the talented artist Adam Shaw create the cover art. And yes—that’s Gary there, behind the wheel of that Willys, driving all the action of each story!
THE UNVARNISHED GARY PHILLIPS collects a variety of stories that could all be categorized as pulp. Gary, how do you define pulp fiction? And what attracts you to writing in this style? What is driving the renewed interest in pulp fiction?
Gary Phillips: The pulps of the 1930s referred initially to the cheap paper those magazines with sensational full color painted covers were printed on, bought at corner newsstands. There were sports-centered pulps, crime, mystery, romance, science-fiction, cowboy, and on and on. The prose interiors, highlighted with a few black and white “spot” illustrations, always included a “novel-length” main story (50-60,000 words) and an assortment of short stories.
The pulp writing style evolved from the penny dreadfuls and dime novels of the 1800s, written at breakneck speed because you were paid per word—purple prose, incredible situations, larger-than-life characters. And the ’30s pulps spawned monthly continuing adventurers like the Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Spider. Influences on the comic book characters to come.
When I write pulp, which for me is the fun of penning Bronze Age type comics stories, it’s in the vein of what’s called new pulp. Say it’s a story set in the 1930s like “Fangs of the Fire Serpent” in the collection, yet it’s written in a revisionist manner. The old pulps were generally produced by white men featuring white main characters. If a person of color was in the tale, they might be the racist Yellow Peril villain a la Fu Manchu, or merely a maid or busboy spouting stereotypical dialogue. In “Fangs,” the main character is Black, has agency and deals with the police and other forces in a segregated L.A.
PC: One of the many, many fun things about THE UNVARNISHED is your new PHANTASMO tale. Tell us a bit about the history of PHANTASMO, and why you chose to resurrect this awesome character.
GP: According to several sources, Phantasmo was created by Elmer Cecil Stoner, E.C. Stoner, a pioneering Black artist and writer in the early days of comics. He would later go on to be a fine artist, even appearing in ads for Gordon’s gin in Ebony. Anyway, this mystic superhero was white Phil Anson who’d spent the last 25 years in Tibet studying with the Grand High Lamas. Taking his cue from the likes of the Specter and the Green Lama, is his astral projected yet solid form as Phantasmo: he could grow giant size, fly, and was pretty much invincible. I’ve reimagined and retconned him while humanizing him some in the original short story in the Unvarnished, “Phantasmo and the Vault of Heaven.”
PC: From reading this collection, one can picture a young Gary Phillips hanging out at the comic book shop reading everything. What were some of your favorite comics from your youth? Were some of the stories (besides PHANTASMO) inspired by any particular comics?
GP: I’ve often told this story; when I was a kid growing up in South Central, in my neighborhood you read Marvel Comics because they had gravitas—not that us kids used such a term then. In those days DC comics were considered lightweight. But the Hulk who hated his puny Brice Banner inner self, blind Daredevil, the angst-driven Spider-Man, the conflicted Soviet agent the Black Widow, now those were characters you could better relate to even though they had powers. And Marvel in ’72 gave us Luke Cage. He’s a brother, a convict who was framed and gets his steel hard skin and super strength when his racist guard nemesis tries to kill him during a prison experiment. No one artist or writer of all those comics I consumed inspired the stories in the collection. But it’s fair to say the likes of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Denny O’Neil, Stan Lee, John Buscema, and Gardner Fox filled my head with four-color wonder that continues to fuel me.
“When I was a kid growing up in South Central, in my neighborhood you read Marvel Comics because they had gravitas—not that us kids used such a term then. In those days DC comics were considered lightweight. But the Hulk who hated his puny Brice Banner inner self, blind Daredevil, the angst-driven Spider-Man, the conflicted Soviet agent the Black Widow, now those were characters you could better relate to even though they had powers.”
PC: Most of the stories in this marvelous collection are set in the LA area. As a native Angeleno, you’ve seen a lot of change over the years. What are some of the biggest improvements to happen in LA during your lifetime? What changes have made things worse?
GP: So much has happened to this city, the birthplace of noir, where that darkness now seeks to envelop its residents in the form of rampant gentrification—though this issue has been woven into the plot of various crime fictions. On the flip side there have been incremental improvements on matters such as unionization and the struggle for a living wage. Is L.A. ever more starkly a city of haves and have nots?
PC: You have long been a community activist. Recently, you’ve been walking the picket line for the WGA strike. What can you tell us about the power of protest and activism in a time where corporations seem to be gaining more control?
GP: I know people power is a tired slogan but collective action does mean something. For the first time since 1960, actors and writers are out on strike. Less than 30% of members of the actors’ union make the $26,000 annual minimum acting to qualify for their health insurance. The strike is about these professions not being piece work. It’s about the withholding of labor to get the fat cats back to the bargaining table. Streamers will be the capitalists to drive the other capitalists, the so-called legacy studios out of business or at least cement a restructuring of the movie and TV business model which is already happening.
I suppose more than ever the image from the classic sci-fi silent film Metropolis has proven to be prophetic, where the workers stand before this massive clockface-like device, continually moving the hands to different positions of the dial—a cog as part of the other cogs powering the underground power plant for the city of ease above. But hey, don’t forget someone wrote that scene and script, actors acted it out, and a director shot the movie. If we’re to be cogs, we should be decently paid cogs.
“For the first time since 1960, actors and writers are out on strike. Less than 30% of members of the actors’ union make the $26,000 annual minimum acting to qualify for their health insurance. The strike is about these professions not being piece work. It’s about the withholding of labor to get the fat cats back to the bargaining table.”
PC: Let’s talk about AI. Do you feel that writers and other creative people will be replaced by AI? What guardrails can be set up to prevent this from happening?
GP: Not to be pessimistic, but the pernicious genie that is AI is out of the digital bottle and not going back in. I do think though in this go-round, in terms of the strike, some guardrails will be established. Like if the studio does capture the image of a background player, they can’t use it in perpetuity without paying a residual of some amount. I morbidly joke as AI rises, we’ll need the arrival of this ’60s era comics character, Magnus, Robot Fighter. He was an orphan raised by a robot, 1A, in an underwater dome. The robot taught the kid specialized martial arts to battle free will robots, who often sought to subjugate humans. Magnus could karate chop their telescopic necks, severing their metal heads off. That’s a whole bunch of twisted psychology to unpack about the boy’s sensei-father. Like who created 1A? And he’s a free will robot willing to destroy other free will robots? Damn! And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Magnus was ahead of his time for a robot killer introduced in the early ’60s. He rocked a red chain mail tunic/hip-hugger mini-skirt and white go-go boots for his look.
PC: Back to THE UNVARNISHED: Of all the characters you write about, which is your favorite and why?
GP: If I had to choose one of the characters, I’d say Grag. She’s a soldier on a mission who finds peace, a peace she didn’t know she hungered for. Yet when she stumbles into it, she is finally whole.
PC: Gary—thanks for joining me. It’s been a pleasure.
PC: And all you voracious pulp readers, be on the look out for THE UNVARNISHED GARY PHILLIPS this Fall. Pub date is October 10.