Pulp entertainment has enjoyed an eclectic and often sordid past based in cheap thrills and even cheaper production. It is difficult to believe, but this world of saucy vixens, treacherous villains, and nightmarish monsters began with the sparsely illustrated literature and comment magazines of the 19th century.
Limited by technology and the cost of distribution, these soft-cover books were enjoyed mostly by the upper-class. With the invention of the rotary press and the creation of a second class postage, publishers were suddenly able to reach more than just the wealthy readers. Eager to take advantage of this new audience, but unwilling to put for the capital risk, many publishers began printing their magazines on low quality paper made from pulpwood scrap, giving arise to the term “pulp magazine.”
Pulp magazines covered every topic imaginable, often relying on unheard ofartists and authors to produce content as quickly as possible. More established magazines such as McClure’s and Munsey’s Magazine enjoyedearly success with new readers by publishing photographs and rich fictional stories of adventure and romance. Munsey’s Magazine even ran the first female nudes to be published in the United States. As the fledgling entertainment form developed, publishers used flashy illustrated covers to attract readers, beginning a long standing tradition of pulp magazine covers depicting tantalizing scenes not present in the actual story.
In October 1896, Munsey began publishing what is widely considered the first true pulp magazine: TheArgosy. Following The Argosy’s success, Munsey went on to publish The All Story which ran such notable titles as ‘Under the Moon of Mars’ (1912) and ‘Tarzan of the Apes’(1912), both written by Edgar Rice Boroughs. Rival publishers Street and Smith also gained recognition by publishing Detective Story Magazine (1915) and Western Story Magazine (1919). Both are considered to be the first pulp magazines of their respective genres.
The pulp detective novel of the 1920′s combined gritty realism and fantasy to create a portrait of the hard working, tough talking American hero. A classic example is that of ‘Three Gun Terry’ written by Carrol John Daly and published by HL Mencken and George Jean Nathan. This 1926 crime thriller represented the first of the ‘hard-boiledâ?’ detective novels.
The 1920′s also set the stage for the emergence of the science fiction genre in pulp entertainment. Inspired by Jules Verne, HG Wells, Mary Shelly and Boroughs, themes of space travel, mad scientists and deep sea monsters bubbled up into the pulp lexicon. Magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories developed, employing such writes as HP Lovecraft and Tennessee Williams. Similar futuristic themes began to emerge in cinema as well. Fritz Lang’s bleak Metropolis, released in 1927, incorporated many themes similar to pulp’s sci-fi genre including societal upheaval in a world defined by technology.
The expansion of the US railway system in the 1930′s dramatically increased pulp readership. During this time, Smith and Street published stories including such legendary characters as The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Avenger.
Comic books began to emerge at this time, including the introduction of the Superman character in a 1938 issue of National Action Comics. In cinema, weekly serial films like Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers were gaining popularity. This was also the dawn of the B-Movie. Much like its cheap paper counterpart, b-movies relied on cheap production costs and wide distribution to sell a story with the least amount of risk.
The 1940′s unfortunately spelt doom for many publishers. A paper shortage brought on by World War II caused many pulp magazines to go out of business. By the time the war had ended, comic books had overtaken pulp magazines as America’s source for thrilling tales of peril and monsters.
Horror comics and sci-fi dominated films and comic books of the 1950′s. Although fewer pulp magazines were in circulation during this time, this era is what is most thought of regarding ‘pulp’ content. Cinema adopted pulp themes or creature, world peril, and paranoid horror to produce such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Other creature dominated horrors included Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the Blob (1958). In the comic book world, themes of horror and monsters were equally popular. During this time, EC comics published ‘Crypt of Terror,’ the predecessor to Tales from the Crypt. The publishing of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of Innocence prompted a sharp backlash against what was considered a rise in immorality and crime caused by the all-corrupting comic book. In 1954, under pressure from the US senate, National and Archie Comics founded the Comics Code Authority, drafting the Comics Code. This code stated that comics could not present “scenes” of, or “instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism.” Some newsstands refused to sell any comic without the CCA’s seal of approval.
Thankfully, many publishers pressed on. In the mainstream, writers like Stan Lee focused on the here genre. His 1961 creation Fantastic Four focused on naturalistic heroes with faults, fears and conflict. Other writes emerged through the ‘underground’ comic book scene. Uninhibited by the strict Comics Code, writers like R. Crum, Harvey Pikar and Kim Deitch gained notice through their unique styles and unconventional subject matter. Modern comic books have shown both a return to darker grittier stories as well as a movement towards ‘Art’ comics. Such comics include Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Other modern trends include a revival of classic pulp traditions, characters and styles. Both cinema and modern comics often feature rehashing of cult stories, often bringing to light nearly forgotten stories.