Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine by Ron Goulart

A few years ago, the great writer and deconstructor Alan Moore said this about modern culture:

“…I found something worrying about the fact that the superhero film audience was now almost entirely composed of adults, men and women in their thirties, forties and fifties who were eagerly lining up to watch characters and situations that had been expressly created to entertain the twelve year-old boys of fifty years ago. I not only feel this is a valid point, I also believe it to be fairly self-evident to any disinterested observer. To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”
Movies and TV are so expensive that going with a “known quantity”—something with decades of fandom goodwill behind it—rather than trying to build a franchise organically goes a long way toward ensuring a return on investment. Then there’s copyright law, which has been weaponized by huge corporations, in conjunction with the government, to protect corporate interests

I believe that we’re living in a very decadent era, and the fact that every other movie and TV show seems to be based around comic book concepts created circa 1940 is, as Moore suggests, extremely worrying. It’s even more worrying when you consider that so much of what was “created” in those early days of the comics was DIRECTLY RIPPED OFF from the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s. Which were themselves highly derivative.

I was thinking about this a lot while reading Ron Goulart’s Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines (reprinted as an Ace paperback under only the subtitle, but with "Magazine" singular). Goulart mentions a couple of times throughout the book that the comics helped to usurp the pulps because their were drawn more than written, allowing the stories to get right to the action as quickly as possible, and to help the reader visualize that action, rather than having to go through hundreds of words of text, and page after page, to get to a single, static illustration. The comics also just outright stole from the pulps. Here’s something from Chapter Six, Doc Savage And His Circle:

“They didn’t think of using him as a comic book hero until 1940 [Doc Savage first appeared in his eponymous pulp magazine in 1933] and by then there was Superman. It’s obvious Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had recognized Doc Savage’s potential much earlier. Dedicated pulp readers, the two young Cleveland boys borrowed considerably from [Lester] Dent’s character for their own super-hero. It isn’t because of coincidence that Superman’s name is Clark Kent and that he was initially billed as the Man of Steel.”

Doc Savage’s first name is Clark. Doc Savage was called The Man of Bronze. Goulart leaves out that Doc Savage had a “Fortress of Solitude” in the Arctic, which is mentioned in his very first adventure.

In original advertising, Doc Savage was actually called "SUPERMAN." Siegel and Shuster weren't even trying.

Then there’s Batman, whose creators shamelessly “borrowed” elements from the Shadow and Zorro (weirdly, Informal History only mentions Johnston McCulley once, and I don’t think he ever mentions his famous creation—although I could be wrong). Both wore dark clothes, they had alter-egos who were wealthy (the Shadow actually had several different alter-egos at first, and Lamont Cranston was only one of them—and wasn’t even intended to be the “real” alter ego to be aviator Kent Allard). They wore capes that masked their faces. But Batman stole even more—for instance, left out of Goulart’s book is the fact that the Shadow had an antagonist called “The Joker,” who dressed as a clown. The Shadow was called “The Knight of Darkness” in his pulp adventures and of course Batman is “The Dark Knight.” Batman’s first appearance is an out-and-out rip-off of a Shadow novel called “Partners of Peril.”

(UPDATE AND CORRECTION 4/26/17: The above paragraph has a glaring error and now that I've actually read Nostalgia Ventures' Partners of Peril reprint I can correct it. The Shadow's clown antagonist was called the Harlequin, and appeared in the issue of The Shadow Magazine that appeared on the stands the same month that Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27. That Shadow story was written by Peril author Theodore Tinsley. Tinsley wrote another story featuring a pulp character called "Bulldog" Black called "The Grim Joker," featuring another homicidal clown--a crime boss called "The Joker." See my post Bill Finger--the plagiarist who "created" Batman for more information.)  

As popular narrative shifted from the pulps over to comics it was necessary to retain the archetypes that the pulps were exploiting. In Chapter Two, Heroes For Sale, Goulart points out:

“A good many of the products of popular culture have always been generated by the preoccupations and anxieties of children and adolescents. This means that the mass entertainments of any period will invariably be much concerned with action and identity… As kids move through the precarious territory between childhood and adolescence their absorption with roles and occupations grows. ‘They are sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are,’ writes Erik Erikson of young people in their later school years, “and with the question of how to connect the roles and skills cultivated earlier with the ideal prototypes of the day.” Popular entertainment that is going to appeal to youth, then, has to offer both distractions from and simplified solutions to some of the problems involved in getting from ten to twenty. One basic cultural product that offers both action and alternate identity is the fictional hero.”

This ties in neatly with what Moore says in the quote above, and, though it was first published in 1972, it could have just as easily been written last week. In the world of “antifa,” “the pussy hats,” “Russian hackers,” “twenty seven genders,” and “punching Nazis,” we have a popular culture that is dominated by adults obsessed with putting off taking on adult responsibilities in favor of a preoccupation with how they appear in the eyes of others—and in forcing others to see them as they see themselves. Introspection is scary and it’s even unnecessary when you KNOW YOU’RE RIGHT and everyone else is evil. So why face “reality”? Why not create your own? Trump didn’t win the presidential election—in fact, he lost the popular vote because RUSSIAN HACKERS. John Oliver and Samantha Bee told me so.

Also, there’s a new MCU movie opening in a couple of weeks.

In Chapter Three, Soldiers of Fortune, Etc, Goulart introduces us to a writer for a pulp called Adventure magazine, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson:

“Major Nicholson, an ex-Cavalry officer, is the man who played an important part in killing off the pulp magazines. In 1934 the Major, after writing many pulp novelets about army action and an occasional historic yarn about the Borgias, decided to start his own comic book company. No one had as yet made a go of original, not newspaper reprint, comic books. Major Nicholson worked up a format combining pulp plots and action with funny paper directness. He hired out-of-work old-timers and young art students, paid little, and got out a line of magazines… The Major himself went broke and so it was his creditors who carried on with his line and its new titles Action and Detective. There are the comic books that introduced Superman and Batman and drew huge audiences away from the pulp magazine.”

In Chapter Eleven, Super Science, Goulart notes,

“When the rising Superman-DC company decided to expand they hired, significantly, a good part of [Thrilling Wonder Stories editor Leo] Margulies’ staff away from him. Editorial personnel like Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff and staff writers like Alfred Bester and H.L. Gold.”

So the comics, which have provided so much of our modern culture, were originally created by people who graduated from the pulps, and people who ripped off the pulps. (Mort Wesisnger, by the way, was the editor responsible for the 1950s version of Superman, who was a surreal and hilarious character. See the Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane comics for evidence.)

If you look at the bit I quoted from Chapter Three of Goulart, you’ll see a hint of another problem with our current, decadent culture. Major Nicholson is described as “an ex-Cavalry officer.” Indeed, most of the writers of the pulps had colorful, eventful lives full of real adventure. Goulart sketches out the backgrounds of many of them, of working as cowboys, soldiers, laborers, aviators, and so on, before breaking into writing. This is no longer common—many of our most successful writers today came up in academia, and got hired to write out of college. They spend their time on Twitter making snarky political statements in between writing sit-com scenes or comic book stories. They’re not drawing from their own unique experiences—they’re drawing on what they’ve already read, and simply re-writing it.

Re-booting, re-imagining, re-packaging, re-processing, re-cycling, re-configuring existing Intellectual Property.

This is certainly true of Moore, quoted above as being so worried about the state of our culture. He’s absolutely right. He’s also, as I described him, a deconstructor. Everything that he’s most famous for—Watchmen, Killing Joke, Swamp Thing, From Hell, Promethea, Lost Girls—is a “deconstruction”. His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen actually deconstructs pulp heroes in the public domain. Moore is a skilled artist and his work is miles above most peoples’. But he is still very much a theorist. He’s no Jim Tully, that’s for sure!

The entire concept of “adolescence” is fairly recent. When the pulps’ antecedents were born in the 1880s, most people got a few years of schooling, if that, then started at backbreaking, laborious jobs to help the family pay the bills. By the time the pulps were exploding in the 1920s there were people in cities who could afford to put off taking on adult responsibilities. Today we’re in an unprecedented time where kids can “be kids” until they hit their mid-20s, in many cases. And even adults with full-time jobs have, historically speaking, massive amounts of free time. And then, we have record numbers of people not working. And a culture that fetishizes youth. Combine all of these things with the seductive need for movie studios to produce mass entertainments and you get—well, you get 2017 in the United States.

If you’re at all interested in pulp magazines (and why the heck wouldn’t you be?) or if you’re interested in modern pop culture, An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine is must reading. It’s full of fascinating information about the concepts, creators, and publishers who built our modern culture, quite by accident, and often at less than a penny a word. Goulart writes in an easy-going, conversational style.

That style can actually get surprisingly snarky, and even judgmental. Take this for instance from Chapter Twelve, Odds & Ends:

“There is considerable torture carried on in the latter day horror pulps and a great deal of fascination with pain. Deformities, maimings, disembowelings are all presented in explicit, often loving detail. You’ll have to take my word for this, since this is one genre I am refraining from quoting. Various civic pressures, and the  real horror of the new World War put an end to most of the horror pulps by the early ’40’s. Fortunately, unlike what has happened in the case of the relatively literate Weird Tales, none of the material from any of the weird menace pulps has been preserved in books or else where, and the gruesome stuff is now as defunct as a mad doctor at the end of a Dime Mystery novelet.”

That sounds like an angry schoolmarm confiscating verboten reading material circa 1945. Considering that this book features a reminiscence by the great pulp author Bruno Fischer, who got his start writing some genuinely violent and gruesome stories for just such magazines, it’s a little bit hypocritical. Or at least ironic.

And in Chapter Ten, Tarzan and the Barbarians, Goulart quotes at length some awfully violent Robert E. Howard stuff. Just for starters—Goulart quotes a lot of violent action throughout the book, usually approvingly. Goulart’s making a judgment about the quality of the writing or maybe the attitude behind the writing. In his mind, the violence is “celebrated” in a way that he personally finds distasteful.

Also, in Chapter Eight, The Dime Detectives, he runs several excerpts from Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective stories. Which were filled with horrible violence and casual racism. Death is treated like a punchline, and Dan Turner isn’t above tying a woman up and threatening to rape her if he doesn’t get the information he’s looking for. However, Goulart approves of these stories, and doesn’t refrain from quoting them. As he says:

“The first person style Bellem devised for these detective adventures of Dan Turner is so colloquial, flippant, tough and high-speed that Turner comes across as the best parody private eye ever done.”

So the Dan Turner stories, which include over-the-top gunplay, beatings, rape fantasies, and racism come across as “parody.” But the stories from the lesser known “weird” pulps are simply beyond the pale.

This is not to criticize the Dan Turner stories. They’re very amusing—but they are also very much of their time. But that’s kind of the point that Goulart seems to be dismissing here. The “weird” pulps were very much of their time, too. And there’s no reason not to reference them. Goulart almost comes across like a modern SJW, here: Using his position of authority as a scholar to decide what information his readers should have access to. It's a "weird" attitude to take (so to speak), especially so near the end of the book. It leaves a bit of a sour taste behind.

But don’t let that deter you from reading the book, if you’re interested. We’re living through a pulp era, even though the pulps are dead. The remnants are all around us: In the form of movies, video games, comics, and even popular fiction (Jack Reacher is certainly a “pulp hero”, which reminds me: I wrote a parody of the Jock Reacher novels entitled Melee Child: A Jock Scratcher Thriller. It’s available for Kindle and as a paperback, and it is so funny you will laugh and laugh while you read it). An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine is a great jumping-off point if you want to understand our current culture, or if you’re looking for some “new” authors or characters to track down. As it turns out, Doc Savage is still publishing new adventures. The Shadow's are being reprinted.

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