PULP ART

WU FANG

PULP MAGAZINES and COMICS have much in common in that they both came into extraordinary prominence during the same era of popular culture. Between the the First World War and the Second World War ;that period of innovation, the start of air travel and the rise and spread of mass communication which occurred from  around 1920 to 1950.In those years literally thousands of magazines and comics were printed to sate a very hungry audience hooked on their garish artwork and outlandish  otherworldly escapism.

They reflected the society that produced them ,so their morals, fears and mores can sometimes seem quite bizarre to a modern audience. Sometimes their sexism and blatantly racist take  can seem shocking and politically incorrect to modern eyes. Many of them would be banned now from the newsstands they so vibrantly blazed from in those far-off more  politically “innocent” times. Many of the covers  revealed  lust, torture and other thuggish and fearsome pursuits and would now have moral crusaders in an uproar.

TERROR TALES 1940 .51

What can’t be denied was their fearsome power of expression. Each cover fought for space among its many competitors, so in true Darwinian style, the more impact it made , the better it’s chances of survival.Many titles failed quickly but others had long successful runs. The advent of television in the early 1950’s hailed the beginnings of the end. Television was a fresh novelty that sucked up hours of time previously devoted to immersion in the written page. The pulp magazines had provided  an endless supply of raw and unpolished gutsy storytelling which spanned every genre from the wild western to crime, horror, science fiction and romantic adventure of  every ilk.

For those of us born in the 1950’s, the glory days of the pulps were long gone but a few titles carried the torch.I came across the remnants of these gloriously garish offerings in the westerns or science fiction magazines of the early 1960’s.Comic books were displayed on “spinner racks” but the  scantily-clad damsels in distress, torn stocking tops a- glare and their mad-eyed protagonists were raised above the eyesight of the young. This was slightly forbidden fruit .There were a few crime,detective ,war and mad nazi orientated titles , usually on the top shelf of newsagents  but many of the cover artists and writers were now finding homes in the plethora of paperback “pocket” books that had gained in popularity since the Second World War. 

Cinema -going children [myself included] loved the pulp aesthetic of the Saturday morning pictures. Comic book heroes Captain Marvel , The Batman and Rocket Man operated in pulp- scenarios pitted against  villians such as the Scorpion and the Wizard , who , masked up like the Ku Klux Klan were bent on world domination across the theatre screen .We were watching this  mere years after the end of  World War Two when there was comparative peace abroad in the land and the present day paranoia of bomb- exploding lunatics on passenger planes and self-immolation were nightmares yet to be dreamed by anyone rational or misguided.

These weekly chapter serials, with their cliff-hanger endings, were geared towards the comic -reading section of the audience. There were precious few televisions available to most of us so  our thrills were  reserved for the Saturday morning cinema screen or  comics.Later on, with the benefit  of some retrospective enlightenment, many of the pulps were regarded with ironic, satiric detachment. All that jingoism, sexism, sadism, racism and misogny looked out of place in a world full of enlightened hippies, womens’ liberation and civil rights and civil liberties ideals.Most comics and pulp fans who became collectors and afficianados knew that they were not, for the most part,dealing with high-art concepts in either art or literature. These magazines were not in the then uncoined parlance, “politically correct”, but fans , weaned on the satire of MAD magazine, Sgt. Bilko and the Goon Shows, nevertheless had an arch and somewhat comedic affection for a mostly maligned artform much as folk music fans bore the insults of classically trained musicians. These things were so outre and over the top that they were cool .Pulps and comics were a “knock them out quickly” business but many excellent writers and artists plied their trade in them and some are now, in retrospect, rightly very highly regarded despite their humble and slightly unsavoury origins.As always, among the dross there is sometimes a little gold. Many good writers and  excellent painter-illustrators learned their craft in the heat of producing these things to a sharp deadline.

The  word “pulp” referred to the cheap wood pulp paper used in the production of these magazines. The paper was of such low quality that it rapidly began to deteriorate not long after printing. For this reason many of of these magazines no longer exist . They were not valued ; nor were the original cover paintings, few of which survive except in private collections. Many of the creators were ashamed of their pulp connections and it was n’t until the rehabilitation of  comic book artists and writers at conventions  in the 1960’s that the same tide turned for the pulp creators. Several books have been written about them but if not for serious collectors virtually all of these items would be long forgotten and unrecorded. As things stand, many thousands of pulp magazines will never be seen again except occasionally in digital collections. 

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