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Pulp Magazines: A Short Introduction

Posted by Jack Neulist on

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THE GOLDEN AGE OF CHEAP THRILLS AND ESCAPISM!


     Pulp magazines were the heart of American popular fiction for the first half of the 20th century, making them an integral, keystone part of American literary history. Sadly, they were made from the cheapest possible materials, never intended or expected to stand the test of time -- and most did not. Sad news for avid readers but good news for collectors! Known and loved for their titillating cover art and over the top storytelling, Pulp Magazines have become an immensely popular collector's item in recent years. Whether you collect them for the authors who filled their pages, the wonderful and imaginative escapist storytelling that was their trademark, or for the gripping and intense art, the sheer variety this market offers makes it attractive to virtually anyone with an interest in pop culture or a taste for nostalgia.


     The Pulp Magazine format was revolutionary for its day. Designed to be cheap, it was roughly made. Generally, the typical magazine was comprised of 128 rough edged, pulp-wood paper pages totaling almost always 200,000 words. Inside, illustrations were always black and white, and generally few and very far between. Illustrations cost money after all! But the cover art made up for it! Made from higher quality, glossy paper, the covers were the best marketing any publisher could ask for. Often, stories were written around the cover art, which in turn was designed to be as gripping as possible.


      Within the magazine, one would find a short but complete novel, bookended by one or two novelettes and at least a half dozen short stories by the magazine's trademark stable of authors. To fill in the extra space, a plethora of ads and a motley collection of gimmicky short features completed the typical Pulp reading experience.

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FRANK MUNSEY AND THE ORIGIN OF THE PULPS


     The creator of the Pulp Magazine, Frank Munsey, was not a man one would expect to spearhead a revolution in publishing. His obituary described him as a man with "the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer, and the manner of an undertaker." Whether or not you'd want to have a beer with the guy, there's no question that he was an absolutely brilliant businessman. He began his publishing career in the 1880s with one simple goal: to undercut the sales of the popular dime novels of the day. He believed the magazine format, with short fiction pieces, had great commercial possibilities, if only it could be produced cheaply enough and marketed properly. 

     The consummate capitalist, Munsey's major priority was keeping production and distribution prices as low as possible. To accomplish this he resorted to using the least costly paper option out there: pulp-wood paper (from which the term 'Pulp' magazine derives. Thanks to the cheap materials, the ability to ship his products at a lower cost (due to the fact that dime novels were considered books and thus cost more to mail), and his penny a word pay checks to his authors, Munsey quickly orchestrated the beginning of the Pulp Era with his Argosy Weekly Magazine.


     By the early 1900s, Argosy was destroying all its competition, selling over 500,000 copies week. People obviously could not get enough of the cheap thrills he was peddling. Ever the businessman, Munsey then pioneered the next evolution of the Pulps. At the time, Argosy and a handful of imitators featured basically general fiction themes -- action, adventure, mystery, and historical fiction all mixed together. This all changed when Munsey introduced Detective Fiction Weekly. It was an immediate success. 


      In 1903, Street and Smith jumped on the pulp bandwagon. Taking a clue from Munsey's latest creation, they avoided general interest publications in favor of genre specific titles -- Detective Story, Western Story, Love Story, Sea Stories, and Sports Stories all rolled off their presses and onto the shelves in amazing quantities -- and sold in amazing quantities. By 1917, over a dozen different magazines were competing for readers in what was increasingly becoming THE market for up and coming publishers.


     Recognizing both the popularity of the pulps and the still largely untapped potential for expansion, many soon followed suit, creating some of the most iconic magazine titles in literary history: Weird Wonder Tales, Amazing Stories, Famous Fantastic Stories, and Astounding Science Fiction soon joined the ranks of Pulps available to the public, along with half a hundred other Western, Adventure, Mystery, and Science fiction titles. By the mid 1930's, over 200 titles stocked the shelves! The Pulp Magazine had come of age, and would rule the affections of readers and the attentions of publishers for decades to come.

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PENNY-A-WORD MASTERPIECES BY MASTERS OF THE ART


     Behind the dizzying number of Pseudonyms and House Names of the pulp publishing houses of the day hide some of the most renowned writers of our time. Literary giants like Rudyard Kipling and Upton Sinclair weren't above publishing pot boilers in the Pulps, nor were Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. Rider Haggard and Steven Crane.


      New talent found its introduction to the public spotlight as well. Science Fiction giants like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, E.E. Smith, Lin Carter, and Murray Leinster owed their careers (not to mention their survival!) to starts in publications like Argosy, Blue Book, Weird Wonder Tales, Fantastic Adventures, and Amazing Stories.


     The Western genre benefited too, with legends like Zane Grey, Max Brand, Louis L'Amour, Ernest Haycox, CLarence Mulford, W.C. Tuttle, Walt Coburn, William MacLeod Raine, and others introducing us to beloved characters and plots that have become hallowed parts of American culture and popular myth. What the dime novels had begun in the 19th Century, the Pulp Magazines finished in the 20th, building the Western Mythos with all its archetypes and cliches that still stir us today. The gunfighter, the lawman, the cowboy, and the outlaw, all flourished and matured in the Pulps of the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's, to emerge ready for the world of movies, tv and comics that immortalized them.


     Of all the genres, it was the world of Mystery and Suspense thrillers that benefited the most. Without the pulps, Dashiel Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Ellory Queen, Lester Dent, Erle Stanley Gardner, Sax Rohmer, Elmore Leonard, Stephen Marlowe, Mickey Spillane and hundreds of other spinners of morbid and violent tales would never have entered the public consciousness. We can thank the pulps for the hardboiled crime drama, the private eye mystery, the secret agent and special operative on a vital mission to save the damsel in distress. Without the pulps, there would have been no Perry Mason, no Mike Hammer, Dick Tracy or Sam Spade.

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THE MOST BELOVED CHARACTERS OF OUR TIME


     Peopled by now infamous pop-culture heroes, created by some of the best authors of our time, and illustrated by highly talented and masterful artists, the Pulp Magazine was something more than a commercial juggernaught -- it was a cultural and literary watershed, the effects of which have dominated our imaginations for the better part of a century.
What would the world of popular fiction have done without characters like Nick Carter, Doc Savage, the Shadow, Secret Agent X, G-Man, Charlie Chan, Tarzan of the Apes, the Phantom, Zorro, Dr. Kildare, Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, The Avenger, Dusty Ayres, Hopalong Cassidy, Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, Cthulhu, G-8 and his Flying Ace, Buck Rogers or John Carter of Mars? How many authors and screen writers have the pulps to thank for their inspiration?


A PICTURE’S WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS


     Actually, in the case of Pulp Magazines, a good picture on the cover was worth exactly 200,000 words for the publisher and roughly $10 for its artist. Underpaid and overworked, the cover artists who crafted the miniature masterpieces which graced the covers of the Pulps were arguably the most important cogs in the machine. They sold the issues by catching the reader's eyes. Though unsung and mistreated at the time, many of them are now well known. There are a large number of collectors who collect pulps purely for their work.

    Names like N.C. Wyeth, Edgar Franklink Wittenach, Walter Baumhofer, Margaret Brundage, Edd Cartier, Virgil Finlay, Frank R. Paul, Norman Saunders, Nick Eggenhofer, Hugh J. Ward, George Rozen, Rudolph Belarski, Gerald Gregg, Bill George, and Robert Stanley and the incomparable Frank Frazetta now are highly sought after. So keep your eyes out!

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Hopefully you will have found this guide helpful as a primer on Pulp Magazines. If you're new to the hobby, you're in for years of enjoyment! Collect them by author, magazine, artist, or any combination that floats your boat! And always remember, collect what you like, not what the price guides tell you. This hobby can be extremely easy and affordable, or it can cause you to take out a second mortgage. Happy hunting!

Looking to start your collection -- or add to it? Check out the huge Pulp Magazine selection we have for sale at Sir K's Books & Collectibles! I guarantee you'll find something you can't live without!  CLICK HERE


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