Where would a discussion on pin-ups be without mention of dime
novels, pulp magazines and paperback originals?
These disposable diversions were sold by the millions and spawned
as many fevered dreams of heros, villain and those lithe damsels
in their torn red dresses. Granted,
there were whole genres, like sports, aviation and westerns, that
features no women at all. I'll leave those chronicles to someone
Dime Novels were small, inexpensive
books produced following the success of Beadle's and Adams'
'Malaeska' in 1860. The story was actually a series
compilation from a magazine twenty years earlier. Popularized
by Horatio Alger and others, dime libraries paved the way
for serialized recurring characters. They were aimed primarily
at a younger readership and often featured plots rooted
in American history. In contrast to hardbound 'high literature',
Dime Novels were purchased at newsstands and designed to
be consumed and discarded. The railroad in particular aided
the distribution of these books, while improvements in printing
and increased literacy combined to make them the most popular
mass entertainment of the late 1800s.
In Dime Novels, the women were
rarely depicted in real danger. These periodicals were
aimed primarily at boys, so girls usually looked on as their
protectors played rugby, fought Indians or battled exotic
witch doctors. Adhering to the Victorian moral code, women
and families were targeted with their own Story
Papers and novels with strong messages about social
responsibilities. Authors learned to express their melodramas
with fast paced action and a minimum of excess verbiage.
With the advent of the typewriter in the 1870s, successful
authors were churning out monthly 70,000 word fiction and
making a good living at a penny per word.
One of the first genres to achieve success was the western
with protagonists like Wild Bill Hickock, Deadwood
Dick and Commander Cody. As the nation became more urbanized,
cities increasingly became the new metaphor for the Wild
West and the detective became the central hero. The
Bradys, Old King and his son Harry, sensationalized
the perils of the new urban landscape with menacing stereotypical
"Yellow Demon" Chinese tongs, opium warlords and
all manner of nefarious gangs. Advances in technology invariably
made their way into stories, which included motorcycles,
automobiles and aeroplanes
as measure of distancing themselves from their horsebacked
Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes made his debut in 1887, bringing
scientific and deductive sleuthing. By that time, Old
Sleuth, Old Cap Collier and Nick Carter
had already been solving crimes and saving chaste women for years
in Dime Novels. Munsey's weekly Golden Argosy morphed to
the larger pulp format in 1894 and changed publishing forever. Still,
it wasn't until the period between the World Wars that pulps became
the sensation of words and images that left a lasting legacy to
pin-up art. That was the time of prohibition, full of gangsters,
short skirts, pre-Hays Code cinema and
looser morality. Add to the mix a population suffering through the
Great Depression and eager for inexpensive escapist entertainment
and you'll see how the pulps (and Tijuana
Bibles) filled every possible voyeuristic niche to sell literally
millions of issues a month.
Before pulps, slick magazines (so-named for their glossy
stock and superior paper quality) were staid publications
aimed for family consumption. National brands advertised
in upscale magazines and famous artists like Rolf
Armstrong and George Petty were
international celebrities. The pulps offset their printing
costs by running ads for booklets of beautiful models 'ready
to draw' and thinly veiled exotic sex manuals. By changing
to newsstand distribution, pulps
offered the working class a dazzling selection and the only
way to initially differentiate one publication from other
similar titles was the cover. Improvements in color printing
made it easier to reproduce eye-catching art and the pulps
succeeded in that respect. It didn't take a publishing genius
to realize that sexy women would appeal to a male readership.
In an attempt to buck the trend, Amazing
Stories tried an issue with a symbolic cover instead
of their usual space opera theme and saw sales plummet 22%
for that month.
Following World War I, titles appeared depicting
the 'saucy' French lifestyle. There
were genres devoted to New York nightlife
and Hollywood movie starlets. The
movies, in particular, provided the
opportunity to show as much skin as possible and many issues, illustrated
by pin-up artists such as Quintana and
Bolles, have become quite collectable.
Some titles used blatant
nudity and were relegated to 'under the counter' status. Since
'Spicy' stories were quite popular
with a male readership, no doubt due to the brilliant art of H.J.
Ward, the 'Spicy' theme was soon
incorporated into other genres
of pulp fiction.
The detective field was devoured by
the public and clean cut All American boys like Frank
Merriwell were replaced by hardboiled detectives and
G Men. The terse prose pioneered by Allan Pinkerton in the
1870s had developed into a protagonist street wise, prone
to violence and usually surrounded by women of equally dubious
virtue. The style, first developed in the pulp
Black Mask, influenced Film
Noire Hollywood and launched the paperback careers of
authors such as Micky Spillane, Dashiell Hammett and others.
The covers usually depicted a square
jawed dick, busting down a door, roscoe blazing, to
save a hot dame from some knuckle dragging miscreant. Another
variant has our fearless hero restrained, watching helplessly
as evil minions took liberties with the fair sex. Norman
Saunders and Walter M. Baumhofer did yeoman's work illustrating
the covers of this field.
Another format that the pulps pioneered
was science fiction. No respectable book publisher would
take a chance on futuristic drama, despite the successful
earlier romantic fantasies of Jules Vernes and H.G. Welles.
The pulps, with their voracious need to fill pages gave
such esteemed visionaries as Issac Azimov, Robert Heinlein
and Ray Bradbury their start. Amazing
Stories is credited with being the first 'scientfiction'
publisher. Early issues featured such icons as Buck Rogers
and Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter of Mars and spawned
a host of imitators..
When dealing with the unknowns of futuristic science, artists
such as Earle Bergey (Originator
of the so-called 'Brass Bra') took liberties to display
their female subjects as close to naked as possible. While
there was never a lack of monsters to threaten these space
lovelies, some illustrators, like Virgil
Finley, had a softer and more languid approach to tasteful
nudity. It is interesting to note how many men required
cumbersome space suits, while space-age
women braved the final frontier in the skimpiest of
Women in the pulps were no longer passive spectators. Now they
were involved in the action, almost always being endangered by an
assortment of cliché antagonists.
Fantasy titles, pioneered by the redoubtable Weird
Tales which featured artwork by Virgil
Finlay and Margaret Brundage were
popular. Grabbing attention also were gothic horror 'shudder pulps'
in the Grand Guignol style. The ever present mad scientist and evil
cult villains popularized by Dime
Mystery Magazine put young beauties into more and more graphic
situations. The cover work by such artists as Raphael
DeSoto and Rudolph Belarski regularly
depicted defenseless women threatened by skeletons, savages and
weird foreigners, thrown into pits and whipped by fiends. By the
1950s, the pulps had passed their graphic torch to the comics.
Some publishers, such as EC, took the 'shudder' format to such extremes
that public outcry and
the self-imposed 'Comic Code of Authority' effectively shut down
such horrific displays.
One lasting legacy of the pulps was
the genesis of the hero crime fighter. Such classic characters
as Tarzan, Zorro and The Shadow
had their debuts in the hey day of the pulps. Interestingly,
The Shadow was an accidental creation. While sponsoring
a radio program of the same name, Smith & Street Publishers
were beseeched to produce a magazine to continue the exploits
of the serial. They did and in the process set the stage
for many of the motifs that would be carried on by comic
book superheros shortly after.
Consider Superman, who debuted in 1938. He is known as
the 'Man of Steel', a visitor from another planet with a
secret identity and Fortress of Solitude. Batman is a millionaire
bachelor with amazing strength, cunning and technical expertise,
called to action by the BatSignal. Compare them to pulp
heroes Doc Savage, the 'Man of Bronze' with incredible
strength and an Arctic fortress, the Phantom Detective,
signaled by authorities by a red light in the night sky
and The Black Bat, who was striking fear in the heart of
criminals before the Dark Knight inhabited Gotham!
Sadly, the pulps were doomed by a variety of forces. Paper shortages
during World War II are blamed for some titles disappearing. Others
survived by converting to magazine
or digest formats. As economic hard times hit, some publishers
reprinted old stories, which prompted disillusionment in readers
and an investigation by the FTC. In addition to television, comics
siphoned off the younger consumers and paperbacks
the older audience. I have created pages for both formats to track
the trajectory of this lamentably lost American art. I think you'll
agree that some of the best pulp illustrators deserve the recognition
and acclaim reserved for those who drew for more respectable venues.