Jeff Canja, an authority on pulp magazines, explains the essential difference between literature and most popular story telling. “In contrast to serious or ‘true’ literature, which is concerned with artistic expression or conveying an idea, the driving concern of popular fiction is to give people what they want,” Canja writes in the introduction to his book Popular Fiction Periodicals: A Collector’s Guide to Vintage Pulps, Digests and Magazines (second edition; Glenmoor Publishing). “Adventure, romance and violence are its essential elements, and the triumph of good over evil its perennial theme.”
Ah yes, giving the people what they want is a profitable, if not particularly noble, pursuit. According to Canja, for a big chunk of the 20th century, nobody did a better job of giving the American public, especially the working class, their fix of trashy stories than the publishers of the story magazines that cost as little as ten cents and sold millions of copies. Until they were killed off in the 1960s by television and paperbacks, the story magazines trafficked in every type of tale (some pure fiction, some purportedly true), from westerns, crime and science fiction to romance, sports and adventure.
Popular Fiction Periodicals provides an introduction to the world of the pulps and other story magazines for collectors, book dealers and pop-culture junkies. The guide lists more than 12,500 magazines, along with their market prices and bibliographic data. The guide has over 1,000 illustrations of magazine covers, including 150 or so in color. Canja’s book also features an informative history of American popular fiction periodicals, including 19th-century dime novels; the classic pulps of the 1930s and 1940s; and what Canja calls the “post-pulp” slick periodicals of the 1960s (including the increasingly explicit men’s entertainment magazines). The book also includes tips on collecting, profiles of leading cover artists and publishers, and a guide to additional resources for collectors.
The story content of the old magazines is now of far smaller aesthetic interest than the campy, eye-grabbing covers, which increase the value of the magazines for collectors. Canja’s cover gallery includes examples from adventure publications, such as Fury, Male, Argosy and Man’s World; men’s entertainment titles, such as Dude, Gent, and Rogue; such rags as Manhunt and Keyhole Detective Stories; and many others.
You have to love the headlines. “The island where jailbait runs wild: Thrill-mad girls on the loose” was one of the heads on an issue of Man’s Life. An issue of True Men featured a cover story called “The wild fighting females of Samar” (one of the gun-toting dames on the cover looks like actress Susan Hayward on angel dust.)
Avon Fantasy Reader got into the act with such classics as “The love slave and the scientists” and “Temptress of the tower of torture and sin.”
By the way, you don’t have to take Women’s Studies 101 to see that the female body was the device by which millions of these publications were moved off drugstore magazine racks into the sweaty palms of horny teenage boys. There are enough chippies, party girls and gun molls to fill the Rose Bowl. Cover after cover—on the publications catering to men—show women stripped and posed for the greatest possible visual titillation. Many of these women are chained or tied up, clearly about to raped or tortured—often, in the years after World War II, at the hands of a Nazi or evil “Jap.”
It seems that America’s obsession with sex and violence hasn’t changed much since the days of the pulps. Just take a look at the tabloids that clutter your grocery store checkout lines. As Canja writes about the old story mags, “These publications offer an unvarnished look at the common interests and attitudes of a bygone era—a reflection of America’s popular culture that can not be seen in the more mainstream magazines.” Perhaps something similar could be said of the pulps’ contemporary successors.
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.