Thursday, December 19, 2019

Licensed to Thrill: A Pulp History (Part II: The Heroes & The Adventure)

Welcome back to the world of adventure! That's right, it is time to return to the world of the pulps!

In our previous entry we went over the origins of the pulp magazine and how it ended up taking over everything in the early 20th century. This time we will cover what exactly was started at the time the format launched into the newsstands.

The majority of Cheap Thrills will be covered in the following entry. Here, Mr. Goulart explains the different sorts of heroes that starred in these magazine to draw in readers. We do not to dig as deep in these chapters. This is straightforward material. Most of them have a common unifying theme. Unlike modern action adventure stories, these relied on a shared cultural understanding on what it takes to be a hero, and why we should live up to them.

Outside of the beginning and end of this book, Mr. Goulart spends his time discussing the various brands of the mainstream pulp magazines. So for this entry I will simply be going over each example as he comes across them. There isn't much to discuss that would warrant separate article entries so it should make for a satisfying piece just discussing these all at once. Because there are many examples of what made the pulps so successful, even beyond what is included in the book.

What is more important is covering what the pulps were actually about: Adventure! And what better way to continue our trek through the pulp jungle than with the first adventure hero, the explorer?

We shall start where Mr. Goulart does. He begins with a quote from Action Stories.

"To be a member, a man must possess the staunch heart of an adventurer, tried and tested on the far-flung out-trails, or have a desire to be one. 
"Members of A.E.F., and Allied Armies, the foreign Legion, the Army, Navy or Marine Corps, the Aviation Service--all are eligible for the ranks of the World Adventurers' clan. Others must prove they are adventurers of the real stripe. If you've undergone some grueling experience, hunted thrills in distant climes, been close to the horrors of shipwreck, railroaded, stalked game, explored beyond the mast, ridden behind the "joy stick"--in fact, rubbed shoulders with danger in any form--you're entitled to enroll in the Brotherhood of He-Men. 
"To apply for membership, fill out the coupon below."

That seems almost alien to us today. But the pulps were made for adventures and those who found such things as the above exciting. In fact, the first pulps that chased after Argosy and All-Story out the gate went for the eclectic approach over genre purity. They were not separated by any sort of genre or boxed-in ghetto, but went with the idea that those who bought these magazines just wanted a dose of thunder. High adventure. And it must have worked for them since these magazines kept this format all the way until the pulps were finally shredded in the 1950s.

As examples he uses Adventure, Short Stories, Blue Book, Popular, Top-Notch and People's. You might even recognize the names. They did stick around for quite a long time. Most of this first chapter is focused on said magazines and how they formed and their sudden spread.

They didn't just run fiction, either. Some included non-fiction adventure stories and biographical information that was just as exciting as the normal material you would find in its pages. Adventure, after all, is universal to everyone. It is more realistic than we might think today with our de-saturated grey goo obsession.

Unfortunately, at the adventure magazine's end they were a pale shadow of where they began, focused purely on non-fiction exclusively and no longer the bright, wondrous books of creativity they once were. That is quite the typical endpoint with what happened to the pulps. Once the mainstream audience leaves, it is the fringe players that get the focus. Of course, it never worked, and the product died a slow death regardless. If the 1900s had a theme, that would be it.

Another example is the premier modern superhero: The Shadow. Starting from humble beginnings, he soon broke out and took over the world. The Shadow was a character that read detective stories on the radio, but became so popular that listeners demanded he be given his own series. Walter B. Gibson, as Maxwell Grant, created a pulp series based on the character as a masked vigilante with a mysterious aura dressed in black, and sporting dual .45s to dispense justice on the evildoers of the city. The same time the radio show was put on, the pulps ran these dark and violent stories.

Part detective story, and part adventure, The Shadow was as flexible as he was fascinating. The mystery behind him added a wonder to the character that endured throughout his existence in the era. They would go on to create countless pulp novels, radio shows, and he became an icon. The Shadow more or less created the modern superhero genre, so much so that Batman's creative team stole most of the character from him, a fact that DC has done great work to cover up over the years.

However, to this day, The Shadow still remains the premiere idea of a hero beyond the law and standing for a higher ideal. He is an icon. The "humanization" of heroes in the Silver Age of comics were the first to get away from the purity of this idea and to dilute them into just men with capes. If you want to know why superhero comics no longer have any muscle or weight, it is because they forgot the building blocks of Justice that The Shadow put down back in the pulps. There is a reason he inspired so many copycats when he was first unleashed on the forces of evil so many years ago.

In fact, much of a chapter is focused exclusively on all the hero pulps The Shadow inspired. From copycats to original ideas for vigilantes, there was much to come out of the masked hero explosion. During the pulp era it was, however, more about dispensing Justice and returning to the status quo, not so much about over-the-top theatrics and convoluted soap opera drama. However, the genre began properly with The Shadow.

But aside from the Masked Man, was another hero that emerged during the pulp era. Combining both the quest for Justice and the wondrous nature of the Adventure pulps, Street & Smith came up with a new hero to rival their very own Shadow. This would be the big Man Of Bronze himself: Doc Savage.

The Shadow and Doc Savage by Alex Ross

They could not have been two very different as heroes, but Doc Savage's author, Lester Dent, had a background not too dissimilar to a chunk of those who wrote for the pulps. He had hoped to write big books for the big brains, but ended up writing adventure stories instead--and he got rich off writing them. Lester Dent is one of the highest selling authors of the 20th century thanks to his pulp writing. For twenty years Dent wrote Doc Savage, and even came up with a formula for pulp storytelling that many writers use today. It is, of course, called the Dent Formula.

For those who don't know, Doc Savage is a one man wonder, a man of incredible strength, guile, and intelligence, who uses his unbelievable talents to surmount insane plots that could only have come straight out of the pulps. The magazine ran for 16 years, all told, though Dent died only 10 years after he put down the character. Nonetheless, Doc Savage might be the most pulp character ever created, and one of the most archetypal of its era.

A similar type of hero to Savage was the secret agent. You almost certainly thought of James Bond with that one, but he did not come at the beginning. First there were characters such as Operator 5.

"Just the titles of some of his cases would have scared the average 1930's G-Man off. It's not everyone who wants to tangle with the "Winged Hordes of the Yellow Vulture," "Hell's Yellow Legions," "Death Call to Arms," "The Suicide Battalion" and "The Army of the Dead." Operator 5 began his career in the middle of the Depression in one of the several Popular Publications which were extravagantly alert to the possibility of foreign invasion."

There were other secret agents such as the aptly named Secret Agent X that littered the field. These were men that preformed espionage in deadly paces in strange locations to save you from the terror hiding just out of sight while you were busy dealing with daily life. There is always someone fighting for you, so don't worry. As Orwell said, "Rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." These are the rough men. I fact, that is the appeal of the majority of the pulps.

But the super-spy stories were popular for an obvious reason. Who wouldn't be engaged with the idea of a secret battle between good evil going on just out of sight of our daily lives? It isn't as if that doesn't happen every day.

Of course, in the 1930s the Yellow Peril became a hot topic again, after creating such inventive characters such as the diabolical Fu Manchu back in the '10s, a second wave based on current international tensions was natural. The reason it came back was due to Japan's invasion on Manchuria in 1931, a place that was soon to be a very real enemy for those in the west in a war the would put an end to these very pulps. But, at the time, it offered an opponent for those who enjoyed writing stories of intrigue and mystery in far away, and unexpected, places.

But what about at home? What about the streets? What about the dark and dusty corners of the city? That is where we must look to next.

This leads to what might be the most enduring creature of the pulps, the one that still gets play today even in mainstream Hollywood productions, even if they tend to miss the point. You've seen hundreds of parodies from cartoons to movies, but still the character type stands strong. That would be the Dime Detective.

"The private eye was born in the early 1920's and flourished in the decades between the two World Wars. The private eye could only have happened first in those years after World War I, the years of Prohibition. There had always been aggressive, straight-shooting fiction heroes. But it took the mood of the '20's to add cynicism, detachment, a kind of guarded romanticism and a compulsion toward action. The disillusionment that followed the war, the frustration over the mushrooming gangster control of the cities affected the detective story as much as it did mainstream fiction."

Playing off of the GI generation's exhaustion with the wearing and trying modern world, the pulp detective was as modern a hero as you could get while still remaining rooted in deeper truths of tradition. He is a man that cuts through the dark to show the light hiding behind the ramshackle curtains of the modern world's darkest places: out back yard. But he always fights for Justice, and despite the crushing defeats he suffers, he still comes out on top in some manner.

You can instantly see the difference when perusing a modern detective story versus the ones that used to run back in the pages of Black Mask. The original mainstream appeal came from a staunch, tough traditionalist kicking in the doors of muddy grey world that was slowly smothering everything to death. It's still relevant today, which might be way he slides into other areas such as Cyberpunk so very easily.

It's not a pulp story if it doesn't have clear cut morality outside of the characters that reside in it, and you can't avoid it in a Dime Detective tale, though many have tried. The battle of dark and light is how the genre operates, it can't ever be fully shed.

Mr. Goulart goes into it further:

"A private eye would always help somebody in trouble, though he would downplay his compassion."I could have walked away. I started to walk away and then the sucker instinct got the best of me and I went back." Taking action was important, even if it wasn't well planned always. Though the private eye was not always hopeful, he stuck to his word. "It wasn't worth it, but then it was a deal.""

Despite the reputation of the hard-boiled detective being a jerk and "grey", the reality was a bit more interesting than that. Men need strength, fortitude, courage, and a sense of justice to be what they are. The Dime Detective exemplifies that. He has, unfortunately, been rendered impotent of what he once was in recent years of post-modern clever kids and limp-wristed modern Hollywood adaptions. But for a long time, this was what the detective story was known for and why it gained the steam it did.

The source of these stories mainly came from Black Mask. It was started by H.L. Mencken as one of his many attempts to get money out of the pulp market. By 1920 it was off the ground and, once again, the creator involved was not that happy about his detective magazine. He sold it not long later, all too happy to be away from writers like Dashiell Hammett.

But still, early Black Mask detective stories contained more purple prose and were far away from what they became known for. The success did not come overnight.

It was in 1923 when Carroll John Daly introduced a tough talking, no nonsense detective named Race Williams. It gave the detective tale a western bent it was sorely looking for to compete in the pulp field. This is a character that seeks Justice more than law, is willing to cut through the crap and red tape, and we love him for it.

Race Williams was the first of the hard-boiled type that later went on to include the likes of Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Dan Turner, and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, among many, many others. This is a character type that still lives on today, and retains his dignity despite the entertainment industry trying their best to destroy him. They will probably never truly fade away: tough guys never do.

Hard men, hard dames, hard action, hard world

The cowboy-style detective also meant that westerns fit right at home in the pulps. There were, of course already western magazines and stories around at the time, but the pulps went all out with the genre and brought it to a new wave of popularity. New writers hopped aboard to add that punch a true action adventure tale needed to succeed in the new magazines.

Western Story was the first true western pulp, transferred from its original periodical form as New Buffalo Bill Weekly. The first issue in its new form came out on September 5th, 1919 right in time for the golden age of the magazines. It soon reached three hundred thousand in circulation and inspired many others to come in the roaring '20s.

Fitting in among the dime detectives, swashbuckling heroes, and noble knights, the hard-riding cowboy's popularity just couldn't seem to cool off in the pulp era. The western remained as such until around the end of the 20th century. But the pulps were probably the last giant spike in popularity for the genre as a whole.

One of the biggest names to come around during the pulp era of westerns was a man named Frederick Schiller Faust. His first story, one of a cowboy named Dan Barry, was released in All-Story in 1918 under the name of Max Brand. He was the most unique name name to come out of this era, with his poetic bent towards Shakespearean drama and hot fire action he soon carved out a niche for himself. At the time this book was printed, Max Brand had over 200 books in print, despite his death in WWII. The man just couldn't be stopped, even after death.

What he had to say about action:

"Action, action, action is the thing. So long as you keep your hero jumping through fiery hoops on every page you're all right. The basic formula I use is simple: good man turns bad, bad man turns good. Naturally, there is considerable variation on this theme. . . . There has to be a woman, but not much of one. A good horse is much more important."

Just like the other genres spoken about so far, this is one that relied on a strong protagonist clashing with an overwhelming evil that would otherwise be unmatched. Westerns as a genre deal specifically with the border between law and lawlessness, and civilization and barbarism, so they make perfect fits for tales of two-fisted action. Where else can you get a good quick draw duel for a dime?

It is all about the action and the adventure, the true spirit of romance.
Speaking of barbarism, the final chapter of the book we will cover this time is on Tarzan, specifically the jungle adventure tale, and his wild man archetype. Of course the man most would known for this style of tale would be Edgar Rice Burroughs, the king of the pulps. No one was more well known in the adventure genre than he was.

In October, 1912, the issue of All-Story featuring Tarzan of the Apes was first published. Fiction would never be the same again.

Contrary to the reports of many Hard Bros. out there, Burroughs wasn't very interested in being realistic. When he started writing Tarzan he knew absolutely zilch about Africa, and based it on what he thought it was like when playing around as a kid outside in the West and what he had read in romances. It was purely fictional based on romances of high adventure. This allowed him to shape Tarzan and his world as he wanted to. He did much the same with John Carter of Mars. There is a reason the man's sense of adventure is unmatched; it was unrestrained by any rules fanatics would come up with years later to shrink the genre.

Of course this led to other wild men and barbarians to come around, though none quite reached Burroughs at his best back in the day. He remained that standard, and the one to imitate. Even whole magazines were made based on the jungle adventure as a format, but none stuck.

The big one to mention, and Mr. Goulart does, is Robert E. Howard's Conan. First appearing in Weird Tales, December 1932, he was the first one to come around since Tarzan to really change the game of wild men heroes.

Using Burroughs' approach of fantastical lands merged with his own magical pseudo-historical take, Howard created a whole new world of magic and wonder, and sword and sorcery. A place of adventure, and danger, awaited readers.

Of course, it wasn't Howard's first rodeo--he had created Solomon Kane in 1928 and not to mention Kull, among others. Howard had a bit of darker take on the heroic genre than Burroughs did, his tales dripping in more blood and unspeakable horrors hiding around each bend. But the hero coming out on top remained in tact.

It is truly a shame that Robert E. Howard killed himself at such a young age. As Mr Goulart says when he ends the chapter:

"In 1936, Howard, just thirty, killed himself. His stories of Conan, epics of adolescent fantasies and fears, were forgotten for nearly two decades. Then they gradually began coming back into print. In the 1970's the Conan character is more popular than he ever was in his pulp years."

This is because there was much buried treasure in the pulps, much more than you were lead to believe. Even just with this post I have carelessly skimmed over so many genres and magazines that it took great restraint to exclude in order to keep this post short. Should you want to go more in depth on biographies, dates, and personae, I suggest reading the book. It will give you all the information you could ever want about the minutiae of this era. But I am her to merely give you the long and short of it.

It is fitting that Mr. Goulart ended the chapter here, just dipping his toe into the weird pulps, because that is what we will be covering next time. I decided to save that for its own entry for the purposes of the blog, and since I'm sure that is what most reading are most interested in.

However, remember that the pulps succeeded for three very real reasons.

  1. They were cheap and easy to find
  2. They featured stories of pure imagination without limits
  3. They were pro-social and encouraged those who read them in their daily lives

The mainstream world no longer does any of those three, and that is why they will never reach the heights of the pulp era.

But that is all for this time.

Our final post in this series will be about weird tales and the odds and ends of the book. It's going to be fun. I hope you're enjoying our trip through the cheap thrills, because it's about to get even weirder.

I am also writing weird fiction! Gemini Warrior is a fast-paced run through alien world with super powered twins! The pulps may be gone, but their spirit is still alive.
Find it Here!


  1. The thing about those different heroes is that the same writers could write all of them. Howard, Burroughs and all wrote in a multitude of genres. They could do westerns, sea stories, or lost world adventures with the same ease. Given the low pay rates (and inconsistent payments), they had to write a lot.

    1. It's very different compared to now. Most authors take one genre and run with at at the expense of everything else. More power to them if that's what they want, but compared to what the pulp writers had to do? It's a very narrow scope.

  2. Good post. This is a bit of history that shouldn't be forgotten.

    Pulp stories are great because they are fast and punchy, incredibly creative, and incredibly diverse(from a storytelling POV), perfect for someone who doesn't have much time to read because I can indulge in them in the spare time between lunch breaks and before going to sleep at night. One of the positive things about the internet.

    Sadly, I can't convince my peers to try them; they prefer the more "mature" stories like A song of Ice and Fire series. Some of them genuinely believe that a mature story is one that contains a lot of blood and nudity and only shades of grey characters. It's like they are stuck at the age of 14. The pulps were awesome precisely because they rejected this kind of nihilism, with male and female characters acting like actual men and women, complimenting one another; not the modern passive-aggressive, snarky little worms constantly at conflict with each other.

    I have to admit, Pulps have ruined modern storytelling for me, but in the long run it's definitely for the best.

    1. I have also found it hard to get people to give them a chance. It's a shame, but they've been beaten down so long that their name is too tarnished for most. Perhaps in the future they'll be more accepted, but that time is not now.

      Thanks for reading!