The Daily Heller: When Pulps Were Tops

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Popular entertainment has not changed all that much over the past century. This comes into focus in Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Art of the Street & Smith Universe (Abrams) by Neil McGinness, with a foreword by Frank Miller. The pulps, as they were called (referring to newsprint they were printed on), prove that heroism, hedonism and evil were as popular in the 1930s, when pulps were in their prime, as comic book über reality is today. This beautifully produced and well-written volume gives pulp mavens a large helping of the prewar medium’s bold action and adventure storytelling that ultimately led to the creation of the comic book and the superheroes that are so ubiquitous today.

The two main stars of pulpdom, The Shadow and Doc Savage, appeared in more than 500 novels written between 1930 and 1940. They were cornerstones of publisher Street & Smith’s galaxy of characters known for their heroic exploits.

In Pulp Power, hundreds of classic full-color covers are reproduced as a collection for the first time. Original line art illustrations from the volumes, a unique collection of Shadow ephemera, and cover art from the paperback boom of the 1960s and 1970s contribute to the book’s richness. Meanwhile, McGinness tells an engaging history of the characters and their influence on a slew of serious storytellers.

How did you become interested in the pulp genre?
I grew up around and among thousands of volumes of inexpensive paperback books or what would qualify as “pulp” in the broadest sense. My dad speed-read a ton of paperback serial fiction: Le Carré, Cussler, Fleming, Patterson, Parker, MacDonald. Literally, a ton. If we went on a trip there would be a separate suitcase just for books (something you may relate to, Steven, given your sagging bookshelf dilemma!). So, I followed suit and jumped right in, beginning with Hardy Boys and then on to Fleming, Parker, Patterson, and on to other serial fiction greats. 

© Condé Nast George Rozen

You note parallels to superhero comics (and now films). But these pulp characters seem even more mysterious and deeply flawed. Am I right in thinking there is a sense of misanthropy that runs through their veins?
Definitely with The Shadow and the other hero characters that the success of his series inspired, like The Avenger—his band of agents, Justice, Inc. and The Whisperer. These heroes are essentially good guys that often sound like and look like bad guys, black hat and all, in the Shadow’s case. It was an interesting twist that countered the traditional vanilla notion of the hero blindly doing good, and it helped spark the initial interest in The Shadow—and it carries through today in Batman and other superheroes. 

© Condé Nast George Rozen
By 1933, artist George Rozen had perfected the signature look of The Shadow, featured in extreme profile here in The Black Hush. Considered one of the best books in the series, it tells the story of chaos and criminal activity during a New York blackout, foreshadowing what would actually happen in Manhattan in later years.

Who were pulps aimed at? They certainly were not going for the same hero worship as with the superhero variety?
Eight to 80. Back in the 1930s, the newsstand audience ran broad. Before TV, the newsstand was the only game in town. At the newsstand, publishers printed a variety of genres (Westerns, mysteries, science fiction) to attract different readers, but there didn’t seem to be as much focus on age-based audience demographic segmentation. It’s one of the reasons that when the early superhero comics came out at the end of the 1930s decade, they proved successful in capturing the imagination (and purse strings) of a younger audience, as there was a lack of youth-oriented titles on the street. 

© Condé Nast George Rozen

The artwork had to be perfect. Were there artist-stars or was each character formulaic enough to be interchanged and worked on by anyone in the bullpen?
Yes, The Shadow and Doc Savage stories both found lead cover artists that would shape the classic visual identity of the characters. For The Shadow, George Rozen emerged as the signature artist. For Doc Savage, an artist named Walter Baumhofer became the lead. There were other talented artists that contributed covers and illustrations, such as The Shadow artist Graves Gladney, but Rozen and Baumhofer carried out the bulk of the early character-defining artistry for The Shadow and Doc Savage, respectively. 

© Condé Nast Jim Steranko
The cover art for The Murder Trail (1977) shows The Shadow and the German dirigible München. The Shadow boards the airship in disguise to look for a hiding place that conceals a terrible secret

Pulp art was, of course, frowned upon by the art world, but it was high illustration. Who were the leaders, and why?
The world of fine art has always drawn this distinction between an artist and an illustrator, between someone creating a picture for the purity of expression versus someone creating it for commercial reasons. Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” of 1869 with Arnoux’s “L’Art Industriel” beautifully captured the realities of this conflict in 19th-century Paris.  

The art vs. commerce division was pronounced back in the 1930s. Photography had not yet become the dominant cover art mode, so talented cover illustrators could earn a decent-paying living, unlike most fine artists. Yet, following the Depression, working as a professional illustrator was a necessary or easy choice for many talented artists, including Norman Rockwell, who was active during this time and a contemporary of Rozen and Baumhofer. 

Both The Shadow’s main cover artist, Rozen, and Doc Savage’s Baumhofer were first-generation American children of immigrants, so while they were both classically trained at the Chicago Institute of Art and The Pratt Institute, respectively, they had to support themselves through their illustration work. Through their talent and dedication they both became American success stories and grew prosperous enough to move their families out of The Bronx and Brooklyn to suburban Long Island by the end of the 1940s. 

The value of original works by illustrators of this period has soared among collectors, which is a validation of the underlying “high” artistry in their work. 

© Condé Nast Walter Baumhofer 

It is also a virtue of your book that you show how pulp magazines transitioned into pulp paperbacks. How did the audiences change?
First the marketplace changed, as paperbacks found new points of distribution on spinning racks in drugstores, supermarkets and other outlets beyond the newsstand. For certain genres the audience was still there. In the case of Doc Savage, for instance, the books were reprinted as written in the 1930s and updated with newer, more sci-fi–looking art from James Bama. Those books found a broad audience, immediately selling millions of copies. The Shadow’s stories from the 1930s, however, didn’t catch on as readily and new stories were commissioned by the publisher Street & Smith. Likewise with Nick Carter, who went from a turn-of-the-20th-century New York detective into an Americanized spy version of James Bond.  

© Condé Nast James Bama
Stuck in quicksand, Doc Savage surveys the danger of his surroundings on the cover for He Could Stop the World (1970).

When you recall the film industry, with its production code, and later the Comics Code, how were the pulps able to get away with the salacious?
The bestselling mass-market pulps from Street & Smith like The Shadow and Doc Savage took every measure to avoid potential issues with the nature of their content. Editorially, the names of gangsters were carefully vetted to not bear too much resemblance to real-life gangsters like Lucky Luciano or Al Capone that were making headlines! 

What one or two pulps changed the mores forever?
The Shadow and Doc Savage stand out for really providing the basis for the creation of Batman and Superman, respectively, and laying the groundwork for our modern superhero-obsessed world. 

Why did pulp magazines fade out?
The Second World War proved fatal for the pulps in both a quantified way and in a qualitative.