Pulps: The Depression's Flowers of Evil

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Hard times can inspire bursts of imagination, as seen in the colorful, scandalous pages of 1930s-era comic books

Pulp-mag-body-2.jpgCover of the February 1934 edition of All Detective Magazine / Wikimedia Commons

Economic crises are often breakthrough times for the graphic arts. Daguerreotypes were economical substitutes for portraits during the Panic of 1837, halftone-illustrated magazines came into their own in the Panic of 1893, and the Great Depression began the golden age of LIFE and other photo magazines.

There was also an underside of the 1930s, a netherworld from which Superman and other action heroes emerged only late in the decade. The pulp magazines weren't comic books, but illustrated action tales aimed at a male, white, working-class market that crossed over into the middle class. The genre dates from the 1880s, but the lurid covers reached their heights and depths in the Depression, wallowed in every kind of evil and shamelessly exploited gender, racial, and ethnic bias.

The pulps, to right-thinking middle-class contemporaries, were trash, and even most of their publishers and artists had little sense of heritage, often discarding and sometimes even painting over originals to avoid storage costs. Two circumstances helped rescue a fraction of pulp cover art.


One is the while the text paper, true to its name, crumbled like many other cheap printed products, the china clay used to coat the covers was slightly alkaline, offsetting the acidic content. Many cover colors remain remarkably vibrant.

The other is the emergence of hip collectors of the remaining original art as well as the magazines. The discoverer of pulp art originals as a collecting category, the businessman and media scholar Robert Lesser, was able to buy many notable examples beginning in the 1950s, when the genre was still despised by right-thinking people.

The Society of Illustrators in New York is running a fascinating display of a portion of Mr. Lesser's collection, which has been donated to the New Britain, Connecticut Museum of American Art. His exchange with the museum shows how sensibilities have changed in the last 70 years or so, as reported by the University of Chicago Magazine:

At first, he wasn't sure if that was the right place to go. "When they called me, I said, 'Look, some of your New England ladies may take umbrage at the fact that these paintings have sex and violence,'" Lesser says. "And I got a message back from the director, who said he had a message from the New England ladies, that they love sex and violence."

Even the Harvard College Library collects pulps. In fact, the Harvard library director, University Professor Robert Darnton, is himself an expert on (among many other things) eighteenth-century French pornography. Time's patina works academic wonders.

Still relatively unexplored in most writing about the pulps is what the readers made of their lurid fare. There's a long history of detective magazine scenarios, at least of later eras, inspiring real-life serial killers, most notoriously Ted Bundy. On the other hand, many readers of the pulps must have been among the decorated veterans of World War II; maybe military fantasies could have a positive side, although it's still disconcerting to see one cover, published in 1940, predicting Japanese concentration camps for Americans on the West Coast and showing how the magazines commonly promoted racist ideas. So it would be worth knowing more about contemporary readers' reactions to the text as well as the art work.

I prefer to see the 1930s pulp covers as products of human adaptability and resilience. Pulp art and comic books were among the growth industries of the Depression era, when there seemed nothing to lose in letting the imagination run wild.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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