Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines

by Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson

Published by Collectors Press

1998, 208 pages

Buy it online





Real Pulp Fiction

Reviewed by David Middleton  


Like the culture it mirrored, the medium was about juxtapositions: early 20th century American life viewed through carnival glass. The very best and the very worst -- including contributors and subject matter -- gave the genre its surreal glow.

Writers from L. Ron Hubbard to Ray Bradbury cut their teeth writing for them. Artists such as N.C. Wyeth and Frank R. Paul painted their covers. From cowboys and Indians to space aliens; sports heroes to pirates; scantily clad women to bony ghouls; no subject was too sacred or too outlandish. They were the pulps and Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines showcases an outstanding gallery of the best covers and takes an in-depth look at the history of the pulp trade. From its meager beginnings in the late 1800s through its meteoric rise in popularity in the 20s and 30s, to its whimpering demise in the 1950s, Pulp Culture celebrates the genre with style.

Usually selling anywhere from 10 to 50 cents, the pulps got their name from the inexpensive way they were reproduced: on cheap wood-pulp paper. Writers usually got their first shot at success in the pulps, often moving up to the more prestigious and higher quality slicks -- so called for their use of coated stock. The pulps churned out hundreds -- if not thousands -- of writers over the years. Some so prolific they would contribute all of the stories to a single issue but write under several pen names to make the publication look as though it had a stable full of writers.

For me it's mostly about the covers. Those lurid, sensational covers. When pulps started out, covers were low key and sedate, turning bolder and more risqué as publishers realized they had to compete with other pulps and regular publications on the newsstand. Pulp Culture includes samplings of some of the best and worst cover art I've seen. Best as in lovely reproductions of some of the outstanding illustrations of the time: N.C. Wyeth's canoeing pioneer on the cover of The Popular Magazine and Strange Detective's Invisible Man for its sheer inventiveness. Worst as in "I can't believe that some of these subjects were approved for publication": People being attacked by giant chickens; little grandmother types sewing together men's lips and my personal favorite, Zeppelin Stories' Gorilla of the Gasbags, where we see a gorilla hanging by a rope ladder from a zeppelin. Some of these illustrations are highly painterly, some were created with a good eye for design and composition. Others are unintentionally humorous in their poor execution or outlandishness. Pulp Culture covers the entire range.

...the covers themselves remain a chronicle of the past, as important as the stories they illustrated and the magazines they promoted. In one sense we can compare the old covers to the special effects in contemporary movies. They were what grabbed the eye, made you buy the magazine, and stayed with your imagination as you read the story.

More than just a compilation of cover art, Pulp Culture is an ideal reference for any artist. Want to see how to paint the human form or complex and intricate machinery? Want to see how it shouldn't be done? Skim through Pulp Culture and you're sure to see plenty of examples of both. Study it in-depth and what you'll find is an invaluable store of information on composition, color theory and story telling.

The lack of an index is the otherwise beautifully produced book's only shortcoming. It would nice to be able to look up specific writers or artists rather than have to search the whole book time and again. It should be said, though, that my own searching hasn't been without much enjoyment: Pulp Culture is that sort of experience.

The more I look through this book the more I love it. I have long been a fan of the pulp art genre and own several books on the subject. With its beautiful production, elegant design and sparkling reproductions, Pulp Culture will long hold a prominent place in my collection. | September 21, 1998


David Middleton is art director of January Magazine.