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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Saving the Republican Party

It is probably foolish to pronounce something dead before it has died.  This is normally something us people from Chicago reserve for Cubs and Bears seasons. (The Bears season is over.) The polls as of this writing are showing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a dead heat. I don’t believe that is the way things are going to play out. (Since I started writing this, Hillary has pulled comfortably into the lead and Trump has fired all of his handlers. Unless I am mistaken, this is the third reboot.)  Although no one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public, there is no margin in ignoring the masses’ ability to perform volume and quality evaluations.  In short, Trump is going to lose huge, probably whisking the GOP out of the Senate along the way. He’s going to make Goldwater and Mondale look competitive.

All of this assumes, of course, Hillary not totally blowing it. That itself is no sure thing. I personally am surrounded by Trump supporters.  Or people who are voting against Hillary. My own ‘people I know’ poll shows something of an even split. But I am not sure how many of these people are going to vote and how many are just giving lip service to it. In the end, I believe the general election will turn out in much the way the primaries did. Hillary is a closer who Borgs up all of the good ideas. Trump is a yahoo magnet who cannot go a week without a serious error. Hillary’s own capacity for miscalculation and Crime Expose is the sole wildcard factor. Trump has a fixed ceiling of support since there’s only so many nut cases in this country. Barring something emerging from Pandora’s box of bad, Hillary should wipe the slate clean.

Which does not leave much of a future for the Republican Party—other than the one defined for it by the current Speaker of the House: to be a credible alternative to the Democrats.  This, by the way, has been the Republican Party’s only significant bit of tradecraft through most of its history. It only became the party of the rich and the well educated in recent decades. And for a lot of the party’s history, it was actually the home of the Progressive movement. The Republicans only lost progressivism once it became popular. The general modern division between the parties is that the Republicans have been more prone to offering candidates who have some demonstrable real world achievement whereas the Democrats show up with either professional politicians or some person who embodies the values of the common man. This may be more posture than practice, since both sides are dominated by professionals no matter how they are packaged.

The attribution of political power is not trivial. Politics is not bean bag. That it requires a certain standard of moxie and professionalism should come as no shock.  We have effectively two political parties in this country for the same reason that there are only two or three firms which dominate each of our industrial sectors. Both parties are wildly and broadly successful. Sadly, one party, the Democrats, are about to become so wildly successful that it endangers the entire political marketplace.

More Heat Than Light. Toss out the wedge issues for a moment. This election, this time in political history, has only one major issue: Globalism. This is not something that a politician, a political party or even a single nation has the fitness to do anything about. It is an issue awaiting a global consensus. What consensus there is goes something along the lines of: the net effect of globalism is to concentrate wealth in the hands of undeserving actors at the expense of the majority. The majority would like a better split—as would the governments who largely gain their resources from the majority. A symptomatic approach—treating wealth inequality—is now a part of the package offered by both of our political parties, and by all political actors in the developed world.

Yepsters, that’s what they are selling. A big box of that. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the box. The box has no instructions on it. Even our FDA would flag it for false claims. Whatever is supposed to treat inequality and a lack of fairness should have some ingredients. This is what stumped the Republican Party. This is why they lost to Bozo the Trump and his barbarians at the gate.

The Democrats have no solution, either, but are far better charlatans. The net negative effects of globalization are caused by advancements in technology and the free flow of capital. (These are also the factors which produce its various nice stuff.) Right now the system is rigged to pay off mostly to the people who finance it all, fairly much at the expense of everyone else. As world problems go, this isn’t a bad one to have. (Beats famine or plague by a country mile.) We seem to be within spitting distance of having the material means to provide a dignified, sustainable standard of living for all of humanity. Thanks to man’s imagination all of this is now probable to the point of being inevitable. That the 1% “finance people” should not net 99% of the rewards is an outstanding consensus, a triumph of the Judeo-Christian ethic. It’s a pity our action plan doesn’t have the plausible outline of a step one yet.

The Democratic Party’s solution: raise the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour. End of solution. I’m not sure what this is going to do, other than make everyone who earns 30K a year feel like a piker… and drive mechanization into the lawn care and restaurant industries.  There’s also some muttering about breaking up banks and taxing assets and what-have-you, but none of it is too thought out. And don’t expect anything dramatic from Moderate Clinton. She knows her limits. She’s going to fix healthcare and focus on kid’s issues.    

(And God bless her for being so reasonable about the limits of political power. When it comes to the Globalism issue, why show up to a fire you can’t put out?)

The Trump Solution: Screw trade! Build a wall. Dig a hole. Deport the deportable members of the underclass (Mexicans). Make blacks take the jobs the Mexicans vacated. To describe the intellectual underpinnings of this approach is to give it too much credit. It’s very a macho four-year-old having a tantrum, but it falls short of a philosophy. It has more Gusto than a $15.00 minimum wage, but it is on the same plateau of thinking.

Missing here from the dialog is the actual Republican argument. And it is the big loser in this debate. That it has lost, drown in its own bathwater, is the final contention that the Republicans are going to have to come to grips with.  Or they face a future as a political vanity press for the next folksy billionaire wishing to start his political career at the top.

(In Illinois, the birthplace of the Republican Party, it is little more than a vanity press for the rich already.)

What lost is Conservatism. Maybe it’s about time. Conservatism brought us two major banking disasters. Conservatism failed to protect the country from terrorism. Conservatism allowed New Orleans to be swept off the map. Conservatism brought us two stupid and useless wars. Although it’s not entirely to blame for our currently diminished circumstances, it is not the solution and has been of no demonstrable help.

We can go on about what Conservatism is at length. There are some fundamentally wonderful ideas bound up in Conservatism. At its heart is an enshrinement of empirical evidence and pragmatism, a love for what works best under real world conditions. It has consideration for what has gone before, a recognition of the achievements of uniquely Western Civilization.  Because of the high value it places on historically proven mechanisms, Conservatism is notoriously slow-footed. First, do no harm. Avoid blowback. Preserve what works. If changes need to be made, implement them in increments and with finesse. All in all, not a bad approach.

If you are having your house painted, you want a Conservative. If your house is on fire, you want a Liberal. Thankfully, with most political issues, the house is usually not on fire. In the case of an actual fire, both Conservatives and Liberals do the same thing. It’s in the after fire events where you see a dichotomy of thought.

There is a line of thinking that Conservatism is merely a reaction to the bloat of Progressivism, now called Liberalism. Progressives really are an amalgamation with no real set fundamental superstructure beliefs, other than the increase of inclusion and the conversion of privileges into rights. Mechanisms be damned, the Liberals are playing an outcome game. Results by fiat, rigging outcomes, is their sport. An aversion to this rigging, an aversion to the whole lot of it, is the impulse driving the Conservative cause. Much of what the Conservative tout as core values are essentially eyewash for protecting White privilege. That said, the overall Conservative case is hard to refute. All strata of man’s endeavors function most efficiently when there is an open competition between free actors—that the race should go to the fast and the battle to the strong.   

We can nit-pick both sides. I don’t want to deal in equivalences here. Liberalism is not dead. Conservatism is dead.  The cause of death is that it has nothing to offer the average citizen. Mitt Romney fairly much spit out its epitaph during his famous secretly videoed speech. Buffeted by the winds of globalism, the average worker has demanded his fair share of the spoils and the Conservative message has been nowhere. Instead the masses have been offered a counter-commentary on each Liberal outcome rigging scheme, all along the lines of “If we do that, we will be France” or “If we do that, we will be just like England.” As if England and France were bad places--or as if we have it somehow better than the citizens of those countries.

Enough said, it’s dead.  Unless the Republican Party wants a parade of Trumps, or something worse, it needs to get back to a model that works. Like all long lived entities, the Republican Party is a hollow edifice. It stands for what the people inside it make it stand for. The party’s cause for being was abolition, as in the abolition of slavery. Since then it’s had a nice run, first as the bulwark of Progressive causes and then simply as a champion of private property rights, a counterweight against collectivism. The current standards of the Republican Party have become dated, almost dooming it to permanent decline. In order to keep it viable, I am proposing a pruning of bloat. My intention is to preserve the Republican Party’s distinctions while putting it on an attractive footing. The model is derived from historical example.

A.       Better Man Rule. Our guy has some real world accomplishments. He is an outstanding citizen. (He can also be a seasoned and outstanding politician, if need be.) Remember, our objective is to preserve the Republican Party as a viable alternative to the Democrats. Democrats show up with a guy who is somehow mystically reflective of the entire human condition. The best way for the Republicans to counter this is by showing up with someone who is ‘a leader’. Sadly, the Better Man Rule has been replaced by a litany of Conservative Check Marks. Ideological purity is not an accomplishment.
B.      Pragmatism. Bobby Kennedy famously spouted “I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” The Republicans need to define themselves in 100% opposition to that statement. Real World solutions is the new brand. It’s a counter to the pie in the sky nonsense thrown out routinely by the collectivists. Big ideas are usually big monsters. We’re all for scaling up ideas which work, but they need to be proven. Pragmatism is the hammer to replace Conservatism. It is the only hammer that the party needs.
C.      Cleaner Than a Cat’s Mouth. This is really an offset from point A, but it has been a problem of late. A lot of Republican candidates have been bad actors. No wife-beating sex party tape fly dumpers, please. Our person has to be someone the public feels comfortable about employing. Now saints do not go into politics, but if you are on your third wife and made your living in the coal tar ocean disposal business, just vote Republican—don’t run for office. This is a must have.

All three are really Must Haves—and a considerable and sustainable distinction from the Democrats. Those are the three poles of the Big Ten, something Honest Abe and the Millennial’s will be happy with. If the Republican Party follows this design, it will have a future.  If it sticks with various remnants of the Ronald Reagan Nostalgia Act, Tyrant Trump is just the start of what will be a very fast fade into obscurity. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Newsweek Returns!

Newsweek is a Pulp Magazine

I understand Newsweek is reentering the market of “relevant” news magazines with an expose on the Trump Organization.  Although I cannot speak to this story, it is our duty to note that Newsweek is not the magazine it once was. It is not even the magazine which was left for dead by the Daily Beast. The Newsweek of today is owned by a dangerous cult and largely acts as that cult’s mouthpiece. In this case, the cult is probably out to raise some money with its Newsweek asset, as they have with a slew of sensationalistic stand alone “Neo Pulp” offerings. I would treat anything Newsweek has to say with utter suspicion. Since its relaunch, the cult has greenlighted any number of stories which have turned out to be pure fabrications. Newsweek so far has all of the credibility of National Enquirer with about half the entertainment value.

As fun as this slam on Trump sounds, don’t buy in. Do not buy Newsweek. It is worse than a waste of money.

And it’s giving money and attention to a cult. So don’t do it.

Our feature on Saving The Republican Party will be posted shortly

Friday, May 20, 2016

Saving Superman

Saving Superman

I suppose everyone knows how wretched the latest Superman movie is. Several of my friends and family members thought it was alright, but I think that’s in keeping with the lowered expectations by which all Superman movies are judged. Or all superhero movies, for that matter. For some, getting the guy to fly without the strings is good enough. Like King Kong, there is a built in fascination with seeing the Superman concept replicated in some sort of life-like setting.

King Kong is a limited concept. There is only one thing that King Kong is going to do. Set the big monkey down and roll tape. King Kong is going to crush stuff. For added spice, you can set down another King Kong-like creature in the same setting. They’re going to crush stuff and then they’re going to crush each other. In a cold read way, Superman is the same thing.

If that’s all one expects from Superman, then the only going forward plan is to update setting details and keep the special effects cutting edge. That seems to be the current plan. I think this plan has become horribly sidetracked. The concept has picked up some bad habits, and the movies have amplified them. As a character, however, Superman has proven to be a relevant, time tested success. To get back to that success it is necessary to jettison the junk and focus on what makes the character appealing. Give us a Superman who does what Superman does best.  

We’re out to take the best of Superman and make a Superman out of him. Our focus is on what actually defines the character and what makes a good Superman story. Since movies are the medium Superman is currently bound for, our intention is to define the recipe for what makes a good Superman movie.

Part of the problem with Superman is baked into the character. And it has nothing to do with the character being too powerful, a frequent picking point. Most of Superman’s issues are entwined with the character’s longevity, fame, and a peculiar tendency to impose an analogy on what is an action and adventure character. Plotlines for superheroes are fairly interchangeable. Anything Spider-Man does Superman can do. Ditto Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and Thor and The Hulk. Plug Superman into any of the stories involving those characters and he would do fine. So good Superman stories are not actually the issue. But they have been few and far between. Even more so with the movies.

Superman is an evolved character, a fictional creation which has grown over the course of time. He started as sort of an anthropomorphic cockroach, a human built to the standards of an insect. The tacked on explanation for Superman’s physical powers went along the lines of “just as an ant can lift several times its own weight…” In short order, Superman began displaying an array of heightened senses, culminating in the character being endowed with an entire medical lab full of devices packed into his cranium. X-Ray vision, heat vision and super cold breath have no real precedent in biology. So Superman went from being a thriving invasive species to being a high energy physics experiment in human form. Here we can blame the creators. Early on, the creative team behind Superman answered all plot problems by having the character sprout new abilities—some of them quite silly.  The concept has also been messed with, especially when translated into other mediums. The animation team behind Popeye decided that Superman flew as opposed to jumped. (It doesn’t make any sense for a character who can leap tall buildings in a single bound to also fly.) Lazy radio script writers gave us Kryptonite. Far too many Superman scripts in all forms went overboard in exploring how super Superman can be. (Time travel, splitting himself in two, super hypnotism, dwarf star level impregnability.) As a concept, Superman is kind of bloated.

We could go on for thousands of words addressing the bloat. Since I don’t think that’s where the problem lies, I won’t. If we have to use a standard model for Superman, I will settle on the character displayed in the Fleischer Brothers cartoon shorts of the 1940s. That’s how Superman should look. That’s how Superman should move. It’s just enough Superman, Superman just right. That’s the nuts and bolts, though. The problem is in characterization and setting.

A major characterization problem is that there has been scant little of it. At some point Superman crossed the Rubicon between adventure character and walking idol, or icon in the modern parlance. Icons need analogies, I guess.  And analogies make poor characters. First, drop the Superman is Jesus Christ analogy. It doesn’t fit and it was never part of the original concept.  The two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland who came up Superman had no intention of making him Action Jesus. If anything, Superman has a bit of the Moses myth grafted onto what might be an analogy about the experience of immigrants to the United States. You were nothing where you came from, but here, in the United States, you can thrive. And both you and the United States are better for it.

The recent pair of Superman movies trashes that analogy to a pornographic degree. Superman is portrayed as a conflicted DP who can’t fit it. Worse yet, he’s brought problems from the old country with him. (Did Donald Trump write these scripts?) In my view the movie version of Superman needs to abandon playing to the analogies.  Get back to the character. (*1) Beyond the powers, there is an actual character of Superman with certain personality traits.  Since that seems to be what has gotten lost most in the latest spate of tent-pole movies, we will detail the character of Superman in some depth:

·     *  Truth, Justice and the American Way. What Superman stands for, as Superman, is fairly straight forward. He is an opponent of deception, a proponent of fairness and has a broad affinity for his country. He tries to be a good citizen, a good American. Wonderful powers aside, he would have had a much different experience on Earth had his ship crash landed in Ethiopia, Peru, England, China or Germany.   In the 1940s radio program, Superman landed on Earth as an adult. He was a refugee who picked his spot where to land. The more standard cannon has him raised on a farm. Originally his parents were an elderly, childless couple and he didn’t leave until after they died. In all cases, Superman is well-steeped in American culture. He’s thankful to be here. (*2)

    *  Superman has taken the concept of democracy to heart. He is the most democratic superhero out there. Superman goes after anything that hits his action point horizon: wife beaters, pick pockets, fly dumpers, tidal waves, buckled pavement, car wrecks, fires, bank robbers, you name it. Saving a kitten from a tree and diverting an asteroid might all be part of the same day’s work. It’s a very unique aspect of the character—one that the movies have decided to dispose of for unknown reasons.

·      * Spider-Man and Superman are both similarly situated characters. Both characters are led into situations (plot events) via the guidance of their senses. Or at least that’s the cheap way in. Spider-Man’s spider senses both detect things and disclose good and evil, right and wrong actions. By contrast, Superman has fabulous senses, but no real guidance other than experience. Spider-Man has idiot lights and follows their signals instinctively. Superman has gauges and takes the doctor’s approach—first, do no harm—to assessing the conflict or event. Both characters are triage experts. Both characters are science nerds. Spider-Man is more likely to act in a continuous flow, confident that his idiot lights are going to keep him from doing anything immediately stupid. Superman can get stumped, at which point he goes and gets an expert opinion.  And Superman has a rolodex of experts to call on.  Plug in either character and you can expect somewhat similar outcomes. Spider-Man is going to wisecrack his way through the situation. When the mood strikes him, Superman might let loose with a little establishment agitprop. Both characters are deliberately friendly.  Neither character deals in threats.  Neither character is all that big on spouting opinions. These are establishment guys. Making Superman anything other than an establishment guy, as the two previous movies have done, trashes the preexisting notion of the character. (*3) Superman and Spider-Man were raised in loving families by good citizens, not by the Irish Travelers, drug using off the grid types or biker gangs.

·       * Spider-Man and Superman have essentially the same ethos and largely the same style. They both underplay their abilities. (*4) They pull their punches. They use only the amount of force they feel is necessary—and for the same reason. The world they live in is fragile and everything important in it is fragile. Their objective is to protect, preserve and restore that world. These are not punishers. These are not vengeance guys. (Unlike Batman or the Shadow or Wolverine.) They’re here to restore normalcy and then they exit. Superman might clean up after his own mess, but he and Spider-Man trust society to assess punishment to the bad guy.

·      *  Superman is social and professional.  Superman is very approachable and actively networks. He has a preference for hanging with science guys. (Clark Kent nuzzles the cops and politicians.) He trades favors with technical professionals, playing off his utility as a scientific instrument. Like the people in his network, Superman works at his craft. Being Superman is Superman’s calling. Getting along well with others and having access to the right people is part of the gig, as is a certain standard of comportment. Civil niceties aside, it also seems that…

*  * Superman is a dick.  There’s an entire website on this subject. Much of this is the result of too many stories written to match trick covers. (Why has Superman dumped Lois Lane and married a mermaid?) Although he’s polite to strangers, he’s not at all considerate to the people closest to him. He has pranked and generally abused Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Batman and even Perry White dozens of times. There have been convoluted explanations for this, but a willingness to waltz over the emotions of his closest associates is a distinct character flaw.

Superman’s personality has changed a bit over the years. The above is sort of the consensus Superman, Superman once he got his act together. In the early issues of Action Comics, Superman was rather feisty and somewhat rude. He cut fascists and other authoritarian totalitarian types little quarter. Even through the early post war years, Superman routinely used torture tactics on criminals, racing them up the sides of buildings while holding them by the ankles and leaving crooks precariously perched on the tops of flagpoles. (*5) And there were instances of the police treating Superman like a menace, firing machinegun blasts to shoo him away.  Problems with the police came to an end within a few issues’ span, suspiciously concurrent with Superman’s successful sucking up to the military industrial complex. (*6) The Superman people like is from his post brat phase. But throwing in a little of the old Superman might be good for spicing things up.

Superman was a big hit in comic books, but his general fame with the public came from other mediums, specifically a daily radio program. It is the radio program that the movie serial and subsequent television show are based on. Arguably a kids show (sponsored by a breakfast cereal), the radio program often took on real world topics such as race hatred and the impact of monopolists. It was done installment style, like a soap opera, while the comic book stuck with contained short stories.

The characterization on the radio set the tone for the television show. Or at least the first season. For the most part, Superman stuck to what we have defined above, however he was a little less relentlessly polite. Evidence of deliberate deception caused him to get a bit snippy. Ditto folks not getting to the point fast enough for Superman’s liking. Radio Superman spent as little time as he could being Superman. The majority of his communications were either to his associates, the authorities, or his network of experts. He had no official standing, no official duties, no standing appointments and no set contact point. A lot of the story’s action was carried out by Clark Kent.  Superman only shows when something is happening. (*7)

Clark Kent has always been miss-billed. It’s not a consistent characterization and the problems are with the source material. “Mild mannered reporter” is a misnomer. To backtrack a bit, Superman got stuck with the alter ego issued to all early superheroes (save the Lone Ranger), which originated with the Scarlet Pimpernel. The stock secret identity is a dandy, a shy person, a hedonist, a trust fund baby who seems to have no concerns other than his own self-involvement. Batman got stuck with this, too. It’s a wish fulfilment set-up, a play on the idea that deep inside every introvert (or whatever) is a type A personality man of action waiting to spring forth. As with other tropes as characters, I think it has had its day. It certainly hasn’t played well with Clark Kent.

Clark Kent is a reporter, not a field for the shy and retiring. He isn’t going to break into the semi-big leagues on typing speed alone. He may not be the ace that Lois Lane is, but he is good enough to hold down a byline. So having him come off as anything but a go-getter sort of shoots the reporter gig in the heels. Kirk Alyn and Christopher Reeve pulled off bumbling characterizations to somewhat humorous effect, but it does impact the overall credibility of this guy being a reporter in the first place. George Reeves dispensed with the “mild mannered” bit altogether, playing Kent as a fairly typical reporter. (*8)

George Reeves took his cues from Radio Superman. Radio Superman’s Clark Kent was a cynical, fast talking, big city, veteran reporter. Having Clark Kent be averse to risking injury, as George Reeves did, is as far as the mild mannered thing need go. In my construction, Superman’s other identity is also an action and adventure type, albeit one who isn’t interested in getting himself killed on every assignment. Taking weird risks to get a story is really Lois Lane’s job.

Could the set up use some modernization? There’s no reason to keep it utterly static. The Superman ball has been advanced in the public mind by shows such as Lois & Clark and Smallville and the current Supergirl. Newspapers have downsized and Clark Kent’s situation should reflect that. There are few “famous reporters” and Clark Kent doesn’t need to be one of them. Lois Lane is the “face reporter” of the Daily Planet. Kent is just another reporter. And newspapers are no longer that big of a deal. In the end, that sort of suits the character.

Lois is in on the Clark Kent is Superman thing. Whether they’re co habituating or man and wife is going to have some impact on their employment situation. Lois can take over the Superman’s gatekeeper role from Clark Kent.  There is most distinctly a role for Superman’s wife. Other than his parents, Lois Lane is the only person Superman knows closely. She’s the point of public contact and has considerable influence in deciding what is or is not “A job for Superman.” In a way that makes Superman rather normal. That Lois Lane is ill-tempered, competitive, fearless and opinionated makes for nice interplay possibilities.

Now that we the character more or less settled, I will touch lightly on the setting. Superman needs to remain contemporary.  He’s not a nostalgia piece—or at least that’s not the character’s attraction. There’s little additive to creating a fantastic setting, as in the first series of Batman movies. That said, the Metropolis setting is in need of a little definition. “Where is it?”. “What is it?” and “Why is Superman there?” are all questions which need some addressing.

The short answer, per the current movies, is that it is Manhattan and Long Island, whereas Gotham is the not as nice sections of New York City. That’s disposing of seventy plus years of context for no reason and to no effect. Metropolis was also defined fairly fully in role playing game materials and various fold out sections from comic book specials. None of it has in any way reflected what goes on in Superman’s stories. It’s better if we construct it simply from context.

Metropolis was borrowed from the 1926 science fiction novel of the same name. (*9) As such it is meant to represent the type of place where unleashed science could run amok. We know from context that Metropolis in Superman’s time has a lot of laboratories. It is an R&D center, a hub of innovation for the power generation, pharmaceutical and specialty materials industries. There are a smattering of capital equipment plants, but other than that there is little manufacturing. It’s also a stronghold for military defense contractors. Brokering materials (especially gems and refined ores) and finance are the other economic drivers. Other than that, it’s just a city full of white collar and skilled workers. It has five square blocks of art deco sky scrapers surrounded by a belt of bungalows and low slung shop avenues. Metropolis is not a major media hub. Even at the height of the 1940s, it had two newspapers. By contrast, Chicago had four and New York had eight. This makes Metropolis a big city, but probably not in the top ten.

There’s a lot of contradictory information as to the location of Metropolis. The new movies do not have it all that wrong. Initially Superman was in New York—or a place so much like New York that it might as well have been named Gotham or Knickerbocker. But it started to diverge, as early as 1940.

Superman’s initial justification for coming to Metropolis is that it was the nearest big city to where he grew up. With Smallville moved to Kansas, this would make Metropolis Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City or Saint Louis. But it’s not. It’s an east coast city with a port on the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a warf, but it isn’t a major shipping center. Supposedly the nearest big city to Metropolis is Washington. Or at least it’s closer to Washington than it is to New York or Gotham City. There’s only spotty mention of colleges or suburbs.

As with most visual things Superman, I prefer the portrayal from the Fleischer Brothers cartoon shorts. Mix that with the exteriors from the original Superman TV show and the city is defined well enough. Per the cartoons, Metropolis was in a valley. It had foothills on three sides and a narrow ocean front, taken up by ship builders and a passenger cruiser port. There was a goofy hill in the middle of the city, which seemed to demark the more inland facing central business and lab district from the ocean oriented residential area. The hill also merited mention in the movie serials. If you look at the set up with a cynical eye, it’s the type of place designed to contain explosions. Beyond the hills are scrubland and, beyond that, farms. It is somehow connected to the rest of the eastern establishment, but not directly.

The only other reference made about Metropolis continually is that it’s a “very clean city”. This befits a citizenry largely made of lab workers.  It has a rundown area. (One imagines that the ship building district isn’t doing well.) It has garden variety criminality.  It has social problems. (To draw on the Metropolis novel, it is heading in the direction of being a two class society.) But it is largely an upper middle class majority type of town. Most striking, Metropolis is Superman themed. There are numerous businesses with Super this or Man of Steel that or Metropolis Marvel prefixes in their names. Like a purple martin, Superman has been encouraged to set up shop there. Without Superman, Metropolis would be Providence or Hartford. He’s good for business. (*10)

With some variance, this is the character and setting which has been successful for Superman for 75 years. I think it’s still workable.  Superman seems to have worked best on the short installment basis. There are enough things that can go wrong in this setting with this character to keep people interested in it for short periods of time. Good for comic books and TV shows. Where it seems to fall down is in long form, in the movies.

There have only been one or two good Superman movies, the first two installments of the Christopher Reeve series. The movies previous to those, a pair of serials featuring Kirk Alyn and a feature starring George Reeves were of various quality. I have few bones to pick with those movies or even the last of the Christopher Reeve films. Rather, my bitch is with the last three, “Superman Returns”, “Man of Steel” and “Supermans Versus Batman”, which were so terrible that they could have been renamed “Superman Does Not Speak”, “Superman Runs Out of Script and Blows Things Up” and “Batman Fails to Save Superman with Extraneous Unexplained Partially Identified Cameos.”(*11) The last movie made Transformers III seem like it was put together by plot geniuses. My overall prescription is to drop the darkness, up the pace and tell a Superman story.

My example is a general outline of what would make a good Superman movie. The objective is 110 minutes of escapist, FUN entertainment. Moreover, a Superman movie should be a celebration of Superman. A Superman movie should be Superman themed. All of the trappings that Superman is known for should be in the movie. Superman should sound like a falling bomb when he’s flying. We want the Superman theme. We want incidental music. Every song ever written about Superman should be in the movie. Finally, there is no reason to reintroduce the character again. Just do an updated version of the opening from the original TV show and we’re good.

My model for the movie is the Green Hornet Strikes Back, probably the best superhero movie ever done. (*12) It’s a movie serial and we are going to use movie serial pacing, the way Raiders of the Lost Arc and Star Wars do. Something interesting happens every five minutes, with plot elements contained to fifteen minute blocks. Each block are variations of Bad Guy Does Something, Superman Reacts, Bad Guy Recalibrates His Plans or Superman Does Something, Bad Guy Reacts, Superman Tries to Tie the Overall Scheme Together. 110 minute gives us time for seven plot actions. The rest of the time is filled with comedic relief and exposition.

To give the movie some sense of distinction, we’re going to follow Superman exclusively. He’s the only point of reference. No cut aways. No montages. No flashbacks. We see only what Superman sees. We follow Superman around as he tries to figure out what is happening.

Since it is a movie, it has to have some marquee value. Superman must fight someone. Sadly, Superman does not have a lot of marquee value bad guys. Worse, some of them are actually derivative of each other. Given what has gone previously, General Zod and Luthor are retired. That leaves Bizarro, Parasite, Terra Man, Brainiac, Toyman, Prankster and Mister Mxyzptlk. (Superman really needs more repeat offenders.) Bizarro  is General Zod without a clue. Brainiac is really Super Luthor. Mister Mxyzptlk is a joke character, derivative of Rumpelstiltskin. Parasite and Terra Man require too much backstory at this point and lack marquee value. That leaves us with Toyman and Prankster, who are good enough in their own rights and who might work well together. Throw in the Spider Lady as their boss.

Each character has a fairly well defined and movie friendly shtick. Toyman uses giant toys. Prankster is an expert at committing one crime while he is seeming to commit another.  And Spider Lady has screen presence, in a Darth Vader sort of way.  

Our General Outline Plot: The bad guys have to have a reason for being in Metropolis. It’s either the R&D centers, something intrinsic to Metropolis, or Superman himself. The classic method of challenging Superman is to run him ragged, distract him, take advantage of the fact that he can only be in one place at a time. Our crooks overall plan is to zip into Metropolis, get what they need, and beat feet out of town before Superman figures out what they are really up to. Not that this plan has much historical efficacy, but our bad guys have no choice as to the venue. And bad guys are risk takers.

Our Specific Example, which we will call “A Job For Superman.” Spider Lady has discovered an asteroid encrusted with special minerals which she intends to reposition with a giant magnetic device and then mine with a robot space ship. She has been funding her operations with a crime wave executed by the Toyman. Simultaneously Prankster is back dooring parts and materials to build the space ship and magnetic device out of various R&D labs. The trick here is that the materials are not stolen at all. They have been previously purchased and relocated clandestinely. Prankster is only acting when the shortages are noticed, committing acts of sabotage or attacks on nearby facilities to cover things up. (The capacitors must have been destroyed when the tire warehouse next door burnt down.) Superman figuring that out and then getting an inventory of what else may be missing is his key to determining what the Spider Lady is up to. During the course of the story Spider Lady switches plans. Superman has destroyed the space ship. So she decides to up the capacity of her magnetic device to actually bring the asteroid to Earth. Her plan is to lower it into the ocean and then mine it conventionally. Once Superman is onto that, it’s blow off the plan and beat feet time. Spider Lady flips the magnetic device into overdrive, sending the asteroid hurtling at Earth. Superman heads off into space while Spider Lady makes her escape.

This is a general movie serial plotline. My intention is to steal visual elements from the Fleischer Brothers short cartoons and weave them into a narrative. Specifically, I am stealing the rocket car, the magnetic telescope and the giant stealing robots.  If you own the material, use the material.

Something along these lines would make a good Superman movie. It would be a movie people would ENJOY watching. And maybe they might want to see another one. The conflicted, dark naval gazing glop has now failed three times.  If the most interesting thing you can do with the character is kill him off, then you don’t need to be making Superman movies. Superman works best when you give people the Superman they want.

 (*1) I am hard pressed to describe what the current characterization of Superman is. The actor seems to have two expressions: pretty boy smug and straining stool. I’m not sure if he’s miscast or thinks he’s above the role or simply has been given nothing coherent to do. It should also be said that the characterization in the cartoons—the other medium Superman has spent most of his time in—has been rather shallow and all over the board.

(*2) 1940s Superman was an adult when he put on the outfit. His actual childhood and growing up is only alluded to. In the 1950s the Superboy concept was introduced as part of the overall expansion of the Superman line. Supergirl, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen were all soon fronting their own comic books. As the Superboy material started to get thin, they transported the character to the 30th century where he spent a lot of his teenage years. In any case, Superman worked out all of the kinks in his act well before he hits Metropolis. This is clearly not reflected in the current Superman movies.

(*3) The current movies have been mixing elements of recent comic books, including the Death of Superman stunt series. This was the lead shot in an overall reboot of the DC Comics universe. DC reboots have had such a lukewarm reception that the company has promised to reboot again soon.

(*4) Being a psychic, possessing about two seconds worth of precognition, is the one ability Spider-Man never reveals openly. Thus far, none of his enemies have guessed at it. Superman underplays super speed, using it only as a method of getting between places.

(*5) Superman wasn’t afraid to juggle crooks out the window, as he did in the first Kirk Alyn movie serial. His favorite method of disarming criminals was beating them senseless. Pull a firearm on Superman and he will break your bones. Even the George Reeves version of Superman was prone to this.

(*6) There’s an entire posting I could do on Superman’s WWII exploits. Superman fought on the allied side in the cartoons, in the comics strips, on the radio and, to a lesser extent, in the comic books. Many of the comic book covers are suggestive of a lethal military role. Superman has been a willing helpmate of the military from way back. 

(*7) This is not true of the later episodes of the radio program. As time went on, Superman became more of an official part of the establishment. And the character of Superman came to carry more of the plot.

(*8) One might conclude that Clark Kent acts the way Superman thinks all humans should act. Superman views humans as being fragile. He doesn’t believe that it is rational for them to plunge into potentially physically dangerous situations.  Oddly, this perception of frailty has been the basis for the disputes Superman has had with Batman.

(*9) It’s probably more influenced by the movie Metropolis than it is the novel. But the borrowing doesn’t stop there. As a character, Superman was largely lifted from a science fiction novel called The Gladiator. And the name Superman was first attributed as a nick name for the pulp magazine hero Doc Savage.

(*10) Again we need to graft on a conclusion to somewhat spotty source material. There are two plausible justifications for Superman choosing Metropolis as his home. From the start Superman has always construed himself as a creature of science. For good or bad, Metropolis is a major science center. Alternatively, reporter gigs are hard to come by. The typical career orbit starts with one getting your start in the sticks and then moving up market. There are numerous references to Clark Kent working at smaller papers before landing at the Planet. Metropolis is where Kent landed at the point that he wanted to start his adventures as Superman in earnest.

(*11) DC Comics has an incredible stable of characters to promote. Right now second stringers such as The Flash, Green Arrow and Supergirl are holding down spots on television. Their seeming front rank includes the obvious Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. I found it curious that the latest movie was seemingly also out to promote Aquaman, The Flash and… Cyborg? Putting The Flash in makes little sense since that character is already on TV. Aquaman I somewhat understand since he’s had a lot of exposure on television from the 1960s onward. But Cyborg? In favor of Plasticman, Green Lantern, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel or Hawkman? I’m lost as to what the thinking is. You can’t even trademark Cyborg’s name. If it’s just adding a bit of color to the team, Green Lantern has been black and it does not really matter what ethnic background Blue Beetle or Hawkman are. You could even sub in Hawkgirl as they did on the cartoon show. I’m convinced whomever is in charge of the direction of these properties is lacking something in product knowledge.

(*12) There are a number of good superhero movie serials, most of them written by George Plympton. The formula I suggest does have its drawbacks. If you doubt this, check out The Kingsmen. Movie serial pacing is fine as long as (a) the audience has had time to form some sort of attachment to the hero; (b) the exposition matches the action and (c) the segments actually build to something.

Holy crap, I did a comic book geek piece.

 Next: How to Save the Republican Party, followed by How to Save Star Trek. Because the Hil-Gle Wonderblog has its priorities in order. (Or we may update the Flying Car.) 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Playboy Says Goodbye

Newspapers eventually shrank themselves down to profitability. In essence they have become coupon delivery mechanisms. It is one of the areas where there is an advantage to the consumers, the manufacturers and the advertisers. Coupled with display advertising from strictly local businesses, it seems enough for most newspapers to limp on as shadows of their former selves.

The same cannot be said of the magazine. What we are seeing is nothing short of an implosion. The retailers are dumping magazines with wild abandon. All that remains at most checkout counters are the strongest of the woman’s magazines and slick gossip titles. Specifically marching off to death are the lifestyle magazines, the cooking and bride’s titles and most of the male segment. We’ve gone from three national news magazines to one irrelevant one in the course of just a few years. Those retailers who are still giving pride of place to magazine offerings are increasingly finding those spaces filled in by what we have dubbed Neo-Pulps, coffee table books in magazine form covering sensational or celebrity oriented topics. The trend in memorial editions continues without abate, with even the long dead making new newsstand appearances. And there are some even more troubling trends…

Magazines you may now safely avoid: Maxim and GQ
Maxim never was any good. It occasionally featured pictorials of B-Movie actresses flouncing around in their underwear. When it wasn’t giving actual word space to what these actresses had to say (which wasn’t much) it rattled on Hooters Magazine style about beer and motorcycles and sports equipment. Today it no longer has the pull to bring in the fluffy actress types, so its pictorials are now about aspiring models. The editorial has shifted to long form biographies (daily routines of 20 year olds) oddly imposed with wistful musings about what it would be like to be in this woman’s life.—And on occasion, they cram in a bit of actual journalism, albeit in ten point type with wide borders. Little Miss I Do Yoga and Eat Nothing But Kale merits at least eleven point type, but war coverage or anything of substance requires a microscope to read. Editorial choices aside, this magazine may have the worst layout of anything commercially available. All in all, it is truly bird cage liner and would be disinteresting even as junk mail.

GQ is something that I never picked up before. I already get Esquire and Playboy, which are the other two titles in this men’s lifestyle segment. Esquire has long form reporting. Playboy had naked women in it. GQ has nothing. Since the 1980s it’s essentially been a fashion and “wellness” rag. So I had no interest in it whatsoever. Having been on the receiving end of GQ for the past few months—it was sent to me as a replacement for the equally vapid Details—I have had my initial evaluation ratified in spades. It is the least literate piece of literature ever. GQ is a continual symposium on deploying permutations of the word ‘wow’. Maybe I’m not 20 anymore. Maybe I just don’t give a rat’s ass about ‘hotness’, whatever that might be. It’s a magazine driven by what it can sell ad space for, long form advertorial. And it’s not a particularly subtle sales pitch, uncritical and bombastic to the point of being a house organ for a pantheon of utterly useless, overpriced crap. As junk mail it would be interesting, only if I were interested in one iota of what it is selling. And I’m not.

Magazines Made to Order: Conde Nast Advertorial
Just when I gave up on this publisher entirely, this drifted in. co-packed inside my Vanity Fair and GQ mailers. The title is a little dopey and most of its features are strictly grazing materials, but… It’s much better magazine that either GQ or most editions of Vanity Fair.

It’s a no doubt about it General Interest magazine, with a fine (but staid) layout and a compelling assortment of topics. Add a humor or fiction section and maybe a long form chunk of journalism and you would have a package most people would be happy to subscribe to. Or pick up on the newsstand if you did a bit more with the shop window (cover title and cover presentation).

What’s Next is actually an advertorial for the “All-New 2016 Chevrolet Malibu.” As opposed to gushing about the Malibu relentlessly, as GQ does with its ad page buyers, What’s Next is a straight forward magazine in all respects. The Malibu is simply the only advertiser, the sole sponsor.

Conde Nast (Advance Magazines) publishes two of the best magazines out there, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. There’s obviously a lot of talent sitting on its benches, so abortions like GQ and Details are inexcusable. The current staff at Vanity Fair has gone past its use by date, and the entire concept behind it has become hairy. What’s Next wouldn’t be a bad model for Vanity Fair’s much needed rehab. Unlike Vanity Fair, What’s Next can actually be read without the need to consult blue prints or astrologers.

If the folks at Conde Nast need a clue as to how to lay out a magazine—and they do—they should check out Bloomberg’s Businessweek.  Hire that person. Do what that person is doing.

What’s Next may also be setting a direction in advertising supported direct mail titles. I certainly don’t think any less of the Chevrolet Malibu for having appended What’s Next to my Vanity Fair. But I’m not entirely sure  I am a representative sample. I actually might have opened it up had it appeared on its own. So maybe the future of the magazine medium is as serial themed junk mail? It would be a future, so let’s not dismiss the idea out of hand. 

Tabloids Enter Presidential Election Frey
The Tabloid presentation is nothing new. Much of what they do is a theft from the 1950s magazine Confidential. Whereas Confidential spent actual money digging up celeb dirt, the tabs largely make things up or are fed pieces by publicity agents. When it comes to covering presidential candidates, however, the tabs have occasionally trotted out some journalistic moxie. It was the Enquirer (publisher of all of the remaining tabloids plus Star Magazine) that busted John Edwards. For those of you who don’t remember, Edwards was a rising light in the Democratic Party who the tabs revealed as being a leave your wife while she has cancer and impregnate your publicist class scum-bag. And for that the tabs do deserve a modicum of credit. But mostly they just serve as outlets for opposition research material of an off taste variety. When they aren’t just making things up.

Two prominent tabloids, the Enquirer and the New York Daily News, have come out in favor of Donald Trump. Actually endorsing a candidate is something new for the Enquirer. Both tabs seem to have made the choice for business reasons.  Trump has been very good to the Daily News. One imagines that the prospect of a Trump Presidency makes the Enquirer’s mouth water. The Enquirer is also seemingly carrying the Trump campaign’s water by running a spurious piece about Ted Cruz’s mistresses.

This is a new trend. Smearing on one candidate’s behalf is without precedent. Tabs have always been equal opportunity smear distributors.  When it comes to people in the presidential realm, tabs have spotty credibility. For each Nancy Reagan astrologer, Bill Clinton mistress or John Edwards misdeed accurately disclosed, there are legions of flat out fabrications run nearly every issue of the election season. Few of them reach the height of salaciousness trotted out by American Spectator with its Hillary Clinton Murder Mystery. Mostly we have over the top whoppers, told in serial form.

President Obama is gay. You would know this if you read the tabloids. W and his wife were continually on the verge of divorce. Obvious fabrications such as these have been more the norm than the exception for the tabloids for as long as they have been around. But the tabloids, at least in the form that we know them now, have only really been around since the 1970s. As a field, tabloids began to gain traction with the Manson murders. There was a lot more variety in their offerings back when each tabloid was produced by a different publisher.  In the 1990s the Globe and the Enquirer merged and there has been only one publisher in the field since. Prior to the Reagans, the tabs didn’t consider Presidents to be enough of a draw.

I don’t think anyone believes Ted Cruz has a mistress. Or several. No one likes Ted Cruz that much. And as the tabs are likely to find out, no one cares.

Playboy The Long Goodbye
Overall indifference seems to be what has been driving the changes at Playboy magazine over the past few months. Behind the scenes, Playboy has undergone a series of transformations. Playboy used to be a fairly sizable content provider, with a cable television station and a music label.  It dabbled as a movie producer and a slinger of video tapes and CDs. And if you’re near death, you probably remember the Playboy nightclubs and the Playboy After Dark television programs. Perhaps not so well remembered is that none of these things did all that well in the long term. No one is employed as a “bunny” anymore. Not for decades.

Back when there was a Playboy empire, the old saying about the magazine went “a million people a month can’t be wrong.” That figure is now 800 thousand, ten times a year and is probably sliding towards the 500 thousand mark. I can’t imagine that there’s ever been much of a cry from the people who still read Playboy about any need for changes. The magazine’s problems have not been content related, at least on the surface. Unattainable naked women are still a pretty good draw. And classing up the package with lit pieces and journalism and comics and humor is the proven way to go. The problem is that it has some fairly high fixed expenses and only one revenue source. Vice advertisers are only going to pay so much to reach a diminishing and steadily aging demographic.

There aren’t any good choices here. And Playboy has already gone ahead with the obvious ones. Playboy is no longer a major content provider. It is largely a licensor. It pimps the Playboy brand name to whatever you want to stick it on. It no longer produces the magazine. Rather it packages the contents. The magazine is actually published and distributed by the National Enquirer. This hedges Playboy’s risk, but it also caps its pass through on cover price profits. These economy measures, however, do not seem to have been enough.

So they jettisoned the naked, unattainable women. Playboy had been the only title in its full frontal softcore space for the last few years. Hustler went hardcore. Penthouse evaporated and then was revived as a hardcore brand. Behind the scenes, Playboy is the financial backer of a number of hardcore enterprises. (Not exactly a magic money machine, either.) The transitioned Playboy flagship now fits in with a groove carved out by the likes of Maxim and Hooter’s Magazine. How much better this space is, I can’t say. None of the lad mags seem all that chock full of advertising. Details just folded shop and GQ and Esquire are hardly humming. But we were led to believe this was to increase the magazine’s appeal to advertisers.

Then the other shoe dropped. Actually Playboy would like to be gone. The owner would like to be paid for the privilege of someone else producing his magazine. Or he’ll sell you the Playboy trademark and call it a day. He’s also selling the mansion.

This is where we cue the analysis about magazine trends and the rise of internet pornography and changes in lifestyle focus. Nonsense. Flashy vulgarians have been with us since the start of mass mediums and they will be with us until the Andy Warhol apportioned five minutes of fame mandate comes into effect.  Playboy’s owner is just one of a string of people of similar ilk. If there continues to be a magazine business, there will always be someone like him in it.

This is about the owner doing the right thing by his heirs. It is better to leave behind a giant pile of money than it is a business. Or real estate.  Neither the owner nor his daughter need Playboy anymore. They don’t have the money to turn around the business nor exploit the trademark to its furthest extent. This is a perfect situation to sell in.

As for the new Playboy, it sucks. It’s supposed to suck. The new owner will stick the naked girls back in as his/her first move. It’s the classic Classic Coke move. Playboy will be back, if for no other reason than it’s the only brand name in its space. Or at least that’s my prediction.

Next: No one put a gun to my head, but I did see the latest Superman movie. Great Caesar’s ghost! We must save Superman! 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pulp Censorship (Pulp History)

This may be the shortest article I’ve ever written on the subject of pulp magazine history.

It didn’t happen. Pulp magazines faced little in the way of organized or widespread censorship. They were seldom banned from newsstands or forbidden to use the mails. And none were ever censored nor prevented from publishing. All in all, the U.S. government took scant action against the pulps.

Comic Books were burned in the 1950s. The entire comic book industry was forced into a self-regulation regime. But comic books are not really a type of pulp magazine, nor were they treated as such. Both pulp publishers and comic book publishers were investigated by various committees of Congress.  American pulp magazines faced import bans and censorship in Canada, Australia and South Africa. In the end, the pulps which survived WWII were essentially boycotted out of business. Although the boycott was organized and  effective, it was not driven by consumers or political actors.  

But all of the above are incidents, bumps in the road, and hardly the stuff of a building narrative. The history of pulp magazines is fairly devoid of class struggle.  Or battles pitting conservatives against liberals. The pulps did not fight any glorious uphill battle against the forces of censorship. Editorially the pulps made their livings on sex and violence, but were otherwise politically all over the board.

So there is no broad story to be told here. In true pulp bait and switch fashion, I am therefor changing our topic to:

How The Pulps Avoided Censorship: 
Flouting Community Standards for Fun and Profit, 
a tale of Market Forces in Action.

There are three types of pulp magazines: Common Carriers, Narrowcasters and Stock Shock.

·         Common Carriers: these are fiction anthologies without a theme, or general interest magazines noted for their fiction content. A number of early pulps fall into this category. Of the early entries, many are converted Story Papers, conventional magazines as we know them, only printed on pulp stock. Others don’t have a specific genre of fiction that they are peddling, but rather a slant or a standard of quality. You could include Weird Tales, Blue Book and Adventure in this slot, but it is more intended for names such as Everybody’s and Brief Stories.  

·    Narrowcasters: These are fiction anthologies pitching a set genre, pitching a set range of genres, or are continuing character magazines. 90% of all pulp magazines ever published fall under this broad heading. Once the pulp magazine field developed, the producers started drilling down on what each title was specifically offering.  

·         Stock Shock: Girlie Magazines, True Crime, True Romance, Sensationalism, Movie Fan and Gossip. Gossip was a late entry into the pulp form, later jumping the pond, reverting to Story Paper format (Supermarket Tabloids) and then evolving into a slick section (People Magazine and its clones). Girlie magazines came in with the modern magazine format itself, the sole purpose of which was to reproduce photographs. Pulp Girlie magazines padded out their not quite as naughty bits with pulp stock paper. True Crime and Sensationalism predated the pulp format, porting their wares in from the Story Papers. Venerable Girlie Magazine/True Crime/Sports rag Police Gazette led the switch to pulp and then other pulp publishers jumped in to duplicate it. Pulps also originated their own sleaze slants, such as the smutty romance Flapper Fiction trend (Breezy Stories, Smart Set) and sleaze humor (College Humor, Film Fun). And they weren’t opposed to adding a bit of sleaze to their stock genres, signaling such by appending code words like Spicy to the titles.  While the Movie Fan magazines were not initially either pulp or sleazy, they did eventually slide into gossip.

During any given time in pulp magazine history, you are going to have a mix of the above, all garishly elbowing for space on the same newsstands and drug store shelves. It’s not an even mix. As mentioned, the Common Carriers faded, diminishing to a few titles by  1933. Narrowcasters flooded the market, becoming more narrow and more specific, genre splicing and sprouting more genres. Although they dominated the market, they were a follow the leader tribe, with die outs and emergences within the mix constantly occurring.  Once established, the girlie magazines, true crime and true romance titles became permanent denizens of the marketplace. They didn’t go out of style. They always sold.  They and the western romance titles were the longest lasting of the breed in pure pulp form, and the last of the breed standing. Sometimes the more downscale side of the taste spectrum was the entirety of the market.

Pulp magazines did not exist in a media vacuum.  They were only a part of the mainstream of American mass mediums early on. Like all magazines, they were edged from center stage in the consumption of the public’s time by the rise of movies, radio and then television. More than anything else, it was the rise of radio (starting in 1930) that caused a die out in the reading for fun and enlightenment habit. It wasn’t until the talking boxes became a mainstay of most homes that it was again safe to be an illiterate. Post radio, it was abundantly possible to be passably well informed quite passively. A full one third of the magazines and newspapers in the United States evaporated.

Pulp magazines are fake magazines. The modern magazine format is a post-Civil War invention, an innovation meant to mass reproduce photographs. Photographs on specific topics are the draw of the magazine medium. This may not seem all that attractive in today’s light, but prior to the availability of lithographic paper stock, photographs were custom made, short run items. So people bought magazines to obtain the photos, to be taken on an as true to life as possible tour of a specific topic. Pulp magazines do not use this wonderful paper stock, except on their covers. The interiors of a pulp magazine are made of newsprint… or something even worse. They share the same dimensions and general lay out of a real magazine. The pages are composed in accordance with the expectations of a magazine. But they don’t have any photographs. Instead they spotlight line art. It’s an unusual presentation: fiction dressed up as if it were a factual magazine article.

Magazines were a big deal at the time. As with comic strips today, there was a specific language to the layout of a magazine. Pulp magazines copied that language and applied it to fiction. Their stock and trade came to be the short story. Most packaged similar short stories together. Others peddled novel length works or a mix of short stories, serializations and novellas. Aping the mechanical dimensions of other magazines granted them shelf space. Once pulp magazines established themselves, they became a draw.  Pulp magazines were never a big part of the magazine market, but they held their place as the market for magazines itself contracted.

They were the most efficient fiction vehicles of their time. They came to specialize in an over the top presentation and a fast plotted style. During their history they minted a number of genres, but they also brought some baggage from previous vehicle types. Since our beat tonight is censorship, we need to touch on the warts accumulated by the pulp’s direct ancestors. This is really where the censorship bug started.

The terms Pulp, Dime Novel and Penny Dreadful are often used as synonyms.  Although these are actually different forms, there are some historical links. Pulp magazines are linear descendants of Dime Novels and Story Papers. (Many early pulp magazine titles started as either Dime Novels or Story Papers.) When it comes to the Story Papers, the sleaze was there from the start. When Police Gazette started its format of wall to wall orgies and mass murders in 1845, it was entering a crowded field. There were dozens of similar newspaper-like weekly publications recounting all manner of tales of blood lust, Indian misdeeds and sex escapades.  It was all made up. It was all lies. As a medium it might have been the most popular form of fiction in wide spread circulation at the time.

No one bothered to crack down on it. The material was kept away from impressionable eyes, being circulated in pool halls, bath houses, taverns, cigar stores, barber shops and other places adult men might congregate. Primarily the products of local newspapers, these publications were mostly regional and short run. It did have demonstrable sales appeal, some of which was ported into the later Dime Novel form.

In their original incarnation, Dime Novels resembled the Old Farmer’s Almanac. These are digests of center folded newsprint with a thin gauge cardboard cover. Later the Dime Novels came to resemble modern comic books, with a slick or colored cover over a single folio of 16 sheets of center stapled newsprint. In either mode, they’re sort of flimsy.

Dime Novels were the hit of the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides of the Civil War consumed Dime Novels by the score. They were popular on the home front, too. The original physical format that the Dime Novels used came to be the standard for all American magazine-like publications of the time. All periodicals are of these dimensions. The dynamics of the Dime Novel are driven by the mechanical considerations of the steam driven sheet fed press and the requirements of the post office for periodical literature, which had a discounted delivery rate.

What distinguishes a Dime Novel from other periodicals of the day is that they are not collections of articles or advertising vehicles, but rather one solid work of long form fiction. Most of the fiction was original and commissioned for the format. It’s really a paperback book in everything but the title. Dime Novels actually set the accepted word count for the American Novel at between 40 and 60 thousand words, which was the format’s staple limit. In order to qualify for periodical postage (Dime Novels were intended as a mail order item), these books are issued as numbers in a periodical series. In short, they’re paperbacks pretending to be magazines. Making matters more confusing: (1) Novels which sell well may be issued as another number in the same periodical series and (2) in order to increase their shelf life, Dime Novels are cover dated up to three years into the future.

In 1890 the United States Post Office finally cracked down on the Dime Novels, revoking their postage discount. (There were earlier crackdowns.) By that point the Dime Novels were no longer primarily distributed by the mails. They had upped their eye appeal by this point with spray on stencil covers and seeding their interiors with utterly random illustrations. They are now retail merchandise, inhabitants of that stack by the window at the general store. Also, as we detailed in another post, they were living on as nostalgia items.

At the close of the Civil War, the Dime Novel field largely went into reprint mode. They just kept pumping out the same titles, over and over, decade after decade. As a whole, the Dime Novel universe became tagged as Y-A material. Generations of young people, one after another, matriculated through this material… and hopefully onto better things. Although many of the offerings were retreads, once the Dime Novels gained retail shelf space, new material began to filter in which shared the same presentation.

These new dime novels were character magazines and a raft of publications which resembled the sleazy end of the Story Paper spectrum. The character magazines were something of a continuation on a theme which had emerged in story papers, of a series of super heroes (boy detectives, boy inventors, boy explorers) whose exploits appeared month after month. Anthologies of children’s literature, short prose and pen activities, also came to filter in. And all of this came to share space with adult Joke Books, all occupying the same unsorted pile.

And then came Jesse James. Obviously Jesse James was a real criminal.  Character magazines featuring this outlaw began showing up with the other Dime Novels. These magazines did not cling to the outlaw’s actual exploits and were actually an attempt to graft the true crime exploitation trend to the character magazine format. While the real Jesse James was hardly a choirboy, fictional Jesse James was a monster capable of any act of depravity. He will tear off the arms of his enemies and then use those limbs as lethal weapons.  This adult-oriented, editorially unhinged presentation was followed up by offerings about other outlaws, most notably Billy the Kid.

The trend came to taint the reputation of the Dime Novel field. It also extended the format’s lifespan. Violence, lawlessness, substance abuse and tawdry behavior of all types were glorified in the new character novels, especially the ones featuring out west outlaws. It must have caught on, since there was a steady stream of the stuff right until the end. School teachers hated Dime Novels, specifically the new character magazines. It wasn’t so much content that was being objected to, but rather the use of language. Whereas the earlier Dime Novels were written in regulation 4th Grade English, the character magazines were not as meticulously edited and put pride of place to slang. As opposed to dooming the field, the negative attention seems to have driven sales.

I should also note that there was a trend in proto-magazines which had cropped up at about the same time as these last wave Dime Novels were coming into the fold. It had started as a trend in literary magazines, spread to the remaining sleaze merchants and spawned a trend in periodicals aimed at homemakers. So there were magazine-like things in the marketplace well before actual magazines showed up. What the ratio was between Dime Novels and the other publications has been lost to history.

What eventually killed the Dime Novel format, which had arguably been around since colonial times, was the rise of press batteries specifically designed to manufacture standard sized magazines. Standardization was the key to industrialization in all manufacturing—and magazine production was no different. Almost all magazines of the time resembled what National Geographic looks like today.  Although set up for litho stock, seeding in folios of lesser grade material was a well accommodated economy method. At a certain print run, it was far cheaper to produce periodicals in the magazine format than it was in the antiquated dime novel configuration. Moreover, the magazine format had become the configuration most preferred by consumers.

So the Dime Novels ported over into pulp. Originally the pulp format was the home to a class of escapist fiction later branded as Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror. This mix was then joined by the material which had transitioned from the dime novels. The offerings ranged in levels of taste, but there was always a solid undercard of prurient scum. It was a haven for a class of publishers who were willing to do anything for a buck.

The pulps were big business from the onset. A succession of industry leaders defended the pulp turf from government regulation. The pulps were also cash cows and the major publishers were quick to spend their loot, hoovering up more respectable real estate throughout the publishing spectrum. It was a turnover in the ownership of the publishing industry, with the pulp magnates taking the lead. They owned the book publishers. They owned newspapers. They pushed their wares onto the radio. Even the mom and pop operators were tied into this pulp establishment. This establishment held sway in both the Progressive and Conservative wings of the Republican Party. Not that any serious censorship effort was ever raised up, but it would have faced powerful opposition. The pulp universe remained a free market throughout its heyday.

They were on the receiving end of a few governmental brush back pitches, however. As with the wild west outlaws, pulps were quick to launch titles glorifying the exploits Prohibition Era mobsters. Largely a trend of lesser publishers, it even subdivided into a genre covering the lifestyles of Gun Molls.

More than one publisher received a “knock it off” visit from the FBI. And the trend was snuffed out, nearly overnight. Many of the gang titles converted into fictional promotion arms for the feds. The personal touch works!

In the late 1930s porn publisher Culture Publications faced a ban on the distribution of its magazines within the borders of New York City. As with many smut publishers, Culture manufactured clean versions of their magazines for circulation to the newsstand market. Essentially they just took the smutty pictures out and sold the contents as another magazine.  Normally the publisher would change the cover and tone down the illustrations and maybe retitle the clean version. In this case, Culture didn’t do as thorough of a cleaning as they should have.

This is the cover that got Culture in trouble. Mayor La Guardia spotted this at his local newsstand while on his way to work one morning and flipped out. Unfortunately for Culture, they were produced in New York, meaning that the ban put them immediately out of business. Culture moved two blocks away and changed their brand from Spicy to Speed and continued publishing soon afterward. Today the firm is known as DC Comics.  

That was it for censorship. The pulp fiction publishers faced far more official scrutiny over their tendency to use unattributed reprints than they ever did from content issues. As pulp magazines became less broadly popular, they became more prone to catering to niche  tastes. This trend started early on and then began progressing, until the entire pulp field was dominated by off center presentations.  The pulp magazine format was also under pressure from market and technological forces.

Paper shortages brought on by WWII caused a contraction of the overall pulp market. The artificial scarcity of paper—really a government mandated overvaluing of the paper commodity—pressed the publishers to ply more value added presentations. The two big spinoffs from industry experimentation brought on by the paper rationing regime were comic books and paperbacks. Comic Books went on to become their own medium, although they carried heavy pulp baggage at the onset. The true further development of pulp fiction was actually carried on in paperback form.

Sort of. The paperbacks did not appear standardized, did not emerge fully formed like Venus on the half shell to replace the pulps. There was an entire non standard era in paperbacks, starting with WWII and ending in the middle 1950s. The paperback as a set and identifiable mass market item did not gain traction until the later 1950s. And even at their height, paperbacks only had a fraction of the draw that the pulps enjoyed.

The early period paperbacks are referred to as digests. All of them are in a form similar to Reader’s Digest, which is a format that has been popular since that magazine gained traction. This format occasionally has increased attractiveness, especially when printing costs, postage rates and paper prices are particularly high. The entire WWII era in digests is something of a replay of the Dime Novel era. As with that era, many of the digest titles were issued as numbers of a periodical series, even though each issue was a standalone novel. Much of what appeared in digest form were in two mainstream genres, Detective Mystery and Western. Unlike the Dime Novels, much of what appeared in digest form was either recycled from the pulps or condensed from popular genre hard bound books. That said, what was driving this market were original short novels—all of it over the top sleaze. The digests were a sea of wanton sex and drug use.

We touched briefly on the secondary distribution system deployed by the sleazy area of the pulp publishing universe.  Most pulp magazines were distributed by several syndicates. In the over the counter market, the end users are reached though newsstands, grocery stores, drug stores and, to a lesser extent, bookstores. This is largely a consignment market; wherein no one actually gets paid anything until the magazine is sold. The retailer makes his nut at the time of sale, the distributor gets his when returns are counted and finally the publisher is paid, when the distributor feels like it—generally a three-month lag time. In the truly classic set up, the printer then gets paid. This is a fine system as long as all parties have operating capital and credit, money to run until you make money. The under the counter market is entirely different. First, there is no trust, there is no credit. Our publisher pays the writer, the cover artist and the printer. Then he invites in jobbers. The jobbers are the distributors here, many of them with a sideline that will take them into various stores. The jobbers take the stuff with them on their rounds, offering sales of a carton of digests at one set price. (If the jobber doesn’t eventually sell it, he brings it back to the publisher.) The retailer buys the entire carton at one price. And he eats the loss if it doesn’t sell. It’s a cut throat system with a lot of mark up imbedded to offset the risks.

The WWII era paper shortages, lingering credit issues and gas rationing created a climate favoring the under the counter distribution system. Even before the war, pulps were starting to lose their newsstand, dime store and department store distribution outlets. (Grocery stores never handled pulps.) The digests moved in tandem with girlie magazines into the traditional under the counter markets, but also expanded out to such non-traditional venues as gas stations, card stores and the emerging convenience store market. 

During WWII pulps had cut their cover prices, but retained their typical dimensions. Those pulps which had the connections to continue publishing were plodding along with cover prices of typically 10 to 25 cents. All magazines were operating under price controls at the time. Digests were an unregulated sector and were free to price themselves at whatever the market would tolerate. They typically went for 25 to 30 cents—and were about one fourth of the price of a pulp to produce. And while pulps became somewhat rare during the war, digests were plentiful and growing. They continued to grow even after the war, at least through the end of the flash Depression of the late 1940s.

Whatever its other drawbacks are, the under the counter market is extremely efficient. It has a very fast feedback loop. The publishers knew what was selling in short order. This market led with smut. Much of it, it should be said, was aimed at a female audience. Fiction featuring wanton promiscuity had been a staple of the pulps and the private lending library market for decades. While the pulp offerings had mostly followed the very libertine conventions of Flapper Fiction, the new digests had an emphasis on deviant sexuality, homosexuality and drug use. Once wartime conditions ended, many publishers anticipated a new direction for the pulps.

Drug stores started getting into the act. By the late 1940s the drug stores had become the primary outlets for the digests—as they were for comic books and pulps and tabloids. This drug store chain acceptance could be considered one of the driving forces in the broadening out of the genres away from smut and into Detective Mystery and Western. Or it is more likely that the drug stores simply wanted in on an emerging high mark-up product line. The publication history of the digests suggests that they had started offerings in the other two genres while still in non-traditional sales venues.  Digests or something digest-like looked like it was going to be the wave of the future.

Paper and credit shortages, however, were the real factors holding the digest market together. Once the paper came back, all of the publishers moved on to better things. Two major publishers emerged out of the digest boom, Avon and Hillman. Both had some pre-digest ventures, but this market is where they made their bones, especially Hillman. Pulp publishers Ace, the Thrilling Group and Columbia Publications (Archie Comics) dabbled in the market for as long as they had to. Martin Goodman (Marvel Comics), Lev Gleason (publisher of the million selling comic book Crime Does Not Pay) and various associates of Lev Gleason were the digest market’s mainstays, producing between their imprints half off all the digest field. There were very few operators who seemed to be in digests exclusively, and all of them were smut slingers. The all-fiction digest market’s originator, venerable right wing publisher American Mercury, largely went by the wayside—although its offerings were the first to dent the drug store market. By the time the actual paperback emerged as an identifiable product, American Mercury was done as a going concern.

All of this would seem to be leading up to the introduction of the paperback as the fiction vehicle of the new age. Except that it didn’t happen. Everyone who surged into paperbacks at the end of the war soon threw in the towel, including Martin Goodman. (Goodman was the most influential publisher in the digest field.)  When the paper came back, the digests died, except for the smut, which continued in its non-standard sales areas. Eventually the smut digests converted into paperback form.

Not that there was a shortage of smut in the new magazines. With the war’s close, magazines plying the pulp’s core genres swept back into the market. These genres were highly influenced by what had been proven in the digests, leading to the Golden Age of Scum. By the middle 1950s all of the pulp titles which had vanished with the war were back on the stands. Actual pulp magazines came back, although it was their last stand.

The pulp format was now on its sixth decade.  New efficient presses, allowing for shorter runs and less expensive set up, became the norm. And the entire magazine industry had become less standardized.  By the time the pulps reappeared, they were one of a handful of publications still using the old configuration. Many of the continuing pulp titles, including the pulp’s flagship Argosy, switched to photo offset or litho stock. The titles themselves started to switch focus. Argosy, which had started as an all-fiction magazine, switched to true crime and sensation. Blue Book, once a theatrical news peddler turned all-fiction litho, came to ply men’s adventure and eventually gay lifestyle offerings. That said, most of the magazines inhabiting the Golden Age of Scum shelf space were entirely new publications. As was typical of the pulp retail space when the market is healthy, there were an enormous variety of titles present, all offered in limited quantity. You might have 200 plus titles on any drug store magazine rack, all available in quantities of between 3 and 25 copies each. That was the set up that pays in pulp land and it was a draw and cash cow for the drug stores from the 1940s through the early 1970s.

This Golden Age of Scum reached its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s.  Flagship titles of this era included Confidential, Playboy, True and the National Enquirer. None of these offerings are what one might call ‘mainstream’. We normally think of this era as being one of staid, homogenized conformity, especially in major media forms. And it was. Yet thriving in their own parallel continuum was a counter cultural spectrum in magazine form. It was the full flowering of a trend which had started decades before.

From the 1930s on, the pulps were not mainstream. They weren’t going for the sensible, staid crowd at all. They held onto their shelf space by being Illicit-Lite—too bloody for the newspaper, too graphic for the movies, too bawdy for the hard bounds—and willing to take chances on off track genres like Science Fiction and Horror. During the pulp’s reign there were no horror novels. It existed in pulp form and in the movies—with the movies being the tamer form. They had two brands of Romance, Flapper Fiction and True Confessions, which didn’t appear in print anywhere else. They lost some of their forms as time went on—the hard boiled detective, the super hero and eventually space opera science fiction—but the other forms they held onto, simply because no other medium would touch them.

Being fringe-worthy did have its downside. As with any mass form, most of the pulp universe was pure schlock. A lot of it was produced simply to be shocking and not much else.  In the 1950s there was an overabundance of official nitpicking pointed at the pulp medium. As long as what you were producing wasn’t ‘kid’s stuff’ public sentiment wasn’t likely to turn on you. This was the downfall of the comic books. In the end, however, it was the drug industry versus the bible thumpers, with a predictable result. Big pharma won.

Pulp publishers had been using the bible thumpers as foils for years. Harold Hersey recounts in his book that he directed his distribution staff to alert conservative church leaders whenever he was about to send out objectionable material. Apparently as far back as the 1930s, being condemned from certain pulpits was good for drumming up interest.   Many publishers produced titles with trick covers. When arranged a certain way on the stands, the combined cover illustrations would produce an image far more ‘exciting’ than anything found in the individual magazine’s pages. All of these attention getting stunts had something of a rouge slant.  Drug stores were particularly good at playing this up. During the Golden Age of Scum, the drug stores segregated their magazine racks, much in the same way video stores used to wall off their adult movies.

All of this attention was good for sales, but it fed a parade of official scrutiny. From the late 1940s through the end of the 1950s publishers within the ‘pulp sphere’ were hauled up before various committees of Congress. Much of this came to a crescendo with the comic book hearings. As a result, Comic Books became tame to the point of near extinction. The rest of the pulp universe didn’t miss a sleazy beat. In fact, the height of official scrutiny coincided with the magazine’s post WWII apex in popularity. Counter-culture was extremely popular.

This seems is stark contrast with the thorough deodorization sweeping movies and the emerging medium of television at the time. Prior to the war, the bullet riddled bodies of mobsters often appeared on newspapers. During the war dead and disfigured corpses were commonplace newsreel images. There had been a creeping acceptance of human sexuality from the 1920s on.

Suddenly, the 1950s hits and the cowboys are shooting guns out of people’s hands, bullet wounds don’t gush blood. married couples are depicted as sleeping in separate beds, spoken language is bled of its four color slang, politics became genteel and the newspapers began merely alluding to events they would have described with vivid detail in decades previous. What happened?

The Depression was a long slog which ended in a nightmare of bloodletting on a global scale. And the end of WWII did not bring instant prosperity. For a time it looked as if the bad news had not ended. During this transition period there emerged two broad trends in popular escapism. One was towards an agnostic relativism, cynicism dressed in detached pseudo-scientific babble. You can see this trend doing track work with the noir movies. It often paraded itself about as realism. The other trend was that popular entertainment should be about wish fulfillment, positive aspiration. Wishes should be happy.   

There were also a large number of toddlers suddenly present. Breeders and their broods were in the majority. Mass mediums of all kinds became baby proofed. There should be nothing unpleasant bleating in the presence of spawn whose parents liberated the world. The people have spoken. Disneyland wins.

Comic books got nailed because they were viewed as kid’s stuff.  As harsh and over the top as efforts directed against comic books may seem, the net result did not carry the force of law. The comic book publishers agreed that they were primarily a children’s medium and decided to adopt editorial standards in line with that. When the titles staying in pulp magazine format came to be boycotted, it had nothing to do with content. To make a long story short, pulp magazines took up twice the shelf space as the standard photo offset magazine, with no better mark up. So they had to go. Pulp fiction continued on—many of the same titles continued on—but the format was kaput. Compounding the situation further, many of the large publishers decided to flood the market with new titles in the mid-1950s. The drug stores responded to the new influx of titles by shortening the shelf life of the magazines already on their racks. At the height, new stuff came in and old stuff went out, resulting in the magazines receiving only a week or so in sales exposure. This inevitably is what killed the Golden Goose of the Golden Age of Scum.

Killed is perhaps too big of a word. It left the drug stores. Pulp fiction continued. It was just no longer as centrally located. To this date there are still some pulp like titles available at drug stores.

None of it has ever been censored. The United States is an “Enlightenment” country. It is centered on an Enlightenment Era document which enshrines freedom of the press. The culture is specifically reverent of the printed word. In general, the public takes a “if you can reach up to the bar, you’re old enough to drink” approach to printed materials. Disputes as to the quality of printed materials only come into play when public funds are involved. Most of these center on library acquisitions and almost all of them are politically motivated. There have been numerous efforts to ban the works of Mark Twain from inclusion on library shelves, but none directed against such pulp luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft and Earl Stanley Gardner.

Of course, few pulp magazines were ever a part of any library’s collection. Little pulp fiction got into libraries on the first bounce. By the time Lovecraft and Gardner and hundreds of other’s works made it to your library, it was nicely clad in hardbound covers and simply labeled as fiction. Mark Twain merits the occasional bouts of political ire because his works mean something.  Boobies, crooks, monsters and UFOs are nice draws for eyeballs, but are fairly meaningless. From the classical censor’s standpoint, pulp fiction isn’t worth the lead to shoot. And that’s perhaps for the best.

Note: I’ve painted with a fairly broad brush here and still went over 5000 words. My sole intention was to explain what the market was like and why censorship efforts newer took a serious foothold. I have made a few generalizations in the interest of brevity.

We’ve let a few topics slide in since our last posting. The next few topics will be a bit more contemporary.

As always, your feedback is invited.

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