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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pulp Basics

I recently had the good fortune of reading Ron Goulart's Cheap Thrills, the first informal history ever done of the pulp magazine field. Published in 1978 by the still kicking Adventure House, it was one of a slew of pulp histories churned out by people who had been in the magazines' original audience. Or at least some permutation thereof.

It's Boomer History. Or just Pre-Boomer history. Like most histories of this time, it gravitates towards some things and away from others. There is absolutely nothing wrong in people covering what they are interested in. The problem is, the same things keep interesting people over and over again--leaving some things covered to death and others dismissed simply because they are not covered at all.

I thought I would mention this because it is the purpose of Modern Thrills to cover those aspects of pulp history which are being given less notice. I have found that less notice does not necessarily mean less popular or less important.

Goulart's book can be given a good grade because it is one of the first. What criticism I have for the informal style is for everyone who follows in his footsteps. There are certainly a lot of good things in Cheap Thrills. Goulart is mining the brains of that first group of fandom types and condensing the information found in numerous xeroxed Bronze Shadows ilk zines. He has the fan history buffs by the ear and makes them spill. There were also a smattering of publishers still around for him to pick on and question along with the odd author or two.

He certainly has the goods on hard boiled detectives and superheroes. There is a very obvious follow the dots connection that he traces between pulp magazines and comic books. That comic books somewhat replaced pulps is somewhat implied. Goulart fesses up that he's only covering the field from the late 1930s until the 1950s, which is sort of like covering WWII from the time we dropped the bomb through the start of the Marshall Plan. The entire magazine era was over with the advent of radio. What's being covered is not the height of the industry, but rather its dregs and mutations.

There is very scant mention of the romance titles, except to say that Ranch Romances was still kicking at the time. True Crime, confessions and the movie magazines are not handled at all--as if they are not fiction or not a part of the pulp universe.

Obviously, in order to do a history, you have to restrict your topic somewhat. Restricting yor topic simply to magazines with slick covers and newspaper guts is making a distinction that the publishers, writers and distributors did not. By the mid 1930s, where Goulart starts his history, the pulp is merely one of the vehicles these publishers, writers and distributors were handling. For the longest time, the same writing could be found in Pulps and Paperbacks. Dime Novels coexisted with Pulps for a very long time. On many newsstands it was possible to find digest, pulps, comics and paperbacks all sitting alongside each other. One form did not necessarily replace the other. Nor is it particularly a swift idea to define a product by what it is contained by.

I will restrict pulp fiction to the printed word. The majority of these publications are intended as impulse buys--reading candy. They are all escapist and most of them sided on the fantastic. Very, very few of the products were advertising supported.

Pulp Fiction is not an American invention. Some of the genres are distinctly American, but most are imports. Just as most of the genres are imports, most of the vehicles are shabby knock offs. I will delve into genres in another post. Since some people may be confused as to what I am talking about, I thought a brief survey of the various vehicles (packaging) and their histories might be in order.

Pulp Vehicles

The newspaper is the start of everything, although not necessarily the start of pulp fiction. We can start pulp fiction with the publication of calendars depicting torture and execution, which were quite popular for the longest damn time, primarily in England. It's certainly not something you need, certainly sensational and the truth behind it was dubious. This was the start of Big Lie News-Fiction or True Crime, the oldest of the pulp genres.

The first actual pulp vehicles came out of a subdivision of newspapers. Most newspapers were sort of what they are today. They are all about what is going on in a given locale. They were also a pretty easy business to get into, so there was always a lot of competition. Competition being fierce, many publishers started creating specialized newspapers which covered different subjects as a focus. Thus the magazine was born.

This is of course a very long story told very shortly. (I have a lot of material to cover and this portion of it is not all that material.) For a long time there isn't much physical distinction between a newspaper and what we would call a magazine. The Economist, a magazine, still calls itself a newspaper, even though it hasn't been one in many decades. Very early on, newspapers began to subdivide into publications of hard news--which we will call a newspaper--and publications of specific interest--which I will call a Story Paper.

Sometimes the difference isn't all that cut and dried. Often a newspaper might shift its focus between editions, with the morning paper being hard news of the world and the evening edition being entertaining reading material. This trend was primarily in markets with many newspapers and began to pick up steam through the advents of the telegraph, rural free delivery and the train. It was the spread of the rails, at least in the United States, that really got the Story Papers going.

Story Papers themselves can be subdivided in two ways. One is the Family Paper, a compilation of 'soft features', household hints, light prose fiction, games for the family and the occasional in-depth on fashion or some other focus. The other is what I will call the Illustrated Paper, which is almost exclusively fiction. * Both are early pulp fiction vehicles and both are almost universally in tabloid form. Early illustrated papers had a tendency to either be literary journals put out by societies or were backed by book publishers.

Predating the Story Paper and concurrent with its spread is the Digest or Quartro format. The best current examples of this are the various Old Farmer's Almanac type magazines we occasionally see. These got their starts some time in the Renaissance. By the time of the American Revolution, they are quite popular on the east coast. Benjamin Franklin was a frequent publisher of digests. They generally mirror the Story Papers in content and are just as diverse. Like the Story Papers, they are usually the products of newspaper presses.

There really weren't any other types of presses in common use. Newspapers have several common sizes. The two most widespread are the Bedsheet and the Tabloid. Bedsheet newspapers are made out of very long strips of paper. The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and New York Times are good current examples of the bedsheet style if not the original size. A tabloid, which is what all supermarket papers today are, originally was half a bedsheet page folded in half. All newspapers are folio bound, which is to say they are not bound at all, but simply folded in half and then accumulated into the cover sheet. Many newspapers have several sections of folios, which are then stuffed into the first section, called the Main. Keep all of this in mind, because magazines and books are not all that much different than newspapers in this regard.

The Digest varies from the newspaper in several ways. As originally construed, the digest is a half tabloid page folded in half and made into a folio. Most were further trimmed or squared off. Many of even the oldest versions had a sturdier cover (something akin to construction paper) and were center bound with a staple. Let's put it this way: we only have examples of the ones that were done this way. The ones bound with glue or unbound have been lost to time. The typical advantage of this format is that it can be churned out by a newspaper press. This accounts for the format's continued use. Originally they were stand ins for real books--the first paperbacks.

Books, of course, existed all during this time. They too use the folio accrue system. As opposed to being stuffed into a main sheet, the folios are laid on top of each other and then glued at one edge, or perfect bound (pad bound). They are then sewn into their covers--or glued into the covers and then sewn. All of this eats time and money. If you have neither or only have a newspaper press, you go into the digest business.

Primarily you go into the Story Paper or Digest business because you have spare press capacity and the desire to make a quick buck. Prior to the advent of photography, this is it. This is all you have. Everything evolves out of Digests or Story Papers.

As with all evolution, there are sidetracks which lead to dead ends. One of these is the Clapboard Novel. It is a type of paperback, very popular during the Romantic Period. Like paperbacks today, the covers were made out of cardboard. They were of differing qualities. On the low end, you had two pieces of cardboard holding a folio of paper which was bored and then screwed together. The nicer form had one piece of cardboard folded as a book cover and then had folios glued into it. As a quality finishing touch, many of the better end of this type of book would have their covers covered by what we today would call a sticker. (It was easier to print an illustration on a sticker than it was cardboard.) Often times the sticker would double as back binding. The idea being expressed here in so many permutations is that you are tying to make a book by skimping on the cover and sewing. It was a persistent form, but it was not a paperback as we know them today. The average one might have no sticker and no cover illustration whatsoever and may even have a title which is stamped on. It's not exactly quality publishing.

The big problem was the glue. Until the glue worked, the paperback form was dead. The Clapboard Novels may have been cheap, but they weren't that easy to produce. What we today consider Romance got its start in this form, but it quickly matriculated into the Story Papers. In the United States, the Clapboard Novel barely made a showing. Romance was an early staple of American Family Papers. The other less than literary genres soon found their places in either Story Papers or Digests.

Penny Dreadfuls, Yellowbacks and Dime Novels are physically the same things. Yellowbacks and Dime Novels are literally the same things, the only distinction being that Yellowbacks are English and Dime Novels are their American knock offs. Both owe their presentation to the Penny Dreadful. All are types of Digests.

Unlike the standard digest, the Dime Novel is not subject to the dimensions of a typical newspaper page. A single page is around 11 x 8 and the four page folio sheets are made up of pages which correspond to this. These start showing in the 1800s. At that point, presses had become more versatile. Although many are still the products of newspapers and are printed on newsprint, quite a few press batteries are set up to run only these publications.

It's a Proto-Magazine. These are small tabloids bound in the center with staples, looking very much like cover-less comic books. As opposed to having a cardboard cover, their covers are newsprint splattered with a full color illustration of some kind. This was part of an overall trend in Story Papers at the time. The only thing that actually distinguishes a Dime Novel from any other type of tabloid is that it is bound and smaller.

Newspapers have headlines. Story Papers have cover illustrations. Other than that, they are physically identical. Our bound proto-magazine format never really comes into its own, except as a container for fantastic fiction (pulp fiction) since it occurs just a half step in time before the advent of mass produced photography. What life the pro-magazine does have it owes to the American Civil War. Just as WWII delayed television, the Civil War delayed slick magazines.

There is no sudden jump from the Story Paper format to the proto-magazine format. Some of this is because of the Civil War and some of it is because the proto-magazine format doesn't offer much in the way of an advantage. It does gain some traction exclusively in the reproduction of fiction, mostly in condensed form. Once the Dime Novel form itself gets established, many new works start appearing especially made for its constraints. It's a good container for about 12 to 30 thousand words.

The Dime Novel is actually a subdivision of the proto-magazine. Proto-magazines began appearing in England, France and Germany. The Penny Dreadful is just a type of such that appeared in England. In the United States, the opposite was true. The Dime Novel showed up first and then all of the other proto-magazines showed. Or would have shown, had the Civil War not erupted.

The minute the Civil War is over, slick paper which reproduces photographs mass production style shows up. Now everyone wants to see the photographs. If you have a magazine, you want this paper. You can charge the public a premium to see these photographs (frowned on) or you can get someone else to pay the freight (accept advertising). You can say goodbye to the Story Paper right about here. There is a mass exodus from the story paper form along with a large influx of new publications (mostly sponsored by store chains) which primarily exist to sell people things. This doesn't leave fiction behind in any way. Far from it. What was popular in the Story Papers is shovel-wared right into the slicks. But it isn't the main draw. Pictures are. The Dime Novels do continue on and are the main pulp vehicle for another blink in time.

The Dime Novel's days were in no way over yet. In fact it confuses our earliest inadvertent pulp historian Harold Hersey that there is any distinction between the dime novel and the pulp magazine to begin with. To him, they were all 'sheets', all extensions and permutations of the Yellowback. Hersey, by the way, started Range Romances, one of the last pulps to die.

So far I've mentioned these things without defining them, other than to say they are all identical physically and all are subsets of the proto-magazine,itself a subset of the illustrated newspaper tabloid. A Penny Dreadful is a serial publication. Each edition contains a chunk or chapter of a novel. If the series is selling well, it may go on a bit. If the series is tanking, the end may come sooner than you think. Sometimes. More often than not, it was a novel that had already appeared in hard back form and either the publisher or the writer was putting it out for serial for some extra cash. Each and every part of it needed to be pretty compelling in order to keep the reader coming back for more. Penny Dreadfuls typically had a very lurid full color illustration on the cover of each action packed installment. This type of presentation was then borrowed by the Yellowback. By contrast, a Yellowback is the accumulated version of a novel which has been previously published via serial in a newspaper. As opposed to a serial, you get the whole thing. But wait, there's a catch: the Penny Dreadful and the Yellowback have equal numbers of pages. You may get the whole thing, but there's a lot less of it. All of the issues of a Penny Dreadful are going to equal one novel. Yellowbacks are a little more open-ended. Each issue will contain a 12 to 30 thousand word novel, generally in the same genre as the last. The distinctions are not all that hard and fast. Many Yellowbacks are going to lead with a serial and then have another complete work padding out the remaining pages.

The Dime Novel is the Yellowback's American cousin. Just as Rugby became American Football, leave it to the Yanks to get everything ass backwards. In Dime Novels the stories were complete, but each issue (each novel) was about the same characters. This character magazine was a most distinctly American innovation. But not all Dime Novels were character magazines. Breezy Stories, which we cover on the website, started as an American Yellowback and then went pulp.

Like many of its Dime Novel and Yellowback kin, Breezy Stories did not just leap into pulp. It became a Proto-Pulp first. The long and short of it was that they just stuck a full color slick over on the thing and called it a day. Weirdly, prior to that many Dime Novels had taken to splashing colors on their interior illustrations as well. These early Proto-Pulps were the first full color magazines. The phase didn't last. Once they stuck the slick cover on, many magazines cut costs by dropping interior color and illustrations.

Beyond the expensive paper, slick magazines had all of the problems book publishers had been facing for ages. The primary problem was binding. If you stick to a single folio, you are going to be limited in size. There's only so much center staples are going to do for you. If you limit your size, you limit your potential revenue and have to be careful about content to ad ratio. And the glue problem is not solved at all.

Luckily, there was enough money in the magazine business to spawn a little innovation. The magazine also emerges at a time when standardization in industry is a raging theme. Just as all trains were made to run on the same gauge of tracks, magazines were standardized. (This was later abandoned.) For a time, all slick magazines would be created the same way and have the same standard dimensions.

The dimensions were roughly 11 x 8. Each magazine would be comprised of several folios. The folios are laid on top of each other in an even stack and then stapled together at the edge. The bound pad is then glued into its slightly more substantial cover. It's not perfect, but it works.

Meanwhile our newspapers aren't simply waiting to be put out of business by their slick magazine competitors. Heck no. They're improving their own presses and plying their advantages in close color registry. It isn't very long before newsprint can do everything slick can.

The standardization of magazine binding and improvements in newsprint registry would set the scene for the emergence of the other Pulp Vehicles.

To get back to the Proto-Pulps, they looked pretty shabby compared to the slicks they were sharing newsstand space with. They were smaller and thinner and less weighty than the other magazines. Whatever cost advantage there may have been in being single folio and of a special size was starting to evaporate. If they wanted to compete, they would have to reach some sort of physical parity with the slicks.

Frank Munsey was the owner of a Story Paper called the Golden Argosy. He seems to be the first one to hit on the idea that he could use the standardized slick binding system for a newsprint magazine. Just substitute newsprint for the slick interior. Thanks to standardization, it looks like every other magazine until you open the cover. The Pulp Magazine was born. From such small ideas fortunes are made. Munsey wound up his days as the 4th richest man in America.

Beyond the paper, Munsey had made a strategic decision as to content. For some reason all of the other slick magazine publishers were acting as shovel-ware for book houses. (The reason being that they were getting the stories for free as promotion.) Munsey instead began drawing the same type of less than literary fantastic fiction and romance that had been a staple of the remaining digests and yellowbacks. And away he went to Millionaire Acres. Many soon followed him.

A lot has been written about how pulp fiction got its name from the crappy paper that it was printed on. It was so bad that it couldn't be trimmed, that you could see the wood fibers in it, blah, blah, blah. Although true of a certain age of pulps, most pulp magazines were printed on newsprint or the same stock used today for crossword puzzle books. It's not that bad and it wasn't always so comparatively cheap.

A magazine with a slick cover and other than slick paper and black and white interiors is a Standard Pulp. The Standard Pulp owed its longevity to the standardization of all magazines--something that came about largely because of two world wars. Beyond the Standard Pulp, there are several kinds of pulp magazines.

The first and foremost alternative type is the Sandwich Pulp. This is actually what Munsey invented. Pulp publishers had no intention of forgoing advertising revenue. Oh heck no. Magazine advertisers, on the other hand, didn't want to treat the pulps differently than they did other magazines. The advertiser, having paid through the nose for his nice four color separated photographic ad would prefer to just hand such off to the magazine publisher. In order to accommodate this, our pulp publisher pals would seed slick pages into their folios. Thus pulp and slick appear in the same magazine.

Unfortunately for the Pulp Era, it coincides with a number of economic crashes. Not having advertising wasn't a original part of the game plan. When the slick advertisers started cutting back, our pulp boys started putting the reach out to merchants further down the food chain. The Sandwich Pulp itself mutated into something sleazy, often the type of thing that had naked women at the center of all of its newsprint.

The Photo-Pulp started showing up slightly before the start of WWII. These magazines would spell the end of the pulp magazine as a format and magazine standardization in general. These were the products of photo-offset presses which would make shorter runs much more profitable. These are called Photo-Pulps because photographs are used in place of line art for illustration.

An Argentine is a type of Photo-Pulp that first came into being in Argentina in the 1920s. These read like conventional comic books, but they are illustrated with a series of highly staged photographs. These photo-novellas, photo plays or reading movies became very popular in South and Central America. Eva Peron starred in several photo-pulps. Like all pulp fiction, they had a tendency to trend towards the dramatic, the fantastic and the bloody.

The Comic Book and the Color Pulp are both late form adaptations of the Proto-Pulp. Today, Comic Books (or Graphic Novels) are generally full color litho slick from stem to stern. In their original form they were the products of close color letter-set press batteries designed to print up the Sunday funnies for newspapers. Forms sometimes outgrow their reasons for being. The Color Pulp showed up way after the Comic Book and is a product of photo-offset advances. A Color Pulp is just a pulp magazine with full color illustrations. All pulps published today, such as True Story, are Color Pulps.

The least used type of Proto-Pulp is the single folio, center bound version. It used to be that Mad Magazine and its imitators were the only examples. Marvel Comics and Warren Magazines both tried their hands at pad bound versions of the proto-pulp in comic form. Today Mad doesn't have any imitators and has switched to the Color Pulp format. Or Mad could be what we call a Sweat.

A Sweat or Armpit Slick is a standard issue slick magazine which is plying a pulp genre. These are in no way late comers to the pulp universe. Several publishers, such as Hillman and Macfadden, never published on anything but slick paper. (At least for magazines.) Many pulps, such as Argosy, became Sweats. To cut off the history just because the paper changes seems arbitrary. It's the same group of people doing the same stuff. Through the Sweats, the pulp era gets extended into the 1980s. And there were a lot of Sweats.

Sweats also drew in movie magazine publishers as well as the stray pornographer. I am under a social constraint not to cover the nudie books to any extent. The movie magazine guys and the girlie book guys and the pulp guys, when they aren't the same guys to begin with**, have a tendency to do anything for money. They also produce the world's crossword puzzle books and astrology magazines--two forms that I don't cover, although one is clearly a type of fiction.

Although I try to steer clear of anything targeted at the mentally unwell, I would be less than a good historian if I didn't point out the super market tabloids as a form of pulp vehicle. As I have explained elsewhere, they are a very old form and the last known examples of the Story Paper format. Many pulp magazines started as tabloids and then became pulps, usually of the True Crime variety. The current crop of tabloids are actually a reversion from the pulp formats, plying both Big Lie News-Fiction as well as the Movie Magazine genre. Not to pick nits here, but I consider both True Crime and Movie Fandom to be forms of fiction-only because they largely are fiction. And I include them in pulp fiction because that's where they got their starts.

But genres, no matter how tangential, come in the next post on this subject. My last form of pulp magazine is a cross between a pulp and a digest. It is called a Pulp Digest and this is where we find a lot of magazines like Analog and Ellery Queen's today. The only difference between it and a pulp would seem to be size. That ain't the story. Look closer and you won't see any staples.

The glue problem has been solved! It's taken until 1940 to do it, but it's solved. Once it's solved, paperbacks are around the corner. In fact, digests mutate into paperbacks. The ones that remained digests just didn't make the jump to light speed. And digests had their own weird evolutionary moments, too.

One dead end side track was what I will call the Mexican. Mexicans and Big Little Books are sort of the same thing. Both owe quite a bit to the Argentine as far as presentation is concerned Where they differ from the Argentine is that they are pad bound digests and that they use line illustrations as opposed to photographs. In both Big Little Books and Mexicans the facing page or right page is always dedicated to an illustration. The text is on the left page. In the better done ones the illustrations sort of follows the text. Mexicans ply all pulp genres with absolutely ludicrous abandon. (Hence they are still in business.) Big Little Books, by contrast, are intended for younger readers and usually have a tie in with a movie or a comic strip character.

Which brings me to what happened to the pulp era. First, it's not at all dead. It exists in a handful of magazines and most paperbacks. It's probably as popular as it's ever been--at least with people who read for enjoyment. The number of people who read for enjoyment has been on the decline for one hundred years now, but that doesn't mean that folks are not getting their fill of some form of pulp genre. As actual printed fiction, however, the audience has been stripped away bit by bit. First it was movies, then it was radio and then television and now the internet and video games. That said, post the advent of radio, the percentage of the population who reads for fun has stayed fairly constant. It's clear that the general newspaper readers have fled the form for the internet and the magazine audience my very well follow. Whether the audience for fiction up and takes flight is up in the air at this point.

My personal opinion is that the booksellers have little to fear. If anything, we may turn a few Ipad users into fiction readers and actual buyers of real books.

Pulp fiction itself did not really come about until it was challenged by other media. The fun part of pulp fiction is that it both diverged from and embraced the mainstream at the same time. It's brain dead nitwit reflex was to come up with forms that no other media would touch. To do this it plied the various vehicles I have just described. In the next posting, we will cover the genres themselves and give a full definition of what Pulp Fiction is and is not.

* Hark, I hear the sounds of a Dime Novel historian wanting to jump up and down on me. "Wait, I have the terms confused," he shouts. No, I do not. I reject thy terms entirely, thing of evil. Be gone. (In some histories Story Papers are a subset of Illustrated Newspapers, of which the Penny Dreadful is the only example, the Yellowback a competing form and yet a higher form hovers above them. The terminology is reused and confused, so I have disposed of it.)

** Not all or even most pulp magazine publishers were pornographers, however ALL pornographers were also pulp magazine publishers.



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