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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Women in Crime and the Twilight of the Pulps

 Note: Some of this appeared on a page linked our HIL-GLE website. This page and a few others are in the process of becoming defunct. (After a mere fifteen years of my free use. Capitalist bastards!) Prior to starting HIL-GLE and this blog, I had a number of free webspace ventures where I covered much the same material that I do now. I’m not quite egoist enough to port it all over to this blog simply for the purposes of preservation, but there are some topics which I know a bit more about than I did before which I would like to cast new light upon.  We are starting this updating venture with Women in Crime.

There’s really no excuse for Women in Crime. Whenever people claim entertainments of the past were tame in contrast with today, I am reminded of Dick Tracy blowing folks’ brains out in four color Sunday Funny Page glory, Popular Publication’s Horror Stories, newsreels of Chinese monks being shot by the Japanese and… Women in Crime.

It really should be called ‘Sex-Crazed Female Murderers on Drugs’ since that is its entire literary slant. Women in Crime occupies an odd place in the history of pulp magazines. It spans the transition from pulp paper to photo offset and from painted covers to color retouched black and white photos.

Women in Crime owes its existence to a ban on the importation of pulp magazines into Canada which was instituted at the start of WWII. (1)  With the flow of comics and pulps from the US suddenly cut off, Canadian publishers rose to the challenge, fulfilling their patriotic duty by producing a slew of slam-bang knockoffs of every genre with a following. In general, most of these simply reprinted or repackaged US offerings under another title. Not to cast dispersions upon dead folks, but many supposedly Canadian pulps were more or less smuggle jobs sent over the border and haphazardly distributed by front companies. Women in Crime is not. It is a homegrown, all original, all Canadian publication. Moreover, it was something of an export in its day: perhaps the only Canadian pulp to be widely distributed into the United States.

Its secret? Focus. The publisher only had one magazine and he put all of his efforts just into it. Unlike others in the trade, the publisher, whom I will call Merchant House, did not have any connections to legitimate avenues of magazine distribution prior to the war. Instead, it had spent its entire pre-war existence as an advertiser in pulp magazines--a mail order distributor of flatware, novelties, and paperback editions of well- known classics. From its start as a publisher of any kind-- offering paper bound editions of the 100 Greatest Books of Western Civilization for $10.00--it branched out to commissioning original works, starting with manuals on the subjects of art and photography. It is from the production of these manuals that it evolved into its true publishing niche.

The ban on American pulps was a boon to other Canadian publishers, but sort of a pain to Merchant House. From their perch on King Street in Toronto, Merchant House had been able to service the novelty needs of both the US and Canada by placing ads in US based pulps. At the time, there was a good postage deal for Canadian mail order firms shipping into the United States. In the wake of war rules, that economy had vanished. Moreover, the new Canadian pulps were restricted in page count, had limited advertising space and were possessed of far more stringent editorial standards for advertising material than the types of pulps Merchant House was used to advertising in. The Canadian pulps had slated themselves as strictly kid’s stuff—and that wasn’t Merchant House’s market. Finding a vehicle for their advertising seems to have been Merchant House’s sole motivation for getting into the pulp magazine business.

That is, if they were in the pulp magazine business at all. Every physical copy of Women in Crime that I have is built around their advertising. As I will touch on later, this does not necessarily make them the publisher.  The entirety of Women in Crime’s editorial is a tease for the firm’s other offerings. And what offerings they are!

As a novelty house and a purveyor of gadgets, they were closer to Harriett Carter than they were to Johnson Smith Company (a dealer in fake dog vomit). It was in literature that they were truly distinct. By the time WWII rolled around, Merchant House was publishing sex manuals almost exclusively. Due to restrictions on such vividly illustrated matter being imported into the US, also brought on by the war, the publisher had repackaged some of its catalog of naked women as photographic study manuals. Not much of an innovation. And they were certainly not the first to think of this. What they were the first to think of was publishing fast fiction with the spurty bits fully detailed. Not only that, but Merchant House’s core literary theme was Depraved Girls Who Do It in Depraved Ways.

As the blurb advertising the best-selling, exclusive to readers of Women in Crime novel ‘Diana’ from Dr. Victor Robinson states: “The Publishers wish it expressly understood that this is not a work of fiction. It is a true story, fearlessly told, of women you have heard whispered about. It is the frank autobiography of a woman who tried to be normal but couldn’t. Although the author has found it necessary to hide the identities of the women whose life stories have fused with hers, she boldly tells the truth about them and herself.”

This ad is not hidden in the back pages. It is full page, page one, across from another Merchant House offering for a Pre War Quality Cutlery Set from a Renowned Manufacturer.

Besides setting a sort of standard for original smut, Merchant House was also in the business of spicing up the classics. One ad promises that their offering of the Three Musketeers is Definitely not the book you read at school!

Even today this would be considered a shocking cover. The artwork on the cover is a black and white photo with an overlay, not an actual color photo. As these things go, it is rather well done. Like most pulp publishers, Merchant House shot its production budget wad on the cover and then cheaped out everywhere else. 

Merchant House may have taken economy one step further by importing some of its interior staged photographs from Argentina. Very similar magazines with very similar themes had been popular there since the 1930s. As per the Argentine convention, many of the models in Women in Crime seem spectacularly overdressed for their given situations. There is also a certain style to the Argentine form which Women in Crime seems to match.

The end of the war killed the Canadian pulp magazine industry. Without the tariff barriers and restrictions, the poorly executed Canadian pulps were swiftly swamped by their US cousins. Seeing as how most of them were simply fronts to begin with, it was no real loss. Women in Crime, however, marched blithely on.

And here is where my extrapolation from the original essay goes entirely astray. As per my introduction, I know more now than I did before. I initially wrote off Women in Crime as some sort of one-off smut purveyor’s advertising vehicle, stating that it was probably using the porn and digest distribution system, and that rather appearing on newsstands, it was sold in barber shops and pool halls. While that may be largely true, I no longer believe that it was an orphan sole publication but rather the progenitor of what turned out to be a healthy line of pulps from a 4th Wave publisher.

I have seven or so issues of Women in Crime, all of which are from the war years. Sources on this title are spotty. It could simply be a title that several publishers have used over the years with no real relationship between any of the runs.  The variance in titles would indicate as much. Except that the variance in titles and cover presentations are with the book from the start. This is the cover of what I believe is the first issue. The photographic bondage cover from above is either the second or third issue

After the bondage cover, Women in Crime mostly went back to using retouched paintings which first appeared in other pulps. The interiors, interior stock, and binding remain consistent—as does an early photo-offset interior print job. The staged crime photographs reproduce poorly and the lay-out is not quite up to snuff. It’s not scaled correctly. All in all, it is shameful and shoddy—matching the layout stride for bad stride with the ads from Merchant House itself. Clearly all the work of the same all-thumbs hands.

Women in Crime was published from 1942ish to 1961ish, with about 30 total issues. If we could find evidence of six more issues, it might even classify as a biannual. But it was not published at all regularly, is not dated, and sources vary as to its publisher. Only Merchant House is willing to fess up on the issues that I have. Sources cite Alval (Canada), Detective House Inc and Skye Publishing as its producer(s). The long and short of my current thinking is that these are three names for the same publisher. The publisher became known as Jalart (like Alval, the contraction of two first names. My own personal preference is that Jalart is a contraction for Jail Art, but I have no substantiation for this).

Like people, publishers have affinity orbits. Several sources state that Detective House is related to a low rent smut digest producer who fronts for Lev Gleason (Comic House), and that Gleason and a pal of his are also affiliated with Skye, and that Skye and Voliant are the same firm. I have no doubt that all of these people are thick as thieves and that all of them surround Lev Gleason in some way. That said, I have good evidence that Jalart and Skye are the same firm. 

My evidence, such as it is, comes from January of 1956. A lot of things could have changed between the time Women in Crime debuts in 1942, and 1956. In 1942, Lev Gleason is printing money in comic books and has no reason to dabble in near-smut smut advertising vehicles. Gleason doesn’t start dabbling in other publications until the middle 40s. Moreover. Gleason is at least a middle production quality publisher. Nothing as poorly done as Women in Crime came out of his shop. It’s not Lev. Enough said.

While Lev Gleason and a few others are doing well in comic books, not everyone in the pulp adjacent industry is weathering the storm of price controls, restricted markets and paper rationing brought on by the war. Under war time rationing, publisher paper volume was itemized by gross weight and allotted based on a fraction of previous average use. Everyone is getting a 35% haircut—and that’s if you are in business before rationing started. Your ration is zero if you weren’t in business before then. This means that the number of new publishers for pulps, comics and anything else low brow would be zero for the war. For the most part, this turns out to be true, with the exception of Women in Crime and a handful of other Canadian pulp publishers. 

The Canadian publishers, by contrast, are getting a fresh start in a now protected market. Their ration is based on the circulation of pulp magazines into Canada—mostly from American publishers. Prior to the war, there is no Canadian pulp or comic book industry to speak of. The canuks are being given a competition-free interval to start this industry. Women in Crime is unique as a Canadian publication, inasmuch as it does not seem to be intended for the Canadian market.

Printing in Canada for US consumption and thus bypassing rationing was attempted by a few other firms later in the war. (2) Women in Crime goes this one step further, since the magazine would have been illegal to distribute in Canada. Not to paint the Canadians as prudes, since Women in Crime would not have passed American standards for decency during the war years, either. For this reason, Women in Crime spends its first span of ten or so issues stripped of any sort of publisher information whatsoever. It just sort of mysteriously appears at your barbershop, pool hall or liquor store when it feels like it.

US pulp publishers were largely playing by the rules. (3) The rationing and price control regime forced a majority of them to cut titles and focus on their most profitable lines. Comic books were the best bang for the buck, provided the publisher had the enormous amount of up-front cash required and the network of special connections to pull it off. This was a you snooze, you lose industry. If you weren’t in comic books by 1942, you weren’t getting in. A number of pulp publishers simply blinked and bungled it. Popular stayed out of comics and decided to convert its flagship pulp Argosy into a slick magazine. Macfadden blinked and watched its circulation shrink in half. Fawcett killed its pulps in favor of comics. Street & Smith got into comics at the sacrifice of both pulps and dime novels. Staying pat in pulps meant accepting higher prices and diminishing profits, leading publishers such as Martin Goodman to bail out entirely. A few publishers also began dabbling in the digest market, producing various prototype paperback formats. 

While all of this is well and good for the publishers, it leaves the pulp’s stable of advertisers, such as Merchant House, in the lurch. Comics are a juvenile medium. Digests carry few advertisements. The remaining pulps have cut page counts and frequency. The majority of pulp’s fine advertisers have been frozen out.

Enter some enterprising pulp insider, someone privy to the ins and outs of distribution and printing, but with rather light pre-press skills.

Jalart does have a provenance. The firm remained in business perhaps as late as 1990. It was a substantial publisher, although in about the lowest wrung of the field as one can get. Except for a brief period in the 1950s, their works have a family resemblance, much the way that Charlton Comics had one. Women in Crime seems to have been their first child.

Jalart was only tangentially in pulp magazines. Headquartered in Scottsdale Arizona, Jalart’s stock and trade was sports fandom. It produced one of the first catalogs of baseball cards. They published pre-season predictions for baseball and football—and special off-season baseball updates for the hot stove leagues. Initially focusing on baseball, football, and hockey, they came to promote and cover boxing, auto racing, and roller derby. They were one of the early prime promoters of professional wrestling. The firm occasionally spit out sports cards of their own as well as a few comic books, posters, and sticker sets.

 The only name we have to hang on Jalart is Leonard Greene and that’s from a 1967 edition of True Crime. Jalart is very weird when it comes to information they are required to disclose in magazines, producing such gems as “published bi-monthly except for summer and spring” and charging the full cover price plus unspecified shipping for subscriptions (in type you would need a magnifying glass to read). (4)

Pinning a start date to Jalart’s sports publications is currently beyond me. Although sports fandom is healthy, it’s history is unexamined. Whether Jalart started in sports publishing or came to it is unclear. If they were in it as of 1942, then they had motivation to try something else. The audience for their materials was leaving for war. The leagues themselves were contracting or suspending operations. If they had a paper ration as a publisher of sports annuals it was probably cut to zilch.

The way I believe the deal with Women in Crime went is that Merchant House paid for the printing and then let Jalart keep whatever they could get for the magazine. To Merchant House, it’s like having their catalog printed up and then getting its distribution for free. For Jalart, it’s largely a shlepping exercise involving a little smuggling and some low rent adventures in clandestine wholesaling. Women in Crime used the same distribution method that was being used for proto-paperbacks. (5) As propositions of this kind go, it was worth a shot. Merchant House didn’t have too many other options. It seems to have been worthwhile enough to do ten or so times.

After the war ended Merchant House went back to its normal advertising venues. Since I do not have a copy of the post war Women in Crime issues, I will have to take it on faith that they are listed to Detective House and Skye in the early 1950s and to Jalart from 1955 on. From the end of the war on, Women in Crime and the digests matriculate into the drug store distribution system where they and a slew of similar materials will enjoy a ten-year heyday. 

There was something in the post-war air. For a few brief years it seemed that America was destined to become a version of France. We had just defeated totalitarian book burners. Stuff like Women in Crime became neo-kosher. All sorts of magazines sprung up. And nearly every pulp title from before the war came back, mostly in the form of digests or short run photo-offset magazines. Women in Crime remained an infrequent presence on the magazine racks, probably because Jalart had developed better titles. Although no one dominated this market early on, Martin Goodman and Jalart were the two largest publishers.

Every publisher we have covered has a unique spin to his business model. I intend to do a publisher’s biography of Jalart at some time when I know a bit more, but from what I can tell their guiding light seems to be ATTRACT MALE EYES. In this respect Jalart is typical of magazine publishers. It has a targeted demographic and everything it publishes is designed to reach that audience. Jalart does have a few interesting twists to its formula.

Other than the sports titles, nothing they produce has a regular publication schedule. And even the initial sports magazines are essentially annuals. The pre-season for baseball comes out in March. The football prognostications, both college and pro, hit shelves in late July or August. The hockey preview is out in September. Then there’s the post-season in anticipation of training camp baseball thing, which shows up sometime after the baseball winter meetings, covering trades and coaching changes and whatnot. That has a shelf-life through January. In effect, this is a quarterly advertising buy. As in Women in Crime, Jalart is driven by advertising packages. 

The package is initially built out through expansion in sports magazines. The objective is to hit the next benchmarks for newsstand exposure advertising buys, from quarterly, to bi-monthly, to monthly. At its height in the mid-1950s, Jalart is spitting out two magazines a month, a bi-weekly publishing schedule. This makes them a perfect avenue for advertisers with seasonal or short run goods. All in all, Jalart is your one stop shop for the entire false teeth, watch, technical school, novelty, and rupture truss mail order industry. (6)

Moreover, most of the sports magazines don’t cost them much to produce. The information they are peddling with the mainstream sports is provided, or at least produced, by the leagues themselves. The contents of these magazines are mostly grids of numbers, with the occasional square photograph or “Crimson Tide hopes for top national ranking” blurb thrown in to round out pages. The editorial objective of the layout for these magazines is uniformity and ease of use.  It’s even two-column pages, straight through the magazine. I think this focus explains their problems when it comes to the lay out of pulps, wherein the objective is to cover as much paper as you can with something fetching. If they are using the same layout boards (or personnel) from the sports magazines, then they are winging it.

Compounding their production quality issues further, I believe that Jalart is wedded to its printer. The same bad layout and photo-offset print job found on 1940s era Women in Crime is also evident on 1950s and 1960s issues of True Crime and other Jalart offerings. If Jalart is just the sales office of a printer, their focus is on prospecting for advertising and conceiving ad vehicles (magazines of male interest) and they probably have no say in the lay out, other than in the provisioning of art elements. 

Women in Crime uses a lot of found objects as art elements, from the cover to the interiors. Some of the covers are sourced from decade-old pulps, others from digests, and others from hardbound dust jackets from circulating lending library materials. At least on the war era run, Women in Crime’s editorial seems to be original. It may be written to order based on obtained photographs, but it does not seem to have appeared elsewhere first. This would not be true of Jalart’s other pulps.

Jalart did build out its editorial capacity. The materials for auto racing and wrestling and roller derby need to be hand-crafted, need to be columns of words, since these sports are more spectacle than statistics. It’s doubtful the same writers they contract for the sports magazines are also the ones they used for their Ten War Stories pulp. From what I’ve seen, all of their pulps are entirely made of recycled editorial. True Crime magazine in both its 1950s and 1960s incarnations is wall to wall reprints—from other true crime magazines—some of it quite ancient. (7) Jalart hoovered up a bunch of old pulp material and repackaged it over and over. Or seems to have. 

The firm became something of a multi-media enterprise. Several sources cite Jalart as the producer and syndicator of first roller derby and then wrestling programs for the burgeoning UHF market. They certainly went all in on these efforts on the publishing side. The firm also produced a weekly supermarket tabloid, but it is unclear which one. I suspect it is Confidential Flash, which would tie the firm back to Toronto printing interests. In fact, a lot of things seem to tie Jalart back to Toronto. Given that Merchant House is itself a publisher, Jalart may be part of the same entity—perhaps not legally, but the same fluid partnerships parading around under several names—the same set group of people engaged in various different ventures. If that is the case, then this is a business story which went on a long, strange trip—from Women in Crime to videotaping men smash each other with fake chairs.


(1)    Canada loves to ban magazines. This is actually a reimposition of a ban which dates back to the 1920s. The original ban was against flapper fiction titles such as Breezy Stories and the Smart Set.

(2)    Both Archie and Harry Chesler both had Canadian operations which served that market and then occasionally slipped titles into the United States. Chesler can be given a pass, since he is an art studio which only tangentially dabbled in publishing. Once wartime provisions took hold, he sold his going Dynamic line of comics to a Canadian firm who continued them, serving both sides of the border. Archie seems to have reached an agreement with something called Greene Publications, which comically put new covers on Archie titles and then offered them in Canada. On occasion this firm would ship two-year-old re-covered and re-titled Archie content into the United States.

(3)    The rules had set prices for everything, including author’s rates. But the rules only covered existing types of products. What the rules did not cover were the creation of entirely new types of products, which the publishers could charge whatever they wanted for. This is what was leading the evolution of the digest, a type of paperback. Whereas most pulps were price-controlled and mandated to sell for ten cents a copy, digests were comprised of one third of the paper and typically retailed for twenty-five cents.

(4)    Jalart does not quite go into the conniption fits that Dell and Martin Goodman did about changing titles of magazines to make use of a limited number of special rate mail permits for subscription fulfillment. In order to qualify as periodical literature of any kind, the publishers were required to offer subscriptions. This was a provision enacted by the Post Office to thwart the dime novel industry’s practice of using the mails at a reduced rate, and it carries over to this day. Jalart simply did what it could to discourage subscriptions of any kind on magazines whose frequencies depended entirely on the volume of demand for advertising space.  Per the terms they offered it is entirely unclear what a prospective subscriber would receive and for how long. My best guess is that those confused enough to subscribe would wind up on the mailing list with Jalart’s advertisers, being sent whatever the publisher was printing that month.

(5)    The system is similar to how comic books are distributed today. The publisher pays his printer. The distributer pays the publisher. In modern times, the distributor is in turn paid by the retailer. There’s no credit extended anywhere in the process, with the ultimate risk being shouldered by the retailer. In the digest system there’s a middleman between the retailer and the distributor, the regional distributor, who is actually the party taking the risks. Retailers only paid for copies that they actually sold—or wanted to keep around, for whatever reason. The regional distributor generally moved his unsold inventory around to a succession of outlets until they all found a home. The system’s primary outlets were liquor stores, pool halls, taverns and street corner grocery stores, and usually in that order. This is in contrast to the typical system, wherein only the printer is paid off and everyone else gets a slice only if the magazine sells. In the depression printers often were involved in extending credit and accepting payment on the basis of sold magazines.

(6)    Jalart came to also stray into female slanting titles, thereby picking up potential for diet pill, weight loss, cosmetic and lift bra advertising. In the end, they had a whole mail order panorama of advertisers.

(7)    In pulps the rights to content remain with the publisher in perpetuity. (That’s what their contracts say.) There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to Jalart’s sourcing from other pulps early on. It’s unclear who they are buying this stuff from and under what conditions. They do come to own a number of once-promising pulp titles, mostly in the true crime category. In the mid 50s they bought out Skye, which seems to have been the repository of some MacFadden material. Whether they were plying an asset sale or making ad hoc purchases is up in the air—at least from my standpoint. A few True Crime issues appear to have content from Police Gazette and other dime novel era publications.  

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