Between the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, the 1930’s were probably not the best decade of the twentieth century.
However, in the field of entertainment, some really great things emerged. Gone With the Wind. Fred and Ginger. Citizen Kane.
And Pulp Fiction.
I don’t mean the Tarantino film. I mean pulp magazines.
A mostly American phenomenon, they were cheap story magazines printed on rough “pulp” paper – the same kind as used for newspapers. (The more upmarket magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post, printed on quality paper, were called “slicks”.) They began in the 1920s, but to my mind, they really hit their stride in the 1930s.
While, as pulp historian Jess Nevins points out, pulp was a medium, rather than a genre, there were some characteristics that the magazines shared.
1) Garish covers – while the paper inside was cheap and the ink could come off on the reader’s hands, the covers were bright and attention grabbing.
(Giant hands were a popular feature in a lot of covers…)
2) Breathless pacing. The rate per word for the pulps was very low, so a lot had to be written to make a living. Walter Gibson, who wrote most of the Shadow pulps, was reputed to write 10,000 words a day, using multiple typewriters.
3) New genres. A lot of the genres we’re now familiar with, if not started by the pulps, received a big boost from them.
Amazing Stories and its ilk gave many of the greats in science fiction their first break.
And the Shadow and Doc Savage laid the ground for the superhero genre – some of the first Batman comics lifted their plot directly from Shadow stories.
And Indiana Jones is pretty much an example of something that could have been written in a pulp magazine of the period.
There’s been an upsurge of interest in the pulps in the past few years – reprints can be found fairly easily. On reading some of the Shadow reprints, I was pleased to find that they’re actually pretty good, with some entertaining plot twists, that I’ll go into on another blog entry.