PRIVATE DICKS, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, AND FEMME FATALES: PULP COVER ART AT THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Just before the holidays, Wolfsonian curator Matthew Abess and I were graciously invited to see a private collection of paintings by artists whose work afterwards appeared as illustration art in “glossy” periodicals or on the covers of “pulp” fiction magazines. The private viewing and conversation with the collectors was so inspiring that the same evening I downloaded and watched a couple of classic “film noir” detective and gangster flicks starring Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973). While evincing the same dark views of human behavior, the b&w films paled in comparison to the vivid color palette of the artwork Matthew and I had seen hours earlier, and so I ended up re-watching Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction, a movie which has done much to revive interest in pulp cover art.

Tarantino

Just a few months earlier, I had the occasion to speak with Vicki Gold Levi, a long-term friend of the Wolfsonian library and a historical consultant to the popular HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. After tangentially mentioning that we were looking to augment our holdings of “pulp fiction” cover art, she surprised me by telling me that she had a decent collection of the genre which she was happily willing to gift to us. And so, over the last couple of weeks I have been steeping myself in the “underbelly” of American culture, cataloging a treasure trove of pocket paperback novels and detective and murder mystery periodicals. The topic seems rather timely as HBO releases a brand new series, aptly titled: True Detective.

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COVER PAINTING BY WALTER POPP

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR COLLECTION

The items Vicky sent our way were generally in pristine condition, especially amazing considering the nature of “pulp” publication production. In contrast to the “glossies” and “slicks”—(higher-end magazines printed on quality glossy or slick paper)—the “pulps” generally appealed to lower and working class audiences, represented “low life” traditions (crime and vice, sex and violence), and were printed on newsprint, a cheap wood pulp paper that quickly yellows and grows brittle.

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GIFTS OF VICKI GOLD LEVI

The pulps grew out of the popular penny and dime novels of the nineteenth century—inexpensive publications spinning (tall) tales of the frontier and “Wild West” for the Eastern (urban) market. In fact, Western adventure stories proved so enduringly popular a genre that they folded seamlessly into the 10 to 25 cent pulp magazine market of the twentieth century.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Other more popular “pulp” themes included gangster stories, detective and murder mysteries, fantasy and science fiction, and “spicy” (or racy) variations of all of the above. While the paper used for pulp books and magazines was invariably cheap and acidic, the covers were printed on better quality slick paper and won notoriety for their vividly colored illustrations of square-jawed heroes, maniacal villains, distressed damsels, and provocatively attired femme fatales.

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COVER ILLUSTRATION BY LAWRENCE

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COVER PAINTED BY A. REDMOND

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

The cover art of the pulps was often as important in marketing and selling the serials as was their literary content, and, on occasion, covers were designed first, and authors were asked to contribute a story to match the artwork. The detective and murder mystery themed magazines were popular reading in the 1920s, and neither the cover art nor stories shied away from controversial themes such as drug addiction, adultery, prostitution, and murder.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

These same themes were reflected in the cinema of the 1920s and early 1930s, until the Motion Picture Production Codes were adopted in 1930 and the censorship of the content of Hollywood films was rigorously enforced from 1934, until finally abandoned in 1968. As movies eschewed controversial content, magazines devoted to “complete and unabridged” vice and “true crime” stories filled the void in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, their pages populated with sunbathing enthusiasts, “mad-dog” gangsters, tough-guy detectives, showgirls, prostitutes, and other social outcasts.

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GIFT OF ROBERT J. YOUNG

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

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COVER PAINTING BY WESLEY SNYDER

GIFTS OF VICKI GOLD LEVI

Reformer, body-builder, and physical culture enthusiast, Bernarr Adolphus Macfadden (1868-1955) waged a war against Victorian prudery and medical quackery, and made a fortune publishing a wide range of pulp magazines peddling patriotism, and advocating better living through physical exercise, temperance and non-smoking, and natural remedies.

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GIFT OF ROBERT J. YOUNG

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COVER DESIGN BY JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG (1877-1960)

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

While his Physical Culture flagship had articles that generally appealed to a female audience, the images of women in skin-tight bathing suits and sports attire that typically adorned the covers were probably intended to convince husbands to open their wallets and not grumble over subscription fees or at the newsstand.

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GIFTS OF ROBERT J. YOUNG

Simultaneously, Macfadden cashed in on the American appetite for lurid detective mysteries and true crime exposés, and during the war years published pulp magazines that took aim at Nazi “gangsters” in Europe.

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COVER ILLUSTRATION OF BELLA FROMM FROM OIL PAINTING BY DAVID BERGER

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COVER PAINTED BY A. R. McCOWEN

GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Winning notoriety for the “cheesecake” covers of his Physical Culture magazine, Macfadden is lampooned here on the cover of the Leftist monthly, New Masses whose editors accused the publishing magnate of publishing “pornography.”

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR COLLECTION

Although rationing and restrictions on the use of paper had an effect on print publications in general, the pulps appear to have continued to thrive with cover art substituting Nazi spies and villains for gangsters, and heroic G-men for detectives coming to the rescue of terrified women in need of rescue.

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GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

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GIFTS OF VICKI GOLD LEVI

While such cover art and literature was designed to appeal to young men dreaming of action and heroism, other pulps aimed at a female audience interested in love and romance.

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GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

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GIFTS OF VICKI GOLD LEVI

While “pulps” continued to survive and thrive well into the 1950s and 1960s, the genre had to compete with the popularity of comic book superheroes, and detective and true crime books and magazines increasingly turned to photography to replace the incredible cover art of the earlier period.

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GIFT OF VICKI GOLD LEVI

~ by "The Chief" on January 8, 2014.

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