The term pulp, once used to describe the low-grade newsprint on which certain turn-of-the-century magazines printed low-rent fiction, has long since become a cultural catch-all denoting anything cheap, lurid, and purposefully witless. If there are deeper implications to be found in this hazy category, which is at once pointed and vague (is Fox News pulp? Is Michael Moore?), we could do worse than a 1973 assessment by no less than Pauline Kael: “Pulp, with its five-and-dime myths, can take a stronger hold on people’s imaginations than art, because it does- n’t affect the conscious imagination, the way a great novel does, but the private, hidden imagination, the primitive fantasy life—and with an immediacy that leaves little room for thought.”
Debatable as Kael’s conclusion may be (is it pulp? Was she?), the recent past has made it abundantly clear that the allure of five-and-dime myths remains undiminished in America, to say nothing of our propensity for immediacy and lack of thought. This could explain the resurgence of the pulps as objects of fetishistic nostalgia, and the resultant slew of books that celebrate, resurrect, and even mimic the form’s vivid artwork and obsessive text.
As the recent Brooklyn Museum exhibit “Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains, and Victors” reveals (along with the fact that pulps have achieved a degree of high-culture cachet), a little bit of the garishly depicted mobsters, monsters, mayhem, and misogyny that graced the magazines’ covers goes a long way. That show, curated with heroic restraint by Anne Pasternak from Robert Lesser’s collection, helpfully if earnestly located its relatively few representative works in a historical context. Feral House’s It’s a Man’s World, an exhaustive and exhausting collection of artwork from “the postwar pulps”—men’s fiction mags that initially exploited the experiences and fantasies of their WW II vet readership before gradually declining into commie baiting, nauseating torture scenarios, and tepid pornography—dispatches with such highbrow classification in favor of all-out inundation.
Man’s World doesn’t forego textual analysis altogether. Feral publisher Adam Parfrey, misleadingly cited as the book’s sole author—with “contributions by” Bruce Jay Friedman, Mort Kunstler, and others—takes a haphazard stab at contextualizing the genre in a preface and chapter introductions. The results, however, are rife with garbled, ham-handed assertions (“The Cold War started after the powers divided postwar spoils at Yalta, and the Soviet Union cloaked itself in an Iron Curtain, and the United States expanded its economic control by Marshall Plan pocketbook and the support of dictator appointees in the Third World”) that are only sporadically enlightening.
Better by far is a reprint of Friedman’s “Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos,” a funny and insightful memoir of his stint as an editor at Magazine Management Company, publisher of such titles as Male, Action for Men, and the unaccountably durable Stag. His son Josh Alan Friedman’s interviews with notable pulp scribes like Mario Puzo and Walter Wager, and David Saunders’s fond recollection of his father, legendary pulp illustrator Norman Saunders (creator of the infamous Mars Attacks bubble gum cards), are equally entertaining.
But it’s the over 250 pages of pictures that count in Man’s World. These pristine repros are grouped thematically—”American History,” “War Against Nature” (which includes Man’s Life‘s redoubtable “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” cover), the redundant-sounding “The Sadistic Burlesque,” and so on—and are brimming with beleaguered, typically shirtless he-men; rampaging beasts and bestial foreigners; sadistic, also frequently shirtless Nazis; and, naturally, scores of pulchritudinous, not-quite-naked women. The illustrations, along with such provocative headlines as “The Big Cat Clawed My Guts,” “Radiation and the Freaks of Tomorrow,” and the ever instructive “Your 10 Worst Sexual Blunders,” provide a veritable blueprint for the enduring angst fostered by post-war affluence. If Man’s World‘s effectiveness as social commentary is blunted by its sheer volume, the ethos of the “armpit slicks” (Friedman’s term for the genre) still comes through loud and clear: If you’re a straight white male, everyone and everything is out to get you.
Michael Bronski’s Pulp Friction highlights a more genuinely marginalized, yet not nearly as paranoid, segment of male pulp literature. Gay paperback fiction thrived from the 1950s to the early ’70s, and—despite the fact that it “did not encourage originality, texture, or innovation”—Bronski makes a convincing case that such works furthered the cause of gay self-acceptance and aided in a surreptitious socialization process: “These books were the maps and signposts, the etiquette manuals and the foreign-phrase books, for gay men entering the half-hidden world of homosexuality.” The 18 novels and stories excerpted here are often as surprising for their literary acumen as for their backhanded pedagogy, although for every James Barr (the languid and assured 1951 “Spur Piece”) there’s a “Jack Love” (1967’s breathy, Barbara Cartland-esque Gay Whore) or a Bruce Benderson (the mean-spirited proctological porn of 1975’s Kyle) to remind us that we’re still firmly in the realm of pulp—whatever that might mean.