The history and influence of pulp magazines | Sunday Observer

The history and influence of pulp magazines

7 May, 2023

Pulp magazines, also known as “pulps,” were a popular form of fiction publication in the early 20th century. These mass produced works were called ‘pulps’ due to the fact that they were printed on cheap, low-quality paper made from wood pulp, as opposed to the higher end books with glossy paper, called ‘slicks’ or ‘glossies’.

Pulp magazines were ubiquitous, and constituted a very broad range of genres. commonly characterized by their eye-catching, lurid and sensationalist covers. Despite their reputation as a low standard of publication, Pulps were a major force in establishing science fiction in the mainstream and helped shape American pop culture, with its influences being felt to this day.

Pulp magazines emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as printing technology made it possible to produce large quantities of cheap, disposable reading material. They succeeded earlier mass market publications like penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and other short stories before them, but with a much broader reach and audience.

These books featured adventure stories, westerns, mysteries and other genres with broad appeal, some written by respected authors. Most magazines of the time would specialize in a specific genre, and would contain multiple short stories of varying quality.

No illustrations

The first known pulp magazine, the ‘Argosy’ magazine published in 1896, contained nearly 200 pages per issue and had no illustrations, more in common with the dime novels that came before, than with what we know pulp to be today.

But by the 1920s, pulps had evolved into its own distinct format: a relatively large sized magazine printed on an average of just above 100 pages of pulp paper, with a mix of short stories, serialized novels, and non-fiction articles.

The content was varied by the magazine’s specific genre, but pulps were particularly known for their covers, which often featured scantily clad women, violent confrontations, or monsters. These covers were designed to catch the eye of potential buyers and were often more memorable than the stories inside, if they had any relation to each other at all.

Pulp magazines were particularly popular during the Great Depression, and Pulp magazines, alongside film and radio, served to be some of the primary forms of affordable content for the public.

At their peak in the 1930s and 1940s, the best Pulp magazines sold millions of copies per issue and covered a wide range of genres, from crime and detective fiction to science fiction and horror.

They were generally considered lowbrow entertainment, with interchangeable stories built on predictable clichés, written by authors getting paid per word. However, many legendary authors of the time would also write for pulp magazines, such as H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Cultural icons

Though pulps were meant to be consumed and discarded, with largely forgettable plots and characters, they also gave rise to some popular stories that would go on to become timeless classics and cultural icons. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter of Mars characters debuted in ‘The All-Story’ and ‘The All-Story weekly’ magazines, which also debuted Johnston McCulley’s Zorro.

‘Weird Tales’ served as the primary publisher for H.P Lovecraft’s stories, including the first appearances of the Cthulhu mythos. The ‘Weird Tales’ magazine also debuted Conan the Barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard.

Some characters such as Doc Savage and the Shadow, despite now being obscure, were massive pulp phenomena and inspired the succeeding superhero genre, the characters themselves directly inspiring the creations of Superman, and Batman.

Despite their popularity, Pulps eventually fell out of favour in the mid-20th century. World War II impacted pulp production, raising the cost of what was meant to be cheap entertainment. Comic books and novels were direct competition for pulps, but the rise of television made them completely obsolete. By the 1950s, most of the major pulp titles had ceased publication, although a few survived into the 1960s and 1970s. Today, pulps are mostly remembered as a curiosity of a bygone era, but their influence can still be felt in popular culture.

The sensational covers and fast-paced storytelling of Pulps helped to shape comic books, and inspired filmmakers who would go on to make pulpy movies such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and pulp fiction. Pulp magazines may have been cheap and disposable, but their impact on popular culture has been anything but that.