Grand Pulp Railroad

The Great Pulp Heroes by Don Hutchison (1996): Canada’s own long-time genre historian, editor, and writer Don Hutchison gives us a book on the two decades or so in which single-character pulp-hero magazines flourished in America. It’s a fun, breezy, and informative read. For some reason, ChaptersIndigo once had about a million copies of these things in stock at $2 a pop. So, they’re out there.

American pulp(-wood, for their cheap, acid-heavy paper) magazines followed a peculiarly evolutionary path. They started off in the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century as generalists. Magazines that included Argosy and All-Story published stories from every genre (including the first serialized Tarzan and Mars novels from Edgar Rice Burroughs).

Then the magazines specialized in terms of genre (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Western, et al.) and then sub-genre (flying adventure stories, ‘spicy’ detective stories). Finally came the magazines devoted to individual heroes. The Shadow, simultaneously a radio hero, was the first hero to get his own magazine. The sales success of the Weird Avenger of Crime swiftly led to imitators (Phantom Detective, The Spider) and slightly different types of heroes from the same company, Street & Smith (Doc Savage, The Skipper, The Avenger).

This was a world in which sound movies had just appeared, and in which radio and the pulp magazines dominated the day-to-day entertainment business. There was no television, much less the Internet or computer gaming. Even electricity had not yet been supplied to all Americans. Or indoor plumbing. And the problems of the Great Depression seemed to fuel a desire in a lot of readers to see heroes who took up arms against gangsters, murderers, evil rich people, and crazy dictators.

Of course, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a recurring character in The Spider and the Operator 5 series), most heroes were rich people who fought for the common good. That trope, which predated the hero pulps, still persists in such comic-book superheroes as Batman and Green Arrow today, in whatever media in which they appear.

The pulp adventure heroes had a time of about 22 years from the first appearance of The Shadow in magazine form to the last issue of the last surviving hero-magazines in 1953. Subsequent decades would see reprints and revivals, though only The Shadow and Doc Savage have proved to have any staying power in the popular imagination.

While it lasted, though, the adventures — especially in the 1930’s — ran wild and wooly. The Spider and Operator 5 probably had the most apocalyptically destructive adventures, with whole cities and indeed countries (including all of Canada in the case of Operator 5) being wiped out in every issue. Doc Savage and The Shadow did a better job of keeping most of New York standing, which may be why they were the gold standard for heroism.

The pulps in their entirety even managed to arouse censorship flaps from time to time. New York’s Mayor LaGuardia threatened all the pulp publishers based in New York (which is to say, all of them) with expulsion if they didn’t clean up their act. Pulp magazines were blamed for youth crime. Of course they were.

Hutchison’s book performs its most valuable service in giving plot synopses of many of the most outlandish adventures of these heroes. The Spider, Operator 5, and G-8 stories often seem like fever dreams of ultraviolence and desperate heroism. Even the failed magazines deliver some truly bizarre moments, none moreso than the single issue of a magazine devoted to a super-villain rather than a superhero, The Octopus. That guy was bananas.

So if you can track this down, go forth and do so. Only some glaring typos and a lack of colour illustrations disappoint, though the B&W cover reproductions are still swell. Highly recommended.

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