Essential geek library: ‘An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine’

history pulp magazines

By the time Ron Goulart’s “An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine” was published in 1972, the pulp magazine – the art form and industry that gave millions of readers cheap thrills on cheap pulp paper and gave us all such heroes as “The Shadow” and “Doc Savage” – was already more than two decades dead. In the 40 (!) years since the prolific Goulart’s book was published, “Pulp Fiction” has come to mean little more than a Quentin Tarantino film.

But in 1972, when Goulart’s book came out, it was a bible to me, a look back into a colorful world of avenging heroes and penny-per-word writers that had been eclipsed by comic books.

Here in Muncie, a bookstore – long gone now – had shelves and shelves of old pulp magazines, which were so named because of the rough-edged, cheap paper they were printed on. I never bought any, although I wanted to. But I couldn’t even begin to start.

By the 1970s, I was enjoying the paperback reprints of pulp magazine stalwart Doc Savage, with those great James Bama covers, and that helped me appreciate the pulps in general and Goulart’s book.

In a relatively slim volume, Goulart gives an overview of pulps but concentrates on the best and brightest, the pulps featuring Doc Savage – precursor to Superman – and the Shadow, one of Batman’s contemporaries and inspirations.

Goulart gives us Tarzan and cowboys and detectives and jingoistic Yellow Peril villains and, best of all, a glimpse of the (mostly) men who created all those characters, working anonymously under pen names and turning out literally hundreds of novel-length yarns that were eagerly consumed by adventure-seeking readers.

Goulart interviewed many of the surviving writers and artists and even devotes the last chapter to their unfiltered memories.

Goulart’s topic has no doubt been covered by others since then, but even 40 years later, his book remains my favorite look back to that time and the pulpy art of storytelling.

An odd note: An inside page notes that the original title of Goulart’s book was “Cheap Thrills.” Although the cover doesn’t include that title, folios throughout the book refer to it as such. Did publisher Ace take the cheap way out, slapping a new cover on the interior text of Goulart’s book?

Considering the on-a-shoestring nature of pulp magazines, it would be appropriate if they did.

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