You can’t have a world with a high literacy rate without there being a mass media entertainment industry to take advantage of that (Dolla, dolla billz, yo!). Here, we’ve already covered the Respun Tales genre of literature, but today we’ll be covering a whole medium: pulp mags, or comic books as they’re known in our world. They’ve been around in their current form for over a century and have been called everything from “The Gateway Drug to Addiction to the Written Word” to “Rainbow-Colored Brain Pollution.” So, come with me on a magic carpet ride through the wonderful world of pulp mags!
Though people have been telling stories through pictures, or pairing pictures with written words for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the advent of daily newspapers that the seeds of what would become the first pulp mags would be sown. You see, those early papers always contained a small entertainment section with short stories (one-off and serialized) and comic strips, or funnies. In time, these entertainment sections proved to be the major selling point for the papers, the main reason why people bought them at all, and folks were hoarding the entertainment sections or clipping out their favorite stories and strips and making little scrap books of them to re-read later.
Newspaper men caught on to this consumer trend rather quickly and saw it as a great opportunity to make more money. The writers and artists behind the stories and strips agreed (they didn’t get paid much per submission, and they had bills to pay), and signed deals with the newspapers to have their work published in compilation books. These compilation books came in two flavors: funny books, which were composed entirely of comic strips (sometimes with bonus material like character sketches, scrapped strips, or paper dolls), and literary digests, which were composed entirely of short stories.
As these compilation books became more and more popular, publishers began spinning them off into separate brands entirely and even opening them up for submissions of entirely new material or hiring on writers and artists to work exclusively on them fulltime. In time, these publications began to be even further spun off from each other by genre. For funny books, the first early genres were Funny Animals, Children and Family, and Occupational Humor.
Publishing companies large and small and daring entrepreneurs who had never been in the newspaper business before saw all of the money being made and soon started their own imprints. But, for some of these companies, comedy wasn’t enough. In order to differentiate themselves from the competition or take advantage of underserved or untapped demographics, these brave pioneers began to publish the first horror, mystery, romance, action, and adventure pulp mags.
The First Signs of Peach Fuzz
The very first attempt at an action-adventure book was the anthology title Thrills and Spills, published by Merrithinnia-based publisher Blue Rooster Limited. Featuring stories written by Arthan Milliost, Robert Jacobs, and Charran Broggs, with art by Dougal Fenwick, Nillia Vinnova, and Gorax Kingaar (who later became the most well-known orc artist ever, well remembered for his dramatic landscapes, avant-garde sculptures, and a series of seven gorgeous adamant war hammers which are known to be the strongest weapons of that kind in the world…period), it was an immediate hit with the public. The first issue in Maya 929 sold out its initial fifty copies within the day, and in the first two weeks availability quickly spread from one lonely corner drugstore to every drugstore, news stand, and book shop in town.
Eventually, the two most popular Thrills and Spills series—Arthan Milliost and Nillia Vinnova’s Wild Amazons, and Robert Jacobs and Gorax Kingaar’s Ruin Raiders—received their own dedicated books. Meanwhile, similar publications began to show up in other cities and towns across the world. Horror books like Witch’s Brew Pulps’ Spine-Tingler Special and Melody Funnies’ Fables from the Tomb started scaring the pants off of readers the same year as Thrills and Spills debuted, and mystery anthologies like Raven Quill’s Who Done It? and Red Oak’s Dynamite Detectives were tying audiences’ brains in knots.
As business continued to boom, even the romance genre got page time. Romance stories aimed at both female and male audiences started popping up around 935. The most famous publisher of these was (and still is) Avalonia-based Heartthrob Pulps. Heartthrob started out simply marketing publications like Heartthrob Delight and Guilty Pleasures to women and teenaged girls. However, they soon found out that they were also attracting a sizable male periphery demographic and started publishing stories featuring male protagonists like Loverboy and Playboy Special for the guys. With a team of writers who were capable of writing stories for every romantic taste—from passionate bodice-rippers to goofy romantic comedies—by 942, Heartthrob Pulps had become the first internationally recognized pulp mag publisher.
The 940’s were a heyday for pulp mags, and as the medium expanded, one last genre entered the fray. This was the crime genre, which followed the exploits of swashbuckling pirates and gentleman thieves, along with villainous bandits and mobsters. While many of these stories were violent and sometimes quite dark, there were also crime pulps which were wacky, light-hearted, and comedic. Unfortunately, the crime genre provided the last bit of ammunition needed by the medium’s detractors to put it before the firing squad.
950’s…? Uh-oh. Here Come the Killjoys.
People rarely want to believe that their kid has turned out badly because they are a bad parent or their kid is just naturally a jerk or an idiot. So, when kids go and behave badly or make a public nuisance of themselves, parents tend to look for a convenient scapegoat—the other parent, their kids’ friends, or the mass media. In the 950’s P.W.D., parents were ever-so-carefully directed to project their feelings of guilt over their children’s shortcomings onto the pulp mag industry.
By the 950’s, pulp mags of all kinds and descriptions were everywhere, and pulp mags from the nations of Vardan, Thinsbyll, and Mossburn—all of which have resisted making deals with the IWHA (International Werewolf Hunters’ Association) to allow them jurisdiction within their borders—began to leak into other countries. As mentioned in the article about the Respun Tales genre, most nations have tight censorship laws about how certain races are allowed to be depicted. Pulp mags published in the three aforementioned countries are more than allowed to depict whomever they want as heroes and villains…which is a big no-no everywhere else. Couple the trickle of foreign pulp mags with “subversive themes” coming into more conservative countries and the rise of violent crime mags which sometimes glorified illegal activities, the people who had looked down on the medium had finally found a way to publicly discredit it without looking like idiots.
In 952, the organization Parents for Moral Literature, in conjunction with the IWHA, the Child Protection League, and the Society for the Preservation of Literary Classics, funded a study on the effects of violence and immorality in pulp mags on the child’s psyche. This study, headed up by “psychologist” Fenwick Wentworth, basically just consisted of rounding up a bunch of juvenile delinquents and asking them whether or not they read pulp mags. No, they didn’t ask them what kinds they read, just whether or not they read them. Naturally, the majority said “yes”…and that was the study. There wasn’t even a control group of well-rounded, well-behaved kids for comparison. In other words, it was bull.
The gullible and the guilty ate it up with a spoon, though, along with any other half-cocked crap “Dr.” Wentworth served up to them. After all, he was an expert on the mind, right? Surely his learned opinion was correct, even though a little independent digging and common sense would probably have proven him dead wrong. In reality, the man had had his credentials stripped from him years ago for performing unethical psychological experiments on people that he had kidnapped off of the street and he was getting paid big money under the table to be the front man for the anti-pulp mag movement.
Unaware of this fact, publishers, editors, writers, and artists started to be called upon in droves to testify before government committees as if they had been found tossing toxic waste into the town reservoir in broad daylight or committed some heinous act of treason. Community groups held book burnings of pulp mags in public squares, people protested in front of publishers’ offices, and the writer of one popular adventure title was the target of a failed assassination attempt! In an attempt to get all of this madness under control (and to avoid having any more industry professionals shot at or reduced to tears on the witness stand by unscrupulous prosecutors or committee members), the International Pulp Mag Society admitted to being negligent in policing content and laid down the Pulp Mag Regulatory Code. The Code pretty much sucked all of the blood, most of the violence, and a whole heck of a lot of the fun out of pulp mags and hundreds of titles ended up being either canceled or severely neutered less than a year after it was enacted.
But, those who believed in pulp mags as a medium did not let the new restrictions destroy the industry…
Gnawing off the Short Leash
For about a decade (or five years in the east, where the hysteria didn’t get nearly as bad) the industry played by its new rules. No more heroes or villains of inappropriate race, blood and gore, jokes about bodily functions, individuals in culturally inappropriate gender roles, drug references, anti-heroes, or villain protagonists. Nobody was allowed to die violently at all if they were a “good guy”, and “bad guys” were allowed to die clean, off-stage deaths only. But, people started getting tired of playing by the restrictions of the Pulp Mag Regulatory Code.
The first breakdown in the code was in the eastern nations. They hadn’t been able to whip people over there into quite as much of a tizzy over pulp mag content because using a scapegoat to explain away one’s personal faults is less popular in the east. Over there, there is more of an emphasis on personal responsibility for one’s actions, and avoiding making one’s family look bad through one’s actions. There were still inquiries, of course, and parents still worried…but it didn’t get to the point of assassination attempts and insane witch hunts. As the worries over children being exposed to inappropriate content diminished, publishers in the east started putting out pulp mags with those taboo themes…only clearly labeled as not intended for minors, so that parents would know to keep their kids away from them and shop keepers would know to put these titles behind the counter so that kids couldn’t just pick them up and buy them. In time, age-specific labels were put on certain kinds of pulp mags to give readers and parents a quick heads-up about the kind of content one could expect.
Five years after that, publishers in the west started to chafe under the Code. Because the Code banned any reference to drugs, socially conscious publishers were unable to put out anti-drug issues of their most popular books. One by one, they decided to screw the rules and have a backbone, putting out un-approved issues on the subject. Those issues sold well enough that the Code officially altered the rules about drugs. Illegal substances could now be depicted…so long as they were depicted as a bad thing.
Independent publishers and creators also chipped away at the Code’s authority. Whether their work was trippy and subversive or gritty and down-to-Earth, they went around taking a sledgehammer to the Code left and right. Some indie pulps eventually broke into mainstream popularity or became cult classics. Others remain obscure but greatly appreciated by those who know and have read them…and some are just total crap.
As the memories of the moral hysteria faded and new research about children and exposure to media violence finally began to reveal that initial study and all of “Dr.” Wentworth’s work as total B.S., the Code dissolved bit by precious bit. In addition, many teachers and literary buffs began to endorse pulp mags as a way to get kids engaged in and excited about reading. This was bolstered by another study which showed that children who read pulp mags are far more likely to become avid readers as adults and far less likely to read below grade-level in school. By the 990’s, the code was pretty-much dead in the water and it was officially abolished in the 1000’s. All around the world, pulp mag creators and publishers quietly rejoiced.
In the 1040’s P.W.D., pulp mags have finally reclaimed much of their old glory and diversity. In fact, a new genre has emerged on the scene since the fall of the Code: sci-fi! Most sci-fi is heavily tinged with magic, but the sub-genres of Coal Punk, Oil Punk, and Electro Punk explore the possibilities of a world where the elves never returned and fossil fuels and/or electricity became the driving force behind technological advancement. Those three sub-genres often feature skies permanently gray from the ash of burning fossil fuels, toxic wastelands, brutal wars over dwindling energy resources, sketchy science, and horrifying mechanical monstrosities that are either crackling with energy or constantly belching smoke and fumes. Some are a bit less dismal, however, and show worlds not too much different than our own at various stages of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries…sometimes even cleaner and nicer.
For some people, pulp mags remain something of a guilty pleasure, but for others the pleasure is open and unabashed. Every year, all over the world, conventions and festivals are held where pulp mag fans young and old, regardless of their favorite genres or series, gather together to celebrate their love for pulp mags. Creators of popular series sign autographs, answer questions on panels, and even take photos with fans. Some people even come dressed up as their favorite heroes and villains! Not everyone actually looks good in their costumes but…well, they try, and they have lots of fun doing it. In the end, that’s what counts most.
Well, that does it for this week, folks. Join us next week for a short story about Wolfsbane and his uncle Falcon. Until then, you can check out The Rebirth and Awakening of Wolfie Star-Runner and Wolfie Star-Runner Plays with Hellfire on Amazon.com (and all international incarnations, print and Kindle ebook editions available). You can also find me on Twitter, learn about me at a glance on Pintrest, and answer trivia questions about the books on Goodreads (you know, if you’ve read the books already). Also, if you like my books or this blog, be sure to tell your friends about it! Have a good week, and take care.