The Original Pulp Fiction: Early Heroes

Opening Narration: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

-Opening narration, The Shadow

Comics have changed a lot over the years. While readers now believe a man can fly and realize that criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, you’d be surprised how much the likes of Batman and Superman owe to pulp magazines. As the Tarzan movie has just come out, this is a good time to reflect on the thrilling adventures of yesteryear.

Pulp Fiction: Precursors of Comic Books

In 1896 Frank Munsey revamped his magazine, Argosy, using paper made from wood pulp (hence the name), a steam printing press, and cheap writers to create affordable entertainment for young working-class people. This proved extremely effective as the Argosy went from publishing a few thousand copies a month to half a million.

Seeing the Argosy‘s success, dime novel publisher Street and Smith created The Popular Magazine. While their magazine’s layout didn’t permit as much text as Argosy, they made up for it by including illustrations that Argosy didn’t have.

In 1905, The Popular Magazine obtained the rights to serialize one of H. Rider Haggard’s more popular novels, Ayesha (A sequel to his earlier book She), which would prove to be a major influence on pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Those two guys were responsible for creating Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian among others.

While pulp magazines were popular during the 20’s and 30’s, paper shortages during World War II made it difficult to keep production costs down. With the advent of other forms of media like comic books, television and movies, pulps were simply outdated and on the decline. In 1957 The American News Company (the major distributor of pulp magazines) was liquidated, marking the end of the Pulp Age.

Pulp Heroes: Barbarians, Vigilantes, and Space Explorers, Oh My!

Opening Narration:Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryus, there was an age undreamed of…
And unto this, Conan! Destined to bear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.
It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga! Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

– Conan the Barbarian (1982)

They don’t write ’em like that any more.

In the pages of pulp magazines, heroic stories were set throughout history. In the ancient past you might find Conan the Barbarian (portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the eponymous movie) vanquishing tyrants and sorcerers. In the 16th century, you’d see Solomon Kane (James Purefoy played him in the 2012 adaptation) fighting bandits, slavers, and the eldritch horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Fast forward to the early 20th century and you’ll spot Tarzan protecting his friends from some imperialist villains while John Carter of Mars (Taylor Kitsch from the 2012 bomb of the same name) finds romance and fights aplenty.

In the 30s adventurers really started crawling out of the woodwork. Doc Savage, (Dwayne Johnson plays him in an upcoming movie) a major influence for Batman and Superman, would use his training and wealth for the betterment of mankind. This usually meant punching bad guys and brainwashing them to be productive members of society. Our hero, everyone!

Criminals learned to fear the dark, lest they find The Shadow (Orson Welles in the radio drama) waiting. Or worse, The Spider (Warren Hule in the movie serials).

Venture into space and you’ll have to contend with Flash Gordon (Sam Jones in the 80’s movie), heroic freedom fighter opposing the empire of space Fu Manchu, er, I mean Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow).

Legacy of The Pulps

Silver Shroud:I am the instrument of Justice and I cannot fall. DEATH HAS COME FOR YOU, EVILDOER! AND I… AM ITS SHROUD!

– Fallout 4

Pulps live on in pop culture although they haven’t been published in decades. The superheroes featured in today’s blockbusters were inspired by the pup heroes. Flash Gordon inspired a young George Lucas to create a little series you may have heard of called Star Wars. He also created the penultimate pulp hero, Indiana Jones.

In the Fallout video games, you can find pulp magazines inspired by many real life ones that boost your stats. In Fallout 4, you even get to do a quest-line where you become one of those heroes, The Silver Shroud. New movies have been announced for Doc Savage and Mandrake the Magician, which makes one wonder if the heroes of old are starting to return. If so, who’s next? Zorro? ? Flash Gordon? The Phantom?

The answer is yes. They may not use those names, but the characters and plotlines of the great pulp stories live on today. Ask any Avenger.

Didya Get All That?

While often overlooked in favor of comic books, people have a wistful fondness for these thrilling adventures of yesteryear.

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