As Nerds, it is important to know where your geeky heritage comes from. What was the evolution of your desired dorky passion? As you may or may not or may know, Rock and Roll sprang out of Blues and Country music is a derivative of Bluegrass and Folk. Comic Books had a similar birthing process that can be traced back to comic strips and Pulp Magazines. The comic strip part is obvious…the Pulp part, not so much.
Classism ruled every aspect of Victorian England, literature, notwithstanding. While the upper class with a disposable income were able to treat themselves to the contemporary literature of the day, such as the works of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, the poor had no such luxuary. Publishers sought to capitalize on this poorer market and began publishing serialized adventure stories on cheap paper that soon became known as the Penny Dreadful, partially because of their dreadful production quality, but also due to the lurid, racy nature of some of their stories. (Although this was Victorian England we’re talking about…a woman flashing an ankle was thought to be scandalous.)
The Penny Dreadful gave us such lasting stories as Sweeney Todd and Varney the vampire. Varney was a predecessor to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Sweeney Todd would later change his name to Johnny Depp. America had its own variation on the Penny Dreadful, it just happened to cost 9 cents more.
The dime novel was introduced in America as a cheap way to give those who couldn’t afford contemporary literature something to read. Early stories included heavily edited, condensed versions of popular novels. Even some old Penny Dreadful tales were collected and reprinted. Later Dime Novels would focus on soap opera style romance, wild cowboy stories and eventually hard boiled, over the top detective adventures. As paper prices increased publishers were forced to increase the prices on dime novels, some going as high as 15 cents, while still being called a dime novel. (Because dime and a nickel novel sounded stupid!) Many of these Dime novels were originally aimed at a younger audience, but once the prices increased, that audience started to disappear. Frank Munsey, publisher of the Golden Argosy, a boy’s adventure magazine decided to switch gears and target an older demographic with a lot more spending money. In 1896, the Argosy, the world’s first pulp fiction magazine was launched.
In order to make the transition, Munsey borrowed the whopping sum of $300 (roughly $8,150 in 2013) from a friend to publish the stories on a newer, cheap wood pulp paper. The Argosy featured the work of muckraking author, Upton Sinclair and Western writer Zane Gray. In its peak, the Argosy went from selling 40,000 copies a month to 500,000. With the success of The Argosy, Munsey debuted All-Story Magazine, which premiered the first work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, including the first Tarzan story. The Argosy and All-Story set the stage for many other imitators and created the format that would be the industry standard. Since there were so many pulps being produced, it’s rather hard to pinpoint the most influential of all time, as they spanned multiple genres and many of them featured the same writers, often using pseudonyms in order to make ends meet in the tough economic times.
The many genres of pulp included Westerns, Science fiction, crime (and “True” crime which usually wasn’t true in any literal meaning of the word.), Horror, Fantasy and later the Adventure Hero genre. That later genre which would include characters like the Shadow, the aforementioned Tarzan, Doc Savage and others would later help inspire costumed super heroes that we know today.
In 1930, writer Phillip Wylie would introduce one of the first super powered characters, Hugo Danner. Hugo’s father, Abednego experiments on his pregnant wife without her knowledge, granting the unborn child amazing powers. Early in his childhood, Hugo discovers he has super strength and super speed. However, nowhere in the story does Hugo ever wear a costume or even fight crime, he goes through life trying to help people, but is feared and hated. (Spoiler of an 83 year old story ahead….) After becoming a star football player and accidentally killing an opponent with his super strength, he joins the French Foreign Legion during WWI, and becomes a phenomenal soldier due to his bullet proof skin. Once home, Hugo’s strength is feared and he is arrested and tortured…to no effect since he is invulnerable. The story ends with Hugo doing some soul searching on an archeological expedition. He climbs a mountain and asks God for guidance. He is promptly struck by lightning and killed. It’s a bleak end for the first super powered “hero”, however 8 years later it helped inspire Superman in the pages of Action Comics # 1. It sounds more like Spider-Man’s luck combined with Superman’s powers.
While Phillip Wylie certainly crafted a very influential story, he was far from being a very influential writer. There were many others however, who not only found success in the pulps but transitioned to novels and literary fame, while other brilliant writers were swallowed up by obscurity. In our next installment, we will discover the secret lives of pulp writers, both famous, infamous and completely unknown. Be here for The Bloody Pulps Part 2: The World Builders!