why did the pulps die

    magazines from the 30's to the 50's

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    Not long ago my associate editor, the unflappable Brian Bieniow-
    ski, and I had the opportunity to take a step back in time. Another cool customer, Analog’s associate editor. Trevor Quachri, accompanied us on this journey to the early decades of the twentieth century. Transportation was provided by the astounding private pulp-art collection of Robert Lesser. We had been in search of an appropriate image for this month’s cover when Mr. Lesser invited us to a private viewing of his collection.

    Before we heard from Mr. Lesser, our first foray to the past had been an expedition to the mid-sixties. We were looking for a piece of cover art that would suitably illustrate William Barton’s evocative “Down to the Earth Below”—a novella that is both a coming-of-age story and a remarkable celebration of the pulp reprint paperbacks that dominated that decade. Alas, a few days spent traipsing the Internet soon made it clear that most of those illustrations were not available for our purposes. Of course, those paperbacks celebrated an earlier era of fiction, so we turned the wheels of our time machine back a little further, heading in the direction of the original sources.

    At first, we did not make it all the way back to the heyday of golden-eyed heroes and ape men, because we found our cover when we disembarked in 1949. George Gross’s art for “Huntress of Hell-Pack” appeared on the quarterly Jungle Stories magazine in 1949. Although this magazine did not survive the great die-off of the pulps (it folded in 1954), it did outlast Doc Savage Magazine, which ran from 1933 until 1949, and this issue postdates the Tarzan novels that were published during Edgar Rice Burroughs’s lifetime.

    Our art director, Vicki Green, had come upon the Gross cover in the pages of Robert Lesser’s coffee-table book Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines. This beautiful book includes examples of covers from all the pulp magazine genres: Westerns, science fiction, detectives, mysteries, horror, war, aviation, and other adventure magazines. It is just a sampling, though, of the works in Mr. Lesser’s collection, and, while the book does bring that period to life, it cannot convey the thrill I felt as I stepped into a room filled with the actual paintings.

    Witnessing those paintings nearly brought me to a sensory overload. I felt as though I had dived into a refreshing pool of water. As I splashed around in delight, I came face-to-face with George Rozen’s portrayals of The Shadow and Frank R. Paul’s Quartz and Golden Cities. I backed up into J. Allen St. John’s painting of Tarzan and the Leopard Men (the art that graced the cover of the edition my father picked up at Johnson’s Second-Hand Bookstore years before I was born), and nearly stumbled over the works of Hannes Bok. I was menaced by the paintings of Rafael de Soto and Norman Saunders, but Doc Savage, gloriously depicted by Walter Baumhofer, was there to rescue us. Mr. Lesser uses every inch available for his private display. Like the Sistine Chapel, even the ceiling is covered with art. Instead of Michelangelo, though, it was the work of Virgil Finlay that met my raised eyes.

    Robert Lesser and other collectors have only been able to save a fraction of the art created for the pulp era. It is a gross understatement to say that the works were not appreciated in their own time. The collector believes this is because it was considered “offensive art.” In addition to representing what was (and is often still though of as) “worthless pulp fiction,” those paintings of bug-eyed monsters and rum-running gangsters were about “the threat of sexual violation and death in motion.” The general public wouldn’t hang the paintings in their homes and the intelligentsia didn’t want to see them in museums and galleries. Even the artists were frequently ashamed of their own work. In conversation and in his book, Mr. Lesser relates the tragic loss of many of these paintings:

    When the Popular Publications warehouse in the Bronx burned to the ground, hundreds of pulp paintings were destroyed. In 1961, when Condé Nast bought Street & Smith and moved to high-rent uptown and were cramped for space, they called the artists: ‘Do you want your artwork returned?’ The answer: ‘No!’ Street & Smith had saved their art and it was a large collection of the very best. A small auction was held, but there were no bids, no bidders. Then the paintings were offered free to their employees; even at that price there were no takers. A tragedy in American art: the largest collection ever saved was put on the street for . . . a New York City garbage truck.

    Mr. Lesser’s recitation of these events sent a chill to our hearts. My normally phlegmatic co-workers and I returned to our office giddy with delight at having viewed these extraordinary paintings, but saddened by our history lesson. Brian insisted that if he’d been alive in the fifties or the sixties, he would have had the sensibility needed to save the lost artwork. Trevor and I, using a variant of Fermi’s paradox, argued that since they weren’t saved by anyone, he wouldn’t have had the foresight to do so either. Still, I’d like to think that if I’d had the opportunity, I would have thrown myself in front of that truck. It’s too bad we don’t have a real time machine, but thankfully, we do have people like Robert Lesser.

    In the early seventies, Mr. Lesser and others began to rescue some of these paintings from oblivion. Nowadays, this art sells to wealthy collectors for tens of thousands of dollars. Robert Lesser does not intend to get rich from his collection, though. He hopes to turn it over to an institution that will make the art available to all of us. When that happens, we’ll let you know, since everyone should have the chance to visit the pulp-art time machine.

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