What do “pulp magazines” stand for? Is it true that popular heroes of today’s comics and movies like Batman, Spiderman or even Jack Sparrow and Doctor House, are all born, conceptually, in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s? How important pulp magazines have been for our imaginary? Let’s start from the beginning.
In 1882 Frank Munsey, a young American publisher, had the idea of producing a new magazine for boys named “Golden Argosy”. Although the periodical did not achieve the expected commercial success, it prompted to the creation of a subsequent magazine named “The Argosy“, more adult oriented, sold at the great price of only ten cents. Munsey managed to achieve this result thanks to two main reasons: the application of high-speed printing presses and the use of a cheap paper named “wood pulp paper“. The term comes from the raw material used for its production, namely the pulp of the tree. This was characteristically coarse, thick and with the tendency to yellow over time, but also very inexpensive.
Within only a few years the periodical achieved a print run of up to 500,000 copies sold per month. At the time the publisher of “The Argosy” didn’t realize it, but with his magazine he started a new era. The next seventy years saw the birth of a myriad of “pulp” magazines, each one focused on a distinct genre. Hence all the popular fictional genres in their current shape, the very ones we enjoy now, were born: thriller, mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, adventure, western, romance, humor and even saucy-spicy, all saw the light in those glorious years. New generations of authors endeavored to meet the increasing demand of audience and publishers: among them we include Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Frank Herbert, Louis L’amour, Rudyard Kipling, but the list doesn’t stop here. The quality of the stories contained in the pulp magazines have been sometimes questioned by discerning critics. The truth is, though, that the mere fact of their widespread diffusion argues the case for their intrinsic quality. Characters like The Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Tarzan, Nick Carter, Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers and many others helped, together with their authors, at least three generations of readers to overcome recessions, crisis of ’29, Spanish flu, wars and crime simply through the power of fantasy and immagination: a real triumph of the art.
Nevertheless, also those inexpensive magazines, like all things, came to an end. The rising price of the paper combined with the emergence of new forms of entertainment like comics, radio and television marked the inexorable decline of the pulp format, culminated in the late ’50s (not fully declined, though, but this is another story).