The Pulps Had Died. From their obituary in Time Magazine:
April 9, 1949; Street & Smith Giving Up 'Pulps'; Oldest Publishers of Thriller Magazines
Also Scuttling Their Comic Books. Keep 'Slick' Periodicals. Television Is Held Responsible
in Part for Sharp Drop in Newsstand Sales. The country's oldest "pulp" magazine
publishing house, which for three generations has tickled the fancy of the
adventure-minded with the derrings-do of such disparate characters as Buffalo Bill and
The Shadow abandoned the field.
In many histories, this is the end. The pulps had not been a truly mass medium since the late
1920s. As a publishing niche, they had been in decline since the 1930s. Even publishers who had
started in pulps and made their fortunes there were abandoning the form for greener fields. The
industry had spawned other types of magazines and several genres of fiction during its long history.
Just when it seemed that this late 19th century publishing phenomena had utterly played itself out,
had given away to other media all it had to offer, it pulled one last new genre out from its folds.
|Real Nazi Sex UFO Man-Eater Cults!
Page 1 of 20
The evolution of pulp magazines reads that they were all descended from general fiction
anthologies which emerged around the late 1880s. Somewhere during this introduction the words
“steam driven sheet-fed press” will be used. The rise of the medium will then be explained by
pointing out the absence of other distractions such as radio, television, movies, video games or the
internet. A mention will be made about “untrimmed paper stock, until then thought unsuitable for
printing.” For a time the pulps flourished—and then all the stuff I mentioned became invented and
they faded away. Or they all became comic books. Or all of the publishers eventually went into
paperbacks. Or they were never really that big of a deal to begin with. I just heard on radio the
other night that they were all dead by the end of WWII.
None of this is true.
To handle the last point first, the end of WWII marked the start of a renaissance in pulp magazines,
even though few actual pulps were being printed. The steam fed presses and untrimmed paper
stock were never all that key to the industry. Throughout their run, your typical pulp was printed
either on newsprint or the same stock as today’s paperbacks and crossword puzzles. They were
printed on both letter press and rotogravure machinery. If we restrict the term ‘Pulp’ to a specific
stock or a particular method of manufacture, then there never really were too many pulp magazines
to begin with. Fawcett never published on pulp. Even Argosy, the biggest of the pulps, was a half
This post war phase was dominated by magazines which have been come to be called “sweats” or
“armpit slicks.” I include these in the overall history of pulps since they are fiction magazines
directly related to the pulps in terms of publishers and creative staffs. Running out of these same
offices were half sized digests, photographic true crime scandal magazines and a rather odd brand
of smut. Although slightly different in form, all of these magazines fit into the same general category
as the pulps. Pulp is a state of mind: a general presentation, a demographics be damned business
model. The model, niche and presentation still fit the term pulp. Moreover, all histories are
essentially histories of people. In this, the final stage of pulp history, we are still dealing with the
same group of people as from the previous era. Later, publishing would become much more
specialized. The story of the 4th Wave pulps is largely about how this evolution into specialization
As you will see, sometimes history is more of a zig zag pattern than a direct line. And what direct
lines there are, often come in from surprising directions.
WWII was a big blow to the pulp magazine industry. Half the creatives and half the audience
shipped off for war. There was an oddball paper rationing scheme--which had been in force since
WWI--that in the run up to WWII, turned against the pulp publishers. Canada embargoed the pulps.
England was cut off. By 1943 even Argosy had converted to a slick. Just staying in the pulp
business was a matter of reading tea leaves. No one read the leaves better than pulp publisher
Fawcett Publication’s history states that during WWII the firm cancelled most of its magazines.
Certainly no one understood the paper rationing system better than Fawcett. There’s no real
reason to publish a string of pulp magazines when you are getting millions in circulation off of just
this one. Besides that, Fawcett’s newsprint quota was being used on its comic book line, which at
that time was outselling Superman. Although technically True is a slick, its content is pretty damn
pulpy. Unlike normal pulps, it could actually be shipped to servicemen overseas. And the boys kept
reading True after they came back. It was the first armpit slick, the model that others would start
from. This is the start of the 4th Wave.
Since our topic is the 4th Wave, I will be brief about what came before. 1st Wave pulps were
characterized by publishers with a desire to maintain high circulation figures or Johnny One Note
publishers such as the girl’s smut king Courtland Young or the science fiction at all costs guru Hugo
Gernsback. Most publishers intended to make the lion’s share of their money off of advertising
revenues, like a regular magazine publisher. They were in competition with the concurrent 2nd
Wave publishers, who are following the Dime Novel model, wherein the majority of your revenue
comes directly from profit off the cover price. As a business model, the second wave guys
eventually won. The 3rd Wave publishers (1929-1942) are having the snot beat out of them by the
Depression. For various reasons, these publishers dropped their print runs but proliferated the
number of titles they published. Having a magazine in every established genre seems to have been
their core aim. Whereas 1st and 2nd Wave publishers may have had print runs from 200,000 to a
couple of million, 3rd Wave publishers were likely to content themselves with circulations hovering
between 60,000 to 200,000. But there were many dozens of titles.
It was during these years just after the war and before the rise of paperbacks that the 4th Wave
pulps started to gain ground. True was the big hit, in fact the biggest hit ever. Beyond the usual
pulp stuff, True was something of a lifestyle magazine: a lifestyle magazine for men who didn’t have
much of a lifestyle—an Esquire for the hardhat set.