| A special thank you to Todd Severin and Keith Holt for their kind permission
to allow their article to be posted on this site. This article originally
appeared in the October 1995 issue of Comic Book Marketplace #28.|
Please note that the authors hold all rights to this article.
- The Webmistress
Mysterious Being of the Night
The Pulp Years
by Todd D. Severin and Keith Holt
Thundering automatics blasting red-lipped flame rumble in the night-- answering blasts echo back final volleys from automatics silence. Then from the blackness behind automatics moves a deeper blackness a shadow within a shadow and disappears into the night. And on the chill night air is borne a peal of laughter. The triumph laugh of The Shadow!
The Shadow Magazine - March 15, 1941
From April of 1931 until the Summer of 1949, terse words of thrilling prose like those above lit the imaginative fires of a nation. During this time, The Shadow reigned as the undisputed king of the pulps; the weird avenger of crime; the strange creature in black. Behind strikingly painted covers, emblazoned with titles like, "Face of Doom," "The Death Tower," or "The Ghost Makers," lurked rabid stories of murder, deceit, and the ultimate in mystery. Villains such as The Silver Skull, Shiwan Khan and The Green Terror raged illicit wars against society and there was only one person capable of stopping their fiendish plans; the mysterious being of the night- The Shadow. The creation of the Shadow rocked the publishing world of the early thirties, and began a tale of imagination and business savvy that is as interesting as many of The Shadow's stories themselves. Born from the most inauspicious of beginnings, The Shadow rose above its unsavory roots and emerged as an unforgettable cultural icon, a catalyst for the resurrection of an entire publishing genre, and most remarkable of all, a literary character that has endured through the generations.
The Shadow, as with many of history's most unusual heroes, was a product of his era. At the time of his birth, economic uncertainty and social decline prevailed across the nation. America had been plunged into the Great Depression following the Stock Market Crash of 1929. With the first hints of war raging just beyond the Nation's boundaries, America campaigned it's own internal struggle against the ravishes of organized crime as gangsters such as Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde captured the nation's headlines.
It was a time of uncertainty.
It was a time for heroes.
Bursting forth from row after row of magazine racks, pulp magazines offered solace for a nation. A moments escape from the darkness of reality, and a chance to embark upon a remarkable adventure. Television was still a dream of the future and motion pictures were an expensive form of entertainment for a working man and his family, but for the cost of a dime, a pulp magazine offered the average American the chance to rocket away on a tale of interplanetary adventure; commandeer a Bomber through a dangerous night mission; or explore the deepest recesses of the untamed African jungle. The pulps offered every form of adventure imaginable, from the great American West to the gangland hideouts of the underworld. There were magazines of science fiction, fantasy, sports adventure, hard-boiled detective and the weird and the fantastic. Harry Steeger, the former president of Popular Publications, Inc., one of the leading publishers of pulp magazines summed it up thusly, " Pulps were the principle entertainment vehicle for millions of Americans. They were an unflickering, uncolored TV screen upon which the reader could spread the most glorious imagination he possessed."
The pulp magazine came forth from the ingenious mind of a small publisher named Frank Munsey, who, in 1896, came to the realization that the story was more important than the paper that was used to publish it. Mainstream magazines at that time were lavishly illustrated, produced on slick-coated paper and contained a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. While many of them, such as Harper's or the Atlantic, produced fiction of high-quality, the cost of 25 cents an issue was prohibitive to the average American who earned little more than seven dollars for slaving 10-12 hours a day, six days a week in a sweat shop. Munsey, realized that in order to move more product, he had to mass produce his magazine at the lowest cost possible.
With this thought in mind, he used the cheapest wood-pulp paper available to produce the first pulp, his all-fiction magazine, The Argosy. With its poor paper stock and uncut edges, Munsey knew that his magazine was a far cry from the "slicks" that permeated the market. His intent wasn't to capture the reading loyalty of the rich and educated who sneered at the "low-brow" and "uncouth" pulps. Rather, he appealed to the unsophisticated, working class reader. The bread winner of the emerging middle class. The man who wanted good entertainment for his family at a fair price. To say Munsey succeeded is an understatement. By 1907, Argosy's readership reached 500,000, while introducing to America the scripted works of Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. Other publishers immediately jumped into the foray, unleashing an onslaught of new publications, none more successful than Munsey's own follow-up, All-Story, which introduced the author Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The era of the pulps had begun.
The 1920's and 1930's saw a boom in pulp magazine production never before seen in the publishing world. Millions upon millions of pulps were printed and sold. As many as 250 different titles crowded the magazine stands at any given time. In order to keep costs down, profit margins per issue were incredibly small, therefore the whole industry revolved around selling as many units as possible. Pulp writers churned out fantastic 60,000 word adventures on every topic imaginable, and when the costs of writing was too high, publishers went overseas and purchased stockpiles of used British stories from literary flea markets and had their house writers refine the copy for the American tastes. The fiction was violent and flamboyant. The covers lured the reader with depiction's of partially-clad women in distress amid a back drop of handguns. The action was sweaty. The danger was real.
It was into this world that The Shadow was born.