[1 October 2009]
“Cult” is a term loaded with images of shaved heads, child brides and movie stars jumping up and down on couches. The word is spit out rather than spoken, a monosyllabic grunt that sounds like ignorance and fear.
But ours is a flexible language, bent and shaped by its users to suit the needs of a situation, from the jovial to the sinister. Now “cult” doesn’t just describe the few adherents of a self-proclaimed prophet but also the faithful few who keep ratings-challenged TV shows afloat, pass underground comics around and swear by the virtues of any given unheralded piece of our culture.
The Internet is the great emancipator of the cults, freeing the faithful from the bonds of pamphleteering and street corner sermonizing and casting a wide net to attract new followers. The Internet makes the world seem huge and small at the same time, and it’s opened the door wider for the weird of the world to come out. Somewhere there’s a site catering to those things which most interest all of us, from the simple pleasures of hobbies to the complex rituals of sex or religion.
We’re so used to having the world at our fingertips it’s easy to forget we’re still in the infancy of this information age. We’re not too far removed from a world where feeding our special interests required a trip to the news stand and huge quantities of paper and ink.
Editors Earl Kemp and Luis Ortiz revisit that world in Cult Magazines: A to Z, a compendium of 20th century publications which once catered to the every need of the reading public. This overview of the magazine’s golden age, in Ortiz’s words, explores “sex, celebrity gossip, illustrations or photographs of scantily clad or nude women, salaciousness, crime, contrariness against political and religious authority, sexism and obsession.” My, how far we haven’t come.
Really, though, this book serves to show how our interests in danger, sex and death have remained the same, but also how the depiction of those ideas have changed. Where once there were cheesecake photos of unknown models in various states of undress we now have stolen sex tapes of starlets; where once there were hard boiled tales of detectives we now have omnipresent reruns of Law and Order.
The editors make no claim that theirs is a comprehensive work. Ortiz writes in his introduction that the selections, like long entries on the early science fiction anthology Amazing Stories and Art Spiegelman’s Raw, are “personal”. It’s a fitting approach because, though the publications profiled were intended for mass audiences, their cult status connotes a personal connection with their readers.
The entries are listed in alphabetical, not chronological order, so readers waiting for the sex stuff are never more than a few pages away from the goods. The encyclopedic layout can be a bit tedious, as some entries are filled with an endless stream of names, dates and story titles. (Not that reading about biker magazines or nudist newsletters ever gets boring.)
What breaks up the history book copy are the unbelievable illustrations. Every page is decorated with classic covers, advertisements, and photo spreads from all the publications profiled. The illustrations provide context and elevate some of the less lively text out of the black and white of print and into the full-blown color of history.
Whether about underground music or the undead, the publications collected here were all created for profit. Someone in some fly-by-night publishing house saw dollar signs and gave the green light to Raygun, to Argosy. Seeing a need and filling it, that’s the foundation of any business, but it’s also the basis of creativity. Things can get rough when these two forces intersect, but Kemp and Ortiz show us how well money and art sometimes go together.
With these magazines, readers feasted on a steady diet of sex, violence and sexy violence for nearly 100 years. Though purveyors of popular culture still get plenty of these elements in their diets today, books like this remind us we could always use supplements.
The real magazines in this collection, the actual physical copies that are left, are probably in private collections, gathering dust in storage sheds or molding in dank basements. There are still publications of true detective stories, celebrity gossip rags and glossies devoted to every sex act imaginable, but the good ones are getting harder and harder to find.
The Internet gives us all somewhere to go, but wouldn’t it be nice to go into a corner store—if they even exist anymore—and be able to buy more than Us Weekly and Barely Legal?