Pulp imagery is such a part of our contemporary landscape, from t-shirts to fridge magnets, that it’s usually viewed as kitschy and campy. It’s hard to imagine that when pulp art first appeared it was considered utterly vulgar and crude, an immediate threat to the moral fiber of American society. Pulp was met with contempt and fear, along with secret adulation. Pulp Fiction Art: Cheap Thrills & Painted Nightmares is a chronicle of this era, and the rise and fall of pulp art.
Based on the book Pulp Art by Robert Lesser, and written and narrated by Jamie McDonald (whose MovieFone voice is quite fitting), the documentary is like a slide show of pulp art with a history lesson, to boot. The film, which features interviews with pulp art connoisseurs as well as many of the original artists, won Best Documentary at both the 2006 Dragon Con Film Festival and the International Sci-Fi Film Festival.
In 1930s America, pulp novels were all the rage because they offered an escape from tumultuous times: the Great Depression was in full swing and WWII was looming on the horizon. Before there was radio or television, America was a surprisingly literate nation, and pulp fiction provided the ultimate guilty pleasure. These short, disposable novels were full of over-the-top adventures which allowed the readers to be cowboys, detectives, or explorers in outer space. Heroes, basically. The protagonist was usually just a regular guy, an average Joe, who is somehow forced to take a situation into his own hands. Pulp was definitely about Man and the strength of Men.
The popularity of pulp novels led to more of them being made which led to increasing competition on the newsstands. Publishers were always on a razor-thin edge of profit and the covers had to catch the eye in just one glance if they wanted to sell. Thus, pulp art was born – illustrators were worked like sweatshop kids to turn out brighter and bolder covers every week. Artists used brighter reds and yellows and they always painted the picture at the climax of the scene: the man about to slay the beast; the screaming girl being carried away; the amorous couple on the brink of sex. The great pulp artists could sell a story in just one image.
Sex and sexual images was certainly a big part of what pulps were selling. In a time before Playboy or Hustler, pulp art was one of the few places to see sexy pictures. The novels frequently depicted topless women with their nipples on full display, which caused many a public outcry. Nonetheless, the sex-themed novels, dubbed “spicy pulps”, were the most expensive (25c each) and the best sellers.
“Spicy” pulps were just one of the many genres, and Pulp Fiction Art concisely goes through the genres and discusses the most notable illustrators within each. There were the “shudder” pulps which told stories of horror, terror, and torture. The “love” pulps were aimed at women, and were a precursor to today’s trashy romance novel. The film also takes a brief sideline to discuss the sexist and racist stereotypes that ran rampant in all genres of pulp art: the sinister Asian, the mysterious Arab, or the cream-skinned, lingerie-clad woman who is in dire need of rescuing.
Sadly, pulp art never got the respect it deserved in its heyday. The original art that remains today is merely a fraction of the large volume of work that was produced weekly. Much of the original work was destroyed or simply thrown out. Many of the artists didn’t even sign the paintings, and didn’t fully respect the work they were doing for the pulps — they viewed the jobs as a stepping stone to ‘quality’ magazines like Harpers. The fact that pulp art was born out of commercial need, the need to sell more covers on the newsstands, was a major factor in its long-standing status as low-brow and not gallery-worthy. Yet for all the nose-turning, pulps still had a 20 million per month readership, and they often outsold the so-called quality magazines.
Pulp writers were not spared contempt either, with Truman Capote notoriously saying of this group, “They aren’t writers, they’re typists.”
One can draw parallels between pulp art and graffiti or punk rock or any of the other art forms that are reviled in their day only to be later discovered as the important work they were. The resurgence of pulp art in galleries and in movies is an interesting example of cultural history repeating itself as each new generation rediscovers and reclaims something from the generations prior. Original pulp is still being created today, except under different guises like comic books, video games, and trashy novels.
Pulp Fiction Art is a great tutorial in pulp, and the eye-candy is simply delicious. At only 57 minutes long, it might just leave you wanting more.