Scanning Around With Gene: Men’s Pulp Magazines

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I was waiting in line at the checkout counter of the local supermarket the other day and couldn’t help but notice the latest issue of Men’s Health magazine with a picture of some buff guy and a headline promising I could look like him in just a few short weeks. And, judging from the other headlines, I’d say that sex and body image are important topics to the male buyers of that particular magazine.

There are still a number of men’s magazines that focus on adventure, health and sports, though nothing like there once was back in the Fifties and Sixties when cheap “pulp” magazines crowded the local newsstand promising stories of heroism, female conquest, and rugged adventure. These magazines, referred to as pulp because of the cheap wood-pulp paper they were printed on, had obvious titles like Male and Man’s Magazine, and Stag, and some not so obvious names like Argosy, True, and Saga. But they all followed the same basic formula of exploiting their topics in the most dramatic way possible. I recently dug out several copies of such titles and put my scanner to work. A few of the cover images are from a great website called pulpcovers.com. Click on any image for a larger version.

I don’t think these magazines reflected the average male of the times any more than a typical issue of Men’s Health does today, yet they do tell us a bit about what was on the minds of the men who bought them.

Mostly the stories had to do with rugged individualism and often recounted heroic war stories, old-west tales of triumph of good over evil, and adventure stories of men in tricky situations around the globe.

When it came to stories about women, they were, as you might expect from the times, rather sexist and misogynist, and often portrayed women as wild, manipulative characters of shaky background out to take advantage of unsuspecting males.

These pulp magazines enjoyed their reign before magazines like Playboy came out, and they don’t contain any real nudity or anything that would be considered at all pornographic by today’s standards. But they clearly pushed the limits of the times and were certainly filled with innuendo and modest titillation.

One quick side story of interest is that Hugh Heffner originally planned to call his new magazine Stag Party, but he was challenged by the publishers of the pulp magazine Stag, and so he changed the name to Playboy.

In sharp contrast to the stories of confident men overcoming great obstacles, many of the ads were directed toward men who needed help with their bodies, their love lives, and their careers, which is probably the more accurate picture of the typical reader.

But I love the artwork in these publications, and the writing was often surprisingly good. Many a budding artist and writer got their start churning out material for these publications, which competed for attention on the newsstand, where most of the copies were sold. So they had to be dramatic and eye-catching.

The covers were full-color and printed on glossy stock, but inside most of the printing was one or two colors with artwork often rendered in duotones. Unfortunately the crude inside printing and cheap paper often meant poor reproduction quality for the images.

By today’s standards these magazines, with their provocative artwork and exploitive headlines, seem like one big cliché, which is usually a sign of a truly interesting genre. Magazines are still exploitive in their own way, though we’ve gotten a bit more sophisticated and comparatively low-key.

But I really like this era of magazine publishing and enjoy picturing some pretty hard-boiled editors, writers and artists cranking out this stuff week after week, story after story. I’d say it was a time when men were much more insecure about their “manliness,” but then I’m not sure that has really changed much over the decades. We seem to still be searching for rock-hard abs and good performance in bed.

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