Pulp Magazines and their Art

I’ve been reading science fiction since I was about 11. When I was about 13 or 14, a cousin gave me a pile of what I now know are were Pulp magazines (sometimes just “pulps”). These were inexpensive fiction magazines published in a wide variety of genre from the beginnings of the 20th Century through the 1950s. The ones I had were probably Amazing or Astounding from the early ’50s. I’m not sure that some of the other pulp genre would have gone down well with my mother! I don’t have them now, but I can still recall the gaudy covers. bachelor_1957 magazine cover

The term pulp derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Pulps were the successor to the penny dreadfuls and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers began their careers writing for pulps, they are best remembered these days for their lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art.

Pulp covers were printed in color on higher-quality paper. They were famous for their half-dressed damsels in distress, usually awaiting a rescuing hero. The cover art played a major part in the marketing of these magazines. On many occasions the relationship between the cover illustration and the magazine content was pretty tenuous. Sometimes the cover would be designed first; authors would then be shown the cover art and asked to write a story to match.

Later pulps began to feature interior illustrations, depicting elements of the stories. The drawings were printed in black ink on the same cream-colored paper used for the text, and had to use specific techniques to avoid blotting on the coarse texture of the cheap pulp. Thus, fine lines and heavy detail were usually not an option. Shading was by crosshatching or pointillism, and even that had to be limited and coarse. Usually the art was black lines on the paper’s background, but Finlay and a few others did some work that was primarily white lines against large dark areas.

Most of what I have in the shop are from Science Fiction magazines. I’m looking out for examples of other genre, but individual magazines are expensive and hard to come by. Startling stories a31-500Despite my mother’s acquiescence when my cousin gave me those magazines so long ago, the science fiction pulps were however as likely to fall into the same stereotypes as the others. This cover for example, from Startling Stories of December 1945, is by Earle K. Bergey, well known for illustrations of scantily-clad women in space helmets which featured heavily in the cover art for Startling Stories. These served incidently as an inspiration for Princess Leia’s slave-girl outfit in Return of the Jedi and for Madonna’s brass brassiere. Bergey’s science fiction covers usually featured a woman being menaced by a Bug-Eyed Monster, alien, or robot, with an heroic male astronaut coming to her assistance. The bikini-tops worn by the girls often resembled coppery metal, giving rise to the phrase “brass bra,” sometimes used in reference to this sort of art.

This trope was sometimes reflected back in later stories, perhaps most effectively in The Moon Goddess and the Son, by Donald Kingsbury. This novel was expanded from a novella originally published, appropriately, in Analog Magazine in 1979. Analog is the successor to Astounding and is the longest running continuously published SF magazine.


Startling a33 Startling a40 Startling a97-500

I’ll come back to this topic in another post with a look in more detail at the work of some of the artists involved.

Interested in finding out more about pulps?

The Pulp Magazine Project

Galactic Central

[Adapted from Pulp Magazine on Wikipedia]


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