Those Sensational Pulp Era Covers

Pulp Fiction During the Pulp Era

Beautiful Pulp Era art by Alex Schomburg

Astounding Science Fiction cover

Trashy, tacky, cheap, sensational, tasteless, insensitive, low quality. Those are some of the terms associated with the pulp era and its art.

The pulp era started in the 1900s but it was not until the 1920s and 1930s when it experienced its highest popularity.

The pulp magazines were called such due to their interior be made of cheap wood pulp paper. As opposed to today’s modern, glossy magazines.

Granted, if there is a medium that deserves to be considered lowbrow and unartistic, it would be pulp magazines.

Tarzan of the Apes had its start in pulp magazines

Their stories covered different genres –action, adventure, Western, crime, fantasy, science fiction, humor, horror, erotica, romance, police/detective stories, et cetera.

What they had in common was plenty of violence, action, and lurid, borderline soft porn images.

However, these lurid magazines gave us some unforgettable characters. Men and women of mystery and action. A few of them still relevant.

Buck Rogers, Zorro, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Ka-Zar, John Carter of Mars, Kull, and The Shadow are still household names. In many ways, they were the precursors of modern superheroes.

Also, one of the old pulp magazines evolved into one of today’s most respectable hard science fiction magazines, Analog Science Fiction and Fact (it used to be called Astounding Stories of Super-Science back in the 1930s). So there is that.

Pulp Era Art

Jungle warrior woman pulp cover

The kind of art created in those Great Depression times was created for commercial use, to sell. Artistic merit was an afterthought.

Since the pulp magazines were created as mass-market and disposable reads (there was no vintage collector market back then) produced in a cheap paper, there was not much thought put into their cover art.

Or was it?

Commercial art for marketing purposes it definitely was. Made for one purpose only, to make people buy that particular issue.

Since back in those days there was so much competition from other pulps (their circulation was in the millions of readers) an eye-catching cover was a must.

Femme Fatale from a pulp Detective novel

Consequently, those covers catered to the lowest common denominator. Namely, sex and gore mostly.

Nonetheless, they were colorful, full of raw expression and, even better, artwork that told a storyline.

Rather than represent a character or being generic, these covers told stories and made you want to pick the issue and read its pages.

Granted, there are plenty of clichés, negative stereotypes, and sexualization of women.

Not to mention it seems every other cover had a ‘damsel in distress’, usually in bondage and tattered clothes in need of rescue from the hero. Or the amoral ‘femme fatale’, ready to kill the male hero. Hardly something worth celebrating except as an example of what not to do.

However, I have a confession to make. I am a big fan!

Why I Love Pulp Era Cover Art?

rare pulp cover in which the male is bonded instead of the female

Despite its problematic themes and tropes, there is something about pulp era art that is sadly absent today.

And do you know what it is? It is that sense of wonder and fun!

Science fiction, all genre fiction, is for the masses. For us. It should be fun. It is fun!

Indeed, we should as important and deep questions. Explore the social and human condition, even be educational.

But we should also entertain the reader. Fill their heads with possibilities, the wonders of the universe, hope, optimism. There may be monsters and bad guys out there, but the hero will win and everything will turn out fine.

Tom Corbett Space Cadet pulp cover

Did I mention those covers were colorful?

Take a look at most Science Fiction and Fantasy section in your library or bookstore. Look hard. Those books look like grown-up literature books with sophisticated and boring art.

Some sub-genres like urban fantasy and hard science fiction looked dull with all the blacks and greys in their covers. YA is following too.

Do you want color? Visit the children’s section. Sad considering it was not so long ago sci-fi and fantasy used to be colorful.

Yes, I love pulp era covers and art. I even have art books showcasing them. I grew up reading the Mexican ones from the ’70s and ’80s (another future topic perhaps?).

Their execution may be problematic to modern sensibilities, but their heart was in the right place. Fun, wonder, optimism, entertaining the reader, catch the eye, tell a story, hope, believe.

In short, they astound!

Reader, are you a fan of pulp-era covers? Would you like the modern era covers to emulate them?

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March 2023