Sex and Death in Four Colors
I’m in Brooklyn, the home of the American
tough guy; the birthplace of Al Capone, Mae West, the Dodgers,
Irving Klaw and the grittiest take-no-bullshit accent in America.
The fact that this is Brooklyn, with its long reputation for cherishing
the rough and direct, and the catalog of icons that the name alone
summons forth, adds an extra edge of satisfaction to viewing the
Brooklyn Museum of Art’s recent exhibit, “Pulp Art:
Vamps, Villains and Victors From the Robert Lesser Collection,” which
has been such a critical and popular success that the museum extended
its run for a month and a half.
To get to the exhibit, you leave the elevator
on the fourth floor of the museum and walk through corridors lined
with displays from the permanent collection: stained glass windows,
porcelain figurines and antique housewares, all as fragile as they
are beautiful. The pulp art is sealed away from all this behind
glass doors in two rooms, walls painted midnight blue. Extracts
from old radio shows play at low volume on small speakers, just
loud enough for the sinister laughter, thuggish snarls and gunshots
to do their job. The first room is empty, except for a dais with
two white, faceless mannequins. The first is a woman dressed in
black, her coat blowing up just enough to flash the lacy garters
around her thigh. The second is sprawled at her feet, the corpse
of a man laid flat by some clash of lust, greed, jealousy or hatred.
His hat has fallen off his head and lies gaping at her feet. The
implied violence of the tableau is a sharp marker between the courteous
delicacy of the work standing outside and the blunt, direct art
inside. It is as if the woman is a modern-day psychopomp, escorting
both her victim and us into the underworld.
The paintings themselves are like a visual catalogue
of every permutation of the Seven Deadly Sins imaginable, with
the single exception of Sloth. Sloth is an odd sin, the only one
caused by a lack of passion or ambition rather than an excess,
and the essence of the pulps was passion driven to its absolute
extremes. Of the Seven Deadlies, the sin most incarnate is that
of Lust. It’s there again and again in the bright primary
colors of the canvases — from the half-dressed damsels in
distress poised in mid-scream to the lurking femmes fatales to
the hoods clutching both guns and money with near-sexual fever.
The heyday of the pulps chronicled here went
from the 1920s to the late 1940s. The decline of the pulps was
caused partly because their main audience — young men in
their teens and 20s — were returning from a war in which
they had played out many of the fantasies that were the meat and
potatoes of the pulp magazines, and having lived the reality, found
the fantasy shallow and meaningless. The fantasy they sought was
the enforced normality and stability of the suburban nuclear family.
The demand for graphically sensationalistic entertainment was filled
for a time by William Gaines’s EC line of comics, including
Tales From the Crypt, Two-Fisted Stories, and of course, the original
MAD Magazine. Even today, though, there are a few survivors of
the pulps on the newsstand, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery
Magazine and Analog (formerly Astounding Science Fiction); even
the venerable Weird Tales has been reincarnated in the last few
years. If the magazines themselves have disappeared almost entirely,
that’s even more true of the art that decorated their covers:
less than 1 percent of the cover art has survived, considered so
disposable that when it wasn’t destroyed or tossed into the
trash, you could barely give it away.
The first, most important thing to notice
about the paintings is that despite their sensational subject
matter and outrageous coloring, there is a definite sense of
realism to them. Although they don’t portray the literal
realities of their time in the way that Dorothea Lange’s
photographs or Edward Hopper’s paintings did, in their
way they are just as honest a chronicle. The time between the
wars was characterized by gut-wrenching change in every bit of
society. World War I and the Russian Revolution were the final
death blows (literally in the latter case) to the aristocracies
that had ruled Europe and its colonies, making room for a society
structured by industry and bureaucracy rather than agriculture
and divine grace. The ideas of Freud and Jung took hold in both
the arts and sciences, challenging all ideas of conscience, soul,
free will and, most importantly, sex. Mores of sex and gender
were in constant flux, with women finally winning the vote in
1920 and old family structures crumbling under the economic assault
of the Great Depression.
If Hopper and Lange used their talents during
this time to depict what Americans were, then the pulp artists
chronicled with equal accuracy what their audience of young males
most feared and most hoped they would become. On these canvases
are nightmares, sexual desires and fears intermingled, hatreds
and prejudices presented without shame or inhibition.
Take, for example, the exhibition’s single
most striking and disturbing piece, H.W. Scott’s “Japs
Invade California,” (Click Magazine; February, 1941). Published
10 months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the picture shows
just how pervasive American fears of Japanese imperialism were.
The background is a sky red with flame, so red that it might as
well be blood. A barbed-wire fence runs across the foreground with
a sign announcing: CONCENTRATION CENTER FOR WOMEN. A bestial Japanese
soldier grips his rifle and bayonet, looming over a dismal parade
of white women who trudge into the camp. One clutches her shredded
clothing to her body, as though seeking to protect herself even
after being violated. Another woman poses provocatively, as though
seeking to protect herself in the opposite way. A nun is stooping
to help a wounded girl on the ground. It is a powerful piece of
propaganda, and one that did not go unnoticed during its own time.
When the magazine hit the stands, the Japanese Ambassador stormed
into the White House, waving a copy of it as proof of American
hostility. After war broke out, Scott’s painting was given
numerous exhibitions, including a special showing at New York’s
famous Salmagundi Club. One can’t help feeling ambivalent
looking at it now: on the one hand, it is undoubtedly a work of
power and skill; on the other, we also know that on the West Coast
of the United States, it was Japanese-Americans who were marched
into concentration camps precisely because of fears like those
depicted by Scott.
Even independent of the war, Asians were the
most commonly caricatured ethnic group in the pulps. Devious Chinese
in Mandarin robes repeatedly threaten white maidens with bizarre
tortures; Japanese soldiers hurl themselves rapaciously at women,
snarling like animals. In Norman Saunders’s “The Elephant
God,” a Japanese soldier attacking a scantily-clad woman
has almost catlike teeth while his bared teeth show wolflike canines.
The message is clear: he is not only inhuman but unlike any animal
ever born. H.W. Parkhurst’s “The Signet Ring” depicts
a more subtle, social threat coming from the Chinese: an obviously
desperate couple stands before a Chinese moneylender, negotiating
terms. In a role reversal symbolizing the collapse of family roles
during the Great Depression, it is the woman who calmly negotiates
with the moneylender while the man stands meek and passive behind
Heroes are much less common than villains in
these pictures. While square-jawed paragons of virtue sometimes
emerge from the edges of the picture to smash the mad doctor’s
machines of doom, they are not always there. Much too often
the villains seem to stand unmolested. Heroism shows up more consistently
in the pictures illustrating either science-fiction or old west
stories. Even the buildings in Frank R. Paul’s futuristic
cities seem to be heroic, arising from the noblest human impulses.
But the portrayals of the modern age show it as a place where heroism
is scarce, something that is either a thing of the past or that
will be regained only after eons have passed. The world of the
artists is depicted as one of paranoia and fear, under siege from
without and within. Nestled side by side on these canvases are
the strongest impulses of both New Deal liberalism and reactionary
One of the most fascinating and powerful heroes
to appear in the pages of the pulps, precisely because he embodied
this ambivalence about the possibility of modern heroism, was The
Shadow. The Shadow’s image, as defined by George Jerome Rozen,
draws its power from the fact that his appearance shows more of
the villain than the hero. In contrast to the statuesque models
of manhood who typify traditional heroes, The Shadow swathed himself
in a black cloak and slouch hat, the lower half of his face covered
by a blood-red scarf. His nose was crooked and hawklike. Most important
were the eyes: in nearly every picture they stare directly out
of the canvas with pitiless fury, as though accusing the viewer
as much as the fictitious villains within the covers. The Shadow
was truly a Freudian hero — a character of pure, unrelenting
superego who was motivated as much by a righteous sadism as by
a sense of moral duty.
Rozen’s covers often show The Shadow’s
primal psychological force through a masterful use of surrealism.
In “Room of Doom” (The Shadow Magazine; April 1, 1942)
for example, two terrified hoods find themselves trapped in a hall
of mirrors, every single one reflecting the image of The Shadow
lunging at them, firing his automatic. The hoods fire futilely
at the glass panels as The Shadow comes at them from every direction.
The Shadow himself appears nowhere in the picture; and although
the hoods are standing right next to the mirrors, they are reflected
nowhere, unless we consider The Shadow himself to be their reflection.
The self-damnation of guilt is also effectively
depicted in John A. Coughlin’s “The Eyes” (Detective
Story Magazine; August 9, 1930). A man stands alone by a streetlamp,
a newspaper in his hands. The headline reads, in large, scarlet
letters: BODY FOUND. But despite the solitude of the night, he
is not alone. As he looks uneasily over his shoulder, countless
disembodied eyes peer at him from the darkness, lidless and unblinking.
The image is one that is so stark and powerful that it almost reverses
the apparent morality of the situation. Who has lived a life so
blameless that they cannot at least identify with the man’s
situation, if not feel outright sympathy for him?
The only thing more ubiquitous than violence
in the pulps was sex, and it’s represented in ample quantities
on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum. Just as it’s often used
to make villainy — especially that of foreigners — seem
even more ruthless, the violence also serves as an excuse for the
sex. One way or another, women’s clothes are reduced to tatters,
and their heaving breasts and crimson lips straddle the line between
fear and sexual passion. That’s appropriate, because it’s
the same way the pulp’s audiences viewed sex: desiring it,
but fearing the social upset in roles that would make it more available.
The mix of fear and arousal on the women’s faces, then, is
a reflection of the men looking at them.
The masters at bringing eroticism to the pulps
were Harry Donnenfeld and Frank Armer, owners of Culture Publications,
renowned for its line of “Spicy” pulps: Spicy Adventure,
Spicy Mystery, Spicy Detective, Spicy Western and others. Nothing
matched the Spicy mags for sheer risqué material, either
in the text or in the illustrations. The publishers were easily
able to exploit this: because of the raw illustrations and passages
of writing known as “hot spots,” Culture Publications
was able to charge a whole quarter for their magazines — 15
cents more than other pulps — and still be confident of selling
out their entire print run.
Some scholars consider the Spicy mags to be
the earliest ancestors of pinup mags, and it’s an easy argument
to make; many of their covers at least skirted the edge of BDSM
and sometimes charged straight over the line. The cover that spelled
the end for the Spicy mags was H.J. Ward’s “The Whisperers” (Spicy
Mystery; April, 1942). The picture featured a terrified woman in
shredded clothes dangling from a hook in a meat locker and being
menaced by a thug holding a very large knife. New York Mayor Fiorello
La Guardia, who had already declared war on every kind of vice
from pinball to burlesque, took one look at the cover and declared
an end to pulps in New York City. Culture Publications did not
go quietly or gently, but they succumbed.
As with heroism, gentler, more hopeful realities
of sex were portrayed in the science-fiction and fantasy pulps.
The pictures of Virgil Finlay are particularly striking, depicting
women that are as noble and sensual as Frank Paul’s architecture.
In “Burn, Witch, Burn!” a naked goddess rises languorously
over a landscape of flames and petty, violent people striking out
at each other. The flames lap at her thighs and loins, only barely
covering the pubic area. Her top half is wrapped in a cloud of
stars, once again only barely concealing what’s necessary.
Finlay seems to have discarded the virgin/whore dichotomy, bringing
sex forward as the thing that makes the women in his pictures noble.
But again, all of his paintings depict future or alternate worlds;
it’s hard to imagine such portrayals sitting comfortably
in the world around him.
When you leave the exhibit, you once again go
past the woman standing guard and past the china cups and stained
glass outside. The philosophy behind them is very different than
that of the pulp covers inside: they speak of efforts to make life
comfortable, to create art that somehow uplifts. The pulp artists
painted much that was ugly and grotesque and even things that shame
us as a culture, but what they painted was definitely us. That
alone is reason enough for the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit.