Guys, here's a question just for you: What sort of daring adventure fantasies recharge your sense of your own masculinity? Do you think about yourself alone at sea, for example, just you against nature's power, facing off against a pack of ferocious otters? How about the thrill of battle with an unnaturally bellicose lobster—is that the sort of thing that does it for you? Or maybe, in the hidden depths of your imagination, you prefer to think about yourself rescuing somebody, say a beautiful woman in a low-cut dress who's being attacked by a big-tusked boar.
If so, if these are the kinds of adventures that validate your sense of who you wish you were, then you were born too late. There used to be magazines—scores of them—that existed just for you. They were the "adventure pulps" that flourished from the 1950s through the '70s, and they featured exactly those kinds of ripping yarns, and so much more besides. Their rather cynical editors and publishers thought of them as "armpit slicks."
The decades after World War II were the heyday of the "man's magazine." Adventure pulps filled just one niche in a rich print world that celebrated soldiering and seduction, courage and cleavage, in many formats for many different sorts of readers. The adventure pulps—Man's Adventure, Men Today, Men in Conflict, Rugged Men, Man's True Action, Real Adventure, Man's Conquest, Man's Epic, New Man, Man's Life, Man's Best, and maybe another 125 titles like these—addressed themselves to a certain kind of readership that seems to have become as extinct as the magazines. The niche is now empty.
Actually, it's more than just empty; it's forgotten. Except for a few collectors, it's as if the magazines and their readers never existed. Unlike numerous other pulp genres, many of which are still celebrated nostalgically and even anthologized for new readers, the adventure pulps, their stories, and their art have disappeared. They are today as culturally invisible as the sobbing women's fiction periodicals of the 19th century.
But if this is a genre in distress, then Adam Parfrey of Feral House, emperor of the outré, has come to its rescue. It's a Man's World: Men's Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps, features hundreds of sensational full-color covers, essays by those who edited and illustrated these magazines (including one by satiric novelist Bruce Jay Friedman, one of the few people associated with the genre who later established a respectable reputation), and even a guide for collectors. No stories though; that anthology is still waiting to be assembled. It may wait forever.
Parfrey and design editor Hedi El Kholti both deserve praise; Parfrey's division of the genre into a typology of its various conceptual appeals—nature, war, cruelty, etc.—works especially well. The only thing missing is more ads. Parfrey includes some display ads, but too few; ads tend to delineate a readership. Among those reproduced here: pills purported to stop bed wetting, acne cures, glasses that hypnotize women, scrotal hernia trusses, and mounted girls' head trophies at only $2.98. Come to think of it, maybe that's all the delineation anyone wants.
The single aspect of these once-common magazines that nonreaders are likely to recall is their penchant for transforming war and political conflict into cheap sadism. Many of their covers, year after year, were devoted to grinning Nazis, bespectacled Japanese officers, and cold North Koreans torturing, whipping, and dismembering chesty and chained American nurses—even more covers than were devoted to vicious attack trout. Anything that kept Nazi cruelty current, such as the arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann, was a boon to these magazines. Once in a while they'd borrow an image from the news, such as cigar-wielding Cuban Communists, and apply it to the genre with a sense of transcendent self-parody. Mostly, though, it was 20 years of the same thing over and over.
That same thing was usually pain; pain is where the pincers of angry lobsters meet the hot, flesh-searing ends of a burning communist cigars. Even the adventures in these "adventure" pulps are really about suffering. The villains never stand for ideas; they're means of inflicting hurt. For that matter, even the ads seem to be about hurting.
Not that adventure pulps were incapable of inspiring anybody. The September 1956 cover of Man's Life, for example, portrays a man struggling desperately against a horde of furry little mammals. Along with cover hypes for stories about cheating wives and killer sharks is the text that goes with the cover art: "Weasels Ripped My Flesh." Always wondered where Frank Zappa got that line.