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 her.

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 nativist movements.

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.