PulpFest Profile — BLACK MASK

Mar 2, 2020 by

Although the earliest pulps were general fiction magazines, the rough-paper rags eventually began to specialize. Pulps featuring aviation and war stories, fantasy and the supernatural, love and romance, the railroad, science fiction, sports, and other genres emerged. There were also titles devoted to prison yarns, firefighters, and even engineering stories. However, one of the longest lasting and most popular categories was the detective field. In fact, the first pulp magazine successfully dedicated to a single fiction genre was Street & Smith’s DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE.

Although a trailblazer as a specialty magazine, DETECTIVE STORY did little to further the development of the detective or crime story. That task would be left to its highly prized successors: BLACK MASK  — the pulp where the hardboiled detective story began to take shape — and DIME DETECTIVE MAGAZINE — where the tough guy detective became extremely popular. Call them what you will — flatfoots, gumshoes, dime detectives, or private eyes  — it was these hardboiled dicks that transformed the traditional mystery story into the tough guy (and gal) crime fiction that remains popular to this very day.

Most critics cite BLACK MASK MAGAZINE as the fertile ground where hardboiled detective fiction gathered its form. From 1923 through 1931, it reigned supreme as the home of the genre. However, when the magazine’s first issue — dated April 1920 — debuted one hundred years ago this month, it was billed as “Five magazines in one: the best stories available of adventure, the best mystery and detective stories, the best romances, the best love stories, and the best stories of the occult.”

At PulpFest 2020 we’ll not only salute the centennial of author Ray Bradbury’s birth and the 120th anniversary of the birth of WEIRD TALES artist Margaret Brundage, but we’ll also celebrate the 100th anniversary of BLACK MASK. Along with Bradbury and Brundage, BLACK MASK has inspired and continues to inspire creators the world over.

From its populist beginnings helping publisher H. L. Mencken fund THE SMART SET to its glory days under editor Joseph “Cap” Shaw, BLACK MASK published some of the finest hard boiled fiction from Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett to Paul M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. Those were just for starters as the title also featured notable fiction from Vincent Starrett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick C. Davis, and John D. MacDonald. While BLACK MASK also showcased adventure, westerns, and romance stories; it will always be synonymous with the hard boiled detective and crime fiction that first graced its pages before exploding into virtually every media from newspapers comic strips to radio drama to the silver screen to television. BLACK MASK eventually lost its notoriety and eventually gained literary respectability when its leading lights were enshrined by The Library of America. Its legacy lingers as the pulp that taught young and old alike the difference between gunsels and molls and roscoes and blackjacks.

(The first issue of THE BLACK MASK — dated April 1920 — featured front cover art by William Grotz. A commercial artist who was active during the early twentieth century, Grotz contributed cover art to a variety of magazines including ACTION STORIES, THE BLACK MASK, FILM FUN, JUDGE, LIBERTY, NEEDLECRAFT MAGAZINE, and WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE.

Not long after Joseph T. Shaw became the editor of THE BLACK MASK in late 1926, freelance artist Fred Craft became the magazine’s primary cover artist. During 1927 and 1928 and again from mid-1934 through mid-1935, Craft painted almost every cover for the classic detective pulp magazine, including the January 1935 number. Beside BLACK MASK, Fred Craft also sold cover paintings to ACE-HIGH MAGAZINE, ACTION STORIES, FRONTIER STORIES, WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE, WILD WEST WEEKLY, and other pulps. Craft died in March 1935.

When Popular Publications took over BLACK MASK in early 1940, leading pulp artist Rafael DeSoto became the primary cover artist for the magazine. From mid-1940 until early 1947, DeSoto contributed about fifty covers — including the one for the February 1942 issue — to the magazine. He also painted covers for many other Popular detective pulps, including DETECTIVE TALES, DIME DETECTIVE, DIME MYSTERY, 15 STORY DETECTIVE, FLYNN’S DETECTIVE FICTION, NEW DETECTIVE, and, of course, THE SPIDER.

Many thanks to Neil Mechem for providing our image of the first issue of THE BLACK MASK.)


100 Years of Pulp Fictioneer John D. MacDonald

Jul 24, 2016 by

Dime Detective 47-02As PulpFest wraps things up for another year — the dealers’ room will be open from 10 AM until 2 PM today — the convention is looking to the future. The organizing committee is already starting to plan for PulpFest 2017. We’ll be celebrating “Hardboiled Dicks, Dangerous Dames, and a Few Psychos.” As always, expect a fantastic dealers’ room and superb programming. It will be the 46th convening of “Summer’s Great Pulp Con!” So start making your plans to attend. You’ll have an AMAZING time!

At the same time as it’s looking ahead, PulpFest is also looking into the past. One hundred years ago on this very date, detective and thriller writer John D. MacDonald was born just east of the Ohio border in Sharon, Pennsylvania. Best known for his adventure series character Travis McGee, MacDonald was one of the last of the giants of the detective genre to emerge from the pulps. Although his first story, “G-Robot,” ran in the July 1936 DOUBLE-ACTION GANG MAGAZINE, MacDonald would have to wait another decade for his next story to appear in a pulp magazine.

“Cash on a Coffin!” from the May 1946 DETECTIVE TALES — published by Popular Publications — marks the beginning of MacDonald’s rather substantial pulp fiction career. Over the next ten years, the author placed hundreds of stories in a wide range of pulp magazines: ADVENTURE, ARGOSY, ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, BLACK MASK, BLUE BOOK, DETECTIVE TALES, DIME DETECTIVE, DIME WESTERN, DOC SAVAGE, FBI DETECTIVE, FIFTEEN SPORTS STORIES, FIGHT STORIES, GALAXY, NEW DETECTIVE, THE SHADOW, SHOCK, SPORT FICTION, SPORTS NOVELS, STARTLING STORIES, SUPER SCIENCE STORIES, THRILLING WONDER STORIES, WEIRD TALES, and others. He also placed stories with COLLIER’S, COSMOPOLITAN, ESQUIRE, LIBERTY, McCALL’S, THIS WEEK, and similar magazines.

In 1950 — as it became increasingly apparent that the pulps were on their way out — John D. MacDonald placed a novel with Fawcett Gold Medal — THE BRASS CUPCAKE. From 1950 until he released his first Travis McGee novel in 1964, the author sold over forty paperback originals, becoming one of the giants of that market. “His crime novels of this period are masters of the form — spare, tight, often dark and even nasty tales of desperate men in way over their heads.”

MacDonald created McGee at the urging of his publishers. Unsure of his achievement, the author resisted publication of that first novel — THE LONG BLUE GOOD-BY — until he could complete two more titles. All three books were eventually published in three successive months in 1964 to positive commercial and even limited critical response. “Having achieved notoriety and success in the pulp magazines, and with more than forty novels already in print, MacDonald introduced a character that would eventually dwarf his previous publishing efforts. He would become the bedrock of MacDonald’s career, establishing a vast, devoted audience, and an almost sublime literary legacy. As the epitome of this legacy, the McGee series transcends genre fiction, and is rich with piercing psychological insight, social commentary, and clean, compelling prose that lapses into poetry.”

Deep Blue Good-ByJohn D. MacDonald would produce twenty-one novels in the McGee series, each with a color in its title. Often selling more than a million copies of each book, the author’s Travis McGee would become “one of the best, and most beloved private eyes of all time (even if he wasn’t licensed, and at times acted more like Robin Hood than Philip Marlowe).” Not bad for a pulp writer.

Although centered around pulp fiction and pulp magazines, PulpFest was founded on the premise that the pulps had a profound effect on American popular culture, reverberating through a wide variety of mediums — comic books, movies, paperbacks and genre fiction, television, men’s adventure magazines, radio drama, and even video and role-playing games. The summertime destination for fans and collectors of vintage popular fiction and related materials, PulpFest seeks to honor pulp fiction by drawing attention to the many ways it had inspired writers, artists, film directors, software developers, and other creators over the decades.

We hope to see you next year at PulpFest 2017. Please bring your friends. You can expect a “Deep Blue Hello!”

(John D. MacDonald was paid from half-a-cent to three cents for each word that he produced for the pulps. From about 1946 through 1951, he placed dozens of stories each year with various pulp magazines. His output included adventure, detective, fantasy, science fiction, sports fiction, and western stories. When his story “Dead to the World” garnered the cover spot for the February 1947 issue of Popular’s DIME DETECTIVE — featuring cover art by Robert Stanley — MacDonald had become a reliable producer for the pulp market.

“I don’t know how long we’re going to keep him in the pulp magazines,” Harry Widmer, the editor at DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY said, “but we’re going to try to keep him as long as we can.”

After THE BRASS CUPCAKE — the first of his original paperbacks — was released in 1950, MacDonald increasingly turned to that market for sales. His first Travis McGee novel — THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY — was published by Fawcett in 1964, with front cover art by Ron Lesser.)

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