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.)