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.)

 

Talbot Mundy’s Life of Adventure

Apr 22, 2019 by

Tuesday, April 23, marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of Talbot Mundy. Born William Lancaster Gribbon in Hammersmith, London, Mundy truly led a life of adventure. A natural born storyteller, young William Gribbon started off as the rebellious black sheep of the family. Like many young Victorian Englishmen, he took advantage of colonial opportunities abroad in Africa and India.

These experiences gave him much fodder for his future career as an author, though his own conduct when entrusted with responsibility was considered disgraceful. Unsurprisingly, Mundy portrayed himself as a noble adventurer rather than a scoundrel. He turned to writing in 1911 and quickly found a niche in the pages of ADVENTURE using his newly adopted pseudonym.

His earliest work, including the much-reprinted “Soul of a Regiment,” drew favorable comparisons to Rudyard Kipling. He soon began making use of recurring characters such as his Hindi femme fatale, Yasmini, and the heroic British adventurer, Athelstan King. Both were featured in numerous stories and novels including the bestselling KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES (1916).

Mundy’s growing interest in Christian Science led him into Theosophical circles. Consequently, his work took on a more mystical bent. This gradual transformation is best seen in the popular Jimgrim series featuring a recurring cast of characters whose eponymous hero is cut from the same cloth as T. E. Lawrence and soon functioned more as a critic of Western imperialism rather than an embodiment of its values.

A growing interest in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy saw Mundy’s work grow more complex and literate in its ambitions, but he never lost his ability to thrill readers. He also penned a series of historical adventures more akin to Harold Lamb than to his contemporary adventure tales, though some (particularly his adventures of Tros of Samothrace) still reflect his Theosophical ambitions. Toward the end of his life, his health and popularity had begun to decline, but he still brought a thrilling spirit of adventure and a fascination for the exotic East to many of the episodes of the long-running radio series JACK ARMSTRONG, THE ALL-AMERICAN BOY that he scripted up until his death in 1940 at age 61.

Mundy mixed with many of the most notable bohemian artists and literati of the early 20th Century. Most pulp fans know of him as an influence on Robert E. Howard (particularly on Howard’s El Borak and Kirby O’Donnell adventures). Talbot Mundy’s works have been collected in recent years by some of the leading pulp nostalgia publishers including Black Dog Books, Altus Press, and Murania Press. The full extent of his influence and literary excellence remains ripe for rediscovery at a later date.

Keep watching our website for more on the pulp greats. Then plan to attend PulpFest. We’ll be highlighting the many ways that pulp fiction and pulp art have inspired writers, artists, film directors, software developers, game designers, and other creators over the decades. PulpFest 2019 will take place August 15 – 18 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh – Cranberry. It’s easy to register, just click the register button below our home page banner.

(Beginning in 1911, William Lancaster Gribbon — better known as Talbot Mundy — began his thirty-year association with ADVENTURE. Over the next three decades, the magazine featured many fine covers. However, one of our favorites is the August 1911 number, with cover art by Percy E. Cowen. Published in the issue was the first of many fine short stories that Talbot Mundy authored for the magazine.

Murania Press publishes YASMINI THE INCOMPARABLE by Talbot Mundy on May 1. Altus Press published THE COMPLETE UP AND DOWN THE EARTH TALES by Talbot Mundy in December. Mundy historian and author Brian Taves hosts an active and highly informative Facebook group, TALBOT MUNDY – MASTER OF MYSTICAL ADVENTURE, dedicated to the author. DMR Books has featured “Mundy Mondays” since January as John E. Boyle reviews the author’s works in chronological sequence.)

A Magazine for the Common Man

Apr 11, 2014 by

Pearson's 1899 Sept.We have seen that the popular British fiction magazines were modeled after the illustrated periodicals of America. However, unlike their British counterparts, the leading American magazines of the late nineteenth century–Harper’s, Century Magazine, and Scribner’s–were beyond the financial and the intellectual reach of the average U. S. citizen.

It was left to Frank A. Munsey–a man about whom it has been suggested, “contributed to the journalism of his day the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer and the manner of an undertaker”–to deliver the first American periodical specifically intended for the common man. In his own words, Munsey decided to create “a magazine of the people and for the people, with pictures and art and good cheer and human interest throughout.”

Frank Munsey was born in Maine where he became interested in publishing. With minimal funds, he traveled to New York City and founded The Golden Argosy, a children’s weekly, in late 1882. Working largely on credit, he struggled for years, building his circulation through advertising and sheer determination. Deciding that the future lay in the adult market, he founded Munsey’s Weekly in 1889, soon converting it to Munsey’s Magazine. In 1893, convinced that a magazine could only be successful if the price was right, he slashed the price of Munsey’s to a dime and marketed it directly to newsdealers, essentially cutting out the middle man.

As the circulation of Munsey’s climbed to hundreds of thousands of copies, the publisher converted The Argosy to an adult magazine, similarly priced and modeled after it’s brethren. Envisioning a new kind of magazine, Frank Munsey wrote, “We want stories . . . . not dialect sketches, not washed out studies of effete human nature, not weak tales of sickly sentimentality, no ‘pretty’ writing . . . . We do want fiction in which there is a story, a force, a tale that means something–in short a story. Good writing is as common as clam shells, while good stories are as rare as statesmanship.”

Argosy 1896-12In October 1896, The Argosy became the first all-fiction magazine. Two months later in a cost-cutting move, it began to be printed on the wood-pulp paper he used for his daily newspaper and the rough-paper fiction magazine, or pulp, was born.

To learn more about the images used in this post, click on the illustrations. Click here for references consulted for this article.