Tag Archives: pulp

Russian Space Art

The Atompunk era is fascinatingly paralleled across much of the planet. As in the west, the soviet block went through a similar arc. The 1950s were prosperous and held the promise of a future without limits.  This led into an optimistic 1960s in which dreams of space were becoming real.. And of course, just like the in the west, over the course of the 1970s it crashed. There are different circumstances and reasons, but i still find an amazing assortment of parallels up until the 80s, and for me the 80s is the atompunk cut off.

I highly recommend the book Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. The book is historical fiction, the specific little stories are made up, but all the details are absolutely real and carefully presented. The book deals with the Soviet optimism of the 50s into the 60s and the details of how and why the dream of the planned economy rose, crested and crashed.

Red Plenty Francis Spufford

“20th-century magic called ‘the planned economy’, which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the penny-pinching lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working.Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche and sputniks would lead the way to the stars. And it’s about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true”

You can buy the book here.

But that’s not why we’re here today. While we’re on the topic, let’s check out the soviet space art of Nikolai Kolchitsky.

In the 1950s and 60s Soviet artist Nikolai Kolchitsky was in his prolific heyday, creating visions of outer space for various magazines,  “Technique – Youth”, “Spark”, “Young technician”,  as well as a wealth of illustrated books, short stories, essays. While American pulp mags like Amazing stories featured art that created a sci fi vision for the mind of american youth, Nikolai Kolchitsky was one of the most important pop culture artists doing the same for Russian children dreaming of a future in space where worlds waited to be explored and mankind’s future lead.

Nikolai Kolchitsky died in 1980. Here are his atompunk visions:

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art


Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art

Nikolai Kolchitsky russian space art






Posted by on June 21, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Life On Neptune: Frank R Paul

Frank R Paul was an illustrator for the great pulp magazines of the 20s and 30s. His full color covers for Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories Science Fiction Magazine defined the look of what was at the time the brand new genre of science fiction Not only did he illustrate hundreds of covers, he did the cover of Marvel Comics #1. You may have heard of Marvel Comics, it went on to be quite successful.

He is the template for the look of science fiction and what all those who followed would draw from.

He invented the flyer saucer look and it is his illustration that people would describe during the UFO crazes that came afterwards.

“He was very innovative in the depiction of spaceships. Several of his illustrations were disc shaped and it has been speculated that he may have, accidentally, created the UFO craze when the first sighting of lights in the sky were described as disc shaped; this would have been the result of the psychological phenomenon known as mental set” -Armanda Simon

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frank r paul

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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized


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7 Essential Lost Worlds of the Victorian/Pulp Eras

Yeah, see a theme going here? Hey, i’m on a kick and i genuinely love exploring literary and creative mythos.

Before we get started i just want to quickly state that the demo for the 1st Act of the Dieselpunk Opera is basically done. I can’t work on it anymore. It would be best if i put it down for awhile and moved on. I’m just awaiting some basic tracks i asked a guitarist friend of mine to lay down for it and then i’ll post it here for a limited time. 3-5 days. You will be able to listen to the 1st Act demo for 3-5 days then i will remove it. The same will probably the happen for the 2nd Act. They’re demo versions and they’re not actually ready to be truly out there.

Now, on to business. The idea of the modern fantastical Lost World is more or less traced to 1888’s King Solomon’s Mines. While lost cities and civilizations had certainly existed before this, from Swift’s Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels to Plato’s invention of Atlantis, these were used very specifically as satire and metaphoric demonstration. King’s Solomon’s Mines gave birth to a meme that would blossom and peak in the pulp fiction period.

After the 50s science fiction transformed the Lost World into science fiction epicness and i believed the meme evolved into something similar but more expansive. Let’s look back on some of the greatest pre WW2 Lost Worlds.

7. Kukuanaland from King Solomon’s MInes.

This list is in chronological order so let’s start with the work that invented the Lost World meme. Allan Quartermain is the victorian precursor to Indiana Jones. Truly and seriously, you can draw a direct line. In the mid 1880s lost civilizations were in fact being discovered.

Sir H. Rider Haggard’s brother told him there was no way he could write a novel as good as Treasure Island, so Haggard bet his brother 5 shillings he could. The result was a book published in 1885 that was a blockbuster, created a new genre of fantastic fiction, the Lost World story, introduced a character that was as well known for decades afterwards as Indiana Jones is now and has been adapted into at least 6 movies.

Kukuanaland is somewhere in the south east Congo region.  The inhabitants have a well-organised army and society and speak an ancient dialect of IsiZulu.  Kukuanaland’s capital is Loo, the destination of a magnificent road from ancient times. The city is dominated by a central royal kraal.

Quartermain, an adventurer based in Africa, is hired to find an aristocrat’s brother who has disappeared while trying to find the fabled mines of King Solomon.  They find an uncharted land on the other side of a mountain range called Suliman Berg, using a map drawn in blood by a dead 16th century Portegeuse explorer.

6. Kafiristan from The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

First of all, go right now and watch the 1975 film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. The Man Who Would Be King. It’s awesome.

Two British adventurers in India travel to some remote part of Afghanistan and try to become kings of a region there. I’d tell you more but really, go watch the movie or read the book. I never read the book, honestly, so.. you know i can only recommend the movie.

The really crazy thing about the tale is that it’s inspired by true stories,  the exploits of James Brooke, an Englishman who became the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo; and by the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan, who was granted the title Prince of Ghor in perpetuity for himself and his descendants.

5. Maple White Land from The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yes, Sherlock Holmes’ creator and author actually wrote other books. The Lost World was a major success when it came out in 1912 and nailed the meme down bit more.

A professor claims to have discovered dinosaurs in South America which no one believes. After years of ridicule a team joins him to prove the claim true or false. They go deep into the Amazon and find a plateau (where naturally the natives will not go). THEY go, because, well, it’s a crappy story if they don’t, and low and behold: dinosuars! Blue clay! Race of Ape Men! Humans living on the other side of the plateau with whom the ape men are at war! Capture! Rescue! Adventure!

4. Almost Everything Ever Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs But For Brevitiy’s Sake We’ll Say The Land That Time Forgot.

The Land That Time Forgot is the most cemented and stereotypical story Burroughs wrote in the Lost World genre, with dinosaurs and all (Lost Worlds often have Dinosaurs) but the Tarzan and John Carter of Mars novels are endless tales of lost worlds, cities and civilizations. It’s kind of Burroughs’ hallmark.

This one has an island in the South Atlantic, dinosaurs of course, various races of near human primitives, captures, escapes, etc.

3. The Savage Land from Ka-Zar by Manvis Publishing, Timely Comics and Marvel Comics

I know who Ka-Zar is, but that’s because i used to be a comics nerd. Ka-Zar was a Tarzan rip off who started in the pulps in the 1930s. It ran for 2 years, from 1936 to 37. In 1939 the tales were put into comic form by Timely Comics, who eventually became Marvel Comics. The comic series Ka-Zar was featured in was Marvel Comics and Marvel Mystery Comics, although Timely was not yet Marvel. Got it?

Thus Ka-Zar and his lost world, the Savage Land, populated by dinosaurs and strange ruins and other Tarzan-esque tropes lived on into the 40s where he then faded into obscurity.

In 1965 Timely was now Marvel and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pulled Ka-Zar and his Savage Land out of the dustbin and revamped him. They put the Savage Land in Antartica, hidden underneath by extra terrestrials. Ka-Zar has had his own comic series a number of times, in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

2. Aquilonia or The Hyborian Age from Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian

Robert E. Howard wins the creativity award for his Lost World. He made his lost world a lost age of the earth, and invented an entire world history, map, races, geography…. he built an entire world. Nowadays we live in a post Tolkien literary world where we expect this. Fantasy books are expected to do this and even beyond books they build detailed worlds. Video games invest huge amounts of creativity into world building on a level that encapsulates visual details undreamed of. But Howard my friends, was the first. The first to really commit to building an entire world in which his stories would operate.

Robert E. Howard built the first fully realized and thought out fantasy world. His Conan character ran about it (as did a few others like Kull). He wrote out an entire history and essay so that the world would be consistent throughout the stories. His main sources of inspiration were Bullfinch’s The Outline of Mythology and Clark Aston Smith’s Hyperborea cycle. Howard and Smith and even H.P.Lovercraft were all friends and all them were hugely in favor of borrowing from each other’s works in any degree. Howard borrowed Lovecraftian monsters as well, although adapted them more for a Conan yarn.

Here’s an overview of Howard’s essay outlining Hyboria which was published until well after his death. It may seem strange me putting on so much of this, but as someone who loves to write back story himself, usually just for fun knowing it will never get used, i just LOVE this stuff, enjoy reading this and this is the guy who put fantasy back story on the map, so respect should be paid.


According to the essay, at the time of this cataclysm a group of primitive humans were at a technological level hardly above the Neanderthal. They fled to the Northern areas of what was left of the Thurian continent to escape the destruction. They discovered the areas to be safe but covered with snow and already inhabited by a race of carnivorous apes.  The apes were large with white fur and apparently native to their land. The stone age invaders engaged in a territorial war with them and eventually managed to drive them off, past the Artic Circle. Believing their enemies fated to perish and no longer interested in them, the recently arrived group adapted to their new, harsh environment and its population started to increase.

Hyborian ancestors

One thousand five hundred years later, the descendants of this initial group were called “Hyborians”. They were named after their highest ranking god deity, Bori. The essay mentions that Bori had actually been a great tribal chief of their past who had undergone deification. Their oral tradition remembered him as their leader during their initial migration to the north though the antiquity of this man had been exaggerated.

By this point the various related but independent Hyborian tribes had spread throughout the northern regions of their area of the world. Some of them were already migrating south at a “leisurely” pace in search of new areas in which to settle. The Hyborians had yet to encounter other cultural groups but engaged in wars against each other. Howard describes them as a powerful and warlike race with the average individual being tall, tawny-haired, and grey eyed. Culturally they were already accomplished artists and poets. Most of the tribes still relied on hunting for their nourishment. Their southern offshoots however had been practicing animal husbandry on cattle for a number of centuries.

The only exception to their long isolation from other cultural groups came due to the actions of a lone adventurer, unnamed in the essay. He had traveled past the Arctic Circle and returned with news that their old adversaries, the apes, were not in fact annihilated. They had instead evolved into apemen and according to his description were by then numerous. He believed they were quickly evolving to human status and would pose a threat to the Hyborians in the future. He attempted to recruit a significant military force to campaign against them. But most Hyborians were not convinced by his tales and at last only a small group of foolhardy youths followed his campaign. None of them returned.

Beginnings of the Hyborian Age

With the population of the Hyborian tribes continuing to increase, the need for new lands also increased. The Hyborians started expanding outside their familiar territories, beginning a new age of wanderings and conquests. For five hundred years the Hyborians spread towards the South and the West of their nameless continent.

They encountered other tribal groups for the first time in millennia. They conquered many smaller clans of various origins. The survivors of the defeated clans merged with their conquerors, passing on their racial traits to new generations of Hyborians. The mixed-blooded Hyborian tribes were in turn forced to defend their new territories from pure blooded Hyborian tribes which followed the same paths of migration. Often the new invaders would wipe away the defenders before absorbing them, resulting in a tangled web of Hyborian tribes and nations with varying ancestral elements within their bloodlines.

The first organized Hyborian kingdom to emerge was Hyperborea. The tribe that established it entered their Neolithic age by learning to erect buildings in stone, largely for fortification. These nomads lived in tents made out of the hides of horses, but soon abandoned them in favor of their first crude but durable stone houses. They permanently settled in fortified settlements and developed cyclopean masonry to further fortify their defensive walls.

The Hyperboreans were by then the most advanced of the Hyborian tribes and set out to expand their kingdom by attacking their backwards neighbors. Tribes who defended their territories lost them and were forced to migrate elsewhere. Others fled the path of Hyperborean expansion before ever engaging them in war. Meanwhile the “apemen” of the Arctic Circle emerged as a new race of light-haired and tall humans. They started their own migration to the south, displacing the northernmost of the Hyborian tribes.

Rulers of the West

For the next thousand years the warlike Hyborian nations advanced to become the rulers of the Western areas of the nameless continent. They encountered the Picts and forced them to limit themselves to the western wastelands which would come to be known as the “Pictish Wilderness”. Following the example of their Hyperborean cousins, other Hyborians started to settle down and create their own kingdoms.

The southernmost of the early ones was Koth which was established north of the lands of Shem and soon started extending its cultural influence over the southern shepherds. Just south of the Pictish Wilderness was the fertile valley known as “Zing”. The wandering Hyborian tribe which conquered them found other people already settled there. They included a nameless farming nation related to the people of the Shem and a warlike Pictish tribe who had previously conquered them. They established the kingdom of Zingara and absorbed the defeated elements into their tribe. Hyborians, Picts, and the unnamed kin of the Shemites would merge into a nation calling themselves Zingarans.

On the other hand at the north of the continent, the fair haired invaders from the Arctic Circle had grown in numbers and power. They continued their expansion south while in turn displacing defeated Hyborians to the south. Even Hyperborea was conquered by one of these barbarian tribes. But the conquerors here decided to maintain the kingdom with its old name, merged with the defeated Hyperboreans and adopted elements of Hyborian culture. The continuing wars and migrations would keep the state of the other areas of the continent for another five hundred years.

1. No Human Actually Knows The City’s Name And Would Probably Go Stark Raving Mad If They Did, But The Area Is Generally Known As The Mountains Of Madness from H.P. Lovecraft.

Although written in 1931 this signature Lovecraft story wasn’t published until 1936. It is the ultimate Lost World.

By the time you’re done with Lovecraft the idea of berserk man eating dinosaurs tearing towards you with teeth gnashing will seem quaint and relaxing.

What do you want me to say? It’s Lovecraft. It’s a seminal piece of his Cthulhu Mythos and one of the his most reknowned and recognized works. The Lost World he makes up is… well it’s not like you can describe the damn thing. That’s kind of the point. The geometry is… impossible. There’s an entire history and it’s a cosmological terror rooted in doomed existentialism. If you haven’t read it… i mean, come on. It’s a gospel of geek canon.

It was also down in musical form by the Tiger Lillies, who as we’ve stated in the past we are quite endeared with here at The Steampunk Opera.

That’s it, campers! Our day’s quota of fantastical candy munchies in the form of Lost Worlds.

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Posted by on October 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Spring Heeled Jack: The 1st Super Villain?

One character who was an early fixture of penny dreadfuls was Spring Heeled Jack. He would leap in out of nowhere, slap you, cop a feel, or rip your dress and then leap away. He could leap over tall shrubbery, spit blue fire, and was impervious to bullets.

If this sounds anywhere between interesting and mildly ridiculous, the character was in fact a real life legend. There was indeed a Spring Heeled Jack who leapt around London,  assaulting women, slapping men, breathing blue fire and dodging bullets. This is his story.

In 1808 a letter to the Sheffield Times recounted how in their neighborhood existed a legend about a ghostly figure referred to as The Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack who could make enormous leaps and enjoyed frightening passers by.

All well and fine. Fast forward to September, 1837. A man reports he was walking outside a cemetery when a muscular male with devilishly pointed ears and glowing red eyes leapt over the cemetery fence, landed in front of him, then leapt away.

Shortly thereafter a barmaid named Polly Adams and two other women were walking outside Blackheath Fair when a man with the same description leapt in out of nowhere, tore Ms. Adam’s dress, felt up her boob and then scratched her stomach before bounding off again.

One month later, in October, a young servant girl named Mary Stevens was walking to work when the same character leapt in, grabbed her, and began kissing her face while ripping her clothes. She screamed and off he went.

The next day the same guy leapt into the middle of the street causing a carriage to swerve and tip over. Witnesses claim the perpetrator then jumped over a 9 foot wall laughing maniacally. A few days later, same dude appeared again, but this time left deep tracks in the mud from which the police concluded he had leapt from a substantial height. One investigator noted the tracks hinted to some gadgetry being used in his shoes, such as a compressed spring.

In 1838, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan publicized these events and was soon flooded with a barrage of letters all describing similar shenanigans. The mysterious figure was officially dubbed Spring Heeled Jack.

He had two more publicized appearances in 1838, one where Jane Alsop received a knock at her front door from a man claiming to be a police officer, needing a light for “we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”. She brought him a candle at which point he threw off his cloak and vomited blue flame at her face, His eyes, as usual were glowing red and he wore a big helmet. He grabbed her and tore at her clothes with his claws. She screamed and tried to get away. He proceeded to tear at her neck and arms but her sister appeared and away he leapt.

Also in Feb 1838, 18 year old Lucy Sales and her sister were passing along Green Dragon Alley when a figure suddenly spat blue flames her. She was blinded and suddenly dropped to ground having a violent fit that ended up lasting for hours (seizure?). When this happened, the figure turned and quickly walked away.

Spring Heeled Jack became a darling of the penny dreadfuls. Tales of his evil exploits abounded for years and his face gradually acquired a devil-mask that had never existed in the reports prior. After many, many years, as the dreadfuls were cleaning up a bit and catering to a youthful audience, Jack became a good guy, leaping in to save damsels in distress.

As to who he was, Polly Adams claimed among other things that he looked a great deal like the Marquis of Waterford, which was notable since rumors were consecutively flying that the Marquis had agreed to a bet put forth by several friends one night while they were drinking. The Marquis, a known dickhead with a terrible reputation regarding women had bragged he could create a notorious character as a way of “getting even” with police and women in general.

The Marquis of Waterford was in fact frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes and vandalism, and was said to do anything for a bet. His shenanigans and his contempt for women earned him the moniker the Mad Marquis, and it was indeed established that he was present in the London area when the first Spring Heeled Jack incidents took place.

He was a major suspect. However, after 1838, confirmed Spring Heeled Jack sightings dried up until 1843 when a new wave suddenly appeared. However, by this time, the Marquis was married and living in Ireland.

Spring Heeled Jack had some appearances in 1843, in the 1850s and the last confirmed incidents throughout the 1870s. The very last confimred sighting in 1877 is interesting. Spring Heeled Jack leapt into the midst of a squad of soldiers and “slapped one soundly”. One of the soldiers claimed to have shot Spring Heeled Jack and heard a hollow, metallic sound, at which point Jack belched blue flame at him and leapt away perfectly unharmed.  A few days later a mob caught sight of Jack, and laid chase. Though they too claim to have shot him, he never slowed, and jumped right out of the area.

Unconfirmed sightings of jack have continued into the 20th century. There was spree in the 1970s and a sighting in 1986. By the late 20th century demonic ghosts were no longer in fashion and so of course out comes the UFO speculations, claiming that he was/is an extraterrestrial.

If you ask me, most likely he began as the Marquis, but subsequent persons have picked up the prank. Certainly some sightings are probably imagination and embellishment. My bet is every so often some strange lad decides to take his turn as Spring Heeled Jack and delights in a notorious small spree .

Or it’s a demonic alien ghost. Hell, i don’t know. But there you have it, the Legend Of Spring Heeled Jack.


Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Gaffs

From 1830 to 1870, the exact time the macabre and violent incarnations of the penny dreadful were being published, otherwise known as penny bloods, a complementary form of theater was also taking place, Penny Gaffs.

The penny gaff alludes to attending a cock fight for a penny, but the actual penny gaff had lost the chickens and put bawdy performances in their place. The penny dreadful and the penny gaff entwine in many ways, beginning with the obvious; both cost a penny.

As such they were clearly for the lower, barely or non educated classes. Penny gaffs even more so, because you at least needed to be literate to read a penny dreadful. The gaffs being a live event didn’t even require that. It was especially  popular amongst a younger crowd; 20 somethings, teenagers, even many poor children would attend. Because of the high number of underage attendees, there was no price reduction for age otherwise it would cut drastically into the profit margin. Large or small you paid your penny and went in.

You might go into a shop which doubled as a temporary theater at night, or the backroom of a pub, where some makeshift stage had been assembled. The idea was to emulate the popular music hall that the middle classes were enjoying. In the poor areas of London there might be 20 penny gaffs going on in a 5 mile radius.

Each performance would last and hour and a half to 2 hours, then everybody OUT and the next round in and the next show is on. You would pay your penny, go to a room to wait for the performance area to clear, then be herded in.

A Master of Ceremonies of sorts would appear to warm up the audience and introduce the acts. The humor was overwhelming raunchy and low brow. Some singers would sing, often bawdy or patriotic, jingoistic song, some clowing would ensue and short plays and vignettes would be performed.

The short plays are where we find another connection with the penny dreadfuls. They were most often about the same highwaymen, robbers and criminals which appeared the dreadfuls. In fact both the dreadful and the gaff took their criminal protagonists from the same source.

The Newgate Calender was one of the most popular periodicals of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was originally a monthly bulletin of executions. Biographies of some of the executed criminals would appear and by the mid 19th century it was fully of immensely embellished anecdotes about criminals who became infamous and the stars of the penny gaffs and penny dreadfuls.

The Newgate Calender contained heavy handed lessons about the horrors of Catholicism, foreigners,  and every manner of vice while practically bursting into loving tears over the subjects of Protestantism, patriotism, capital, punishment and royalty. Just in case you think things are any different today than they’ve ever been.

The plays and vignettes would feature the exploits of some famous criminal like Dick Turpin or Jack Sheppard. Some would retell and dramatize the incidents of a famous bloody crime, the more Manson-like the better.

The crowd would eat it up. Between the raunchy sex and the violence it was enormously popular amongst both young men and women of the lower classes. The shows were roudy affairs, although with a large degree of patriotism thrown in whenever possible.

Naturally the more puritan aspects of British society considered the penny gaffs to be a hotbed of vice and criminals and labored for years to have them banned.

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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Dreadfuls II: From Blood To Boys

For decades, since their conception in 1832, Penny Dreadfuls, 8 pages of lurid tales printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny, specialized in highly gruesome material.

For the first 10 years or so there was a fair amount of romance mixed in as they initially attempted to rip off gothic novels, but the fact is, the horror and crime titles are what sold and they eventually dominated the penny dreadful landscape. In fact, another name for Penny Dreadfuls were Penny Bloods.

The typical reader of the dreadful was barely literate. The 8 pages were not dedicated to character development and layered themes. The point was to get to the action. Often a literate working class man at the pub would read the latest installment of Sweeney Todd and his murderous shenanigans to a table of his illiterate mates.

However more and more children were becoming literate too. In 1866 Edwin J Brent began publishing The Boys Of England, which featured tales of adventure with schoolboys as the heroes. It introduced the character of Jack Harkaway, who became beloved by an entire generation of british boys, and Boys Of England soared to record sales.

Thus penny dreadfuls began the shift to the youth market. Sweeny Todd and Varney the Vampire continued to sell well and heaven knows, boys ate their adventures up with great relish also, but despite everyone’s assumption that the working class youth was out of their minds with lust for the high gore content of the penny bloods, the truth was that they perferred high adventure and heroism with protagonists they could identify with over the murderous content that had thrilled their fathers.

As far as their fathers went, as the 1800s rolled on more and more periodicals began to be printed cheaply for a working class audience. Newspapers were a little expensive and difficult to read, but sure enough, tabloid press started to appear, culminating in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, the father of tabloid rags, still around today.

Thus the adult audience drifted away and the youth audience drifted in. From the 1870s to 1900 penny dreadfuls became cheap adventure serials for boys. (We’ll touch on what on earth girls had to bloody well amuse themselves with, although Victorian society being victorian society the content is not nearly as interesting and indeed was mostly morality and virtue lessons.) Dreadful after dreadful started throwing the word ‘Boy’ into every title.

Boys could not often afford the penny to buy their favorite dreadfuls, especially if they wanted to follow more than one. And thus the great tradition of the Boys’ Club came to the rescue.

Men form clubs. Boys form clubs. Groups of boys would pool their money together to buy their favorite dreadful(s) and pass them around.

New stars emerged.  Tom Wildrake, Jack Harkaway, Tom Merry, Billy Bunter… Tom Wildrake, introduced in 1870 was particularly influential on the genre as it established certain tropes most later heroes followed. The story goes through the hero’s school days after which he gets on a boat and sets sail for some exotic location, like the Wild West or the Orient and of course high adventure ensues.

By the 1880s the transition was complete. Penny dreadful were entirely youth based and many groups concerned with the corrupting infulence of the penny dreadfuls on their children were publishing their own versions, with careful morality tales always built in.

Dime novels were big in the states. They were the cheap mass market paperbacks on the 1800s and they would be imported to England and serialized in the dreadfuls.  The American West was in fact a source of never ending fascination and gave rise to characters such as Deadwood Dick, an immensely popular wild west outlaw who, along with Sexton Blake, lived long past the end of the dreadfuls. Deadwood Dick not only found himself the subject of many pulp adventures but starred in movie serials in the 1930s. He was so well known, that a number of actual American men living in infamous Deadwood, South Dakota adopted the name to increase their notoriety.

As the 20th century hit, perdiocals featuring adventure tales were being put out which were longer, featured more stories, and cost a bit more. Thus the transition to pulp books began.

The moral watchdogs of Victorian society had been decrying the dreadfuls for decades. Interestingly, the transformation of the penny dreadful from lurid to youth entertainment had done nothing to silence the critics. Indeed, the most vocal elements against them were opposed to escapist fiction of any type, especially for the the young. They blamed escapist fiction for juvenile crime utterly ignoring such petty reasons as poverty and prostitution. Actually, at the height of the storypaper boom juvenile crime went down.

In 1893 published Alfred Harmsworth took it upon himself to end the penny dreadful market and its corrupting influence upon the young by publishing story rags at a HALF penny, but with well written, highly moral tales. He began The Union Jack. The Union Jack story is quite famous as within a few years the Hamrsworth publication had resorted to the exact same level as the penny dreadfuls he was trying to run out. The creator of Winnie The Pooh, A.A. Milne was quoted as saying “Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.”

Leading up the WWI another change that signaled the end of the penny dreadful was the invention of the comic. Basically, the cheap rags that were the penny dreadful started becoming devoted to reprinting comic strips and eventually serialized comics, which attracted the young and the barely literate formally wooed by the dreadful. Adventure tales moved to pulp magazines and with the paper drives of WWI the era penny dreadful was well and truly finished. Afterwards it was comics and pulps.

By the late 20th century of course the comic book had become dominant and people such as myself grew up reading the fantastic, serialized adventures of mighty heroes battling nefarious villains in fantastic and often cosmic settings. Comic books combined what had been the comic and the pulp.

As for the literate once catered to by the pulp, in recent years there has been a sudden explosion in the market for childrens and young adult books. Spurred on by Harry Potter the young adult book market occupies a place the penny dreadful and the pulp novel once did. Supernatural elements, gothic romances, adventure stories, fantastical heroes, it’s all there. Hell, VAMPIRES! Remember the runaway success of the Varney the Vampire penny dreadful? Well….vampires, still around. Still selling. Still dominating the same market.  And even better, the writing of young adult fiction, while not always pulitzer prize winning, is consistently better then many of the predecessors AND is quite friendly to the female market, offering girls also fantastic and imaginative adventures.


Posted by on February 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Dreadfuls. Before the comic book, before the pulp…

The comic book probably remains the dominant medium for fanciful, fantastic literature pumped out industriously for youth consumption. Actually if you ask me, the comic book has been replaced by the video game, but if we stick to just literature it’s the comic book. Before the comic book were the pulps, which ruled the mental landscape of the young for decades and gave us characters such as Tarzan, Conan, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Sexton Blake (we’ll get to him later this week), The Spider, etc.

But the pulps did not invent the wheel nor start the fire. (It was always burning since the wor… ow! Okay, stop throwing things at me) Before the pulps, there were the penny dreadfuls.

Penny dreadfuls began the entire concept of the continuing adventures of some action hero,  as well as featuring numerous other types of stories from gothic horror to robber barons, famous criminals and pirates to tales of young street urchins battling out gang wars in the alleys of London.

In the 1830s a peculiar situation arose in Britain due in no small part to decades of tireless effort from liberalists. It was a situation which had never before been seen in Europe, or indeed much in the entire world. A significant portion of the non elite, now in the industrial revolution known as ‘the working class’, were literate. Non wealthy people could read.

Britain being the bastion of capitalism, it was only a matter of time before markets arose to cater to this phenomenon, and in the 1830s they did.

Gothic novels were all the rage and in the mid 1830s Dickens achieved great fame serializing his novels. However, for the worker and his family, these things were bloody well expensive. The swarm of gothic novels popular at the time featured melancholy star fated lovers, family curses, huge, moody castles and dungeons, some supernatural element, some air of menace and mystery, and of course women poised to faint at any given moment. Gothic novels were hardly the shining stars of literature (until Poe came along). Indeed, they were lit-candy for the upper and burgeoning middle classes.

In the 1830s a few enterprising individuals, in particular Edward Lloyd, had the idea of taking these popular Gothic stories and some knock offs of this new Dickens chap who was all the rage, and printing them on very cheap paper, in short formats of 8 pages. Each one sold for a penny. For a penny you could buy some dreadful tales of criminality, gothic tales, horror or eventually adventure stories.

For a long time the tales of various criminals and horror sold the best. They were not aimed at youth in particular, and the working man, after a long, brutal day at the factory could sit home in the evening and enjoy the same kind of literary escapism as the classes above him. Obviously it’s no big mystery why tales of daring men working outside the law to make fortunes at the expense of rich dandies sold so well.

William Strange began the entire enterprise in 1832 with The Penny Story-Teller. However it was Edward Lloyd in 1836 who really blew it up. The son of a farmer, he began by producing monthly story collections, tales of pirates and highwaymen as well as The Calendar of Horrors, all at 6 pence for 24-32 pages. He soon moved to the 8 pages for a penny weekly format and became insanely successful.

For one thing, the first thing he did upon moving to the new format was to shamelessly rip off Dickens. Dickens had his wildly successful weekly installment of The Pickwick Papers? Well, Lloyd churned out The Penny Pickwick,a cheap imitation that did its job. Remember, this was in the age before copyright, and indeed it was through such things as this that copyright law came to be in the first place.

Eventually Lloyd realized he had stumbled onto something that produced endless sales that went far beyond Dickens knock offs. He realized it was the very notion of a continuing adventure. He started experimenting with characters who would feature in their own never ending series of episodic tales, and this was indeed the magic idea.

Characters such as Dick Turpin, a robber and smuggler executed a century before became an enormous success and by the mid 1800s, there were numerous, different publications featuring his adventures, one even dedicated to the adventures of his horse. Robin Hood also became a popular penny dreadful figure and it because of the dreadfuls that he remains known today. (The dreadfuls led to pulp and children’s novelizations which led to the Erryl Flynn movie which led to….)

Horror was a huge part of the penny dreadfuls and one of the most popular characters introduced in that genre was the infamous Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. For all of you familiar with the Sondheim musical, yes, this is where he comes from.

Also worth mentioning is Varney The Vampire. Many fun staples which continue to thrill readers today can be traced back to the dreadfuls. Varney predates Dracula and it is from Varney (ridiculous name, i know) that we get the majority of the all the present day vampire tropes we know and love.

Edward Lloyd used all his earnings to start a newspaper empire and in his later years became utterly ashamed of his penny dreadful enterprise and would employ young men to go around town, find his old dreadfuls, buy them and destroy them. One however did the opposite. He went around town, bought them all with Lloyd’s money and saved them. He eventually sold them for a fortune and thus they remain preserved today.

By the 1860s however the audience had shifted and it was boys and teenagers who were purchasing dreadfuls. We shall look at how the dreadful evolved because of this and follow them to the pulps tomorrow.

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Posted by on February 12, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Charlie Chan

During the 1920s and 30s, one of the most famous screen detectives, featured in numerous serials and feature films, was Charlie Chan.

He was created by writer Earl Derr Biggers as an Asian detective based in Honolulu in an attempt to throw a more positive Asian antithesis to the Fu Manchu stereotype and Yellow Peril hysteria that was plaguing the US in the early 20th century.

With the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst trumpeting the brigade, and numerous politicians and “concerned citizens” leading the cavalry, the Yellow Peril was a hatred and fear of the mass of Chinese immigrants (and Korean and even Japanese, although really, all Asians were basically lumped into Chinese so the finer details or nationality and ethnicity were mute points). They were taking over jobs, threatening white wages and standards of living, “incapable of and/or unwilling to assimilate,”  etc.

The sinister Fu Manchu archetype had arisen and with all this anti Asian sentiment flying about, Biggers, after reading the exploits of a real life Chinese-Hawaiin detective name Change Apana, decided an Oriental detective might be an interesting and positive antidote.

The books did decently and the film industry attempted to make some films with the character. A serial was produced based on the first novel starring a Japanese actor George Kuwa. It didn’t do as well as hoped and a year later, the next film based off the second book starring another Japanese actor also failed to lvie up to expectations. Interestingly, in both these the actual screen time of detective Charlie Chan is strangely minimal. In the 3rd attempt, this time with a Korean lead, Chan only appears in the last 10 minutes. Don’t ask me wtf. I have no idea.
Finally, Fox Films tried again, this time with a white guy in the role, Warner Oland (a Swedish dude who had some Monoglian ancestry) and the film took off. 15 more films were made with Oland, another pile after his death although Oland’s take on the character is the one remembered today, beloved by old fans of the series but also criticized.

Oland played the character as very gentle and self effacing (as opposed to the direct and slightly more macho character of the books) which is part of the film character’s charm, but some say it was a deliberate attempt to keep the Asian lead from seeming to uppity or in any way threatening. This is very typical of attempts by marginalized non white minorities in the early 20th century to  break into mainstream media. Louis Armstrong, the great and brilliant trumpet player opened the door for black musicians in America and helped spread jazz across the nation and the world, but he could never, ever appear in anything but a smile. He could never be serious, stern, or really anything but so very warm and jovial. It worked, and his success opened the doors for the many black entertainers who came after him, but his career and persona had to navigated with a very exact and narrow persona.

In this vein, Charlie Chaplin is oh so very meek and humble. But it does make the character lovable.

The early 20th century was a time of great racism and attempts by many people on all side of ethnicity to move things along. One thing that stands out today is that characters who were deliberate attempts to be NON racist are now seen as racist caricatures. The steps to changing racial attitudes, even personal, internal ones is a process.

For instance, Charlie Chan is, as you imagine, simply not capable of ever speaking proper English grammar. He is of course a genius detective, but in 15 (and there were more made after that, after Oland had died) movies you ca be sure his Engrish would never improve. Gestures, mannerisms are all over the top… but of course in all films of the day, EVERY aspect of acting is over the top. It’s what old films to cheesy. There is no subtlety in the acting of ANYone. Afters centuries of live theater tradition, the move to the more under stated clsoe up art of film acting had yet to really happen. It took time, just like changing racial attitudes does. So you can be sure ethnic character are always REALLY ethnic.

From Maureen Corrigan:

“But, before we condemn Oland’s “Yellowface” incarnation of Charlie Chan, consider this next curious bit of film history: In 1933, Oland made a trip to Shanghai, where he was celebrated by movie audiences there for bringing to life the first positive Chinese character in American film. (After all, compared with the venal Dr. Fu Manchu, whom Oland had also played in the movies, Chan was a hero.) The nascent Chinese film industry then got busy making a series of homegrown Charlie Chan movies. According to contemporary accounts, the Chinese actor who played Chan scrupulously copied the white Oland’s Chinese screen mannerisms and speech. Cultural cross-pollination at work at its most endearing — or dismaying.”

Charlie Chan’s most clear trait, the apsect of him that is what is truly remembered, is his pseudo-Confucian wisdom, mixed with a smart, sharp humor. Chan is wise, calm, responsible, and commonsensical man who also happens to be a hilarious wisecracker. Beneath the “Yellowface” is a great and endearing larger than life character.

In any case, the Charlie Chan character was featured in over 40 movies and back in the Dieselpunk era was one of the most recognized detectives outside of Sherlock Holmes.

Here is one of the best of the Charlie Chan movies, Charlie Chan at the Opera. Most of these old films are on YouTube in their entirety. (Bloody amazing this day and age we live in). Naturally, i don’t expect many of you to actually watch this entire thing, but i would re remiss to not post it for your perusing pleasure:

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Posted by on September 8, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Fu Manchu

This post was originally going to be about Charlie Chan, but before we get to that famous character of Dieselpunk era serials, i figured it might be interesting if we start with the even more famous Fu Manchu, for whom Charlie Chan was created to be an antithesis.

The name Fu Manchu is still familiar today. He originates in a series of books by author Sax Rohmer between 1913 and 1959. He is the villianous archerival to the British detective Nayland Smith and his assistant Dr. John Petrie (a direct use of the Holmes/Watson template), although interestingly, Fu Manchu’s notoriety and fame far eclipses that of Nayland Smith. Few recognize the name Nayland Smith, but many still recognize Fu Manchu still.

His true fame, as i’ve said over and over all all fantastic heroes of the first half of the 20th century, is cemented by his appearance in other media, in this case a series of both serials and films of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. The Mask Fu Manchu in 1932 and the serial The Drums of Fu Manchu in 1940 are the most popular. The character was later revived in the 60s for another series of 5 British movies.

In many ways Fu Manchu is a wonderfully fantastic villian: a pure evil genius, although with a rigid ethical system. Both he and Nayland Smith share a grudging respect for one another, as in their many run ins, both always conduct themselves with a certain honor. Neither, for instance, ever breaks their word. Fu Manchu’s plots are labyrinthine, everything you would expect from a diabolical criminal mastermind. He controls vast networks of secret agents who will always use deadly and venomous animals and poisons over guns and simple weapons.

He has an extraordinary long life due to a lfie extension formula he perfected, and loves the opium trade, white slavery and plots to destroy white people and their areas of the world. Fu Manchu is remarkably iconic. He is also a completely racist archetype and used to desultorily and stereotypically represent the dreaded “Yellow Peril” of the first half of the 20th century.

Now, i know none of you will be able to understand this, but you’ll have to try and imagine a time when a number of politicians, powerful media moguls (William Randolph Hearst) and of course citizens were convinced that one of the greatest threats to their country and way of life were posed by.. get this…. immigrants. Yes, hard to imagine in this enlightened day and age. Now wait, it gets even more unbelievable. In particular the worst immigrants were the non white ones. I know, shocking, right? Welcome to the Yellow Peril.

Beginning the the mid 1800s waves of chines swept into Western Countries, most notably the United States, there they basically built the country’s railroad system. Hearst and his papers were dedicated to drumming up hysteria about how all these Asian were taking the jobs and threatening the livelihood, standard of living and way of life of its white inhabitants of European descent. During the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, this was a really big deal. Japanese military expansion leading up to WWII played into this also.

When Fu Manchu appeared, he became the archetype for Asian villains. Pulp and pop culture throughout the entire early 20th century used the Fu Manchu archetype. Asian characters in the West were unknown except for Fu Manchu and the henchmen archetypes he employed. This led to some Chinese Americans attempting to create new characters such as Charlie Chan to replace the stereotype.

I’ll just add that there was a 1980 movie starring Peter Sellers called The Fiendish Plot Of Fu Manchu starring Peter Sellers as both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith. It was a commercial disaster, but i actually liked it and it’s a very self aware take on the entire series. Also, some people have a soft spot for the 1932 Mask Of Fu Manchu claiming its over the top racism adds to its “so bad it’s a blast” campiness. Indeed these old Fu Manchu movies and serials seem like they are PERfect for a great Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing and… wait. What’s that? Oh happy day.

Without further ado, i leave you to MST3K veiwing The Castle Of Fu Manchu.

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Posted by on September 7, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Flash Gordon: An Atompunk Hero for a Dieselpunk World.

The Atompunk hero began in the great depression. Tales of outer space, wild futures, and ray guns, always ray guns became immensely popular, thanks to the invention of the daily comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Due to the success of Buck Rogers the syndicate Kings Feature was looking for a strip to compete with it (read: jump on the bandwagon) and young writer/artists Alex Raymond, who worked for them on another strip, Tim Tyler’s Luck, begged to have a crack. In 1934 he created a character Flash Gordon, who would soon eclipse Buck Rogers and for the 30s and 40s dominate the science fiction landscape of american youth.

The strip became a huge hit and soon outshined Buck Rogers. For one thing, young Alex worked hard to improve, and improve he did, his style becoming adored.

The 2nd strip

2 years later

The story was fun, interstellar, fantastic and imaginative. Earthman Flash Gordon, female interest Dale Arden, and scientist Dr. Zarkov leave earth to face impending threat which turns out to be interplanetary emperor Ming The Mercifless. Highjinks ensue. “In the course of their improbable and breathtaking adventures they meet Princess Aura, Ming’s daughter, Prince Barin, the rightful ruler of Mongo, Thun, Prince of the Lion Men, Vultan, King of the Hawk Men, Azura, the Witch Queen of the Blue Magic Men, Fria, Queen of the frozen kingdom of Frigia, and countless other friends and enemies—all beautifully illustrated with the lush, sensuous artwork for which Alex Raymond is so justly remembered.” (Clark Holloway)

From the immensely talented Al Williamson who eventually took over the Flash Gordon strip.

Alex worked on the series for 10 years, until 1944 when he enlisted in the US Marine Corp to go and kill some nazi bitches. Bravo, sir.

But of course, as with most popular characters from the pulp era that are still remembered today, the thing that cemented Flash Gordon’s fortune was his treatment in other medias.

He was featured in 2 radio serials, the first of which followed the comic strip closely. Except of course for the last 2 episodes of its run, where all of a sudden Flash and Dale go back to Earth, meet Jungle Jim and get married in said jungle. They run off and next week begins the exciting adventures of Jungle Jim.

But the thing that cemented his legend, which led to that atrocious 80s movie and numerous other horrid attempts to reinvigorate the characters (although some will argue the 80s movie is so bad it’s good, and the soundtrack by Queen kicks over the top ass)…

the thing that made Flash Gordon the adored memory for a generation of imaginative youth, is the epic, classic film serial.

Shown before the feature movie presentation, serials were HUGE back in the day. Every character who you can think of that existed in the 30s and 40s had one, but by far one of the most remembered and revered is the Flash Gordon serial. Beloved by both Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, it starred Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. It’s popularity was through the roof. kids lined up every week to breathlessly catch the next installment.

By today’s standards it’s… well look you can’t compare the two. But the PBS station where i grew up would play the entire serial on some holiday every year and it worked.

Interesting note from imdb: “Despite its large budget, this serial utilized many sets from other Universal films, such as the laboratory and crypt set from Bride of Frankenstein, the castle interiors from Dracula’s Daughter, the idol from The Mummy and the opera house interiors from The Phantom of the Opera. In addition, the outer walls of Ming’s castle were actually the cathedral walls from The Hunchback of Notre Dame .”

My mom would bring home the collected Flash Gordon comic strips from the library and i adored those even more. Even in this late age, Flash Gordon was a significant part of my childhood and colored my view of science fiction adventures just as it did for so many kids in the early days of fantastical, science fiction adventure.


Posted by on August 16, 2011 in Uncategorized


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