There are some who think that calling the covers of pulp magazines art is something of a stretch. Perhaps they are right.
Pulp in all it's forms appeals to masculinity. Dynamic scenes with beautiful women were a staple for any cover. They had to be bright, they had to be loud, they had to be dramatic, they had to capture the imagination. All this, to part a hard working stiff from his dime as he passed by.
The cover art was meant to sell the magazines and was generally targeted at young men. This is why they often depicted heroes, monsters, and damsels under duress (and under dressed). According to Jim Steranko, historian of contemporary pop culture who is most noted for his wok on the Captain America and X-Men comics, "With few exceptions, pulps were designed to be amusing and entertaining...the quitessence of melodrama, and their art reflected that concept to perfection" (Lesser 57).
Then of course was the coloring. Pulps were the alternatives to the "slicks". Expensive magazines that use high quality 'slick' paper throughout the puplication. To compete with these elite magazines, pulps had to be brighter, a veritable fireworks display of color.
Tom Lovell, two time winner of the Prix de West honor (Cowboy Artists of America), described the dramatic style of these covers as "a highly colored circus in which everything was pushed to the nth degree". Steve Kennedy, a New York art dealer and authority in fields of American art and illustration, observes the effective use of warm and cool colors. Comparing the style to the Fauve movement and the German Expressionists. Kennedy explains "The red-hot flame from a .45 and a woman screaming, her face glowing in orange violent and green, would describe a good pulp image with its fantastic colors, its orchestra of warm and cool tones" (Lesser 30).
Pulp was not totally without depth, as many claim. While the artwork was designed to sell, that did not stop artists from giving significance to their choice of color.
According to Walter Reed, founder of Illustration House in New York City, red was an important color in pulp art. Cowboy heroes wore red shirts or bandanas, the P.I.'s gun firing as the trigger was pulled, beasts with blood stained fangs, women adorned in red dresses, though just as often were torn or otherwise revealing. This almost violent use of the color lent to the dynamic depictions of action, be it a punch in mid swing, the firing of a gun, the slashing of a knife, or a raging fire (Lesser 50).
While color and action are good for sales, the slicks could just as easily, perhaps even more easily, find a talented artist able to create bright scenes of heroic action. This is where pulp had to push the envelope: with sexy women.
You would be hard pressed to find pulp art without a desirable female on the cover. Rafael De Soto was always the crowd pleaser with blonde women in red dresses. One of the few female pulp artists, Margaret Brundage, was renonwned for her dipictions of women. The only limit on the women in pulp covers was this simple rule: no nipples (Lesser 101). Though even this rule was broken from time to time.
This is where alleged experts draw the line and proclaim that pulp art is little more than a dime's worth of smut. And from a purely artistic standpoint, it's hard to argue against. What most do not seem to find value is the window into the male psyche of the time period that dime's worth of smut gives us.
Women were entering the work force in full force. Once male dominated spheres were being infiltrated by confident and competent women. On top of this, Prohibition was in full swing and crime was at it's highest rates yet. There was little to be happy about for the common laborer (Haining 10).
What better way to grab a Joe down on his luck, insecure that he may lose out on a job opprotunity to some braud, than to sell a story where it's still a man's world. Where women only seem to find trouble, and the only way out of that trouble is if a man were crack his knuckles and get to work.
The implications of this artwork is fascinating. When the topic of gender roles in the 1930's crops up, phrases like bread winner, stay-at-home wife, and head of the house pop in one after another. Where men were confident and strong so they could defend their homes. To know that a woman could be considered preferable to you in a paid position was ego shattering. Here in this artwork, we see these values overly glorified in a time where they were being threatened. There on those newstands, men would see the place they were taught they would grow up in by their fathers and grandfathers. Their whole world of expectations, for just ten cents
This is where pulps drew their power: off the insecurities of men just trying to make ends meet.