Dark clouds filled the sky. As I drove on the winding mountain road I had a bad feeling that I should have followed my instincts about traveling this way. Rain began to fall and huge trucks roared past spraying the windshield making it harder to see. With night falling the rain came down in sheets. Several times traffic came to a complete halt as red and blue lights flashed up ahead. Accident? Road washed out? We inched along.
I finally arrived in Columbus, Ohio late that night with the rain at a drizzle. I pulled into the hotel on the outskirts of town in the midst of an industrial area with little signs of life anywhere. I went in and a few people milled about in the lobby but the restaurant was closed and everything had an air of slight abandonment. The night clerk mumbled the directions to help me find my room in the rambling conference center. I finally made my way upstairs and into my room which was large and had all the creature comforts. I began to cheer up once I’d settled in, put on some music and had a glass of wine. It was a fitting beginning to my first Pulpfest.
After the appropriate dark and stormy night of my arrival, the next day dawned sunny and bright as it was meant to do and I made my way to the enormous conference room filled with dealers and afficianados of Pulp Fiction. Welcome to Pulpfest 2011. A lot of people assume Pulp Fiction stories are all similar to Quentin Tarantino’s movie full of sleaze and violence. That is certainly part of the genre and there is purple prose and formulaic writing in some of the series under house names but that just adds to the fun. However as a popular medium for readers that began sometime in the 1890’s and still has new writers today, Pulp Fiction, for those who don’t know, is filled with adventure tales ranging from ghost stories to pirates to medieval romances to westerns, spies, detectives, science fiction and more. Just about any type of story that has an air of danger and derring do and requires a hero and many a heroine can be found in Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction has often been relegated to “popular” writing as if that’s a bad thing. There are many well known writers and plenty of unknown writers who could and did tell some entertaining tales in the pulps. As far as I’m concerned the pulps are one of the unsung truly American art forms.
One of the characteristics I have noticed among the pulpsters is an often ironic sense along with the kind of wit that stems from being wordsmiths who read tons of material–high and low. Perhaps people who love the pulps are influenced by that sense of irony that seems to emanate from so many of the pulp stories either in the hero’s station in life or poor judgment at getting himself into a fix. From what I’ve read many of the writers themselves had a pretty sardonic view from their seat at the publishing table.
Mike Chomko, Ed Hulse and Jack Cullers some of the organizers of Pulpfest welcomed me and like the good party hosts they are immediately starting introducing me around. Mike and Ed very kindly invited me to attend Pulpfest 2011 and speak about my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. I was to be on a panel with several other granddaughters of pulp writers aptly titled “Granddaughters of the Pulps.” Mike is a well-respected dealer and historian of Pulp Fiction, Jack is also a dealer whose specialty is westerns and Ed is the editor of Blood n Thunder and the writer of several books like the excellent Blood n Thunder Guide to Collecting Pulps. This is a bare minimum of what these guys do. Check out the link and learn more about them and the other swell people who help make this happen.
Most of the people who attend Pulp events tend to be male so having three women–all granddaughters of pulp writers on a panel and all actively researching their grandfathers’ lives and works is quite a phenomena. I was really looking forward to meeting the other two panelists, Laurie Powers and Karen Davis Cunningham and I wasn’t disappointed.
Laurie has already achieved some of the things I’m still in process with so it was helpful to talk with her about what she’s gone through in her work. Her grandfather, Paul Powers, like mine wrote for many of the pulps and wrote in a variety of genres. Laurie was fortunate to discover a memoir that he wrote which she edited and that is now published entitled Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street. She’s also just edited some of his western stories called Riding the Pulp Trail. Both of these books are very nicely done with great covers. I came home with Pulp Writer and I’ve ordered Riding the Pulp Trail. The link will take you to Laurie’s friendly blog and from there you can buy these two books or go immediately to Amazon. The excellent pulp sleuth Matt Moring at Altus Press published Riding the Pulp Trail and you can go to their web site for this and other terrific pulp related books.
While MWN’s output seems to be in the mid-100’s for the Pulp genre and Laurie thinks her grandfather’s is about 400, Karen Davis Cunningham has the real challenge. Her grandfather, Frederick Davis wrote literally thousands of pulps, some movie scripts and a whole lot more under his own name as well as numerous pseudonyms in the US and Great Britain. His main genre was detective stories but like all good pulp writers he was able to write in various modes. It’s a good thing Karen is such an excellent researcher having started her professional life as a lawyer and continuing as a professor at Kent State. Karen has been doing this a lot longer than Laurie or me so it was great to learn from her experiences.
I spent most of Friday catching up with people I already knew such as John Gunnison at Adventure House. I bought some beautiful pulps from John who as always has some of the best grade pulps anywhere. Click on the link for John’s publishing house where you will find among other things reprints of some very hard to find pulps. Rick Hall whom I met at Rich Harvey’s Pulp Convention in Bordentown, New Jersey also helped me in my probably never-ending quest as well. David Saunders, one of my favorite pulp guys was there with lush cards made from some of his father’s, Norman Saunders, pulp covers. David has edited several gorgeous books about pulp artists including his dad, Norman and H J Ward. He is also my go to guy for crossover pulp/comic information.
I finally got to meet John Locke in person. We’ve been corresponding for a while and he’s an incredible researcher. I think he knows just about everything there is to know about the pulps and he’s extraordinarily generous. Among many other books John has published is his wonderfully romantic book Pulp Fictioneers. It’s an excellent way to learn about pulps in general as there are snapshots of the various aspects of the medium put together by John’s dogged research and astute editing hand. There are sad, funny, ironic stories and articles that taken together present a whole picture of the life of the writers, artists, editors and publishers that inhabited this world. It’s practically cinematic in the way it reads which is the way good pulp fiction should be. You can tell I love this book. Here’s the link to buy it.
Being around a mostly male contingency in comics and pulps is a nice spot for observation and there are several things that I noticed in this group. One is the heroic nature of most of the guys along with some pretty darn good manners. This we like. The other thing hand in hand with good manners is that everyone is very civil–if someone has a bad habit or two or three, everyone sort of shrugs and laughs it off. They’re also pretty good about watching out for you as well.
I wonder if it’s being so immersed in the pulps or my own romantic lens but everyone seems to lean towards a pulp type. The Big Hearted, strong guy who’s willing to go over the wall first, a lot of smart, wise-cracking detective type guys, The Master Sleuth, suave, cool and mysterious, a few absent-minded mad scientists with a couple of professors thrown into the mix, the odd Peter Lorre type here and there, the cheerful open-faced hero who’s ready for action at the drop of a hat, not to mention a few cowboys. You know who you are.
On Friday evening David Saunders gave a great talk entitled Wild American Pulp Artists–Emery Clarke, Robert Harris and Milton Luros. David is a major force in providing recognition for so many of the pulp artists and his talk as always was not only fun but enlightening. David is no slouch in the research department as I am well aware from all the great suggestions and advice he has generously handed off to me. From the very beginning of my search for MWN’s work in pulps I was drawn to the pulp covers and illustrations featuring artists like V.E. Pyles who often did the covers for MWN pulps as well as inside illustrations. When I was a young girl on the Alabama Gulf Coast I spent many summer hours on my grandparents’ back porch immersed in old copies of The Saturday Evening Post from the 20’s and 30’s reading P.G. Wodehouse and others. Perhaps that’s where I fell in love with magazines and their wonderful illustrations.
Friday evening was also our panel and I was nervous. I’m so used to being very careful about anything I say in the comic book world that I’m always anxious getting up in front of people to talk about the Major. It probably comes from the ugly divorce that went down between MWN and DC. MWN got painted as the bad parent. Kind of weird when you look at who walked away with the house and the car and was pretty nasty to some of the kids to boot. In the pulp world there doesn’t seem to be baggage along those lines.
Certainly the high profile aspect of the Major’s life has to do with his foray into comics and it is a big piece of the story but the unifying theme for me throughout his life is that of a writer. According to the aunts and uncle, he wrote almost every single day of his life and always had a designated place to write no matter where they lived or how–grandly or not. I knew that he was a writer even as a young child when my mother first showed me an article he had written in a UN journal. I can remember being thrilled to see his byline since publishing and writing are very much a part of my mother’s family as well. My mother has always been a writer, editor and publisher and walking into a printer’s shop with that metallic inky smell makes me feel at home. It’s in my blood from both sides of the gene pool. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I love MWN’s pulp fiction.
Ed Hulse was an excellent moderator and asked us thoughtful probing questions eliciting intelligent and heartfelt answers from the ladies and I trust from me as well. I started to relax as I realized people were genuinely interested and no one was sitting there ready to pounce on some minute bit of history I might have wrong. Listening to Karen’s amazing tale of how she discovered her grandfather’s pulp career and the continuing discovery of his prolific output resonated with me and with Laurie as well. Laurie has a somewhat similar story to mine in being separated from her family due to divorce and discovering her grandfather’s pulp career as an adult. My story differs, of course, in the whole comic book adventure added to the mix. What came across to me and I think everyone there was how much we all love the pulps and our dedication to honoring our grandfathers’ careers as writers. There was some talk of the panel appearing on YouTube at some point and if so, I’ll provide a link. It was a nice moment to be there and talk about the work I’ve been doing for such a long time in front of an appreciative audience. People seemed pretty excited and happy afterwards. Many thanks to Ed and Karen and Laurie for helping to make this so special.
On Saturday with the panel behind me, I felt like I could really relax and attend to the “list.” And I did the usual walking up and down the aisles and looking through box after box. I came away with a treasure trove. It’s a good thing I drove because there is no way I would have gotten it all in an overhead bin. Besides all the pulps I bought, people gave me pulps, books, reprints–this is a generous and kind group of people and I felt like it was Christmas. I have been looking for an Argosy that is the last in a serial of six and yes, dear reader, I found it. That was a happy moment. Ed found a Top-Notch for me with MWN’s story “The House of Fang Gow” which also became a comic in New Fun#1. The creation is often mistakenly attributed to someone else but as is clear from the story in February 1933, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is the creator. It was a day full of discoveries and adventures. Steve Kennedy, the art dealer and I found one another and had a long talk about our mutual interests to my enlightenment of course. I look forward to catching up with him on the East Coast.
To top it off, one of my favorite comic book guys, Tony Isabella appeared on the scene. We’ve only corresponded so it was lovely to meet him in person. Tony was one of the first people in the comic book world to acknowledge that the derogatory stories of MWN that have been perpetuated might not be true. So you can understand why I’m partial to him but that’s not all–Tony is one of those people who can make me laugh out loud and he’s absolutely fearless. He calls um as he sees um. Tony’s career is the usual varied and fascinating career having worked with Stan Lee and that gentleman editor and publisher Roy Thomas at Marvel among others and he’s also been at DC where he created Black Lightning. He’s owned a comic shop and written novels and he has a blog about comics and life. Anything he writes is funny and straight to the point and you can read it here. You’ll love him too.
Saturday evening Professor Garyn Roberts gave a fascinating talk on Steampunk in the Days of Dime Novels and the Pulp Magazines. His knowledgeable and humorous talk was much too short and we could have all listened to more. Then the talented Mr. Hulse once again showed his ability as a moderator and knowledgable pulpster in moderating a panel on Walter B. Gibson and the Shadow. Anthony Tollin, Randy Cox and Will Murray all contributed their expertise since all of them worked with Gibson and have written books about him and The Shadow. As you can imagine everyone was looking forward to this and it was fascinating to hear the different points of view about Gibson and his work. Will has written numerous books and is the literary agent for Lester Dent of the Doc Savage novels and oh so much more. Will’s career is prolific and you can read a little about it here. I have been corresponding with Will for some time and so it was great to meet him in person. Will and I don’t quite see eye to eye on the grandfather’s career in comics but we respect one another’s scholarship and I trust Will’s encyclopedic knowledge of the pulps. This was another panel that could have gone on much longer with the enthusiasm and interest from the audience.
Hanging out with the guys in the evening and chatting easily about pulps was part of the fun and I met so many people with their own great stories to tell. The hospitality fare was classic guy stuff–beer and chips–and believing firmly in “don’t complain, procure,” after the first such evening I searched out the local high end grocery and came back with wine, cheese, crackers, fruit and mineral water. If you’re going to hang out with guys, you know what the deal is. Bring your own tablecloth. They don’t mind at all.
There were other interesting panels, fun people like John Wooley and Stephen Haffner, great dealers like Scott Edwards of Dearly Departed Books, the dashing Mechem duo of Girasol Collectables and of course the renowned pulpster Doug Ellis, readings by some of the new pulpsters–much too much for me to do it all so I’m looking forward to more next year.
I had a hard time tearing myself away on Sunday, saying good-bye to everyone and getting those last few words of avuncular advice from David Saunders. I really appreciated everyone’s kindness and generosity. A special big thank you to Ed Hulse who is a prince among men. And of course, there was the last pulp to be purchased before getting back on the winding road. This time I listened to my intuition and took what appeared to be the longer road home but was actually the easiest and most pleasant drive through the summer afternoon into a clear starry evening along the Great Lake. It was an excellent Pulpfest Adventure.
Stay tuned for the last installment of How I Spent My Summer: Cowboys and Plagues in Comics.