Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Golden Age of Pop Culture?

I was fairly young when I came to the conclusion that if there was ever a Golden Age of American pop culture, it was probably from around 1929 (very shortly before the start of the Great Depression) to 1945 (the end of World War II). Although I was only in junior high when I came to this conclusion, even now I cannot deny my reasoning at the time. By then I had already studied the history of comic strips, comic books, pulp magazines, and radio shows (I would study television and movies a few years later, when I was in high school). I realised that many of the most notable characters in pop culture were created at this time. And I also realised that this period was roughly concurrent with the Golden Age of many of these media.

With regards to comic strips, I have never read anywhere when its Golden Age was set, although almost everyone agrees there was one. While I can see arguments made that the Golden Age of the comic strip was the Fifties, when such heavyweights as Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, and B.C. debuted, I would probably argue for the Twenties and the Thirties. While the medium had produced superstars before this era (Mutt and Jeff debuted in 1909 and Krazy Kat in 1913), it seems to me that an inordinate number of big name comic strips debuted form 1929 to about 1938.

In fact, I can even name the date when the Golden Age of comic strips (at least in my opinion) began: January 7, 1929. That is the date when the two first adventure comic strips debuted. One was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Not only was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century one of the first two adventure comic strips, but the very first science fiction comic strip. That same day saw the debut of the Tarzan comic strip. While it is widely known that Tarzan had originated in books, it is not so well known that Buck Rogers also originated in another medium. He made his debut in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories in a novelette entitled Armageddon 2419 A.D. That novelette featured Anthony Rogers (not yet "Buck"), an Army Air Corps officer who goes into suspended animation after exposure to a mysterious gas. He woke in the 25th century, where Earth was dominated by evil warlords. Both Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Tarzan proved to be so successful that more adventure strips were to follow.

There was certainly no shortage of them, as the Thirties would see the debut of several important adventure comic strips: Dick Tracy (1931), Flash Gordon (1934), Mandrake the Magician (1934), The Phantom (1936), Prince Valiant (1937), and Red Ryder (1938). Of course, there was no shortage of humour comic strips during this period. One of the most successful and longest running humour strips debuted in 1931: Blondie. Little Lulu debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935. Li'l Abner, Al Capp's legendary satirical strip, first appeared in 1934.

Of course, comic strips were not the only things people read in these days. The Twenties were arguably the Golden Age of the American magazine. More magazines made debuted in the Twenties than any other period. Despite this, I would set the Golden Age of the pulp magazine a little bit later. For me the Golden Age of pulp magazines began in 1930, the year that the science fiction pulp Astounding was first published. Hugo Gernsbeck's Amazing Stories preceded it in 1926 and his Science Wonder Stories in 1929, but it was Astounding that would lead to a plethora of science fiction pulp magazines on newstands in the Thirties and Forties. Astounding would print stories by some of the top names in the business over the years: Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E.van Vogt among them.

If the debut of Astounding was not enough to create a Golden Age of pulps, then another magazine certainly was. In 1930 a mysterious narrator called The Shadow made his debut on the anthology radio show Detective Story, sponsored by Street and Smith. It was not long before people at newsstands were asking for "That Shadow magazine." It was in 1931, then, that Street and Smith published the first issue of The Shadow. Writing under the house name "Maxwell Grant," Walter Gibson handled the scripting chores. The Shadow was Street and Smith's first pulp magazine dedicated to a single character since the company had turned Nick Carter Weekly into Detective Story in 1915. The Shadow turned into a run away success, creating a boom in hero pulps that lasted nearly for the rest of the Thirties. It was during this period that such classic characters as Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8 and his Battle Aces, and The Avenger all made their first appearances. Many of these characters would have runs lasting into the mid-Forties. The Shadow and Doc Savage lasted until 1949.

Of course, no discussion of pulp magazines is complete without mentioning Weird Tales. The magazine had debuted before what I consider the Golden Age of pulp magazines, but it was very much in its heyday during that period. Making its debut in 1923, it would publish some of the greatest fantasists of all time. H. P. Lovecraft was first published in Weird Tales in 1925 and his work would continue to appear there until his death in 1937. Robert E. Howard's first published work was in Weird Tales in 1925 as well. He would also continue writing for the magazine until his death. In fact, his characters King Kull (a prototype of Conan the Barbarian), Solomon Kane, and Conan himself all first appeared in Weird Tales. Howard would also write for the magazine until his death. Besides Lovecraft and Howard, Weird Tales also published the works of such writers as Robert Bloch (who made his first sale to them), Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, and Manly Wade Wellman.

Comic books could be considered the children of both comic strips and pulp magazines. Comic books originated as magazines reprinting newspaper comic strips, but once they started publishing original work, they largely looked to the pulp magazines for inspiration. Indeed, the influence of pulp magazines on comic books can be seen in both of the medium's most lasting characters: Superman (who drew heavily upon Doc Savage) and Batman (who drew heavily upon The Shadow). Invented in 1933, comic books were a relatively recent phenomenon in the Thirties, but their Golden Age is considered to have begun in 1938 with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics. Superman was a veritable phenomenon, creating both a boom in comic book superheroes and a boom in comic books themselves. In Superman's wake would debut such legnedary characters as Batman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, The Spirit, and Plastic Man. And while she debuted prior to Superman, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, undoubtedly benefited from the Man of Steel's success.

Superman would be the first comic book character to make it to radio, his show debuting in 1940. Radio would look to other comic book characters with varying degrees of success. From the pages of All-American Comics, aviator Hop Harrigan had a show that lasted from 1942 to 1948. The Blue Beetle would not see nearly as much success. His radio show, airing in 1940. only lasted briefly.

That having been said, radio had little use for comic book heroes, as it had heroes of its own. In 1933 radio debuted what may have been its most famous hero, The Lone Ranger. The creation of Fran Striker, The Lone Ranger proved to be an enormous success, finding his way into pulp magazines, comic books, and movies. The Lone Ranger ultimately lasted until 1954. Indeed, the show was successful enough to warrant a spinoff of a sorts. First appearing in 1936, not only was The Green Hornet more or less a modern version of the Masked Man, but he was also The Lone Ranger's nephew! Like his uncle, The Green Hornet would see a large amount of success. The Green Hornet found his way into comic books, Big Little Books, a movie serial, and television. The radio show itself lasted until 1952. As mentioned above, The Shadow originated as the narrator on Detective Story. He received his own radio in 1937. Among the men who lent their voice to their character was an actor named Orson Welles. The Shadow radio series lasted until 1954.

Not every radio show was about superheroes, however, as there were many sitcoms and variety shows on the air. Some of the biggest names in comedy made their mark on radio in this era: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Ed Wynn. Sitcoms were as popular on radio as they remain on television. Among the most popular were Fibber McGee and Molly (perhaps best known for Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet), The Aldrich Family (perhaps the most popular sitcom focusing on a teenager), Lum and Abner (the ancestor of such rural television sitcoms as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres), and Ethel and Albert (a sitcom about a married couple).

Besides radio, perhaps the most popular medium of the Thirties may well have been the cinema. The Golden Age of Hollywood is a rather vague concept, considered by some to last form te Silent Era right into the Fifties. Regardless of when one believes it to have ended, I think it is safe to say that in the Thirties the American motion picture industry was amidst its Golden Age. In fact, it would be impossible to list every single classic film which debuted in the Thirties. It was the era of screwball comedies (It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby), classic Westerns (Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach), adventure movies (The Count of Monte Cristo, Gunga Din), and classic horror movies (Frankenstein. King Kong). In fact, 1939 could well have been the best year for movies of all time. Among the films released that year number many considered classics: Beau Geste, Destry Rides Again, Gone With the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, Of Mice and Men, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Other years saw other classics: 42nd Street, The Adentures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Front Page, The Grapes of Wrath, Top Hat, and many more. Some of the biggest stars of all time begin their careers at this time: Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne (in B Westerns), and Loretta Young.

Of course, in the Thirties one would see more than feature films at the movies. Theatres showed programmes filled out by newsreels, cartoons, and serials as well. If there ever was a Golden Age, the Golden Age of the movie serial was probably the Thirties. Serials were still a regular part of matinees, and there was no shortage of them. There were many Western serials, featuring such names as Gene Autry, John Mack Brown, Smiley Burnette, Crash Corrigan, and even John Wayne. And while science fiction feature films were a rarity in the Thirties, the genre was relatively common in the Thirties. In fact, Flash Gordon made it to the big screen in no less than three serials during the period: Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). All three featured Buster Crabbe as Gordon, who would also play Buck Rogers in the serial based on the comic strip (1939). Indeed, the studios were not below combining genres (what I call genre melange. Most people think of Gene Autry as a Western star, but in 1935 he starred in The Phantom Empire, an odd cross between science fiction and Westerns in which cowboys must face an advanced, underground civilisation. Sadly, serials would decline in the Forties until they ceased entirely in the Fifties.

Not only were feature films and serials doing well during this period, but so were animated shorts. It was during this period that some of the most famous cartoon characters of all time first appeared. Mickey Mouse debuted in 1928, Betty Boop in 1930, Porky Pig in 1935, Daffy Duck in 1937, Bugs Bunny in 1940, and Woody Woodpecker that same year. Disney would do some of its best work ever in its Silly Symphonies series. The first full colour cartoon, Disney's "Flowers and Trees" were made during this period. In fact, it was during this perod that animated feature films emerged, with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels in 1939, Fleischer's Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1939, Disney's Pinnochio in 1940, and Disney's Fantasia that same year. It was the first blooming of the Looney Tunes and the era of Fleischer's classic Superman cartoons.

Of course, not every medium enjoyed a Golden Age in this period. The United States had the technology for television in the Thirties, but the Great Depression and World War II prevented its implementation until after the War. Of course, other media would develop much later, but so far the Internet has not produced any great characters that have made a large impact on pop culture.

Too, it must be kept in mind that while many media had Golden Ages during this era, it does not mean that great works did not emerge in other eras. As I pointed out earlier, the Fifties were a great time for newspaper comic strips, with several classic strips debuting in that decade. Great movies were also made in the Fifties and Sixties. And as much as I love Golden Age comic books, I think Neil Gaiman's Sandman is greater than any of them, save perhaps Will Eisner's Spirit at its best.

At any rate, it amazes me that so many of the classic characters of American pop culture emerged in a period of only about sixteen years. Blondie, Flash Gordon, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Conan the Barbarian, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Betty Boop, and Bugs Bunny all made their debuts during this period. And that is only a short listing of the characters who first appeared during this time frame. Of course, the question is why so many great characters came about at this time period? Why did almost every medium existing in America at the time go through a Golden Age during this period?

It is a difficult question to answer, but I think it might have something to do with adversity. The Great Depression thrust the United States into one of its darkest periods. Unemployment was at all time highs. Incomes were lower than they had been in years. World War II came immediately upon the heels of the Great Depression. It was the largest conflict ever known to Man. Many people served in the war. Many people died. Along with such adversity came the need for people to escape. Perhaps, then, on a subconscious level, the creators in the various media were spurred to do their very best, to create characters and situations that would be remembered for decades. Quite simply, America needed heroes and the mass media at the time gave them to America. Interestingly enough, other times of adversity or change may have had a similar effect. It is notable that it was in the Sixties, with social unrest and the Vietnam War under way, that the Silver Age of comic books took place, the Golden Age of series television, and a revolution in music brought on by British bands.

Regardless of the reasons, the period from 1929 to 1945 seemed to produce much of what is truly great in pop culture. It was a milieu that produced so many of the characters that are still popular today. I doubt we'll see another like it.

Friday, August 31, 2007

John Gardner R.I.P.

John Gardner, who wrote the Boysie Oakes series and continued the James Bond series from 1981 to 1996, passed on August 3 from a heart attack. He was 80 years old.

Gardner was born Nov. 20, 1926 in Seaton Delaval, Northumberland. His father, Cyril Gardner, was an Anglican priest. During World War II he served in the Royal Marines. Following the war, he graduated from St. John's College at Cambridge and did postgraduate work at Oxford. He became an Anglican priest in 1953, but left the priesthood after only five years. He then got a job as drama critic for The Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald. His first book Spin the Bottle, detailing his experience with alcoholism, was published in 1963.

It would be his second book, however, that would set Gardner on the path to fame. Published in 1964, The Liquidator featured a spy like no other before. Boysie Oakes appeared to be the stereotypical, heroic man of adventure, something which to his employment by an intelligence agency. Unfortunately, Oakes is actually an unrepentant, inept coward who would rather spend his time at home. Gardner would write seven more Boysie Oakes novels.

It was in 1981 that Gardner was called upon by Ian Fleming's executors to write a new series of James Bond novels. Gardner had mixed feelings in writing new Bond novels, viewing 007 as Ian Fleming's character. In the end, he would ultimately write 16 Bond novels.

Gardner wrote several other novels, including several other series. He wrote two novels featuring Sherlock Holmes' archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty (he would have written more, but a fight with his publisher ended the series). He wrote five novels featuring Herbie Kruger, a large American in the service of British intelligence. Most recently he wrote five novels featuring Detective Sergeant Suzie Mountford, a London policewoman during World War II.

I must confess that I have not read a lot of John Gardner's books, but I have liked what I have read. Of the men who have written James Bond since Ian Fleming, I still believe he was the best. In writing the novels, Garnder used a style very similar to that of Fleming. With regards to his plots, he perhaps had more skill than Fleming. His Bond novels often feature double and even triple crosses, and often original twists involving the standbys of the Bond novels (power hungry madmen, assassins, and so on). I also enjoyed his Professor Moriarty books, which were an interesting take of the character (truly showing him to be the Napoleon of Crime). His books about Detective Sergeant Mountford are entertaining as well, capturing war torn London perfectly.

In fact, that is what I liked about John Gardner the most. He was an author who was able to play with genres. In his Boysie Oakes he almost parodied the spy genre, with a protagonist who was so cowardly he actually hired others to perform the assassinations assigned to him. In the Professor Moriarty and Detective Sergeant Mountford books he proved a master at atmosphere, capturing the spirit of both the late Victorian Era and World War II England. With his James Bond novels, he evoked Ian Fleming's novels while adding his own twists to the mythos. Gardner was definitely a master of the thriller genre. There weren't too many writers who could match him.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Three Cheers for the Time Archive

I rather suspect that when most people go to the website of Time Magazine, it is to read the latest news and articles from the magazine. But Time has a resource that I have found myself using more and more. Quite simply, they have an archive of every story ever published in Time since 1923.

For someone like me, this can be quite a boon to research. In fact, a lot of the pieces I have written in the past year have used information I have found in old Time articles. Yesterday's article on Harry Donenfeld and his shady past is only the latest article on whichI consulted the Time archive. One would be surprised what he or she can find in the archive. For instance, I was able to find out precisely when Street and Smith shut down their pulp magazine line through simply searching for "Doc Savage" in the archive.

Of course, the archive has its disadvantages. Time has always been one of the more respected magazines, so that it didn't always cover a lot of pop culture in its early years. Indeed, even though his magazine had been published since 1933, Doc Savage is not mentioned in Time until 1949 when that magazine was cancelled. A bigger problem with the archive is that it doesn't differentiate between lower case and upper case. A search for the comic book character "Batman" will yield results for "batman," as in someone assigned in the British military to an officer. And you can probably figure out what happens if you search for the pulp magazine character "The Shadow..."

At any rate, the Time archive is very useful. And it is even fun just to browse. I have actually found out some little tidbits of history I didn't know previously through simply doing random searches in it. It is definitely the best thing about the Time website.

By the way, the rating for this blog has changed drastically. I guess this is what happens when one writes about Harry Donenfeld and, um, the material he published before becoming part of DC Comics....

Mingle2 - Pittsburgh Singles

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Superman's Pal, the Smut Monger

The average person probably never makes a connection between Superman comic books and girlie magazines. For most people the two seem to exist in wholly different worlds, worlds which cannot possibly intersect. Comic book historians know better. Among the important figures in the history of DC Comics is one Harry Donenfeld. He did not found the company, but he and his partner Jack Liebowitz would essentially create the company we know today. As a printer, Harry Donenfeld would enter the world of publishing through girlie magazines and what would later be called "spicy pulps"--pulp magazines with a strong hint of sex. Today the material Donenfeld published would be considered tame, but in his day Donenfeld was considered, to put it politely, a smut monger or, to put it bluntly, a pornographer.

Donenfeld would enter the field of publishing through magazine publisher Frank Armer. It was in 1922 that Frank Armer and his partner Paul Sampliner launched the magazine Screenland. Screenland was a magazine devoted to movies and the movie industry, not unlike Photoplay eleven years before it. Screenland would prove to be a success, being published for literally decades. It may have been Armer's most lasting success. Screenland was printed by Harry Donenfeld through his Donny Press.

Harry Donenfeld was one of those colourful characters so plentiful in New York of the Twenties. A true citizen of the Jazz Age, he enjoyed drinking and women. And Donenfeld was not below engaging in some shady business. An acquaintance of gangster Frank Costello, he reportedly smuggled bootleg liquor for the mob and contraceptives (then illegal to send through the mail) for birth control activist Margaret Sanger. He entered the printing business through his brothers Charlie, Mike, and Irving and their Martin Press. By 1923 Donenfeld bought out his brothers and renamed the company "Donny Press."

With the success of Screenland, Frank Armer started publishing another magazine, this one entitled Artists and Models On the surface Artists and Models was an art magazine. As an example, an early, 1925 issue featured an article on choreographer Ned Wayburn, a short story by Mella Russell McCallum, many photos of celebrities and Ziegfield girls (among them soon to be film star Louise Brooks), many illustrations of fine art, and a piece on people on the stage and on the screen by Frank Armer himself. In most respects, however, Artists and Models was essentially a Jazz Age equivalent of Playboy. For all its pretence, it was what is known as an "art nudie."

In 1925, the same year that Armer launched Artists and Models, Paul Sampliner would leave to found Eastern News, a magazine distribution company, with Charles Dreyfus. Of course, with the success of Artists and Models, Armer wanted to expand with similar magazines, such as Modern Art and later French Art Classics. Without Paul Sampliner, Frank Armer looked to Harry Donenfeld for extra capital. It was initially as Armer's silent partner that Harry Donenfeld first entered publishing.

Thirteen years before Harry Donenfeld put capital into Armer's magazines, in 1912, William Clayton would make an innovation to the industry with a brand new magazine. Snappy Stories was a somewhat risqué publication for the time. It published stories touching upon the subject of sex and illustrations of scantily clad women. It was the first of a new breed of pulp magazine--the "hot pulp" or "spicy pulp." Unlike most pulp magazines, Snappy Stories and those that followed it were not sold openly at newsstands. Instead they were sold under the counter at newsstands, cigar shops, and other places men might be inclined to gather.

The success of Snappy Stories naturally led to imitators, with such titles as Saucy Stories and Bedtime Stories. Among those who imitated Snappy Stories was Frank Armer. In 1925, the same year that he expanded his art nudie line, Frank Armer launched Pep!, which featured racy stories and, for the time, risqué illustrations. Pep! would do something only a few other pulps would dare do--it featured a woman with unclothed breasts on one cover. Pep! was a success. It was not long before Armer added other spicy pulps to his line: Spicy Stories, La Paree, Ginger Stories, and so on.

With the success of Armer's line of hot pulps, it seemed that Harry Donenfeld was no longer content to remain a silent partner. In 1929 Harry and his brother Irving formed Irwin Publishing to publish their own spicy pulps, magazines like Juicy Stories and Hot Tales.

That year was historic for another reason, as it was in 1929 that Harry Donenfeld hired Jack Liebowitz as his business manager. Jack Liebowitz was the son of Julius Liebowitz, an organiser for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Julius had turned to the Donenfeld brothers and Martin Press to print leaflets for the union. In turn, Julius became an unlikely friend of Harry Donenfeld. Jack was an accountant by trade. He had studied accounting at New York University and kept the books for the ILGWU the whole time. With the stock market crash of 1929, Jack Liebowitz found himself out of work. His father, Julius, then looked to Harry Donenfeld to see if he could find work for his son. Needing a business manager, Donenfeld hired Jack. Like his father, Jack was serious minded with a strong sense of responsibility. Like many involved with the unions at the time, he had been a Socialist, but drifted away from it in the Twenties. He was not particularly comfortable with being the business manager to a smut monger. But Liebowitz had a family to feed. Ultimately, he would remain in the publishing business for nearly the rest of his life. Of course, in the end it was the business of publishing comic books, with which Jack was much more comfortable than the spicy pulps.

While Harry Donenfeld's pulps were doing well, Irwin Publishing found itself in dire economic straits in 1931. Due to circumstances somewhat beyond Donenfeld's control, the company could not pay its creditors. Fortunately, Donenfeld had a plan. With creditors at his door, Donenfeld declared Irwin Publishing bankrupt. He then sold Irwin Publishing's magazines (Juicy Stories, Joy Stories, and so on) to another company he owned, Merwil Publishing Inc.

It would be 1932 that would be another historic year for Harry Donenfeld. Frank Armer owed Donny Press money for printing. To clear these debts, Armer let Donenfeld have La Paree, Pep!, and Spicy Stories. Later that year Donenfeld was instrumental in creating the Independent News Company. Paul Sampliner's Eastern News having gone bankrupt that October, Donenfeld then talked Sampliner into founding Independent News with himself, his brother Irving, and Jack Liebowitz. The Independent News Company would become one of the most powerful distributors in the United States, eventually becoming Warner Publisher Services after the creation of Warner Communications in 1972.

At the same time, however, Harry Donenfeld was in danger of not being able to publish any magazines at all. The New York Citizens Committee on Civic Decency launched an attack on the hot pulps. They made such a clamour that the District Attorney eventually arrested four newsstand operators for selling pornographic materials (even though they would be tame by today's standards). The charges against the newsdealers were dropped, but only with the condition that the publishers had to come before the Citizens Committee on Civic Decency, and agree to shut down what they considered the dirtiest magazines and tone down the others. Harry Donenfeld met with the Committee that July, where he more or less lied to their faces. He agreed to cancel La Paree and tone down his other magazines, but La Paree ran a few more years and Donenfeld's line of spicy pulps remained as titillating as ever.

Things seemed to be going well for Harry Donenfeld and his little magazine empire. As noted in the Jul. 31, 1933 of Time, Merwil Publishing acquired the then 88 year old Police Gazette. Time noted that "Merwil Publishing Co. issues five of the smuttiest magazines on the newsstands—Snappy, Spicy, Gay Parisienne, La Paree, Pep..." Harry Donenfeld also launched a somewhat more legitimate pulp magazine that year, Super-Detective.

It was also late that same year that Harry Donenfeld conceived of his most successful magazine outside of the comic book business. Nineteen fifteen saw the debut of Detective Story, published by Street and Smith. Its success paved the way for other detective and mystery pulps, the most successful besides Detective Story itself perhaps being Black Mask (which would feature the work of Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler). The sexy pulps had been popular ever since the debut of Snappy Stories in 1912.

Donenfeld decided to combine the hot pulp and detective pulp genres into one magazine, Spicy Detective. Naturally, he created yet another company to publish it, called Culture Publications. It debuted with a cover date of February 1934 and proved to be a smash hit. Spicy Detective would even create its own hero. Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective first appeared in its June 1934 issue. He would continue to appear in it for the rest of its run. So successful was Turner that he eventually received his own magazine in November 1942. He was also adapted to the big screen in a 1947 movie called Blackmail, with William Marshall as Turner. He was also adapted much later for the small screen, in a 1990 TV movie called The Raven Red Kiss-Off or Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective (Mark Singer of BeastMaster fame played him there).

Spicy Detective was so successful that Donenfeld applied the "spicy" twist to other genres. Spicy Adventure combined traditional adventure stories with a dose of sex. It debuted with a cover date of July 1934. Spicy Mystery was Donenfeld's take on Weird Tales. It debuted about the same time. Spicy Western debuted later, with a cover date of November 1936. The "Spicy" line proved very popular, popular enough that the word "spicy" is often used to describe their particular genre--the "spicy pulps."

Unfortunately, just as Donenfeld was seeing his biggest success, the sex pulps came under scrutiny again. In 1933 Fiorello LaGuardia was elected mayor of New York City. Among his goals was to clean up the city. He fought corruption at city hall. He cracked down on gambling. He closed the burlesque houses. And among the first things he turned his attention to were magazines. As reported in the March 12, 1934 issue of Time, LaGuardia's commissioner of licences announced that anyone caught selling "dirty magazines" would be shut down. Worse yet, every single police officer in New York was ordered to insure that 59 magazines banned from New York were not displayed or sold at newsstands. The Civil Liberties Union immediately got involved. As for Harry Donenfeld, his companies Merwil Publishing and Culture Publications, along with rival Nuregal Publishing, filed an injunction against the commissioner's order on the grounds that he was endangering a thriving business.

Sadly for Harry Donenfeld, things would go from bad to worse in March 1934. Having pushed the envelope with his girlie magazines for the past several years, he finally pushed it too far. He published a picture of a fully frontally nude woman without airbrushing the pubic hair on a cover of Pep! Only a little pubic hair actually showed, but it was enough for the District Attorney to charge him with obscenity. Donenfeld found a fall guy in the form of editor Herbie Siegel. Donenfeld told Siegel that if he claimed to have edited that issue of Pep! and published the picture without Donenfeld's knowledge, then Donenfeld would make sure he had a job for life. Siegel did so and spent his jail time. And Donenfeld was good for his word. Siegel worked for Independent News and DC Comics for decades. As a precaution against further prosecutions Donenfeld founded another company, DM Publications, with a mailing address of Wilmington, Delaware. He then "sold" every property Merwil owned to DM Publications and closed Merwil down. Being located in Delaware, DM Publications would be exempt from New York laws on obscenity.

More bad news would come in May. The New York courts upheld the order from the commissioner of licences. This meant that many of Donenfeld's magazines would not get exposure at New York newsstands. Many of Donenfeld's rival publishers simply went out of business. Among them was Nuregal Publishing. They sold their titles Bedtime Stories and Tattle Tales to Donenfeld. Donenfeld also introduced Spicy Adventure and Spicy Mystery that year.

Another good thing, amongst all the bad things, happened for Harry Donenfeld in 1934, even though it did not affect him immediately. A former officer of the U. S. Cavalry and a successful pulp writer, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications with the intention of publishing a brand new medium, comic books. He published New Fun #1 with a cover date of February 1935 that year (New Fun would later become More Fun, one of DC Comics' longer running titles). New Fun was historic in being the first comic book that was not simply a collection of newspaper comic strip reprints. It contained all original material. Initially, New Fun was distributed by McCall's magazine, but when sales did not live up to McCall's expectations they cancelled their distribution agreement in the middle of 1935. To make matters worse, Major Wheeler-Nicholson and his company were running short of funds. It was realistic to expect that New Fun would have ended before it had really begun had the Major not found the Independent News Company in late 1935.

The Independent News Company agreed to give Major Wheeler-Nicholson an advance on sales and distribute New Fun with a few conditions. First, while New Fun had been printed in black and white, he would have to add colour. Second, New Fun would have to be changed from its tabloid size (10 inch by 15 inch) to the standard pulp magazine size (7 inches to 10 inches). Third, he would have to use Donny Press as his printer (Harry Donenfeld probably did not want a magazine he funded and distributed to be printed by anyone else). Finally, he would have to launch a new comic book. With this agreement in place, publishing of New Fun resumed, retitled More Fun with its January/February 1936 issue. The new comic book, New Comics (which would later become Adventure Comics, one of the longest running comic books in the history of the medium) would debut with a cover date of December 1935.

Nineteen thirty seven would be an eventful year for Harry Donenfeld, both with regards to the pulp magazine industry and the comic book industry. With regards to pulp magazines, there was renewed outcry over their content. That year Roman Catholic Archbishop John Francis Noll formed the National Organisation for Decent Literature. The National Organisation for Decent Literature was to magazines and books what the Legion of Decency was to movies. Quite simply, they listed periodicals and books that they found offensive; good Catholics were not expected to read those objectionable magazines and books. Naturally, the NODL was not too pleased with the sex pulps.

It is perhaps for that reason that Harry Donenfeld began publishing more mainstream pulp magazines, some of them licensed properties. Nineteen thirty seven saw the debut of Don Winslow of the Navy (based on the popular newspaper strip of the same name), The Lone Ranger (based on the popular radio show hero), and Private Detective. They were published under the imprint of Trojan Publishing, even though for all extents and purposes it was the same as Culture Publications (publisher of the "Spicy" line), sharing the same address and editorial staff.

That same year would see the debut of Major Wheeler-Nicholson's final magazine. Detective Comics made its first appearance in March 1937, although cover dated December 1936. Detective Comics was one of the earliest comic magazines to specialise in a single genre. It would also become one of the most successful, particularly after the introduction of a costumed crimefighter called The Batman into its pages in issue 27, May 1939. It has become the longest running magazine in the history of comic books and is still being published.

Unfortunately, even with the introduction of another comic book, Major Wheeler-Nicholson was not doing well. The Major was unable to pay Donny Press the money he owed them. Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz then bought out Major Wheeler-Nicholson and organised a new company, Detective Comics Inc. As a partner in both National Allied Publications and the newly formed Detective Comics Inc., Jack Liebowitz took a more active role in publishing comic books than he ever had Donenfeld's girlie magazines (being content then to only balance the books and manage the business). He encouraged editor Vin Sullivan to move forward with his plans for a new title, Action Comics. Ultimately, Action Comics would prove to be the key to the comic book company's lasting success. Published with a cover date of June 1938, Action Comics introduced the character of Superman. That first issue of Action Comics had phenomenal sales and Superman proved to be a media sensation. Within two years he would have his own magazine, a radio show, and a series of theatrical cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios. As to the Major, he was officially out of the comic book business in 1937. He returned to writing stories for the pulp magazines. As to Jack Liebowitz, he was pleased that they were finally publishing materials that were less likely to get them in trouble.

Beyond the introduction of Superman, 1938 proved to be eventful for Harry Donenfeld in another way too. With renewed public outcry over "dirty magazines," Mayor LaGuardia managed to have a new standard for decency in newsstand magazines imposed. This new standard would not only affect the girlie magazines and the racier pulp magazines, but even mainstream publications such as Weird Tales. The typical Weird Tales cover, often depicting a scantily clad damsel in distress, was now a thing of the past. For Harry Donenfeld the writing was on the wall. He cancelled his girlie magazines, such as La Paree and Pep!. As to his other magazines, he cleaned up the entire "Spicy" line and the Police Gazette.

It could be because of the new standard for decency that Culture Publications saw a "change" in ownership. Harry Donenfeld no longer appeared as an owner of the company, but curiously his wife, Gussie Donenfeld, did. One had to suspect that was simply a move to further distance National and Detective Comics from Harry Donenfeld's pulp magazines, thus protecting them should the pulp magazine lines ever come under attack again. In fact, it seems possible that it was something Donenfeld might have done at Jack Liebowitz's insistence. Not particularly comfortable with publishing racy magazines, Liebowitz was anxious to protect the comic book line.

Indeed, proof of this can be seen in events which unfolded in 1940. Perhaps with the various attacks made on the pulp magazines in the past several years in mind, Jack Liebowitz and editor Whitney Ellsworth drew up a code of what would be acceptable in the pages of comic books published by National and Detective Comics. Prior to the creation of this code, the superheroes at what would become DC Comics did sometimes kill in the course of their adventures. This was particularly true of Batman. In a story published in Detective Comics #34, December 1939, and written by legendary writer Gardner Fox, Batman battled a group of vampires, whom he shot with silver bullets. In Batman #1, spring 1940, in one of his classic battles with villain Hugo Strange, the Caped Crusader killed one of Strange's monstrous creations. After the new code had been instituted, none of National or Detective Comics' superheroes would willingly kill again. The new code would keep National and Detective Comics' magazines among the most acceptable to parents and would keep them out of trouble for much of the Forties.

Indeed, 1940 saw what was the first of the very first attacks on the comic book industry. Author Sterling North wrote a scathing attack on comic books entitled "A National Disgrace," published in the May 8, 1940 issue of the the Chicago Daily News. North's article was reprinted in Parents Magazine and at least 40 different newspapers. As a result Jack Liebowitz formed an editorial advisory board which would include at one time or another, Josette Frank of the Child Study Association, Dr. Robert Thorndike (the psychometrician and psychologist), and Dr. William Moulton Marston (a psychologist who helped develop the polygraph and who would later create Wonder Woman). Along with their editorial code, the advisory board insured that their comic books would remain relatively wholesome.

While Harry Donenfeld's comic books remained free from attack, however, this was not the case for the "Spicy" line of comic books. Indeed, it would be the cover of the April, 1942 issue of Spicy Mystery that would precipitate another round of attacks on the pulps. The cover featured a woman, her clothes in tatters, dangling from a meat hook in a freezer, while being menaced by a hoodlum with a large and sharp looking knife. The cover caught the attention of Mayor LaGuardia, who immediately cracked down on the pulp magazines again. In response, Donenfeld "sold" Culture Publications' "Spicy" line to sister company Trojan Publications. With their January 1943 issues, the titles of the "Spicy" pulps were changed to something less titillating. -Spicy Detective became Speed Detective, Spicy Mystery became Speed Mystery, Spicy Adventure became Speed Adventure, and Spicy Western became Speed Western. With the change in titles, the covers and the contents of the magazines were also toned down considerably. A new distribution company, Leader News, was also set up to distribute the Trojan pulp magazines, to put further distance between National Periodical Publications (comic books) and Trojan Publications (pulp magazines).

The "Speed" titles would survive for a few more years, folding in 1946. Trojan Publishing continued to publish other pulp magazines until around 1950, when the company itself closed down. After 1946 the only trace of the "Spicy" line at Trojan was Dan Turner's magazine, retitled Hollywood Detective with its September 1943 issue. Hollywood Detective, featuring Dan Turner, lasted until 1950, when Trojan cancelled its pulp magazines.

With their pulp magazines folded, Trojan itself lasted a few more years publishing comic books. They published everything from war comic books (Attack!), humour comic books (The Farmer's Daughter), Westerns (Western Crime Busters), horror (Beware), and crime (Crime Smashers) under such imprints as Trojan, Ribage, Stanhall (co-owned by animator Hal Seeger, producer of Milton the Monster), and Youthful. The Trojan comic books lasted until 1954, after which they closed up shop. Ultimately, then, Donenfeld was involved in publishing comic books other than those from National Periodical Publications.

Many might be tempted to blame the decline of the "Speed" line from the heyday of the "Spicy" titles on the fact that they no longer featured the same amount of sex and violence, but I think it may have to do more with the fact that the pulp magazine industry as a whole was in decline. The rising costs of producing the magazines themselves played a role. Throughout the Forties, to keep costs down, many pulp magazines would change to a digest size (5 1/2 by 8 1/4 inches), following the lead of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1941. Not only were pulp magazines becoming more expensive to produce, but the industry also suffered from competition from comic books, paperbacks, and later television. Several pulp magazines went under in the mid to late Forties, among them some of the giants. The Spider, featuring one of the most popular heroes in the pulps, ended its run in 1943. Street and Smith, perhaps the biggest publisher of pulp magazines of them all, cancelled almost their entire line in April 1949, including such popular titles as Detective Story, Doc Savage, and The Shadow. Of their pulp magazines, only the science fiction magazine Astounding (later retitled Analog) survived. While they continued publishing their slick magazines, Street and Smith never again ventured into the world of pulp. It is rather certain that if Doc Savage and The Shadow, the two most famous pulp heroes of them all, could not fight off the decline of the pulp magazine, then neither could the "Speed" titles.

As to Harry Donenfeld, the man who built his empire on girlie magazines and spicy pulps but made his real money in comic books, as the Forties progressed he took less and less of a role in the running of National Periodical Publications (as the company was renamed after a merger with sister company All-American). In the late Fifties Jack Liebowitz decided to take National Periodical Publications public, selling stocks on the stock exchange. To do so meant that he had to make sure that all of the company's skeletons would have to be thrown out of the closet. Quite simply, Liebowitz wanted to make sure that the company could withstand government scrutiny. Since Harry Donenfeld once had connections to such mobsters as Frank Costello, Liebowitz decided that Donenfeld would have to leave National Periodical Publications' board of directors and that any money he had in the company should be placed in a family trust. Donenfeld protested, but ultimately he complied with Liebowitz's wishes.

Sadly, Harry Donenfeld's end would not be a particularly happy one. One night while drunk he blacked out and his head struck the edge of a television set. For a long time he was not able to speak and he remained bed ridden for the rest of his life. Three years after the accident, in February of 1965, Harry Donenfeld died.

As to Jack Liebowitz, he continued to be the head of National Periodical Publications until it was acquired by Kinney National Company in 1967. Even then he retained a place on Kinney Services' board of directors. In 1969 Kinney National Company acquired Warner Brothers/7 Arts. In 1972 Kinney National Company divested itself of its entertainment interests, creating a new conglomerate called Warner Communications. National Periodical Publications (which was renamed DC Comics not much later, the informal name fans had used of it since the Golden Age) became an important part of the company. Independent News Company became Warner Publishing Services, still the largest distribution company in the United States. Jack Liebowitz would sit on the board of Warner Communications as well and he would remain on the board following the merger of Warner Communications and Time Inc. that created Time Warner Inc. Jack Liebowitz eventually retired when in his nineties. He died on December 11, 2000 at the age of 100.

Ironically, for all that Jack Liebowitz disliked the publishing of girlie magazines, the company that he and Harry Donenfeld developed would eventually reenter the business. In 1953 Hugh Hefner founded a magazine known as Playboy. The magazine proved to be extremely successful; in fact, it was the most successful girlie magazine of the Fifties. Jack Liebowitz took notice of Playboy and realised it could be much bigger if it had a larger distribution. Liebowitz then bought the distribution for Playboy in 1956. Distributed by the Independent News Company, Playboy went onto become the most successful girlie magazine of all time. It is still distributed by Warner Publishing Services to this day.

Of course, Harry Donenfeld was not the only comic book publisher who published girlie magazines at one time or another. Martin Goodman had founded Columbia Publications in 1931, eventually publishing such pulp magazines as Marvel Science Stories and Ka-Zar. By 1939 he expanded into comic books, founding what would become Marvel Comics. Curiously, starting in 1950, Goodman began publishing what is known as "Men's Adventure" magazines, magazines that featured lurid adventure stories and pinups. Among the titles Goodman published were Stag and Swank, titles that would in the Sixties come to resemble Playboy more than anything else.

For most Baby Boomers and for Gen Xers who grew up with DC Comics, always bearing the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval, it must seem bizarre that one of the company's founders was so deeply involved with what were then considered "dirty magazines"--the "art nudies, the hot pulps, and the spicy pulps. Today these publications would be considered tame, but in their day they were considered among the most scandalous periodicals around. They were part of a culture in which those who published more mainstream pulp magazines sometimes rubbed elbows with those who published more alternative periodicals. E. Hoffmann Price was published in the more mainstream Argosy and Weird Tales, but he was also published in Spicy Mystery. Robert E. Howard's regular venue was Weird Tales, but he was also published in Spicy Adventure five times. And those girlie magazines, hot pulps, and spicy pulps not only provided Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz with the money to create the Independent News Company, but to buy out Major Wheeler-Nicholson and thus create what we now know as DC Comics. Odd as it might sound, if it wasn't for Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, we might not have Superman.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The First Movies I Remember Seeing

For most of my life I have been a movie buff. Movies played a large role in my childhood, much as television, comic books, and rock music did. Curiously, I would not go to the cinema until I was in junior high. For whatever reason my parents did not go to the movies. My mother had when she was younger. In fact, she had seen the 1931 Frankenstein in the theatre when she was all of 15. She hated it. I never let her live that down--she had seen a classic movie in the theatre upon its release and didn't appreciate it! I know my sister went to the movies, but she was a good deal older than my brother and I, so that she moved out while we were still very young.

Since my parents didn't go to the cinema and I had no one else to take me, I was exposed to my first movies on television. In those days the premium movie channels (like HBO did not exist yet). And Randolph County would not get cable until around 1971 or 1972. Even then, it would do me little good as we lived in the country. That having been said, in the late Sixties the three broadcast networks set out time in their schedules for movies. In fact, at that time there was a movie on at least one of the networks every night of the week. This was the era of NBC Saturday Night Movies and The CBS (Thursday or Friday, depending on which day it was) Night Movie. In addition, the local stations still showed movies at that time, usually late at night (by which time I would be in bed) and on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. As a child, television offered plenty of opportunity for me to watch movies.

In fact, my first memory of a movie dates back to when I was very young. I must have been about four years old when my parents took us to the neighbourhood Halloween party. After the party we came home and, as usual, turned on the TV. I think it was already set to the CBS Thursday Night Movie, but it could have been another night and another network. I do remember the movie that was on the screen very clearly--it was Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 Ray Harryhausen classic. I sat transfixed by the screen, particularly fascinated by Jason's fight with the skeletons at the end. It must be kept in mind that neither my mother nor my father cared much for fantasy and science fiction movies, although my father was a bit more tolerant towards them than my mother was. I can only assume they let my brother and I watch Jason and the Argonauts because we wanted to.

Of course, I have no idea why I remember Jason and the Argonauts from such a young age. I suspect I had probably watched movies before then and I would certainly watch them in the next few years. I can only assume that I was captured, as many were, by the magic of Ray Harryhausen's special effects. At any rate, I can say it was a harbinger of my tastes as both a child and an adult. I have always been a fan of the fantastic genres--fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

Indeed, it seems that the earliest movies I remember all seem to be fantastic in nature. I would be five before a movie would make such a lasting impression on me. That movie was The Wizard of Oz. In those days it was shown each and ever year. It was initially CBS which showed the classic movie, initially in 1956. They started showing it yearly in 1959. In 1967 NBC won the rights to air The Wizard of Oz for the next eight years. And it was on NBC that I remember watching it. It quickly became my favourite movie of my early years, so much so that Judy Garland is the first celebrity whose death I can recall. Thinking that she was still the same age as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I asked my mother how someone that young could die. She told me that the movie had been made long ago and she was a lot older now, conveniently leaving how the nasty details of the drug overdose.

While the first two movies I can clearly remember watching as a child are classic films of one form or another, the next movie I can recall watching is a cult film. The President's Analyst aired on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies when I was around six. For years afterward I could remember details of the movie, especially the climax. Of course, I know that many of the jokes in the movie went over my head, but, having already watched many episodes of Get Smart, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Avengers, I was already a fan of spy dramas and spy comedies. I couldn't catch the movie's satire, but I could appreciate it as a good spy story.

I also remember The Beatles movies A Hard Day's Night and Help! from when I was very young. I can't remember where I saw them, but I know it was around the same time that I watched The President's Analyst. I was predisposed to like both movies. As a young child I watched The Beatles cartoon loyally. And my sister was a big fan of The Beatles, so much so that I suspect the first song I ever heard was probably a Beatles movie. Of course, when I was a bit older I would experience the animated movie Yellow Submarine, based on the music of The Beatles. CBS showed it every year for many years, usually around July 4.

It wasn't long after I first saw The President's Analyst and The Beatles movies that I first saw The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. As child who already had a taste for fantasy movies, it captured my attention immediately. For years I could remember the sequences with Medusa (which scared me a bit) and Pan, not to mention the movie's climax. It was also the first Tony Randall movie I remember seeing, even if he was unrecognisable under all that makeup. I would later become a big fan of Tony Randall, seeing him in both The Odd Couple and those Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies. The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao was another movie that was shown on television for several years, I believe on NBC.

Another movie I remember well from my early childhood was It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. For those of you who don't remember it, it was director Stanley Kramer's 1963 epic comedy. It starred such heavyweights as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Jonathan Winters, and featured appearances by such big names as Jack Benny, Jim Backus, Stan Freburg, Don Knotts, and so on. In fact, I think Bob Hope may have been the only big name comedian who didn't appear in the movie! At over 3 hours in length, it was truly epic in scope. For years CBS showed It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World every single year, and after that ABC. I seem to recall both networks showed it around New Year's Eve.

By the time I first saw Planet of the Apes on the CBS Friday Night Movie I already watched movies on television regularly, but it stands out from the rest. Let's face it, a movie in which an astronaut must fight to survive in a society of apes is going to appeal to a nine year old boy. Indeed, I became a big fan of the movies. I watched all of the sequels. I watched the short lived CBS TV series spun off from the movies. And I read the Marvel comic book, too. CBS showed the movie fairly regularly in the Seventies, first in their various prime time movie slots and later on the CBS Late Night Movie.

I have often wondered what impact the movies I watched while I was still a very young child had on me. This is especially true of Jason and the Argonauts, which I saw before I even attended school. Alongside shows like Batman, Star Trek, The Monkees, The Wild Wild West, and so on, I have to wonder if it didn't predispose me to seek out fantastic TV shows, movies, and books when I was older. Quite simply, I wonder if Jason and the Argonauts didn't play a large role in shaping my tastes when I grew older. Somehow, I rather suspect they did.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Popular Fallacy

"Everything popular is wrong." Oscar Wilde

There is a school of thought that anything that is popular cannot possibly be good. Such individuals maintain that anything created for the masses must be inferior by its very nature. Quite simply, "popular" culture (movies, television, comic books, popular music, et. al.) must be of a lesser quality than "high" culture (the stage, ballet, painting, and so on).

Of course, what these critics often ignore is the fact that much of what is counted as high culture is also a part of popular culture. The Dukes of Hazzard, a prime example of low culture if there ever was one, is a part of popular culture, but then so is the art of Picasso, a prime example of high culture. In my mind, popular culture is simply those artistic works which are well known and appreciated by a large number of the population.

Although it is not as prevalent today, this line of thought is still relatively common. For all that it is now taught and studied at universities, television is still not thought of as a form of art by many. It took the cinema decades after its development before it was accepted that a film could be a work of art, and even then there are those who would maintain that the cinema does not qualify as art. Such cultural elitism is still very much a part of our society.

Indeed, as popular culture continued to grow in both quantity and influence in the 20th century, there were those intellectuals who felt the need to strike back. In a 1939 issue of the Partisan Review, in his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," art critic Clement Greenberg differentiated between the avant-garde and kitsch. For Greenberg the avant-garde (which for him included Picasso, Rimbaud, and Yeats) was revolutionary, while kitsch (which for him included commercial art, pulp fiction, comics, and Hollywood movies) was "vicarious experience and faked sensations." Writing later, in 1960, in his essay "Masscult and Midcult," also published in the Partisan Review, writer and philosopher Dwight MacDonald differentiated between masscult or "mass culture" (culture as relayed through mass media) and high culture. He maintained that masscult "...offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience..." He also claimed that masscult "...doesn't even have the theoretical possibility of being good." It must be pointed out that MacDonald was not completely opposed to popular culture; he thought of Charlie Chaplin and Rodgers and Hart's works as "high culture."

Not all intellectuals believed that popular culture was necessarily evil. In the Februrary 1949 issue of Harpers, art historian and social critic Russell Lynes took a definite stand against the culture elite or "snobs." Writing only four years later than MacDonald and in the very same publication (the Partisan Review), in 1964 Susan Sontag placed Greenberg's kitsch on a pedestal in her article "Notes on 'Camp.'" She attacked the cultural elite, maintaining that "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure..." Sontag's essay was a timely one. It was in the Sixties that pop culture gained a modicum of acceptance, in the art of Andy Warhol and the works of Jules Feiffer. In 1969 the Popular Culture Association, an organisation of academics dedicated to the serious study of pop culture such as comics, movies, and music, was founded. It is to be noted that since the Sixties, the serious study of television, comic books, popular magazines, and other pop culture artefacts has gained a foothold at major universities.

There can be no doubt that to some degree or another critics such as Greenberg and MacDonald are right. Much, perhaps most, of what is created for enjoyment by the masses is inferior in nature. I do not think that anyone is going to argue that the above cited Dukes of Hazzard is a work of art any time soon. That having been said, the idea that everything created for the masses cannot possibly be good (to paraphrase MacDonald) holds little merit, as I can think of examples of works that were created for the masses that are now regarded as classics.

While MacDonald argued in Masscult and Midcult" that mass culture was a phenomenon primarily of the past 200 years, I would maintain that it has probably existed in some form since the invention of the printing press. Indeed, if we need look for an early example of a mass culture artist, there is probably no better candidate than the works of William Shakespeare. Although now regarded as part of high culture, Shakespeare's works began as a part of pop culture and are still a part of it. While I have little doubt that Shakespeare set out to write the best possible plays he could, I rather suspect that the primary reason for writing them was as a form of mass entertainment. Indeed, William Shakespeare was not below giving in to popular tastes and even writing for specific tastes. It is to be noted that Shakespeare turned Richard III into a base villain, which had been the Tudors' stance since they took power. It is also to be noted that he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor at the request of Elizabeth I, who was a huge fan of the character of Falstaff. That Shakespeare was popular there can be no doubt. His plays were first printed during his lifetime (the First Folio dates to 1623). Despite his popularity and while he received a good amount of praise during his lifetime, Shakespeare was not revered as the monolithic playwright par excellence as he is now. And his reputation shrank in the 17th century when he was considered inferior to such playwrights as Ben Johnson and John Fletcher. It wasn't really until the 18th century that his repuatation began to recover. Shakespeare is a prime example of someone whose work was part of pop culture and remained part of pop culture while becoming a part of high culture. It would be ludicrous to think that Shakespeare's plays somehow increased in quality following his death. Instead it seems more likely that as time passed, critics and the masses both realised just how good the Bard really was.

A better example of works that have come to be regarded as classics even though they were created for mass consumption may be found in the arena of cinema. Just like the summer blockbusters of today, Universal's 1931 movie Frankenstein was created to appeal to the masses and to make money doing it. While there can be little doubt that director James Whale had artistic intentions for the film and set out to make the best film he possibly could under the circumstances (even on Frankenstein Whale had his share of studio interference), there can be little doubt that Universal meant for the film to be a money maker (a blockbuster in today's term) first and any artistic pretensions were definitely secondary, if not tertiary. Universal achieved their goal of making money on the film with a vengeance. Frankenstein was the Star Wars of its day. There were often queues of people stretching around city blocks to see the movie. In its first release it made $12,000,000. That might not sound like much now, but accounting for inflation it would be around $400,000,000 in today's dollars. Frankenstein was not hailed as a masterpiece upon its release in 1931, although it did receive some favourable reviews. It was not even nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1930-1931 (which went to Cimarron, a forgotten movie which has not aged well at all). And yet, over 75 years after it was made, James Whale's Frankestein is counted among the greatest movies of all time. It has even been included in the National Film Registry as a movie which is "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Another example is another horror movie from the Thirties. The original 1933 film King Kong was, like Frankenstein, a blockbuster in its day. It did an enormous amount of box office; in fact, it had the biggest opening of its time. While director Merian C. Cooper was a documentarian who had made such movies as Grass and Chang, his goal with King Kong was not to educate, but to entertain. While I have no doubt that Cooper set out to make the best possible movie he could with King Kong, I very seriously doubt that he thought it would be hailed as a cinematic masterpiece upon its release. And it was not. While overall King Kong received glowing reviews, no one declared it anything more than a good adventure movie or a good horror film. Yet, over the years, it has become considered one of the greatest movies of all time. In the American Film Institute's 2007 edition of their 100 Years… 100 Movies, it ranked at #41. Time Magazine included it in their "All-Time100 best movies" list. It became part of the National Film Registry in 1991. For a movie that was initially a blockbuster in its day and counted merely as a good adventure yarn, that is doing very well indeed.

As one last example of something popular which has gone on to be regarded as classic I turn my view to the world of music. When The Beatles first emerged in Liverpool and later when they set foot in America, they were regarded as a phenomenally popular band, but one that played pop music nonetheless. Intellectuals were not declaring their music the greatest of all time, nor where comparisons to Bach and Beethoven in the offing. Many thought that they would simply be a flash in the pan, popular for a brief time, only to be forgotten a year or two later. Even as their career continued and it became clear just how revolutionary their music was, The Beatles were regularly snubbed at the Grammy Awards; ultimately The Beatles won only a small clutch of Grammies, some of them for technical categories such as Best Album Cover/Package and Best Engineered (Non-Classical) Recording. Over the years, however, The Beatles' reputation has grown. In fact, today their music is studied at universities across the world. Even today, when many in the intellectual elite would be loath to credit rock music as art, The Beatles have gained some degree of acceptance among them.

Ultimately, it would seem that works created for the masses are capable of ascending their origins to become true works of art. Contrary to the claims of both Greenberg and MacDonald, it would seem that some works of mass culture are capable of evoking emotional responses from individuals and, even further, of providing an aesthetic experience for them. It is doubtful that the works of Shakespeare, Frankenstein, King Kong, and the music of The Beatles would be so highly regarded today if they were not genuine works of art. Quite simply, neither the means of production nor the medium in which a work is produced determines whether it is a work of art, but rather the quality with which it was made.

Indeed, I would say that what can make a difference between a work of art like the 1931 version of Frankenstein and mere Hollywood product like The Dukes of Hazard are two factors. The first is the intent with which a work was made. There can be little doubt that John Lennon and Paul McCartney did not write their songs simply to make money, nor does it seem they wrote them simply for the enjoyment of the masses. Rather, it seems to me that The Beatles had true artistic aspirations. Why else would they have experimented with recording and even demanded of producer Sir George Martin the creation of sounds that had never been heard before? Quite simply, it was not enough to create songs that were pleasing to the masses, The Beatles sought to create songs that would last for ages.

Even when the intent of an artist is not necessarily to create a masterpiece, their work can still ascend from the status of mere product to a work of art. With Night of the Living Dead, George Romero did not set out to make a film that would be regarded as a horror classic. Romero and his crew's goal was to simply make a commercial film that would at least earn back its budget and with any luck make a profit. While he wanted Night of the Living Dead to be a good movie, he had no aspirations of it being a work of art. In fact, he has said that at the time he was not an auteur, but merely a student or apprentice who stole what would work for him (from an interview in Hollywood Gothique). He even admits to taking inspiration from Richard Matheson's classic novel, I Am Legend. Indeed, upon its release the film received mixed reviews, some of them downright hostile (Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it a "...junk movie..," while Pauline Kael praised it). Yet today Night of the Living Dead is considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It became part of the National Film Registry in 1999, and was ranked at #93 in the American Film Institute's AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills list. In VH1's "50 Greatest Horror Movies" list from 2006 Night of the Living Dead came in at #2. What made Night of the Living Dead one of the greatest horror movies of all time was the work that Romero and his crew put into it. Even if Romero was only learning as a filmmaker and borrowing much of what he needed from other sources, he still sought to make the best movie that he possibly could. This is what sets Night of the Living Dead from mere exploitation movies made simply for a profit and even Hollywood blockbusters simply made for the same reason. Night of the Living Dead was made with loving care, and it shows.

Ultimately, there may always be those who turn their noses up at popular movies, books, music, and so on, even when they are of a higher quality than most. I suppose that there will always be those who insist that the stage is better than the cinema and that Picasso is better than Norman Rockwell. In the end, however, it is time that will determine victor. After all, the art film which critics praise today may be forgotten 75 years from now, while the latest Hollywood blockbuster may be remembered as a classic. It seems to me that ultimately it is not the source or even necessarily the intent with which a work is made, but the hard work, diligence, care, and talent it takes to make it. In the end, much of pop culture can be every bit as good as that of high culture.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The New Fall TV Season

As hard as it is to believe, it will soon be September. And among other things, September means the start of a new TV season. At least to me this coming fall TV season seems better than most, although it does seem to me that the networks are still debuting a lot of shows that I simply am not interested in. Starting with the youngest network (the CW) and going to the oldest, then, this is my opinion of some of each network's offerings.

The CW: It seems to me that the CW has been determined to prove to all of us that the merger of UPN and the WB was a grave mistake. Never mind that they have cancelled their two best shows (Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars), but they haven't debuted too much of interest since the merger took place. This season is no different. In fact, I think that the fledgeling network is still a bit too dependent on reality shows, competition shows, and similar TV series. As proof, just look at the reality/competition shows they'll be airing this season, both old, returning shows and brand new ones: America's Next Top Model. Beauty and the Geek (which should be titled Beauty and the Nerd--see my post on the topic), Crowned, and Online Nation. For those of you who don't know, Crowned and Online Nation are the two newcomers. Crowned is a mother/daughter beauty competition (think Miss America--the Series). As such, it hold little interest to me. I rather suspect that it will be the same for other viewers. After all, we have seen just a bit too many competition type shows the past several years. As to Online Nation, it features the latest videos from the World Wide Web each week. Honestly, I just can't see how a show can succeed showing what anyone can simply find on YouTube, IFilm, or any number of other web sites.

As to the CW's other new shows, there aren't too many that spark my interest. As a genre show Reaper stands out. The show centres on a young man who finds out upon turning 21 that his parents sold his soul to the Devil when he was still an infant. As a result he must serve as a bounty hunter tracking down souls who have escaped from Hell. I must admit the show sounds a bit derivative--Brimstone meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But it was created by two veterans of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. What is more, the pilot was directed by a fellow named Kevin Smith. Reaper could then be worth checking out. The only other CW show which interests me at all is Life is Wild. Life is Wild follows an American veterinarian and his family who move to a South African game preserve. It is based on the British show Wild at Heart, although both the British series and its new, American remake remind me of a show I loved as a kid called Daktari. Its creators have interesting resumes as well. Among them they've worked on the original British show, Wild at Heart and the movie Mansfield Park. It's difficult to call, but I'd at least say that Life is Wild has possibilities.

Fox: As usual, Fox is debuting a few new sitcoms which they will probably cancel within a month after the new fall season has started. As to shows that actually have a chance to last a bit longer, they seem largely derivative. Among these is Nashville, yet another reality series. Nashville follows a group of young people as they try to climb the ladder of both the country music industry and high society. Honestly, the show does not sound that interesting to me. The same can be said for another reality series, Kitchen Nightmares. The show follows chef Gordon Ramsay from Hell's Kitchen as he visits another problematic restaurant each week. Quite frankly, this sounds like something that should be on TLC, A&E, or another cable channel instead of a broadcast network. I honestly don't see it lasting.

As bad as Nashville and Kitchen Nightmares sound, they don't sound as bad as Don't Forget the Lyrics. It is a game show on which people must remember the lyrics to songs. Sound familiar? It should, as it's the same premise as NBC's summertime hit The Singing Bee. Knowing how long it takes to develop series, I know it is probably not a ripoff of The Singing Bee, but the premise is so similar that it is probably doomed to failure.

This isn't to say that Fox doesn't have some interesting shows. K-Ville is a police drama following officers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, created by NYPD Blue veteran Jonathan Lisco. There hasn't been a good police drama on television for some time beyond The Shield (police procedurals don't count), so K-Ville could be interesting. Another show that could turn out to be good is The Next Great American Band, from the producers of American Idol. This series is essentially American Idol, but focusing on bands instead of solo singers. Depending on the bands who are competing and how they execute it, this show does have possibilities. Sadly, the only other new show which interests me on Fox has been pushed back from a fall premiere to debuting at mid-season. New Amsterdam follows a New York homicide detective who also happens to be immortal (he started out as a soldier in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam). It was created by a veteran of both Six Feet Under and Lost, so the series has possibilities.

ABC: I really don't know which is worse--the fact that ABC's programmers granted Grey's Anatomy yet another season or the fact that they greenlighted a spinoff from the series, Private Practice. Given the quality of Grey's Anatomy, I have no real faith in its spinoff either. That having been said, Cashmere Mafia could be nearly as bad as Private Practice might be. The show follows female executives in New York City as they juggle their lives with their careers. If it sounds a bit like Sex in the City, keep in mind that show's creator Darren Star numbers among the executive producers of Cashmere Mafia. As to the creator of Cashmere Mafia, Kevin Wade's resume does not inspire a lot of confidence in me. While he was one of the writers on Meet Joe Black, a movie I've always liked, he has also worked on Mr. Baseball, Junior, and Maid in Manhattan, movies I don't like. Between Darren Star and Kevin Wade's credits, I suspect Cashmere Mafia may not have the highest quality for a TV show.

Fortunately, ABC's other newcomers show a bit more promise, although I must admit that I have mixed feelings about Women's Murder Club. It is based on a series of books by James Patterson (one of my favourite authors), following an assistant district attorney, a homicide detective, a medical examiner, and a newspaper reporter (all of them women) as they investigate crimes in San Francisco. The show's creators Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft have written for both The Shield and Angel. Ultimately, Women's Murder Club is a combination police procedural and legal drama, two genres with which network television have been glutted of late. No matter how good the scripts are, I am then afraid that Women's Murder Club might come off as more of the same thing we've seen on television for the last several years.

Big Shots follows the life of a CEO, which doesn't sound particularly interesting, but it was created by Jon Harmon Feldman, who also created Tru Calling (a show I always liked) and a veteran (as co-producer) of The Wonder Years. Big Shots then has some potential. I have rather more hope for Pushing Daisies. The show follows a man who can bring things back to life with but a touch (if he touches them again, they go back to being dead). Besides having an interesting premise, Pushing Daisies is the creation of Bryan Fuller, a veteran of Heroes, Wonderfalls, and the Star Trek franchise. What's more, critics who have seen the pilot having given it good marks. This could possibly be the best show of the new season.

Another contender for best new series could be Dirty Sexy Money. The show was created by playwright Craig Wright, who has also worked on Six Feet Under and Lost. Among the show's producers number X-Men director Bryan Singer, who is also a producer on House (the best show on network television besides Lost). Dirty Sexy Money has an interesting premise: a young, earnest lawyer is hired by one of New York's richest and, unfortunately, most corrupt families. As a dramedy, it definitely has possibilities.

ABC also has the only new sitcom which interests me this season. Cavemen is a spinoff of those Geico commercials featuring, well, cavemen. It follows the adventures of a group of Neanderthals who simply failed to evolve as they struggle with modern society. The premise sounds interesting--it is the sort of goofy concept that television would have come up with in the Sixties. Unfortunately, it is also a concept that could go either way. Cavemen could be uproariously hilarious. It could also be dismally bad. It is definitely a show that falls in the "wait and see" category.

CBS: There was a time when CBS deserved its reputation as the Tiffany Network. Sadly, this coming season is not one of them. In fact, this fall the network is debuting what could possibly be one of the most offensive shows of all time: Lord of the Flies--the Series, I mean, Kid Nation. The show has already received its fair share of bad press. CBS has been accused of bending child labour laws in New Mexico to make the series. Some children accidentally drank bleach. A mother has complained that her daughter was left untreated for burns from splattered grease. I'll admit that I have never cared for reality shows, but this one just reeks of irresponsibility. Indeed, I imagine William S. Paley is spinning in his grave.

Fortunately, Kid Nation seems to be only truly offensive show on CBS this season. The worst that can be said of the network's other new shows is that many of them are rather lacklustre. Viva Laughlin is a musical dramedy based on the BBC serial Blackpool. The men who adapted it for the American screen Bob Lowry and Peter Bowker boast no credits of note, and its only executive producer of note is actor Hugh Jackman. In the past musical dramas have not faired well on television (anyone remember Cop Rock?) and the credits of the show's producers do not inspire any real faith in me. I am guessing that Viva Laughlin could see an early cancellation.

Cane shows a bit more promise. It essentially follows the Hispanic equivalent of The Godfather, the head of a thriving sugar business in south Florida. Unfortunately, the credits of its producers don't really impress me, save for actors Jimmy Smits and Jonathan Prince (and even then, that is their credits as actors, not producers). Ultimately for me, Cane falls in the "wait and see" category. The same cannot be said for Big Bang Theory. The network's only new sitcom, it centres on two nerdy physicists whose world is shook up when a gorgeous new neighbour moves in. The concept does not sound particularly interesting to me. In fact, it sounds like the sort of thing NBC would have scheduled in between the good shows on Must See TV back in the Nineties. Its creators. Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, have mixed resumes. Between the two of them they have worked on some truly good shows: Roseanne, Dharma and Greg, Star Trek: Voyager, and Gilmore Girls. Sadly, they have also worked on some pretty mediocre shows: Grace Under Fire, Cybill, and Two and a Half Men. Worse yet, Lorre was one of the creators of Two and a Half Men. That alone doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in me with regards to The Big Bang Theory.

One show I was looking forward to on CBS, Moonlight, might not be as good as I had hoped it would be. Moonlight follows a private investigator who is also a vampire. Now this is the same ground covered by both Forever Knight and Angel, but Moonlight has a decent pedigree. One of its creators, Ron Koslow, worked on Beauty and the Beast (the Eighties cult series, not the Disney movie). That having been said, critics who have seen the pilot gave it scathing reviews. While the show looked promising on paper to me, it seems to me that it might actually be one of the worst shows of the news season over all. This is sad, as it means that this is the one time Tiffany Network has no shows of note for this coming new season.

NBC: The good news is that NBC has left its Thursday night comedy lineup of My Name is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office, and Scrubs intact. The bad news is that I suspect viewers might have very mixed feelings about their new shows. It seems to me that when they have people with a good resumes working on a show, that show has a less than interesting premise. And when a show has an interesting premise, the resumes of those involved are less than good.

Their Monday night lineup is a perfect example of this. It leads off with Chuck. Chuck is about a computer nerd who accidentally downloads sensitive government information into his brain. As a result he finds himself working with a sexy superspy based on the data now in his mind. There hasn't been a good spy series since Alias went off the air, and Chuck sounds like it could be fun. Unfortunately, Josh Schwartz is one of the creators of the show. For those of you who don't recognise the name, he also created The O.C., a show which never much impressed me. It is possible that Schwartz's talents were wasted on what yet another forgettable teen drama, so Chuck could have possibilities. Then again, give the quality of The O.C., it may also prove to be a complete waste of time.

Bionic Woman, also on Monday night, is the opposite of Chuck: it is a show with an uninteresting concept, but with a fairly decent pedigree. Bionic Woman is a reimagining of the Seventies series The Bionic Woman, a show I hated even as a kid. Indeed, I really can't see much of interest that can be done with the concept. That having been said, the man who is reimagining it is David Eick, who was also behind the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-Fi Channel. While the new Battlestar Galactica doesn't particularly impress me (it is a good show, but not a remarkable one), he is also a veteran of Spy Game (a very good series that aired only briefly on ABC back in 1997--it remains one of my favourite shows) and Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. It is possible, then, that Eick may be able to do more with the show's premise (which I find rather dull and old hat) than I think anyone possibly can. I am hoping Bionic Woman will surprise me.

Journeyman is a lot like Bionic Woman in having an uninteresting premise, but in also having someone with good credits working on it. Journeyman follows an individual who travels briefly (a few years at most) back in time to improve the lives of people. The concept sounds unoriginal and derivative to me--in fact, it seems in some ways reminiscent of Quantum Leap. That having been said, its creator, Kevin Falls, worked on both The West Wing and Sports Night, two shows which are nothing to sneeze at. Its supervising producer and line producer have worked on Alias and The West Wing respectively. While the concept doesn't seem particularly interesting, the people working on it have some fairly good resumes between them. It might turn out better than one would expect from its premise.

The new show to watch on NBC could be Life. Life follows a police officer who was framed for a murder he didn't commit after he is cleared of the crime. The series' executive producers include veterans of Heroes, House, The X-Files, and the Eighties revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among other shows. With a fairly solid production team and a fairly interesting premise, Life could prove to be the best new show on NBC.

Over all, I think this new fall TV season could be better than most. There are several series debuting which show promise and a minimum of reality shows and police procedurals of the sort that have filled network television schedules in the past several years. As of now, I am predicting that the best new shows on television will probably be Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, K-Ville, New Amsterdam, Life, and Reaper. As to the shows that will possibly be the worst, Kid Nation has to be one of the worst shows ever conceived in the history of the medium. As to the other shows that could possibly be the worst, I would count: Crowned, Online Nation, Kitchen Nightmares, Private Practice, and Cashmere Mafia. As to which network has the worst lineup this fall, that dubious honour goes to the CW. Sadly, the second oldest network, CBS, also seems to have the second worst lineup. That having been said and even though the network boasts what must be the worst single show of the season (Kid Nation), it isn't that their shows necessarily appear to be bad, but more that most of them seem as if they will be mediocre. At least NBC, ABC, and Fox all have shows that look like they will be good.

One positive sign in this coming season is that there are indeed several shows that have potential. I am truly hoping that, despite my mixed feelings, such seris as Bionic Woman, Chuck, Women's Murder Club, and Life will turn out to be quality shows. In fact, if every show that has possibilities actually turns out to be good, then this could be one of the best fall seasons ever. I suppose all we can do is wait and tune in.