Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Flying Aces of the Pulp Magazines

Almost from the moment the Wright Brothers made their famous flight, the English speaking world has had a love affair with flying aces. And after Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in 1927, that love affair grew more intense. In the wake of Lindburgh's flight there was no shortage of comic strips, books, and movies about pilots. Wings, Tailspin Tommy, Scorchy Smith, and Smilin' Jack all appeared not long after the Lone Eagle flew across the Atlantic. Men like Charles Bernard and Howard Hughes would become celebrities.

With the English speaking world absolutely crazy over flyboys, it was natural that the American pulp industry would jump on the bandwagon and debut magazines dedicated to aviators and flying. In fact, an entire genre dedicated to pilots and aviation arose, that of the air war pulp magazines. Many of the earliest air war pulps were anthology titles, not unlike Street and Smith's Detective Story or J.C. Henneberger's Weird Tales. Starting in the early Twenties, it was not long before pulp magazines with titles like Air Adventures, Airplane Stories, and Air War filled the racks of newsstands and drug stores. With the debut of The Shadow in March 1931 came the advent of the hero pulp. Naturally, it was not long before magazines dedicated to heroic aviators started appearing. There were such flying aces as The Three Mosquitoes, The Red Falcon (created and written by Robert J. Hogan before he created a character known as G-8...), and Sky Devil all appeared in the early Thirties. The best remembered and among the longest lasting aviator heroes, however, would appear in a two year period, from 1934 to 1935.

The first of these came from Street and Smith, publisher of both The Shadow and Doc Savage. Bill Barnes, Air Adventurer was created by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, pulp writer, former cavalry officer, and the man who would found what would become DC Comics, Henry W. Ralston, Street and Smith's general manager and among the men who came up with the initial concepts for The Shadow and Doc Savage, and editor F. Orlin Tremaine, best known as an editor on Astounding Science-Fiction. Using the house name "George L. Easton," Wheeler-Nicholson wrote the first six Bill Barnes adventures. Bill Barnes had been an Air Mail pilot and made a solo flight around the world. Building Barnes Field in Long Island, Barnes then started his own air service.

Despite being fairly well respected as a pulp writer, Major Wheeler-Nicholson was dismissed from Bil Barnes, Air Adventurer after six novels. The reason for the Major's dismissal quite simply had to do with the quality of the magazine at the time. Wheeler-Nicholson's Bill Barnes... was openly derivative of Doc Savage, albeit with stilted dialogue and ridiculously futuristic devices. Street and Smith brought in Charles Spain Verral to take over the magazine. Charles Spain Verral, who go onto become a successful children's author after the pulp era, totally revamped Bill Barnes, Air Adventurer. Ordered by Street and Smith to write as if the first six issues never happened, Verral did away with the futuristic technology, gave the characters more realistic dialogue, and turned Barnes' sidekick, Sandy" Sanders, into a realistic character. Verral provided Barnes with more realistic, yet still very advanced aircraft. He also introduced the first of Barnes' interesting villains, the Eurasian Otto Yahr.

Verral was a very good writer, but he also worked slowly, almost too slow for the pulps. Former British fighter pilot and aviation writer Arch Whitehouse was brought onto the magazine to fill in for Verral from time to time. Still later, former World War I balloon observer Harold "Monty" Montayne was brought onto the magazine. In the beginning Montayne and Verral rotated issues. The magazine would change in other ways as well. After twenty issues it was renamed Bill Barnes, Air Trails, borrowing its name from Street and Smith's defunct Air Trails magazine. With the new name it also grew to bedsheet size (roughly the size of Life magazine). The magazine would also change over time, as the Bill Barnes novels shrank in size and eventually the magazine simply became Air Trails in 1937. It was also that year that Charles Spain Verral quit the magazine over a dispute over the novel The Moon God, which contained elements of science fiction. Monty Montayne then took over the magazine.

Montayne tended to be more realistic than Verral and a good deal more bloodthirsty. He killed off Barnes' pilots Mort Henderson and Cy Hawkins (one of the best loved characters). He also created Barnes' archnemesis, Mordecai Murphy. Alongside The Shadow's Shiwan Khan and Doc Savage's John Sunlight, Mordecai Murphy was one of the great pulp villains. Called the Saver of Souls, he got criminals released from prison for his own nefarious purposes. Montayne also plotted to kill off Barnes' sidekick, Sandy Sanders, whom he had always hated. In fact, in the initial version of the novel The Great Impersonation, it was revealed that he had been murdered. Fortunately, the editors then stepped in and had Montayne revise the novel's ending so Sanders was found alive.

It was with March 1939 that Bill Barnes was kicked out of his own magazine. Although no longer featured in Air Trails, Barnes found a new home as Charles Spain Verral suggested Barnes could be used as a back up feature in Doc Savage. And before the end of that year Bill Barnes was appearing in the back pages of Doc Savage. He continued to appear in Doc Savage until that magazine switched to digest size, lasting appearing in its December 1943 issue.

The next major aviator to appear in the pulps was Dusty Ayres. Dusty Ayres was created by Robert Sidney Bowen, former World War I pilot and a successful writer who would later write the Red Randall series of novels. Ayres first appeared in Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds, July 1934, published by Popular Publications. It differed from most air war pulp magazines in that it was set in a future in which Fire-Eyes and his Black Invaders, coming from an "obscure part of Central Asia," attacked the United States. Dusty Ayres and his Battle Birds (Jack Horner, Curley Brooks, and Biff Bolton), assisted by Agent 10 of United States intelligence, fought to save the free world from the Black Invaders. The pulp was filled with futuristic devices, from midget flame tanks to an explosive capable of destroying entire cities (this was many years before the invention of the atom bomb). Unfortunately, Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds was not a success. It only lasted until July-August 1935.

Popular Publications next fighting ace would be a good deal more successful. In fact, he was not only the most successful pilot in the history of the pulps, but one of the most successful pulp characters of all time. G-8 debuted in September 1934, the same day as Popular's other star character, The Spider. G-8 and His Battle Aces was the creation of the prolific Robert J. Hogan, who wrote all 110 G-8 novels. Although fighting during World War I, G-8 differed from any fictional pilot before or since. Hogan based G-8 on his friend Harold "Bull" Nevin, who had worked in intelligence in France during the First World War. Quite simply, G-8 was not only a pilot, he was also a spy. His "Battle Aces" were Nippy Weston and Bull Martin. Nippy was a small man with fingers so agile that he was a virtuoso at prestidigitation. Bull was a large man, but friendly and none too bright. Battle was G-8's English butler, who had his own talents, even if he was not a pilot. He was a master of disguise. Together the Battle Aces worked from a hanger at Le Bourget Field during World War I.

What further separated G-8 from other pilot heroes is that he not only faced the Germany Luftwaffe, but some of the most bizarre villains in pulp magazines, matched only by those fought by The Spider. Throughout its run, G-8 and His Battle Aces featured beast-men, a large array of monsters (including a giant tarantula), a Martian aiding the Germans, and undead German pilots. In many ways G-8 and His Battle Aces had as much in common with the weird menace or "shudder pulps" as it did the other hero pulps. Unlike other pulp heroes, G-8 had a few recurring opponents. His archenemy may have been Doktor Kruger, a mad scientist who invented many of the menaces G-8 faced. Herr Stahlmaske was a German pilot whom G-8 had mutilated and now covered his face with an iron mask (possibly an inspiration for Marvel Comics' Doctor Doom?). Herr Grun was an American aiding the Germans who resembled a caveman but possessed a genius IQ.

G-8 and His Battle Aces proved to be an incredible success. It ended its run with the June 1944 issue. Afterwards the G-8 novels would be reprinted, by Berkley in the Seventies and later by Adventure House and Vintage Books, among others.

Dell Magazines jumped on the aviator band wagon with Terence X. O'Leary's War Birds, the first issue cover dated March 1935. The character had actually made his first appearance in the story "Under Three Flags" all the way back in 1926 in the pages of War Stories. Over the years he appeared in such pulp magazines as Battle Stories and War Birds. In 1935, O'Leary took over War Birds and it became Terence X. O'Leary's War Birds. The creation of Arthur Empey, O'Leary began life an Irish stereotype of an Irishman serving during World War I. He evolved into an action hero who was eventually a military policeman, having served in the cavalry, the French Foreign Legion, and finally a pilot. As a pilot he was in command of the the "Black Wings Pursuit" Squadron or 411th Squadron (sometimes the 417th Squadron). With Terence O'Leary's War Birds, the series changed once more. This time around finds O'Leary finding himself facing the Ageless Men, immortals from Atlantis who survived the sinking of that island. Terence X. O'Leary's War Birds only lasted three issues. And the work of Arthur Empey is not very highly regarded today. In fact, he regarded as a bit of a hack. Regardless, the novels have been reprinted, by Odyssey Publications in the Seventies, which explains why he is remembered today.

Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, when astronauts were the heroes du jour, I was fascinated by flying. Naturally, after Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Spider sparked an interest in pulp magazines in me, I developed an interest in air war pulps. As might be expected, I would first discover G-8 and later Bill Barnes. Today these characters continue to possess a legion of fans. Given mankind's fascination with flight, it is safe to say they will continue to do so for a long time.

1 comment:

Jim Marquis said...

Great stuff. I really enjoy reading your articles on pop culture.