Monday, May 21, 2007

For Men Only

I know I'm not usually in the habit of reviewing books I'm currently reading, but this is my blog and I'll post what I like! I have a great love for the art which used to adorn old pulp magazines (particularly science fiction and fantasy titles from the 1940s and 1950s), so I was very pleased to finally obtain a copy of Adam Palfrey's It's a Man's World, which looks at the world of US men's adventure magazines of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, which more or less inherited the mantle of the old pulps. I must admit that was a field of publishing of which I had very little knowledge, other than having encountered some of the cover art from these magazines online (indeed, this blog's banner uses images drawn from such art work). Apart from presenting lots of full colour reproductions of those wonderful covers, this book also includes some very informative text, reproducing interviews with many of the editors and writers (including Mario Puzo) who worked on these magazines.

However, without doubt it is the artwork which is the real attraction, both of this book and the original magazines. You just know that the allegedly true stories of derring do and heroic exploits inside could never live up to those covers. The most notorious of these covers are probably the Nazi-themed ones, in which men in jack boots do terrible things to young women clad only in their underwear. Many of these covers - which show a remarkable level of invention when it comes to devising sadistic tortures - were by the great Norm Saunders . Occasionally Native Americans, South Seas savages, the Japanese or Fidel Castro lookalike communists substitute for the Nazis, but the themes remained the same. They're fascinating for what they tell us about attitudes towards women at the time - the female of the species is either being subjugated, or is depicted as a whip wielding sex sadist (who inevitably has to be 'tamed' by being subjugated by a muscle bound man).

These images are frequently juxtaposed with tag lines for articles on homosexuality: 'You can be framed on a homo rap!'; 'What happens when homosexuals marry?'; 'Exposed: newest gathering place for homosexuals'. The attitude toward male sexuality is confusing - to say the least - to contemporary eyes: fear of women, prurient fascination with homosexuality and covers depicting shirtless muscle bound men. Hmmm. Let's face it, if you saw a magazine entitled American Manhood today, complete with subtitle proclaiming it 'The Virile Magazine' and a cover depicting a beefcake soldier stripped to the waist, firing a huge bazooka over his shoulder, you'd immediately think: gay! But back in the 1950s no red-blooded heterosexual American man would have thought twice about buying it.

Whilst the Nazi covers are the most notorious, my personal favourites are the ones which depict man locked in combat with the animal world (another favourite theme of the men's adventure magazines). Perhaps the best known of these was the one showing a bare chested man fighting off a pack of weasels with the tag line: 'Weasels ripped my flesh' - immortalised when Frank Zappa used it as a title. Over the years, vampires (of the bat variety, kodiak bears and curved beaks (birds of prey) also variously ripped protagonists' flesh. In between the marauding wild boars, stampeding rhinos, vicious big cats and deadly sharks, my favourite animal attack story has to be 'I battled a giant otter', simply because an otter, giant or otherwise, has surely to be the crappest animal threat anyone could face. Just throw it a bloody fish, for God's sake! Amongst all this animal action are numerous covers featuring women being carried off by gorillas, groped by giant octopuses and, most fascinating from a Freudian point of view, crushed by giant snakes.

By the 1970s, sadly, these kind of magazines had been swept aside by the advent of real pornographic magazines, which were busy taking over the top shelves of newsagents. Why bother buying a magazine with a cover painting of a semi-clad girl, when you could buy one with real girls getting their knockers out? Looking back, it's hard to believe that you could actually buy things with covers like these legally, and over the counter! Mind you, whilst the covers and tag lines are magnificent, I'm glad the book doesn't reproduce any of the magazines' main content - it could only disappoint! The question is, of course, can I use any of this as inspiration for The Sleaze? Maybe. I already go for those sensational tag lines. What I really need is an artist to come up with some subversive man's magazine-style art - Blair and Bush as intrepid GIs invading Iraq. Or Osama bin Laden and his evil Muslim fundamentalist hordes doing terrible things to captured western women - like forcing them to wear burkahs. The satirical possibilities are endless!

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