Rocket packs, autogyros, Zeppelins and a Boeing 777.
Seems like an odd, and somewhat anachronistic, combination. Yet they all came together for me last week. To while away the time on a ten-hour return flight from a business trip to Europe I had rented a copy of one of my favorite movies to watch on my iPad – The Rocketeer.*
Although based on a comics series** from the late-lamented Dave Stevens, this is a movie that is full of pulp style action, adventure, and iconography. After finishing the movie I started to muse on the apparent close connection between the pulps and aviation.
Ace High, Arnold Adair American Ace, Bill Barnes Air Adventurer, Dusty Ayres and his Battle Birds, G-8 and his Battle Aces, Tailspin Tommy, The Red Falcon just to name a few; plus numerous variations on Aeroplane, Aircraft, Airplane, Airship etc. titled heroes - the list goes on. So why were pulp stories about fliers so popular?
As much as anything it was an alignment of historical eras in the respective industries. Pulp magazines reached their height of popularity in the late 1920s and on into the 1930s, at just the same time that aviation was providing the new heroes and celebrities for the American media. Following his historic transatlantic flight in 1927 Charles Lindbergh had become an American icon, an early twentieth century embodiment of the American pioneer spirit.
The American pioneer was no longer those of the Wild West, but those of the sky. Cowboys and explorers had been replaced by inventors and daredevils exploring the next frontier, and pushing the boundaries of endurance and physics. They were a new type of hero for a new age that made them ideal subjects to capture the public’s imagination.
The exploits of people like Lindbergh, female aviator Amelia Earhart, and others provided perfect fodder for a nation hungry for heroes in the midst of a massive economic depression, and the pulps were only too eager to feed that need. Hollywood helped with the release of movies such as Wings (the first Academy Award winner) and Howard Hughes’ Hells Angels reminding people of heroic World War 1 fighter aces.
The first of the so-called “flying pulps” to appear were anthology titles such as Air Adventures, Airplane Stories, and Air War. However following the success of The Shadow and other solo heroes heroic fly-boys*** soon followed: The Red Falcon, The Three Mosquitoes, Sky Devil took to the skies in the early 1930s.
The two longest lasting aviator pulp heroes, Bill Barnes and G-8 arrived on the scene in the mid-1930s both running, in both their own titles or as back-ups in others, for another ten years.
It is estimated that at the height of its popularity the flying-pulp genre consisted of at least forty different titles, many short lived, but others that saw the boom through until the end. Perhaps it is both fitting and ironic that a genre devoted primarily to the exploits of the air heroes of one global conflict lasted until the return of the air heroes of another, for most of the books ceased publication in 1944 or 1945 as the Second World War was drawing to a conclusion.
Many of those pilots cited the flying pups of their youth as a contributing factor in their decisions to become combat pilots, but when the terror and the adventure becomes reality, who needs the fantasy any more?
While the actual air pulp magazines may have disappeared, the concept of the larger than life hero from the early barn-storming days of aviation has never really faded from popular culture, from the aforementioned Rocketeer, to the Sky Captain of Tomorrow, or even the pulp-like aviation aspects of the Howard Hughes bio-pic The Aviator – Hollywood keeps coming back to a source it helped inspire.
The appeal of Zeppelin stories continues to this day and the airship itself is both an iconic image, and an oft-cited potential solution to the future of aviation.
And in our own world of New Pulp we can continue to marvel at the adventures of Lance Star – Sky Ranger from the great folks at Airship 27 Productions.
So chocks away, and here’s to a sky full of adventure.
* Dear Disney – thanks for eventually reissuing this great movie as a Blu-Ray in December of last year. – Why you kept it off the DVD market for over a decade is beyond me.
** If you aren’t reading the new Rocketeer Adventures anthology comics from IDW featuring work from many of today’s best creators you are missing out. Jet over to your local comic book store and pick up several issues.
*** Despite the popularity of female aviatrix such as Earhart, the flying-pulps were definitely a boys-own club.