Jess Nevins Guest Post–“How It All Started”

1905 was a landmark year as far as global pulp culture was concerned, because that was the year that Street & Smith, at the time the purveyor of a number of very successful dime novels, decided to expand its operations into Europe. The countries of Europe had not been without their own versions of dime novels, in some cases for decades, but Street & Smith–which was looking to expand its operations in the face of sagging magazine sales and a generally flat American economy–had a secret weapon: Buffalo Bill Cody, at the time an international phenomenon thanks to a fabulously successful European tour with his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1901 Cody had signed a contract with Street & Smith to allow them to print fictional adventures about him; the resulting dime novel, Buffalo Bill Stories, was one of Street & Smith’s best-selling magazines. Europe, which had been fascinated with the American frontier since the international publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, must have seemed like a natural set of markets to Ormond G. Smith, the publisher of Street & Smith.

Smith had no idea. The arrival of Buffalo Bill Stories in Germany in 1905 was revolutionary. The prevailing model for the German heftromane- (lit. “hero-novels”) had been either single-appearance heroes or limited-run serials. The idea of an ongoing hero dime novel was hugely appealing; that it was a Western added to the appeal; that it starred Buffalo Bill Cody simply made it irresistible to the German audience. The German translations of Buffalo Bill Stories sold in the tens of millions–by some estimates, 1 in 7 Germans bought the translated Buffalo Bill Stories at its height–and when Street & Smith began selling translated issues of the detective dime novel Nick Carter Weekly, they sold outrageously, as well.

German heftromane publishers immediately took notice and put out heftromane of their own with ongoing German heroes. Those domestically-produced heftromane sold by the millions. When French romans d’aventures publishers heard about the profits that their German counterparts were making, they began importing and translating the German heftromane and then began publishing their own romans d’aventures with French heroes. The craze for ongoing dime novels about local heroes spread–across Europe, across Scandinavia, across North Africa and the Middle East, and into Russia–so that by 1907 dime novels, in their various local incarnations, were selling tens of millions of copies a month, some of which were translated Street & Smith dime novels but most of which were local productions.

World War One temporarily put an end to the dime novel fever–that, and the inevitable backlash by the self-appointed guardians of literature and culture, who were horrified by the popularity of “trash literature” and did their best to ban it or suppress it. But the dime novel model of open-ended adventures about a single hero or group of heroes stuck, and after the war ended the dime novel (and then pulp) publishers of the West quickly resumed cranking out hero dime novels and hero pulps as quickly as they could. In China, Japan and Korea the series heroes appeared in newspapers; across Southeast Asia, series heroes appeared in local versions of dime novels and pulps.

The hero machines of the world continued unabated through the 1920s and through the Great Depression, only slowing down (but not stopping) during World War Two. After the war, dime novels and pulps died off, as outdated media models do, but by that time other media–radio, movies, tv, comic books–had learned that emulating the open-ended series model of the hero dime novels and hero pulps could be enormously profitable. More than seventy years later, this remains the case.

My book, The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (self-published, 2017), is a reference book about all those pre-World War Two series heroes. (I use the word “pulp” in its broadest sense, as what Barthes called “a metaphor without brakes”). I’ve always been interested in bygone media, forgotten authors, and stories and characters obscured by time, and when I began doing research into the world of pre-WW2 global pulp culture I discovered that there were thousands of characters, many of them with a lot of potential, some of them surprisingly well-done, waiting to be brought into the light. So I did just that. Years of research followed–I began writing the book in 1999, and carried out research across the United States and, when necessary, at the British Library in London, at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek in Frankfurt. I spent…well, I don’t know how many hours I spent translating non-English dime novels and pulps, but it was a lot, and I ended up translating everything from Finnish to Hungarian.

The end result is an encyclopedia of pulp heroes (and in some cases villains) from the years 1902-1945 (and a few from after 1945). The book has over 6800 entries from over 50 countries, with characters from dime novels, pulps, slicks, newspaper serials, comic strips, novels, movie serials, and radio shows. The encyclopedia is over 730,000 words long–1539 manuscript pages–much too long for a publisher to be interested in, so I made it available as an ebook.

The encyclopedia is not exhaustive. It couldn’t be, considering that I was limited in how far I could go to research (never did it make it farther east than Frankfurt) and considering how posterity has dealt with the products of popular culture of the past. In the US over half of all the pulp titles ever printed are gone, with no issues surviving. The situation outside the US is far worse. I’d love to know about the numerous detective heroes who appeared in the Arabic-language Malay journals of the 1920s, and the martial arts heroes in the Indonesian wuxia dime novels, and the heroes in the Korean newspapers of the 1910s and 1920s, and the genre material which must surely lurk in pre-1939 Persian newspapers, but all of those are either gone beyond recovering or are held in fragmentary numbers in libraries I can’t get to.

Nonetheless, I did what I could, and the encyclopedia manages to provide what I like to think is a portal into the past. There’s a quote by Lytton Strachey that I used as an epigraph in the encyclopedia:

“It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.”

I’d like to think I’ve done just that, so that anyone interested in the Indian detectives of the 1930s, or the Burmese version of the Count of Monte Cristo, or the Spanish space opera series of the post-WW1 years, or the Mongolian Communist animal fable, or the talking gorillas of Soviet theater, or the Finnish Tarzan (he was raised by polar bears), can find them in my book. I of course included the Shadow, and Doc Savage, and all the rest of the American pulp heroes, and much can be discerned about America’s past through them, but I paid special attention to characters from non-Anglophone countries, many of whose adventures were never translated into English, and over 1500 of the characters are from outside Anglophone countries.

It was a labor of love, and now that it’s out in the world I feel a bit melancholy. But if just one person is turned on to the delights of the pulp heroes of the past, then I’ll be content in a job well done.

Jess Nevins is a college librarian in Tomball, Texas, and is the author of eleven reference books, including The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana (Monkeybrain, 2005), The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: the 4,000-Year History of the Superhero (Praeger, 2017), and The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes.

One thought on “Jess Nevins Guest Post–“How It All Started”

  • April 21, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Ehm … Heftromane does not mean literally “hero-novels”. Heft can mean a.o. notebook, booklet. magazin, issue. Roman means novel in German. Heftromane are the German equivalent of dime novels, because they were cheaply produced booklets that were published every week or month that contained serialized novels.


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