Earlier this year, the Los Angeles-based independent publisher Feral House released an expanded edition of their 2003 book It’s A Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, The Postwar Pulps. (Get it from Amazon.) It’s a thick paperback compendium of covers and interior artwork from hundreds of issues of dozens of titles in a lowbrow genre that thrived for decades. Amid the lurid paintings and eye-popping headlines are articles by ex-writers, editors and artists, recalling the crude, fast-paced and low-budget environment that produced these magazines, and essays providing some history of trends in the genre—World War II stories were succeeded by tales of the Cold War, which were followed by gangsters and bikers—as well as crude psychoanalysis of their audience.
Though some of them started as early as the 1920s and 1930s, men’s adventure titles truly hit their stride in the 1950s and 1960s. Some continued on into the 1970s, and True Detective (yes, that’s where the TV show got its name) staggered all the way to 1995 before finally biting the dust. Many of these magazines had titles like Man’s Story, Men Today, Real Men, Man’s Adventure, Man’s Life, Man’s Combat, Rugged Men, Action For Men, Rage For Men…you get the idea. Illustrated with amazing paintings, simultaneously realistic and batshit insane, they featured supposedly true adventure stories in which men battled (or rescued helpless women from) Nazis, Communists, the native tribes of various jungles and deserts, and savage wildlife, and the headlines were some of the greatest marketing copy in history.
“Swastika Slave Girls In Argentina’s No-Escape Brothel Camp”! “Screaming Nudes For Hitler’s Ministry Of Terror”! “The Inside Story Of The Commie Castle Of Torture”! “Hideous Secrets Of The Nazi Horror Cult”! “Blood And Violence In Korea – Massacre On Dead Man’s Ridge”! “Sgt. Hanneken’s Bloodbath On The Island Of Hate”! “Death Orgy Of The Leopard Women”! “Mad Lust Of The Hypnotized Gorilla”! “A Lion Drank My Blood”! (The Frank Zappa album Weasels Ripped My Flesh took its title from the September 1956 issue of Man’s Life; the cover is included in It’s A Man’s World, and it’s awesome.)
These magazines moved copies by exploiting what Adam Parfrey, It’s A Man’s World editor and Feral House owner, calls “American working-class fears, desires and wet dreams of the early ’50s through the early ’70s.” Apparently, these fears and desires included “the Nazi torture fiend…mutant Chinks and Japs, vicious enemies of America, spear-chucking, head-collecting savages and damsels in distress saved at the last second by heroic white men.”
For all the tales of thrilling adventure, though, there was a prominent dark side to the world as depicted in men’s adventure magazines, and it seemed almost entirely made up of sexual anxiety. Articles with titles like “Is Your Wife A Secret Lesbian?”, “A Psychiatrist Tells: What To Do On Your Wedding Night,” “The Truth About Those Sex Fears,” “Love Survey: How Do You Rate?”, “Losing Your Manhood? Ten Ways To Keep It,” “The Sexually Aggressive Woman—Can You Cope With Her?”, “The American Male Is No Longer A Man, Says A Woman Psychologist,” and more played on male fears that societal trends toward equality would take their women away from them, while treating impotence like the worst thing that could possibly happen to a human being.
The audience for this stuff was obviously men (and almost certainly teenage boys), but more specifically veterans of World War II and the Korean War. Returning to civilian society after years in the military, they found it difficult to adjust to the placid, enforced conformity of mid-century American life. The term PTSD didn’t exist then; it was called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” and you were more or less expected to shrug it off, to return from combat ready to exchange your uniform for a suit, smile and get a job, get married and start pumping out kids. But that transition wasn’t easy for everyone. It’s worth remembering that the first motorcycle gangs were formed shortly after World War II, by veterans seeking to recapture the excitement, danger, and camaraderie of wartime life.
The decline of men’s adventure magazines coincided with a number of other trends, including the rise of pornographic magazines. (Many of the men’s adventure titles tried to compete by featuring photos of nude or semi-nude women, instead of the illustrations that had once been a major selling point.) Looking at them now, it’s hard to believe they were as popular as they were. But their audience was large enough that it forces the modern reader to wonder where those people went. Surely the fears and desires that drew them to men’s adventure titles have not entirely disappeared from the American male psyche? And indeed, if you look carefully, it’s possible to see evidence of the influence of the pulps on publications that followed in their wake. When titles like Maxim, Stuff, and their imitators were dominating the landscape in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they frequently ran “adventure”-oriented stories about daredevil stunts, horrific injuries, first-person true-crime narratives, thrilling escapes, etc., alongside the single-entendre interviews with up-and-coming actresses and bikini models that got prime cover placement.
Still, that cultural moment has clearly passed, and left little trace. It’s A Man’s World is a time capsule, an act of cultural anthropology, and a fascinating journey into a weird, at times hilarious, often disturbing industry.