Monday, November 30, 2009


Sometimes I think the critics are right and Dante really was one of the handful of writers who shaped the Western mind. He certainly seems to have influenced 50s mens magazines. Cover after cover looks like a scene out of Dante's "Inferno."

Here (above) the guy is running away from a tribe of nymphomaniac amazons, and the only way he can escape them is to run across a field of crazed weasels.

Coming up with stories for these mens magazines must have been a real chore. After all, the same publisher probably put out confession, crime and adventure magazines, and these must have siphoned off a lot of stories the mens magazines could have used.

The writers must have thanked God for old staples like cheating housewives and prostitutes, but even these could get stale. Frequently the staff had to fall back on the tried and tested method of taking ordinary events, sleazing them up a bit, and locating them in graphic Hell.

Take this picture (above), for instance. Nothing out of the ordinary happening here but the blocked-out eyes and minimal, kids printing set/ransom note lettering at the bottom of the page make it look like something weird and taboo is going on.

If the weird and taboo thing can be shown to happen in Hell (as it is above), so much the better. Pulp paper didn't take black very well, but the publishers turned a liability into an asset by emphasizing subject matter that played better in dark grey.

Grey gave the page a weathered, amateur look, as if it had been printed by ghouls in some underground cavern, and the editor just happened to find it stuck to the bottom of his shoe...just the thing for a magazine that claimed to break all the rules.

And how do you like the black & white photography (above)? It underlines the noir belief that the world is a dark place, illuminated by shafts of light.

Black and white can make the most innocent event seem sordid, especially if the photo is tilted and crudely retouched. Here (above) even happy old Bing Crosby is made to look like a skulker in the corridors of Hell. The actress on the right shows a lot of leg, but would still look innocent if the same picture were to appear in full resolution in Life magazine. Here, at half resolution and retouched, she looks like a denizen of the underworld.

Here (above) the downshots and headless bodies add to the effect of the noir lighting. We're obviously in some Clive Barker-type catacomb. Tattooing is made to look sooooo creepy here. But that's what the reader wanted. The reader wanted to be taken out of the crowded commuter train to an unfamiliar and dangerous world, and the magazine obliged.

Here (above) bandleader Xavier Cougat draws a terrific caricature of the singer on his left. Light-hearted and innocent you say? No way! The Hell theme favored by sleaze magazines demanded that the execution of the drawing take place in Hades. The ripped headline graphic, dark shadows and downshot angle reveal that we're in a slime-covered alcove in a nightmare alley full of screams and demented laughter.

No activity was so wholesome that it couldn't be portrayed as Hellish. "Who does Disney (above) think he's kidding?", the magazine seems to ask. No innocence here. The text promotes Disney but the choice of graphics locates him in Hell. The layout artist chose cramped, fever dream compositions, planting the idea that Disney films are somehow sinister and malevolent.

All this emphasis on Hell may only have been half intentional. Some of it must have resulted from the kind of flash camera that press people used in those days. Some of it must have come out of WWII when a lot of graphic artists had to learn how to make the bad guys look demonic. After the war we had a lot of skilled propaganda artists with nowhere to go, except the sleaze magazines where these techniques were still appreciated.

I've said what I had to say about graphic Hell, but I can't resist commenting on the boring composition above. Ugh! I hate to see amateurs attempt the wild stories and graphics of the pros.

Here's a similar pictorial theme done with more panache. The young woman carousing with a beer bottle is underlit and in a dark place, suggesting Hell. The picture of the man suggests that she was bullied into this life by a dominating gangster. The two pictures are so evocative that we can't help but make up stories to fit them. Before we even read the text we imagine the girl resisting the fast life at first, then learning to accept it. We draw the tragic conclusion that it's a joyless, crazy world, but she wouldn't leave it if she could.

The mistake the amateurs made was to suppose that prostitution is interesting all by itself. It's not. If the girl was coerced into it, or forced to do it to feed her baby, or if her choice leads her to discover the unimaginable, then you've got a story...just be sure to locate it in graphic Hell.

BTW: Many thanks to the "Here Comes Madness" blog, which is where I stole these pictures from. Thanks also to Anonymous for telling me about the site in a comment. The blog's URL:

Also BTW: I couldn't bear to end this without calling attention to the name of an article listed on the cover of "Wildcat Adventures" above. The article is "Death Cruise of the Two Nude Cuban Cuties," surely one of the best names for an article that I've ever encountered. Sigh! Geniuses truly walked the Earth in those days.


Stephen Worth said...

The "depths of hell" look was greatly enhanced by the narrow range of illumination provided by the Speed Graphic with a flash grip. It did a great job of contrasting the "deer in the headlights" subject against the seriously underexposed shadowy background. Weegee was a master at getting the most out of this kind of a rig.

Anonymous said...

vintagegirliemags is an excellent site for old mens magazines, although it focuses mostly on playboy knockoffs like Cavalcade, Ace, and Jem.

Are you a fan of Doris Wishman movies? If you haven't seen any then you MUST search them out, They are hilarious! Basically every movie is about a prudish lady journalist who goes undercover to write an expose on a nudist camp. Every woman carries ridiculous props with her to avoid full frontal nudity and they are somehow less vulgar than a Disney Movie.

I think showing anything too explicit would ruin the innocent appeal but it's too bad that they never allowed playboy style full frontal nudity.

buzz said...

The "sweaties" as men's pulp magazines were called, used a regular stable of writers, one of whom, Mario Puzo, ended up converting his Mafia sleaze short stories into his huge Mafia epic, THE GODFATHER.

The target audience for the "sweaties" we guys who had been in the military but had never seen combat and were looking for something that would give them the macho experience they felt they had missed out on (guys who had been in combat had their fill, thank you very much). Since the ratio of support to combat troops is 6-1, this meant an awful lotta guys.

A typical "sweaties" war story would take the basic facts of a battle from a newspaper, encyclopedia, or history account then spice it up with purple prose. Some of the more honest writers would try to locate a vet who had actually been in the battle to give it some personal quotes and flavor, but as time went on they began making it up, first the quotes and then the battles, creating imaginary armies and landscapes that endlessly hashed out WWII and Korea.

In that sense, yeah, I guess it was like Dante's hell.

Amanda H. said...

WOW. It's like the print equivalent of those sleazy looking teensploitation movies from the 50's.
So most of them had wild adventures stories AND naked and sleazified pictures or was it just Wild Adventures that had that?
I must check out that blog...for..research. Hmmmm >_>

Craig said...

I always loved this illustration style. It's interesting that it's never really been (at least to my knowledge) animated or brought into three dimensions. We're pitching a project that calls for us to create puppets like this. With the proper lurid text, of course. Hope it happens. . .

talkingtj said...

i can never understand why the 1950's got a rap for being so conservative, look at all the smut and craziness that was going on in america during that time, it was hardly conservative. america was definately hot under the collar and was letting off steam everywhere! the girlie mags, the burlesque shows, the reel to reel peep shows, betty page, bebop jazz, rock n roll,the beatnik movement, quite frankly im jealous, i think i would have a better time then than iam now!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Steve: Thanks for the info! The Speed Graphic took some of my favorite pictures of that era. When you try to get the same effect with the flash on a digital snapshot camera it doesn't work.

Anon: Vintagegirliemams? Thanks for the tip! I bookmarked it. I'll look up Doris Wishman.

Buzz: Acording to Anonymous's some of the most famous writers of that era wrote for sleazy paperbacks. The site put up biographies and bibliographies of many of them.

Craig: Sounds like a good idea. Hope you have luck with it!

Talking: How the 50s led to the 60s is an interesting topic. I'm no authority on the subject, but I'll probably blog about it one of these days.

John A said...

They really knew how to hook their target audience in those days. The art direction is darn-near scientifically engineered to induce shame. A good Men's magazine should always make the reader afraid of ever being caught with one on their person.

Anonymous said...

Sexoquats? That's the greatest word I've ever heard in my life!

buzz said...

Anon: I wouldn't say "every" Doris Wishman movie is a nudist camp expose. She also did "roughies" like ANOTHER DAY ANOTHER MAN as well as sci-fi like NUDE ON THE MOON and THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT.

Anonymous said...

That is true, it's only her early period stuff that I'm into. Everything about those films and the directing style is so delightfully weird! So many bizarre recurring motifs like the nudist camps "champion swimmer" and the girls evil agent/boss etc. who eventually comes to embrace the nudist lifestyle.

Are you sure "Nude on the Moon" is a roughie?

Anonymous said...

It would be cool to have a photography studio do a shoot of me and my friends in this style with the pics surrounded by a "sordid" article.

Anonymous said...

Is there anything hotter than a girl wearing just a cashmere sweater?

buzz said...

Anon: NUDE ON THE MOON is not a roughie. It was shot at Coral Gardens, a remarkable Florida attraction built single handedly by one dedicated eccentric from the 1920s to 50s. Other than that, it's a remarkably dumb movie, even for an ultra-low-budget-sci-fi-exploitation film. There are short edited versions of it floating around that condense all the stupidity down to about 5-10 minutes. I would say the movie is padded even if the costumes aren't. ;)

Whit said...

According to Wikipedia, The 1942-1954 Pulitzer Prizes for photography were taken with Speed Graphic cameras. These cameras mostly used 4 x 5 sheet film, though they could be rigged to accommodate other large film formats. 35mm cameras replaced them because they were lighter and faster to shoot with, especially once faster speed film and natural light photography became the vogue.

thomas said...

Just wondering if that "Cugat's cutie" could be Charo, whom he was married to.
She's actually a hell of a guitar player.

Anonymous said...

didn't 'the britney' recreate the pose of that leggy actress a few years back in esquire?

Anonymous said...

That is the precursor to Charo, Abbe Lane, to whom Cugat was married.

Amanda H. said...

Hey, one of them shows weasels ripping somebody's flesh! RZZZZZZZZZZZ!

Yeah, Jorge. 'Sexoquacks' sounds like the best word EVER.

rockync said...

I am seeking a particular magazine - ACTION FOR MEN Magazine Volume 6, #5 Does anyone know of a website that deals in these magazines?