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Hawkman was a bit of a perv…

May 23, 2012

Now that I have your attention…

I’ve always loved science fiction, fantasy, and, to a lesser extant, horror. I’ve spent a lot of time reading these genres, and I can say that the ratio between them and fiction is, for me, roughly 2 to 1 (I read 1 fiction title for every 2 genre books). That isn’t nearly as bad as some folk I know, who read nothing but genre fiction. But it has to qualify me as a Card-Carrying Nerd of the First Order. I should at least get a T-shirt or something.

Over the last several years, I’ve been catching up on non-fiction…subjects like sociology, computers, philosophy, and a large dose of photography books. Which has been a welcome break from aliens, spells, and lasers. But…

Damn, but I’ve been missing the aliens, spells, and lasers. Everything goes better with lasers. You just can’t go wrong with lasers. Say it with me, folks: LASERS.

So I’ve been gorging on vintage paperbacks for the last 6 months. And loving it. Authors like Robert Howard, Clifford Simak, A. E. van Vogt, Leigh Brackett, Abraham Merritt, C. L. Moore, Henry Kuttner and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve been a genre fan my whole life, but I’ve never read the vintage pulp stories of the early 20th century. Some of these books are now over a hundred years old.

And Gardner F. Fox.

Who?

Fox created Hawkman.

Yeah. We’re just now getting to the point. Almost there. Trust me.

Foxy ladies

As I was getting interested in the old pulps, I ended up picking up an old 80’s one-shot comic by Timothy Truman. Truman is his own comics legend, having created Scout, co-created Grimjack, and was a mover and shaker in the ‘black-and-white revolution’ in the early 80’s. I pick up his work whenever I can. In this one-shot (collecting his earlier work) was a story he had co-plotted with (and written by) Gardner Fox, featuring a character Fox’s created for his novels, Kyrik the barbarian. I liked the story, Truman gushed poetic about Fox, and I wanted to read some old genre paperbacks…you can’t align the stars better than that.

Fox started his writing career in comics, not just creating Hawkman, but the Golden Age Flash, Justice Society of America and Sandman. He also contributed key parts of mythology to Batman, adding the first version of Batman’s utility belt, and expanding his toys to include a “Bat-gyro”, the pre-cursor to the Bat-copter.

After doing some research on Fox, I found out that he is purported to have written over 150 novels. Which puts him in the prolific territory of Asimov and Moorcock. However, only about 2 dozen or less are genre fiction. What were the others about? Well, a lot of general fiction, historical romance, action books, and movie adaptations.

And…soft-core? Actually…yeah.

It turns out that he wrote about half a dozen, maybe more, soft-core and exploitation paperbacks under various house names (publishers of exploitation series generally chose a pen name for a stable of writers that wrote all the books in the series, so the authors had no choice regarding their pen name).

Now, I’ve been reading most of my life, with an average of about 50-70 books a year. But, I’ve never read a porn novel. Ok, I’ve read some ‘articles’ in Playboy when I was younger. They were very well-written articles. But never a porn novel. Not even Henry Miller or Anäis Nin.

Honest. Would I lie about this?

I’ve stocked them, when I worked at Coles. I’ve read the back covers. But, well, they never seemed that interesting. I mean, you know the plot, right? The only unknown is the logistical details. And frankly, most people can imagine those types of things better than what you’d find in a trash novel, anyway.

The thing that made me take more notice here is that Fox seems to have a bit of fun with the whole genre, adding sci-fi and action-adventure elements to it.

Menage a…how do you say ‘plenty’ in French?

What’s more interesting is that Fox isn’t the only genre author who’s written a dirty book. Samuel Delaney has written several, under his own name. Delaney is a bit of a special case, which I’ll get back to in a bit. Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip Jose Farmer, and Marion Zimmer Bradley all wrote exploitation novels. Exploitation is not necessarily ‘hard-core’ pornography, but includes a lot of sex, forbidden love, gang and prison stuff, and a lot of staple trashy themes.

Just reading the cover blurbs of some of these books makes you feel dirty:

Robert Silverberg:

  • Party Girl “She embraced more men in a night than most women know in a lifetime!”
  • Gang Girl “Lust-cats of the gutters!”

Harlan Ellison

  • Sex Gang “Violent stories of naked passions!”

A. E. van Vogt

  • The Mating Cry “I have come to pay my debt — in the way I discovered men prefer.”

Gardner F. Fox

  • The Wicked, Wicked Women “The day the harlots ran wild in canal town!”

Marion Zimmer Bradley

  • Twilight Lovers “They lived and loved in the off-beat world of lesbianism”

Philip Jose Farmer

  • A Woman a Day “He defied the 25th century with a woman who was NOT HIS WIFE — and WIFE who was NOT A WOMAN!”

Oh my stars and garters.

The oldest profession: writing

It’s true that many of these books were written to put food on the table, and only the most die-hard of fans will be interested in seeking many of these out. In a few cases, I think you can make a case for the authors actually believing the conception of women these books advocate. My experience of van Vogt is that, while he is a competent science-fiction author with a lot of good ideas, his women are almost always wooden, two-dimensional and not given much to do other than tempt men, slink around or complain.

In other cases, it gets a bit murkier.

Almost all porn and trash paperbacks are universally reviled while, at the same time, provide the economic engine that helps keep the publishing industry afloat. Harlequin is the world’s largest publisher, not just in the volume of titles they crank out monthly, but in terms of sales. Many of the trash paperbacks above sold in droves, the authors were paid lump sums, and the cash the publisher made was put back into keeping slower-moving (but more respectable) mainstream fiction and literature titles in the shops. The sleaze the sweaty sailor bought at the five-and-dime kept the Shakespeare and Greeks on the shelf at the upscale bookstore down the street.

I can tell you from 7 years experience in book retail that we sold more copies of The Story of O every month than we did of 1984. Or David Copperfield. Or even Lolita (the ultimate attempt to make trash respectable).

For Fox, like many other ‘hack’ writers, the connection is even stronger. As a writer of thousands of stories for DC Comics, he was at the intersection of trash and big business. The creators of DC started as publishers of pulps, some adventure or fantasy-based, quite a few lurid forebears of Penthouse Forum. After a dispute with DC over payment rates and benefits, he started writing the sci-fi, romance, and steamy books for the publishers that were direct descendants of DC’s original business model.

Many authors and editors migrated from one trash publisher to the next, writing dirty books to pay the bills and the genre books they wanted to write, sneaking them into the world of literature one drugstore paperback rack at a time.

And trash has its own merits.

Hey Chip…nice gams

I told you we’d get back to Samuel Delaney (his nickname is Chip). Delaney has been honored with many science-fiction and fantasy awards, and all are well-deserved. But Delaney is also a force to be reckoned with in the world of letters, having written many non-fiction books and autobiography. But, even more than all this, Delaney is also a force to be reckoned with in LGBT literature.

For those not familiar with the term: LGBT stands for Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Trans-gender.

Both Samuel Delaney and William Burroughs were gay men who married women prior to coming out. The (tragic) difference between them is that Burroughs accidentally killed his wife in a drug-induced haze (the incident is part of the main narrative thrust of Naked Lunch). Both of them have written novels fictionalizing their experiences as gay men in 1950’s and 1960’s America.

Both had their gay fiction published first as…you guessed it…trash literature.

While Delaney and Burroughs were thematically and stylistically divergent (Burroughs more interested in pastiche and drug literature, influencing both the Beats, post-moderns like Kathy Acker, and sci-fi author William Gibson), Delaney’s literature would be split between science-fiction that sneaked in LGBT and trash elements, and gay fiction and non-fiction that would be strangely prophetic. Delaney wrote Mad Man one of the first novels that would deal directly with AIDS, as well as some extreme pornography (The Tides of Lust). He also wrote a polemic called Times Square Red, Time Square Blue, describing the gay sex theatres in New York. Classic sci-fi novels like Nova, Babel-17, and The Ballad of Beta-2 had many ‘street’ characters with ambiguous attitudes towards sexuality and drugs, pre-figuring the ‘New Wave’ sci-fi authors and the gender-bending novels of Michael Moorcock (who else could you cast as Elric other than David Bowie).

These were not the only authors that flourished in the gutter. Gay authors Ann Bannon and Marijane Meaker wrote almost all of their lesbian novels for soft-core publishers who were catering exclusively to men looking for cheap thrills. Most of the Beats published with trashy publishers prior to City Lights.

In many ways, what’s happened in the fictional gutter over the last 50 years has become the mainstream of literature. Even romance fiction, almost as reviled as porn itself, has been wedded in a shotgun marriage with urban fantasy to create ‘fantasy romance’, giving us Twilight and True Blood. Many fiction and literature writers use the techniques of porn to give us searing sequences of passion and sex, a prime example being The English Patient (you only saw the movie? Dude, you missed all the good parts. Really good parts).

Which does make me want to read at least one of these books.

Which brings us, inevitably, to discussing price.

Back-alley service, escort prices

When I started buying vintage genre paperbacks, I had a few rules before going out and collecting:

  • They needed to be something I was interested in actually reading. No buying just because it looks cool.
  • They needed to be cheap: $3-5 is good, $5-8 acceptable, $8-10 pricey, and over $10 uneconomical…after that, there’s no price difference between a new edition and the vintage one…you lose nothing getting it new.

Vintage trash is not cheap. It is, ironically, even more expensive than many first-edition hardcovers from respected authors of literature. I’ve seen a copy of Ann Bannon’s classic lesbian novel Beebo Brinker in the store window at Eliot’s, running close to $100. Contrast that with buying a new edition of Beebo from The World’s Biggest Bookstore for $20.

The expense largely has to do with how collectors assign value, which is a combination of several attributes: condition, scarcity, and buzz. Condition is a measure of how close the item is to it’s original condition off the ‘factory floor’; the closer to pristine, the better. Each market has a ladder that rates condition. For comics, this is a number that ranges between 0.1 to 10.0; for paperbacks, there is a scale of about 3 major values: ‘good’, ‘very good’, and ‘fine’. Scarcity is a measure of how many are available in each grade of the ladder; the less there are in the top grades, the more valuable it becomes. And finally, buzz effects whether the item is ‘hot’ or not. Harry Potter is a prime example of the ‘perfect storm’ for collectors, where a first-edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone recently fetched prices as high as $30,000. Even though the book is not even close to scarce, the buzz around it has catapulted it’s value through the roof. You can buy one-of-a-kind illuminated manuscripts for less money.

The crazy prices for trashy vintage paperbacks are a factor of their perceived cultural value when they are published. Because they are reviled on publication, they are not saved. They are destroyed, pulped, mishandled and thrown away. Now that all things ‘vintage’ are hip, the scarcity and buzz, combined with lack of books in top grades, has made the value skyrocket.

That’s how collectors assign values. Readers assign value differently. I imagine I’m not much different than most readers, in that I assign value largely by a simple rule:

How much I enjoyed the book.

‘Enjoyed’ in this case means: did I learn anything from the book? Did I have fun? Did the book challenge my views of the world? Do I know more now than I did before? Even books that are pure escapism, like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, can, for me, answer ‘yes’ to many of the above questions.

Science fiction: cheaper and easier

I’m far more interested in Gardner Fox’s sci-fi and fantasy than I am in his historical romances or soft-core work. I’m really surprised that the prices are so high, and while I admit the fact that these books are considered so taboo is almost reason enough to seek one out, it’s not even close to enough justification in paying the high prices, or having to trawl through the closed-off ‘dirty’ areas of used bookstores. Sorry. Don’t have the time for it.

If I manage to find one in the cheap bins, though, I might just pick it up.

If you’re looking for more information on trash, vintage paperbacks, pulp fiction, and the intersections between them, there are a few good sources:

Dames, Dolls and Delinquents by Gary Lovisi. A guide to the artwork featured on many vintage trash and exploitation paperbacks from the 50’s to the 70’s. This won’t talk much about authors or the relative merit of the work, but does discuss values, and has a stunning gallery of trash artwork.

Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones. This book focuses on the creation, and creators, of Superman, but in telling that story, tells the story of the owners of DC Comics, the greed and corruption in the early comics industry, and the brief rise and fall of the pulp magazines.

Supergods by Grant Morrison. Morrison spends almost half the book in self-congratulation and stories of his own drug excesses, but the other half is actually a good history of comics that spans to the present day, where Men of Tomorrow mostly stops somewhere in the 60’s.

abebooks is a clearing-house of thousands of small book sellers that deal in rare, antiquarian, and vintage books. There is a wealth of information on collecting, as well as millions of books at all price ranges on sale. It is the used book equivalent of Amazon, and you’ll love browsing through it, even if you never buy.

Bullets and Broads is a regular column devoted to trashy paperbacks at bookgasm. This dude’s apartment must break more laws than I can count. Great commentary and love of the material.

Good Girl Art has a ton of links to images of trashy vintage paperbacks.

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