Elsewhere, brutes try to climb out of giant beakers in a mad scientist's lab. Thugs on the cover of a 1938 edition of Spicy Detective grab a scantily clad lady in her bed. Men abandon their crashed spaceship and roam a desert planet. A Marine in an island foxhole fires a machine gun at strafing Japanese planes. Robot spider vehicles battle. Germans stand on a plane in the middle of a dogfight high above the US Capitol torching rival biplanes with flamethrowers. A nurse with a gun in 1942's Dance of the Death Doll flicks on a light to catch a creep trying to steal a human brain. In Allen Anderson's cover for a 1950 edition of Frontier Stories magazine, a busty blonde in form-fitting buckskin blouse, polka-dot skirt, and sensible loafers rides a war-painted white horse as she fires her revolver at chasing Indians while a wagon train burns in the background.
The quality of the paintings varies. Anatomy, which is fundamental to this sort of work, is sometimes wonky. The quick-and-dirty brushwork can be muddled. Emotions aren't subtle. And women are nearly always sex objects or victims — or both. But if we're comparing painting chops and emotional depths, the vintage pulp artists are as good as or better than top contemporary painters who dabble in pulp land like John Currin, Dana Schutz, Alexis Rockman, Neo Rauch, Elizabeth Peyton, and Barnaby Furnas.
And the vintage pulps did a better job of plumbing their era, channeling fears that aren't so different from our own: war, gangs, nukes, threatening foreigners (Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Arabs), new machines, biotech, monster gorillas. Pulp artists addressed these anxieties as fine art became less and less engaged with current events. Mainline Modernism's revolutionary rhetoric of avant-gardes came out of real revolutionary politics like the Russian Revolution. The new abstract styles were seen at times as both a utopian language that could transcend borders and a challenge to middle-class taste and to the so-called wise men who mired Europe in the First World War. But before long, the point became transcendental meditations on painting itself.
Meanwhile, Boston Expressionists like Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine and Chicago "Monster Roster" artists like Leon Golub — who painted dark, realist grotesque visions of soldiers, monsters, and sordid political bosses inspired by the dark times — were ignored. This wasn't just some merit system in which the best stuff happened to be abstract. From the 1930s to '60s, the CIA, the US State Department, and the US Information Agency — with help from New York's Museum of Modern Art and major American corporations — organized exhibitions of new American art in Europe and Latin America to bear witness to the benefits of American-style democracy, capitalism, and freedom. These shows promoted New York Abstract Expressionism abroad and were key to the style's conquest of the art world. But when Levine, by then living in New York, exhibited his 1946 painting satirizing fat-cat generals celebrating after the end of World War II, in a State Department exhibit in Moscow in 1959, the House Un-American Activities Committee accused him of Communist affiliations and called him to Washington for questioning. Is it any surprise that the modernist art that rose to the top abandoned direct references to the times?