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10. Pulps, Comics and the Rise of Superheroes

Whilst researching the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers film serials of the 1930s I was delighted to find far too much information about the pulp and comic book origins of these heroes. So we are taking a detour to speak with people who really have their heads wrapped around this topic.


For full shownotes for this episode without character limits you can visit here.


We will be talking about Flash Gordon (and a little about Buck Rogers) in the next episode. Scroll down to get more information on where to watch the 1930s film serials.


The Experts

Julian Chambliss is a scholar and a professor at Michigan State University. He is the author of multiple books including Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes and the American Experience.


Jess Nevins is an Author and research librarian who has annotated multiple comics and written the Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes, the Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes and The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4,000-Year History of the Superhero.


00:00 Intro to the show and guests

02:14 The origins of pulp fiction

04:14 The western frontier and the American hero

06:23 Superheroes in the pulps and ancient civilization

09:42 WW1 and Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories

11:21 Buck Rogers, race and rapid change

15:13 From pulp to comic strip: Buck Rogers and Tarzan

15:39 The success of Flash Gordon

16:55 Racial politics of Flash Gordon

19:16 The true first superhero

20:38 Phantom’s international popularity

21:38 The Great Depression, superpowers and The New Deal

25:35 The Jewish influence

28:44 Superman as the good immigrant

32:25 Women: from pulps to comics

35:55 The rediscovery of black creators

40:44 Moral panic, senate hearings and the Comics Code Authority

48:34 The future of the hero


  • The feuilleton began in French newspapers consisting of mainly non-political content.

  • You can learn more about the American dime novels here.

  • You can find the The Argosy archives here.

  • For more information on the printing press and steam printing press you can take a look at this entry.

  • The increase of education in the late 19th century USA was largely due to the increasing number of compulsory schooling required in the country. Massachusetts was the first state to pass laws to make school compulsory in 1852.

  • The frontier was officially closed in 1890 when the Bureau of Census announced is would stop recording western frontier settlement. The records were, however, updated up until 1920.

  • The first Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs was published in 1912 in the pulp magazine All-Story.

  • The first public appearance of The Scarlet Pimpernel was in a 1903 stage play by Baroness Orczy.

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh dates back to over 4000 years ago and is believed to be the oldest story we know of. Enkidu is a friend of Gilgamesh who was created to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing and harming people.

  • Hugo Gernsback was an American magazine publisher born in 1884. He began the magazine Radio News in 1919 and Amazing Stories, the first magazine dedicated to science fiction, in 1926.

  • Weird Tales was first published in 1923 and was a pulp fiction magazine specialising in fantasy and horror.

  • Buck Rogers first appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928 in a story called Armageddon 2419 AD.

  • The wonderful sci-fi brain Lisa Yaszek speaks more about science fiction aliens and race in episode 1 of Every Single Sci-fi Film Ever* at 44m24s. You that you can find here.   

  • The rapid transformation that Julian speaks about here is often referred to as The Machine Age. Science fiction scholar Jay Telotte has written a book about Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age

  • Alex Raymond was a US artist born in 1909 and is most famous for creating the Flash Gordon comic strip.

  • Dick Calkins was a US artist born in 1894 and began drawing the Buck Rogers comic strip in 1929 when it began.

  • 'Yellow Peril' is an awful name given to the racist fears westerners had of East Asians.

  • The first attempt to restrict immigration to the US (that Julian mentions) was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

  • You can learn a bit about the Gentlemen’s Agreement between the US and Japan here.

  • Fu Manchu first appeared in the story The Zayat’s Kiss in The Story-Teller magazine in 1912.

  • The Mandarin is a Marvel supervillain who first appeared in 1964. He also appeared in the 2013 Iron Man 3.

  • Zorro first appeared in 1919 in the pulp All-Story Weekly as a serialised novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley.

  • Moll Cutpurse was a real woman from the 17th century! You can learn a little about her here. She was a thief and wore… men’s clothes! Shocking. Jess refers to 1611 which is the year The Roaring Girl was published which fictionalised the life of Moll Cutpurse AKA Mary Frith. It was a stage play written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker.

  • The Great Depression began in 1929 with the Wall Street Crash and continued until World War 2.

  • Franklin Delano Rooselvelt often known simply as FDR was US president from 1933 to 1945. He implemented The New Deal policy between 1933 and 1938.

  •  “Plot Armour” is the idea of the hero of a story being protected due to their character being essential to the plot and its progression.

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon is a brilliant fictional novel. It focuses on the lives of two Jewish teens in New York during the birth of the golden age of comics.

  • In the very first issue of the Captain America Comics Captain America punches Hitler.

  • You can learn more about the Hebrew origins of Kal-El here.

  • Stan Lee is probably the most famous comic book heavyweight. Along with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko he created numerous superheroes at Timely Comics which later became Marvel Comics.

  • Frederick Jackson Turner was a historian from the US born in 1861. You can learn more about the Frontier Thesis on its Wikipedia page.

  • This article on The Myth of the Happy Yeoman is interesting.

  • This Tumblr post by Maxwell Grant has a great overview of many female pulp heroes including Pussy Fane.

  • You can learn more about Matt Baker here.

  • There’s a short overview of Good Girl Art here.

  • AC Hollingsworth’s Wikipedia page is here.

  • Here is an article about Orrin Evans and All-Negro Comics.

  • More information about Lobo can be found here.

  • Torchy Brown was the first black female character in a nationally syndicated comic strip.

  • Neil Knight appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1950.

  • More about Ollie Harrington can be found in this article.  

  • Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro is a good resource on black creators in the golden age of comic books.

  • Although there is some controversy over whether Dr Strange was meant to be Asian there is a strong case to be made due to the racist style of drawing Asians. You can find some articles here and here.

  • More information of the Jackie Robinson comic books.

  • The Wikipedia page for Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent can be found here.

  • You can find the details of the Comics Code of 1954 here.

  • An obituary of Kevin O’Neill including his illustrations can be found here.


Next episode we will be focusing on the Flash Gordon (and Buck Rogers) film serials of the 1930s. You can check JustWatch to see where you can access them:


They are also available on YouTube including some strangely colourised versions.


I would also highly recommend watching the 1980 version of Flash Gordon which is ridiculously good fun in my opinion. It is available to rent or buy in various places including on Amazon and again you can check on Just Watch where it may be streaming in your region.

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