Public domain mythology

Last year I read “Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurtry. It took me much of the year. It’s a looooooong book. Then we watched the series. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many Westerns.

After finishing my mini-Lonesome Dove binge, I got to thinking about shared mythology and folklore. 75 years ago, the US had Westerns, and we exported those to the rest of the world. Anybody could create a story featuring Wyatt Earp as hero, or set in Dodge City, and plug into an existing framework.

You didn’t have to pay for it, or ask permission.

Now our shared mythology is all Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, LoTR and the Marvel and DC superhero universes. It’s all owned by big companies. Creators and fans are sharecroppers on other people’s land.

Sure, Westerns were racist, imperialist, sexist, and heteronormative. But we lost something valuable when we traded them for corporate licensed intellectual property.

Today I learned that “HIll Street Blues” star Daniel J. Travanti appeared in an episode of “Lost in Space.”

Here’s Travanti in costume on “Lost in Space:”

And Travanti’s “Hll Street” co-star, Veronica Hamel, was a model in the last cigarette commercial that aired on TV in the US, for Virginia Slims, in 1971.

Here’s the commercial.

There’s so much going on in that commercial, and so much of it is wrong, and it’s wonderful. Veronica Hamel is dressed in full hippie regalia and she’s smoking. Literally and figuratively.

“Pulp is the dark matter of fiction….“

The Pop Culture Archivist at Tumblr talks about the history of pulp fiction, and why it’s important.

“Pulp” is a kind of storytelling that originated in ”cheap all-fiction American magazines from the 1900s to the 1950s,” they say.

The pulp magazine began in 1896, when Frank Munsey’s Argosy magazine, in order to cut costs, dropped the non-fiction articles and photographs and switched from glossy paper to the much less expensive wood pulp paper, hence the name. The pulp magazines would mainly take off as a distinct market and format in 1904, when Street & Smith learned that Popular Magazine, despite being marketed towards boys, was being consumed by men of all ages, so they increased page count and started putting popular authors on the issues.

It was specifically the 1905 reprint of H.Rider Haggard’s Ayesha that not only put Street & Smith on the map as rivals to Argosy, but also inspired other companies to start publishing in the pulp format. Pulps encompassed literally everything that the authors felt like publishing. Westerns, romance, horror, sci-fi, railroad stories, war stories, war aviation stories. Zeppelins had a short-lived subgenre. Celebrities got their own magazines, it was really any genre or format they could pull off, anything they could get away with.

Pulps became most well-known for“‘hero pulps’, characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage that are viewed as a formative influence on comic book superheroes.”

The pulp magazines in America lasted until the 1950s, when cumulative factors such as paper shortages, diminishing audience returns and the closing of its biggest publishers led to it dying off, although in the decades since there have always been publishers calling their magazines “pulp.” That’s the American pulp history.

In America, before the pulps, you had dime novels. And the phenomenon was worldwide: England had penny dreadfuls and story papers. France and Russia in the 19th Century had coulporters, chapbooks, and feuilletons. Pulps or something like them also thrived in Japan, China, Brazil, Italy, India, Persia, Ethiopia, Canada, Australia, and more.

Look anywhere in the world and you’ll find examples of “pulp” happening again and again, under different circumstances and time periods.

And most of it was transitory. 38% of American pulps no longer exist. 14% survive in fewer than five copies. They’re not in many libraries or publicly accessible collections, and many are tied up in copyright complications.

Gone, dead, wasted, destroyed. They can’t be found in barbershops or warehouse or bookstores, not even in antique stores. Hundreds, thousands of characters, stories and creators, gone.

But they keep coming back.

Pulp is the dark matter of fiction, the uncatalogued depths of the ocean, the darkest recesses of space. It’s the box of your grandfather’s belongings, the treasure you find in an attic, a body part sticking out from an old playground. It’s the things that don’t work, don’t succeed, the things that don’t fit, that are out of place. That shouldn’t live and succeed, and did so anyway.

Arguably all of today’s American popular movies, TV, and fiction came from the pulp tradition: Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, stories about doctors, lawyers, police, and detectives. Military and spy adventures. Techno-thrillers.

This year, Apple TV will debut a big-budget prestige TV show based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy — stories first published in the pulp science fiction magazine “Astounding Stories” 1942-50.

I was discussing pulp fiction with a a colleague the other day. I was a science fiction fan as a boy, and I still am as a man. Science fiction is rooted in the pulp tradition. And pulps were always something that had to compel readers’ attention. Nobody was ever reading pulp to advance their career, or win prestige or status in other people’s eyes. Indeed, pulp always carried a stigma — so much of it was bad, with lurid covers, that an adult caught reading it risked being seen as having something wrong with them.

So the writers and editors of pulps could never count on readers’ attention, the creators always had to grab it. And I’ve tried to carry that thinking with me in my own career.

That Seattle Muzak Sound

Muzakwas played in the Eisenhower White House, on LBJ‘s ranch, and reportedly on the Apollo 11 mission. And Muzak helped give birth to grunge.

Muzak was one of the most influential musical forces of the past century. It’s a joke today, but the company is still getting the last laugh.

Spotify mood playlists are basically Muzak.

Decoder Ring With Willa Paskin:

“On this episode, senior producer Benjamin Frisch explores the misunderstood history of Muzak, formerly the world’s foremost producers of elevator music. Muzak emerged out of the technological innovations of World War I as one of the most significant musical institutions of the 20th century, a cultural juggernaut, only to become a punching bag as the second half of the century turned public perceptions of popular music on its head. By the ‘80s and ‘90s, Muzak was trying to figure out a new direction, since it happened to employ many players in Seattle’s burgeoning grunge scene. This is the story of how different ideas about pop music butted heads throughout the 20th century, including inside Muzak’s offices.”