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American Women: Resources from the Serial & Government Publications Collections

Women in Popular Cuture

Wonder Women of history--Carrie Chapman Catt. 1947. Library of Congress Serials and Government Publications Division.

The special collections of the Serial and Government Publications Division contain two collections that represent the popular culture of America: comic books and pulp fiction.

When originally published, comic books and pulp magazines were considered disposable publications. Today they are collectors' items and sources for the scholarly analysis of American popular culture. Despite use restrictions owing to their fragility and rarity, these collections can be used by researchers to study twentieth-century American attitudes and popular interests.

Comic Books

Comic books began as a popular, relatively inexpensive American art form in the 1930s and have continued to flourish today. In addition to their value as collectibles, comic books are potentially rich sources for research in the arts, advertising, sociology, popular culture, and history. Perhaps no other medium provides such a popular representation of stereotypes, archetypes, national interests, and fads as do comic books. Comic books have evoked fervent reactions by detractors and enthusiasts who have interpreted their illustrations and story lines for their own ends. Women characters in comic books run the gamut from superhero, child, sidekick, romantic interest, model, outlaw, and ultimate erotic fantasy to serious career woman.

The largest publicly available collection of comic books in the United States is housed in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. The collection includes U.S. and foreign comic books--over 12,000 titles in all, totaling more than 140,000 issues. Primarily composed of the original print issues, the collection includes color microfiche of selected early comic book titles (such as Superman, More Fun, and Action Comics), bound volumes of comic books submitted by the publishers and special reprints. The collection is most comprehensive from the mid-1940s on; however, many titles date back to the 1930s. For some of the earliest modern comic books (those which began publishing in the 1930s), the collection holdings begin with the early 1940s.

Pulp Fiction

Another important collection that represents popular culture from the 1920s through the 1950s is the Library's collection of pulp fiction. “The Pulps,” so called because they were printed on cheap, highly acidic paper, grew out of the dime novel industry of the nineteenth century (see Women in Popular Culture in Rare Book and Special Collections). Cheap, portable, disposable, and usually sensational in presentation and content, pulps can be considered predecessors to today's paperback books. At five to twenty-five cents an issue, pulp fiction was a literature accessible to Americans at every income level—often sold at newsstands and drugstores. Until the mid-1950s, pulp fiction was the literature of choice for the reading public, before it was supplanted by comic books and paperbacks.

Pulps presented stereotypic views of society, often within a fantastic, unusual setting. Every genre of literature is represented; indeed, the pulps popularized several genres and writing styles. They introduced writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and Max Brand to the reading public. Pulp fiction writers were often prolific, usually followed a formulaic style and plot, and were paid by the word. As Lee Server points out, publishing houses of pulp fiction were considered writing factories, and deceased authors could have their name appropriated by anonymous hacks in order to attract buyers and to increase revenue. 18

Discussion of women in pulps often focuses on characters, which tended to be stereotypic and one-dimensional, and on cover artwork, which was deliberately enticing, exotic, and shocking. Women characters abounded in the pulps, sometimes as main characters but more often as companions, sidekicks, or inamoratas of male protagonists. Sue McEwen, the daughter of policeman Gilbert McEwen, had a supporting role in several Moon Man stories from 10 Detective Aces (Microfilm 95/1697 MicRR). Love Romances and Popular Love glamorized women and fostered ideal love while appealing to women readers. Oriental Stories and Dime Mystery Magazine, intended for male audiences, studied the darker side of eroticism and romantic obsession.