Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

In my previous column I covered the history of European sci-fi pulps from their origins up to the beginning of World War I. Now we're ready to delve into their history up through World War II.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Not surprisingly, the European pulp industry was heavily affected by World War I. 45 new pulps debuted in 1914, 24 in 1915, 31 in 1916, 35 in 1917, 13 in 1918. Of those, pulps from non-combatants Spain and Sweden accounted for 1 new pulp in 1914, 4 in 1915, 12 in 1916, 17 in 1917, and 3 in 1918, so that, from the combatant countries, 43 new pulps appeared in 1914, 20 in 1915, 19 in 1916, 18 in 1917, and 10 in 1918.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Only five new science fiction pulps debuted during World War I. Two of these, De Geheimzinnige Dokter #1-11 (1917-1918), in Belgium, and Le Mystérieux Docteur Cornélius #1-9 (1918-1920), in France, were reprints of Gustave Le Rouge's Le Mystérieux Docteur Cornélius #1-18 (1912-1913), about the titular doctor, the "Sculptor of Human Flesh," and his attempts to conquer the world. One of the pulps, the French Collection d'Aventures (533 issues, 1916-1926), was a multi-genre pulp which regularly featured science fiction. One of the pulps, the Czech/Bohemian Prizraky a Fantasie (21 issues, 1915-1918), primarily reprinted foreign sf translated into Czech but occasionally published new Czech science fiction. The remaining pulp was the German Hans Stark Der Fliegerteufel #1-30 (1914), about a German teenager too young to fight in the war who discovers some abandoned, advanced technology-ultimately revealed to have come from Captain Mors (of the 1908-1911 Der Luftpirat und sein Lenkbares Luftschiff)-and uses it to make a vehicle which can fly, is submersible, and has machine guns and a heat ray. Stark uses his ship to travel around the world, and to fight Zulus, Bedouins, and Lost Race Aztecs, among others.

However, the science fictional crept into the pulps of other genres, for the most part in Germany, regularly enough to make it debatable whether those pulps were purely detective (or western or adventure) or a combination of detective and science fiction. Numerous Nick Carter and Nat Pinkerton stories (two of the three most popular pulp characters of the era) had large amounts of fantastic material. Roughly half of the stories of the German detective pulp Detektiv John Spurlock (36 issues, 1915) were science fictional; in one story Spurlock discovers the formula responsible for turning Dr. Jekyll into Mister Hyde, and in issues 18 and 19 Spurlock leads the fight against a second invasion of H.G. Wells' Martians. The anonymously-written Jürgen Peters der Schiffsjunge (#1-448, 1914-1923), about a ship's boy on a sailing ship in the 1870s and 1880s, encounters everything from the Grampus (from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket") to the Curupuri (from A. Conan Doyle's The Lost World) to kaiju-sized giant pigs.

Science fiction in the 1920s

The 1920s saw a surge in the number of European science fiction pulps, although the genre's numbers continued to be small compared to the detective, adventure, and western genres. This time period was the Golden Age of European pulp science fiction, with great diversity in the content of the pulps and in the range of countries publishing science fiction pulps.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Of the 48 new science fiction pulps to appear during this period, 16 were German and 10 were French. (Spain and Italy both had 4, Hungary, Italy, and the Netherlands both had 3). 12 of the new science fiction pulps were reprints, with Le Mystérieux Docteur Cornélius accounting for 5 of the reprints.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

One popular type of science fiction pulp was the "fantastic machine" pulp, about vehicles similar to Hans Stark's submersible airship. The most popular of the fantastic machine pulps, and one of the most popular science fiction pulps of the decade, was the anonymously-written Phil Morgan - Der Herr der Welt #1-171 (1920-1922, reprinted in Poland in 1925). The titular adventurer uses the wonder element "morganite" to fuel his "Phaenomen-Apparat" vehicle, which can fly, go underwater and even travel into space. Morgan uses the Phaenomen-Apparat to fight Robur-like sky pirates and Lost Race Inca who wield advanced science. Another pulp in this mode is the anonymously-written Jim Buffalo, Der Mann mit der Teufelsmaschine #1-29 (1922-1923). "Jim Buffalo" is actually Horst Radichow, a German laborer who uses the Testament of Calgiostro to create "Devil Machine," a black, cylindrical, six-wheeled vehicle which is armored, has a retractable roof, and is covered with paintings of devil faces. The Machine can act not only as automobile, airplane, and submarine, but can even travel in time. Radichow uses the Devil Machine to become "Jim Buffalo," vigilante adventurer and rescuer of kidnaped maidens. He finds a techno-utopian domed city on the bottom of the ocean, and he travels back in time, helping the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon and solving historical mysteries such as the fate of a lost Egyptian city.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Superheroes and aliens

Another popular type of science fiction pulp was the "superhero" pulp. Pulps about heroes with superhuman powers were not new to the 1920s-in a future column I'll cover the history of superhero pulps-and the superhero pulps of the 1920s were not particularly innovative, but there were more of them than had appeared in previous decades. The two most popular superhero pulps were the French Fascinax and the German Sir Ralf Clifford, Der Unsichtbare Mensch. The anonymously-written Fascinax (22 issues, 1921), which was popular enough to be reprinted in Italy in 1924, is about an English doctor who saves a yogi while working in the Philippines and as a reward is given the ability to see the future, to dominate other men with a look and to be alerted to imminent dangers via marks on the body. Leicester decides to use his new powers to fight evil as the mysterious "Fascinax." He also uses an array of technologically advanced items, including the fascine, a car that can change into an airplane, a seaplane which also operates as a submarine, and a deadly, silent "electrical gun," Fascinax fights a variety of evils, including a super-hypnotist, a water-breathing female master criminal, a murderous gnome, and a Martian invasion.

Martin Winfried's Sir Ralf Clifford (192 issues, 1921-1925), which was reprinted in Italy in 1929 and 1930, is about an American who, after instruction from an Indian fakir, is given the mummified head of a cobra. When Clifford presses the cobra head against his breast, he is injected with a poisonous fluid which scars him but also leaves him invisible for seven minutes. If Clifford should be dosed 217 times, he will die. (Fortunately, the series was cancelled before the 217th dose was applied). Clifford takes on secret cults, vampires, subterranean masterminds, werewolves, and living Buddhas.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Detective science fiction

A number of the most popular science fiction pulps were detective pulps which regularly featured science fictional elements. Joe Morris' Kleine Detektiv-Romane #1-370 (1919-1927, reprinted in Denmark in 1923), features a Nick Carter-like private detective, Will Morton, fighting everything from a Japanese Yellow Peril unbalancing the world economy through gold dug out of a giant meteorite to a mad scientist using "the Terror Machine" to threaten New York City. The anonymously-written Frank Allan, der Rächer der Enterbten #1-612 (1920-1932)–the most popular European pulp of the decade, it was reprinted across Europe during the 1920s and early 1930s-featured a world-traveling American adventurer who fights submarine pirate, vampires, the accurately-named Mr. Satan, and a Captain Mors analogue.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Like the detective/science fiction pulps, many of the most successful and popular science fiction pulps seemed to be in completely different pulp genres. One of the most popular genres of pulps in the world during the 1920s was the Celebrity Pulp. The basic assumption of Celebrity Pulps is that the public persona of a celebrity (usually but not always a movie star) is the celebrity's real personality. So the Celebrity Pulps about Polish film actress Pola Negri (1897-1987), who was famous for femme fatale roles, featured Negri–and not a character she played in a film–being a femme fatale in real life.

Harry Piel (1892-1963), a German film star and director for three decades, was the protagonist of 243 issues of four different German Celebrity Pulps from 1920 to 1928 (the pulps were reprinted in Hungary in 1923, in Poland in 1924, and in Czechoslovakia in 1926). The fictional Piel is a "gentleman of the world," a detective-adventurer at ease in the abysses of the wilds and in the big city, fighting for good, helping the poor and downtrodden, rescuing imperilled maidens, and so on. But Piel also encounters a scientist whose flying car is stolen and used by criminals; Piel fights an android used to commit crime and controlled remotely; and for twenty issues Piel's archenemy is the malign mad scientist Professor Terlan, who uses various inventions, including anti-gravity and an invisibility gas, to commit crimes.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

The decline of pulps in the late 1920s

A change for the worse began in 1928. The number of pulp titles published had been declining since 1922, both overall and in the most popular genres, and 1927 was the year in which the medium hit a nine-year low in titles published. The numbers began to increase again in 1928, but the number of countries publishing science fiction pulps declined, and within a few years the Depression and then the rise of fascism in Europe would affect content even further.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

The 1928-1938 time period saw the rise of pulps from the 1927 low to the 1931 high and then the subsequent fall in numbers, caused by the Depression and political uncertainty. During these years only 31 new science fiction pulps appeared, and during the 1929-1931 period, which were the peak years for European pulps as a whole, only 8 new science fiction pulps appeared. It wasn't until 1932 (5 new science fiction pulps) and 1933 (8 new science fiction pulps) that the genre began to recover, but these new pulps were departures from what had come before.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Germany was no longer the leader in science fiction pulps. The rise in fascism in Germany led to government pressure on publishers (later codified into law) to make their magazines and fictional heroes more German–and later in the decade, more in line with Nazi ideology and policies. This resulted in the appearance of fewer new German pulps and fewer German science fiction pulps, so that during the 1928-1938 time period only 6 of the 31 (19%) new science fiction pulps were German, compared to 1919-1927 period, when 16 of 48 (33.3%) new science fiction pulps were German. What replaced Germany was Spain, which was responsible for 11 of the 31 (35.5%) of the new science fiction pulps.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

In some respects Germany remained the standard-bearer for European science fiction pulps. The most popular science fiction pulp in Europe during these years was published in Germany. Wilhelm and Hans Reinhard's Jörn Farrow's U-Boot Abenteuer (357 issues, 1932-1937), about the teenaged captain of a technologically-advanced submarine, and his battles against giant squid, Kraken, Yellow Perils, enemy submarines, and alien slavers, was hugely popular around the continent and was reprinted in Spain in 1934 and given an unauthorized makeover ("Jörn Farrow" became "Captain Jones") in Italy as Sottomarino X2 #1-63 (1934). The most popular non-science fiction pulps to regularly feature sf elements all came from Germany: Elisabeth von Aspern's Tom Shark, der König der Detektivs #1-553 (1928-1939), about a Sexton Blake-like Great Detective, Wilhelm and Hans Reinhard's Rolf Torrings Abenteuer #1-446 (1930-1939), about a German big game hunter, and Alfred Bienengraber's John Kling's Abenteuer #43-592 (1924-1933) and John Kling's Erinnerungen #1-215 (1931-1939), about a Sexton Blake-like Great Detective, all told stories about mad scientists, cities of psychics who used mummies for their armies, weretigers, Martians, and orbital platforms armed with atomic bombs.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

The rise of fascism

However, the rise in fascism in the German pulps made them less acceptable to foreign publishers. As the decade progressed German pulps became increasingly pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, and anti-foreigner. Jörn Farrow changed from a straightforward science fiction pulp to one in which Germany's involvement in World War One was repeatedly justified and Jews were routinely blamed for German's defeat. By 1934 the most popular science fiction pulp in Germany was Paul Alfred Müller-Murnau's Sun Koh, Die Erbe von Atlantis (150 issues, 1933-1936), about a superhuman Aryan descendant of the Mayan kings and his involvement in the genocide of the lesser races.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

It was Spain and not Germany which was the foremost producer of science fiction pulps during the 1930s. Even the caesura caused by the Spanish Civil War was only a three-year interruption. Few of the Spanish science fiction pulps had the longevity of their German counterparts; the longest-lasting of these Spanish science fiction pulps was José Canellas Casals and Francisco Darnis' Los Vampiros del Aire #1-45 (1933-1934), about the brothers Carlos and Marcos Bon, who put on costumes with mechanical wings and fight a gang of criminals with similar flying suits, as well as witches, ghosts, and werewolves. However, the most popular and longest-lasting Spanish pulp series of the 1930s, though a Western, had huge amounts of fantastic material.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

The anonymously-written El Sheriff #1-200 (1929-1935), Pete #1-? (1935-?), Aventuras Ineditas de Arizona Jim #1-4 (1936), Aventura de Peter #1-2 (1942), and El Intrepido Arizona #1-24 (1942), are about Arizona Jim, the sheriff of a small town in Arizona, and Pete, Jim's Chinese assistant. Many of their adventures were standard Westerns, but nearly half of their adventures partook of the fantastic, from duels with Navajo werewolves (perhaps inspired by the 1913 film The Werewolf, the first werewolf film), zombies, vampires, aliens, Fu Manchu. and Jim and Pete's trip on Captain Nemo's Nautilus. The final issue of El Sheriff featured Jim being killed by his arch-enemy, but, delightfully, El Sheriff's sequel, Pete, portrayed Jim as Pete's zombie mentor. (Yes: zombie mentor).

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

World War II and planetary romances

World War Two put an end to the pulp industry in most European countries and depressed it in the rest. The only exception was Spain, which as a non-combatant suffered the least of any European country. Correspondingly, the pulp industry in Spain flourished. While adventure, detective, and Western pulps remained roughly as popular as they were before the war, science fiction became more popular, with a larger number of science fiction pulps appearing than at any time since the start of the Spanish pulp industry in 1921.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

Planetary romances were popular: four planetary romance pulps, all influenced by Flash Gordon, appeared between 1941 and 1945. Jungle heroes were popular: three jungle hero pulps, all obviously on the Tarzan model but using even more fantastic elements (cavemen and Neanderthals, dinosaurs, mad scientists, and so on) appeared between 1942 and 1944. A very popular pulp that was canceled due to the imprisonment of its author was Heinrich Hoffmann's 3 Mosqueteros del Siglo XX #1-5 (1940-1) about three German World War One veterans who use advanced technology, including a high-tech submarine, to fight evil on the earth, in the skies, and in the depths of the ocean. A more interesting pulp, and one of the rare European science fiction pulps to be set in the future, was A. Olle Bertran's El Espectro #1-4 (1944-1945), about a costumed superhero in the year 1985 fighting for free Hungary against the oppressive Confederation of the States of the Danube.

Planetary romance, zombie mentors, and the rise of fascism: European pulp fiction 1914-1945

The most popular type of Spanish science fiction pulp was the hero pulp. The three most popular pulps in Spain during the war were Manuel Vallvé López's Hércules #1-6 (1942-1943), about a Basque engineer modeled on Doc Savage; José Mallorquí's Duke #1-10 (1943-1946), about an American crimefighter who uses a high-tech super-auto to fight Axis spies, mad scientists, Yellow Perils, and other evils in New York City; and Guillermo Lopez Hipkiss' Yuma #1-14 (1943-1946), about a Barcelonan vigilante modeled on both Doc Savage and the Shadow.

After World War Two ended Germany quickly regained its position as the leader in science fiction pulps, but the post-WW2 period is a subject for another essay.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.