This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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STORYTELLING IN THE PULPS, COMICS, AND RADIO
by Tim DeForest
McFarland & Co., 229 pgs. $39
Reviewed by Jim Cox
(From Radio Recall, October 2004)
The enveloping effects of industrialization have produced substantial changes, not just in the way we perform our major tasks with a profound
effect upon daily lifestyles, but in humble expressions, too. In the latter group, the simple matter of how we share a yarn with one another is
included. From an oral tradition in widespread use to the nineteenth century, we have embraced popular literature and electronic media since to accomplish this feat. In an unquenchable thirst for new discoveries in conveying ideas, we have discarded some that could still be enormously
satisfying if they were done right.
"Sometimes the item we've just tossed on the cultural junk heap still has value. It still served a unique purpose that can't be adequately fulfilled
by whatever new thing replaces it," contends Florida librarian Tim DeForest in his recently released volume Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics, and Radio. Painstakingly, DeForest carries his readers down memory lane in a nostalgic tribute to a trio of abandoned story models after the inception of modern technology. Again and again he insists that "'new' hasn't always meant 'better.'" It's a theory that many vintage radio-programming fans have ascribed to for decades.
Any one of the three spheres in which DeForest labors seems worthy of a single tome by itself. Nonetheless, he provides a dozen chapters on the pulps, another half-dozen on the comic strips and comic books and 10 chapters on the radio narrative. His was a formidable task, yet his
research appears authentic and sweeping and his writing style compelling.
In the comic section he shares how the term "yellow journalism" was derived, one of several possibly insignificant but fascinating bits of trivia. He skillfully recounts how the Sunday comic page began and how it turned into an indispensable in most newspapers of the early twentieth century.
The reader may be surprised that DeForest tackles some thorny issues while returning to the past. In the section on pulp fiction he addresses the topic of non-white characters "either absent altogether or portrayed as stereotypes." Revered authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu) and Philip Nowlan (Buck Rogers) championed the superiority of the white race-at least by inference-and they are objects of gentle reprimand in DeForest's exposure.
But he minces no words in chastising the Weird Menace pulps and a line of imitators for horror stories that involved, of all things, psychopathic and often deformed murderers pursuing gorgeous, scantily-clad women. The latter group suffered every conceivable form of degradation. "What made them [the stories] so offensive," writes DeForest, "was the idea that the portrayal of a woman in danger of sexual violation was itself sexually titillating." It was the only draw of such magazines, he disparages.
At the close of each section of his trilogy DeForest considers the factors that led to a form's failure as a contributing method of storytelling. In
assessing the decline of the pulps he suggests that comic books offered more graphic and readily available sources of fantasy adventure. World War II also brought paper shortages that forced publishers to diminish print runs and cancel magazines. In assigning blame for the reduction (and extinction) of comic strips and comic books, meanwhile, the author maintains: "Mostly, it's the fault of the average reader. People could have-and should have-objected to the deterioration of the comics pages. Some few people did, but most just accepted what they were given."
To place that failure on newspaper subscribers, albeit unhappy ones, with greater issues to deal with than organizing a community protest against the fading size of favorite comic strips seems a stretch. How could one reach and persuasively influence a syndicate distributing a cartoon, for example? In theory it sounds like a plan but in reality, none too practical.
DeForest follows the historical progression of storytelling into radio. He makes the gripping assertion that radio forced the audience to do some of the work, a hypothesis that old time radio buffs have touted for decades. "It forces you to pay attention and rewards you with a level of emotional engagement that few other mediums outside of oral storytelling can match," he observes.
In his radio treatise he explores the epic narratives Dimension X, Dragnet, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Superman and
Suspense, plus horror tales like Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Lights Out, The Mysterious Traveler and The Witch's Tale. All who loved those shows will revel in his inspired disclosures. Glaring by omission, unfortunately, are the private eyes, soap operas, juvenile adventure serials and premium dramas.
Before concluding, DeForest uses his opportunity to drive home a belief-an impression throughout the book-that "less is more." Thus, with television, which superseded radio as an amusement form, he hammers: "We are asked to bring nothing to the stories ourselves. It is a passive, not active, medium. Each of us sees exactly the same thing, and there's no requirement to think or feel."
|Indeed, most readers could hardly agree with him more.
This 229-page paperback including a couple of appendices may be ordered at $39, including shipping and handling, from:
McFarland & Co., Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640. It is also available by calling 800-253-2187 or online at www.mcfarlandpub.com.