“The type of thing I came up with was what sold at the time: Guys with guns and gals with no pants on.”–Norm Saunders (1983)
A man presses himself against the wall of a collapsed mine as a grizzly, reared on its hind legs, swipes at him through a gap in the rocks. A man, barechested, fights off a swarm of vampire bats as they tear his flesh. A man, chained, grits his teeth as a woman with a Nazi armband whips him with a crop.
If the covers of Man’s Life are anything to go by, a man’s life is filled with Nazis, floppy women in tattered gowns and animal attacks.
Man’s Life is one of a slew of men’s magazines from the 1950s and 1960s. They catered to a target audience often clearly delineated in their titles: Man’s Life; World of Men; Adventures for Men; Man’s Conquest, and the pointed, Men and Male. They had pulp pages, but gloriously lurid, glossy covers painted in a commercially realistic style that’s something like Norman Rockwell, but kinkier. They ran thrilling stories and first person testimonies of adventure and war as well as articles that seemed to respond to—while exacerbating—anxiety about masculinity and sex. Articles like: “The American Male Is Losing His Manhood” (Man’s Life);”; “You Can Get More Out Of Sex” (Man’s Life, 1956); “The Sex Secret That No Woman Will Tell You”; “Self-Analysis: Are You A Sex Coward?” (New Man, 1964); “Masculine Inadequacies Are Driving Women Nuts ” (Man’s Life, 1957) and “The Alimony Rackets” (Man’s Conquest, 1955).
These articles aren’t so different from ones published by Maxim, contemporary pick-up artist/seduction or men’s rights sites, but these are paired with more interesting stories: “I Was Cornered By A Grizzly Bear” (Man’s Life, 1956); “I Gamble With Death For Pirate’s Gold” (Man’s Conquest, 1955) and “Helpless Brides of Satan’s Ice Monster” (Man’s Book, 1968).
Apparently, masculinity has been in crisis for a while now.
The covers are fascinating. In them, white, red-blooded American men live lives of action and adventure, often in warzones or the jungle, behind the Iron Curtain or battling “The Girl Pirates of the Yangtze.” The women are often almost naked but not quite, with clothes torn or stripped down to their underwear. Their mouths gape in distress, helpless in the embrace of titanic pythons or desperately clinging to men fighting off blood-crazed bears, sharks or orcas with only a knife. Villainesses often sport Nazi halter top and hot pant sets. Men of color menace white women or are subservient to brawny white adventurers or GI’s. And beyond their immediate camp appeal, they are like a peek into someone’s mind, though I’m not quite sure whose—the readers, the artists, the art directors?
There’s always been a lascivious component to pulp covers and they often reveal creators and readers’ kinks. Some of the most shocking covers become tame—even quaint—over time. For example, Weird Tales‘ many imperiled ladies are kind of adorable now. I appreciate men’s magazine covers in ways both serious and camp, but after looking at gallery after gallery of them, they run together and man’s life in adventure magazines starts to feel like a big show covering a sense of resentment, loss and even longing.
Turns out that artist Norman Saunders had a theory about why men were attracted to the magazines. Pulp historian and Saunder’s son, David Saunders writes:
Dad felt these [magazines] were geared towards men who had served in the war but had seen no action, so exciting tales of heroic deeds satisfied their frustrated fantasies. By 1962 these magazines had gone over the top into a whole new genre that was aimed at men’s frustrated sexual fantasies, New Man, Man’s Book and Men Today.
Norman Saunders should know. He painted hundreds of these covers. He started in 1927 at age 20, illustrating any genre—Westerns, weird tales, crime, even Modern Mechanix. He painted illustrations for comics, paperback and magazine covers and Topps bubble gum trading cards, including Mars Attacks (1962), the basis of Tim Burton’s movie, and the Wacky Packs (1967-78), which were omnipresent at candy counters in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a fine artist and had been offered a scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago, but passed it up in favor of a job offer at Fawcett Publishing.
In a 1983 interview with Suburbia Today, Saunders describes traveling to Minneapolis for his first job:
I was hitchhiking, got into this Model T Ford with a big trunk strapped up and these two guys in front. One of them had a gun, a rifle. He said, ‘Keep your eye peeled on the back, kid, see if there are any police or motorcycle cops or something.’ What the hell was this? These two guys had robbed somebody, or tried to, out in North Dakota, and they had stolen this car from some farmer and were trying to get away. As we got to the outskirts Bemidji, I was getting awful nervous…
There at the town they saw a sand pit with a big hole dug out of it, and they took this car over and got out and pushed it in. They went that way, and I went this way.
That night I caught a freight train to Minneapolis. I took a streetcar ride to the end of the line, and there was a two-story bank there and a big sign: ‘Robbinsdale, the home of Fawcett Publications.’ I said, ‘By gosh and by gracious, we got us a real true publisher here!’ There was where they were printing Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang.
And if hitching a ride with robbers doesn’t seem enough like a story straight out of a men’s magazines, the rest of his life sure does. Saunders was born in 1907 and grew up in rural Minnesota. According to his son, he lived among fur trappers and almost became a blood brother to a Chippewa man. He danced and boozed his way through Prohibition and made enough money from his paintings to live well during the Great Depression. In World War II, Saunders served in the military police before helping lay a gas pipeline along the Burma Road as part of the Army Corps of Engineers between 1943 and 1945.
Maybe Saunders own adventurous life made it easier to understand the men who bought and read these magazines, gripping the pages with the ink rubbing into their fingers as they longed for different lives and resented what might be keeping those lives from them.
Spider monkey and flying squirrel covers by the master of tiny, swarming animal attacks, Wil Hulsey.
Books for reading: Men’s Adventure Magazines: In Postwar America (Taschen, 2008); It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, The Postwar Pulps (Feral House, 2003); Norman Saunders (The Illustrated Press, 2009); and a collection of the 1960s Mars Attacks trading cards, Mars Attacks (Abrams Comics Art, 2012).
Carol Borden sailed with the Girl Pirates of the Yangtze and gambled with rabid flying squirrels for their gold!
(Originally published by The Cultural Gutter on June 20, 2012).