Pulps in the Movies. On Sale Every Wednesday.
Sometimes Spicy. Always Hot.
For the nineteenth installment in his series, pulp expert John Locke takes us along on another expedition, where we find a unique sighting of a pulp in the cinematic wild.
In Chapter 2 of the 1943 serial Batman — “The Bat’s Cave” — Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred wiles away the time reading the October 1940 issue of Spicy Detective. The “spicy” element should be obvious from the cover art—and from the prim Alfred’s startled expression. The content of the stories lived up to the lascivious suggestion of the cover. But only just.
The pulp belonged to a suite of four fiction magazines, the others being Spicy-Adventure, Spicy Mystery, and Spicy Western.
The appearance of a Spicy pulp in Batman is very much an inside joke. Both Culture Publications, which produced the Spicys, and DC Comics, which published Batman, were owned by the same individual: Harry Donenfeld.
(Another crossover: H.J. Ward, who painted the cover to this Spicy Detective — and many other issues of the chain — also painted a famous portrait of DC’s other big star, Superman.)
Because Spicy Detective was an “adult” magazine, and Batman aimed squarely at youngsters, the inside joke is barely discernible in the film. For one, the cover is obscured by shadow. Further, Alfred’s out-loud reading from the magazine reveals a standard spooky mystery. No sex.
But we insiders know what that look on his face really meant.
Note the grandfather clock in the background. It’s the secret entrance to the Bat’s Cave, from which Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson soon emerge to catch Alfred in the act of enjoying his guilty pleasure.
Bruce Wayne holds a “radium gun” that Batman and Robin have just confiscated from an insidious bunch of gangsters.
Just for laughs — and he gets ’em — Bruce zaps a vase on the table in front of Alfred — and the Spicy Detective goes airborne, exposing the risqué interior illustrations to any impressionable youth possessed of super-freeze-frame-sight.
Then Bruce and Dick take turns busting Alfred’s chops. He’s clearly the odd man out in this version of the Batman story:
When Alfred explains that he’s “sharpening his wits” with the detective-story magazine, it’s an extension of the gag for insiders who know that it’s not his wits that are gaining an edge from Spicy Detective. Alfred confirms as much by claiming to have made “a little joke.”
That’s all amusing enough, but this sighting is special for another reason:
It’s our only known appearance of a Spicy pulp on vintage film.
Ironically, the Spicys were off the market by the time Batman’s 15 weekly chapters were running in the summer of 1943. With the January 1943 issues, the publishers had toned down title and content to become the line of Speed magazines: Speed Detective, Speed Adventure, Speed Mystery, and Speed Western.
Thus the inside gag carried a note of nostalgia.
By the close of the 1930s, many pulps, in addition to the Spicys, had gotten quite daring — as well as offensive to the everyday Alfreds whose eyes and souls were assaulted by the extremes of sex and violence displayed on their local magazine racks — and at child’s-eye level.
In December 1938, a group of Catholic bishops formed the National Organization for Decent Literature to provoke citizens from coast-to-coast into pressuring vendors to take the offensive mags off the newsstands. For the most part, the initiative worked. When the bishops targeted the sex-and-sadism “weird menace” pulps in 1940 — Dime Mystery, Horror Stories, Terror Tales, Mystery Tales, etc. — they died, either through neutered content, outright cancellation, or both.
An entire pulp genre rapidly went extinct.
Except for Spicy Mystery, which remained as the last weird menace pulp standing.
The entire Spicy group motored on, seemingly impervious to censorship. The NODL lamented that the chain could turn a profit after selling thirty percent of the print runs, and thus there wasn’t enough boycotting muscle to bully the Culture boys into obedience.
However, wartime paper (i.e., labor) shortages — rumored through 1942 and introduced on January 1, 1943 — appeared to kill off the Spicys.
The timing is precise but the cause-and-effect less so.
We suppose that the publishers, with a frowned-upon product, feared being elbowed out of the competition for sufficient paper for all their endeavors. Why risk Batman just to be a little racy?