Blog: Thoughts and comments on the world of the pulp magazines

The popularity of pulp characters

Posted by at 3:01 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2006 in Opinion, Pulps
Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

I’ve recently been thinking about the popularity of pulp characters. Not just popularity among pulp fans, but their popularity among the general public. Could any Average Joe or Jane name a pulp character? Probably not, not knowing what the pulps were. But many of them would probably recognize a character if named for them.

Buck Rogers first appeared in Amazing Stories

Buck Rogers first appeared in Amazing Stories

So, thinking along those lines, I tried to come up with the Top 10 Widely-known Pulp Characters. This wasn’t a scientific study, but just the results of ruminating on the question over the past week.

The disappointing thing was that I could only come up with six characters that were truly pulp characters and that would be known by the teeming masses. I came up with two other lists of characters that, one, were widely recognized, but not pulp originals; and, two, used to be more widely known, but are probably mostly forgotten today.

Here are my picks for the Top 6 Widely-known Pulp Characters (in alphabetical order):
• Buck Rogers
• Captain Future (though not in the United States)
• Conan
• The Shadow
• Tarzan
• Zorro

Say the name of any of those characters to your co-worker, and he or she would probably recognize it, though not necessarily from the pulp stories. Yes, I would hazard to say that most widely-known pulp characters earned their mass recognition, not from the pages of pulp magazines, but from other media, chiefly movies, television and, to a lesser degree now, radio.

My second tier of widely-known characters are those that originated in other media, but turned up in the pages of pulp magazines. (They are also in alphabetical order.)
• Dr. Kildare
• Flash Gordon
• The Lone Ranger

My last tier is made up of characters that used to have a higher recognition quotient, but have lost it over the passage to time. (Also in alphabetical order…)
• Jack Armstrong
• Torchy Blayne
• Captain Blood
• Bomba the Jungle Boy
• Brick Bradford
• Nick Carter
• Sheena
• Tailspin Tommy

Certainly my second and third tier character lists aren’t definitive, but neither is my Top 6 list. Are there others I’m missing?

– William


  1. Doc Savage?

    I figure most people — over a certain age, anyway — would at least recognize the name.

  2. Ah, I was wondering when someone would mention Doc.

    As much as I’m a Doc fan, I’d have to say that even at the height of the Bantam paperbacks, Doc Savage wasn’t much of a household name. (Though he was certainly popular with many teenage readers.) And even the bump in notability (notoriety?) caused by the movie, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, probably was only limited among the mass public.

  3. Good list. I would agree with most of it but I don’t know if Captain Blood and Bomba the Jungle Boy actually appeared in the pulps. (However, the pulps printed everything else, so why not?}

    Speaking of Bomba, the novels were put together by the same fiction factory that produced Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and a host of other book series for children. The organization is the subject of an excellent book, “Girl SLeuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her.”

    I read Bomba when I was 10 or 11. I checked the novels out of our church library of all places. (The library had all of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, too.) Bomba provided good, clean jungle fun, even if the racism in the books was readily apparent even to a preteen boy from Mississippi.

  4. Captain Blood stories appeared in Adventure as well as several slicks, including Cosmopolitan before it started running quizzes about boyfriends and such. You may be right about Bomba not appearing in the pulps. My original source wasn’t very clear and I don’t see any other references to Bomba pulp stories.

    As a follow-up to The Retro’s post about Doc Savage, yeah, after more thinking, he should have been listed in the final list of characters whose popularity has faded over time (at least when we speak of the general population).