Learning From Vintage Magazines: Back in the Day

Fiction and nonfiction writers can glean lessons about writing from the examples of industry defying, sometimes outlandish, vintage magazines, and comics.
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Fiction and nonfiction writers alike can glean lessons about writing from the examples of industry defying, sometimes outlandish, vintage magazines, and comics. Don Vaughn explains in this essay from the May/June 2019 issue of Writer's Digest.

Vintage Magazines, learning from

Over the last century, an eclectic array of magazines rose up to dramatically alter the publishing landscape. Some were new in concept, such as comic books, a truly American art form birthed in the mid-1930s to immediate success. Others were new in approach, such as Esquire in the 1960s, empowered and eager to take on the establishment as never before.

Writers today can learn much from publications of the past—magazines that defined exciting new trends in journalism, embraced innovative writing styles and gave voice to some of the 20th century’s most influential writers.

1. The Pulps (1890s–1950s)

Made from the cheapest paper available, pulp magazines were among the bestselling fiction publications of their day, with the most popular titles selling hundreds of thousands of copies per month at their height. The pulps paid just a penny or so a word, so writers quickly learned that making a living required a nimble imagination and remarkable speed, with some working on several stories simultaneously.

Contemporary fiction writers can learn from pulp magazines the importance of a tight, character-driven narrative; the necessity of imaginative descriptions and how to immediately grab the reader with an action-filled lead. Jack Byrne, managing editor of the pulp magazine publisher Fiction House, wrote in an August 1929 Writer’s Digest article detailing the manuscript needs of Fiction House’s 11 magazines: “We must have a good, fast opening. Smack us within the first paragraph. Get our interest aroused. Don’t tell us about the general geographic situation or the atmospheric conditions. Don’t describe the hero’s physique or the kind of pants he wears. Start something!”

Readers can find pulps aplenty on eBay, as well as in anthologies such as The Pulps, edited by Tony Goodstone, and The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler.

2. Comic books in the 1940s

The comic book as we know it today was birthed as a secondary showcase for popular newspaper comic strips. The medium’s appeal was immediate, and by the early 1940s comic books flooded newsstands. The ’40s was arguably the most important era in comic book history because the medium invented itself as it went along. Many comic books back then were dreck, but there were also gems, such as Bill Finger’s early stories for Batman and the Green Lantern.

Finger and his colleagues saw in comics a fertile new market where they could play with outlandish characters and explore innovative ways to tell a story. Quite a few mainstream authors supplemented their income writing for comic books during this period, including Mickey Spillane, Alfred Bester, Otto Binder and Edmond Hamilton, who enjoyed a lengthy stint penning the adventures of Superman.

Writers today can learn about careful plotting and thoughtful character development from comic books of the 1940s. Popular titles from that era, such as Superman, Captain America and the original Captain Marvel, can be found in a variety of readily available inexpensive omnibuses.

[You might also enjoy this: 10 Writing Lessons from Vintage Paperback books by Jeff Somers.]

3. Men’s Adventure Magazines (1944–early ’70s)

One of the most interesting publishing trends of the post-World War II era was the men’s adventure magazine. At the genre’s height, dozens of very manly titles filled newsstands, enticing readers with lurid headlines such as “We Battled the Man-Starved Nymphos of Corumba” and even more sensational illustrations. Their tabloid-y policy of story over facts resulted in over-the-top tales of combat heroics, horrific battles against nature (“Weasels Ripped My Flesh”), lost civilizations and more.

While these magazines have nothing to offer journalists, fiction writers will find a master class in put-it-all-on-the-page storytelling. Most men’s adventure writers toiled in anonymity, but a handful of famous names rose to prominence, including playwright Bruce Jay Friedman and The Godfather author Mario Puzo. Four volumes of men’s adventure features, edited by Pep Pentangeli, are currently available for curious contemporary readers.

4. Esquire in the 1960s

Audacious best describes Esquire in the 1960s. During this era, the magazine published its most iconic and controversial covers (a smiling William Calley surrounded by Vietnamese children, an arrow-pierced Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian) and introduced New Journalism. Suddenly, reportage was more than facts and figures—it included tropes previously found only in fiction, and often the writer was central to the story.

Writers in the early stages of their careers will find much to glean from the approach, style and structure of ’60s-era Esquire features such as “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese, “M” by John Sack and “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” by Tom Wolfe, among others.

Esquire wasn’t alone in this movement, but the remarkable freedom it gave its writers helped make it a cornerstone in an era when journalism was in flux. Esquire's complete archives are available by subscription (classic.esquire.com). It's worth every penny.

5. Playboy in the 1960s

Established on a shoestring in 1953, Playboy took a few years to find its footing. But by the 1960s, it became a publishing powerhouse and household name. Like Esquire during this period, Playboy was turning journalism on its head, especially when it came to the art of the interview. The magazine sent Alex Haley to interview the founder of the American Nazi Party (Haley also conducted groundbreaking interviews with Martin Luther King Jr. and Miles Davis) and unhesitatingly explored the psyches of everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Ayn Rand.

Playboy’s editors understood the importance of thorough pre-interview research, well-crafted questions and bravery on the part of the interviewer. Some of the era’s best interviews can be found in The Playboy Interview, edited by G. Barry Golson.

6. 1970s Rolling Stone

Launched in November 1967, Jann Wenner’s music newspaper really came into its own in the 1970s—a revolutionary decade that demanded a new approach to covering news. Like Esquire a decade prior, Rolling Stone freed its writers from traditional journalistic constraints and encouraged them to cover stories in new, provocative ways. Perhaps the apex of this approach was the publication in two parts of Hunter S. Thompson’s hilariously radical “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which likely would have found a home nowhere else.

Contemporary nonfiction writers looking to hone their craft are encouraged to study the ’70s-era reporting of Tim Cahill, Howard Kohn, Tom Wolfe, Tom Burke and Joe Eszterhas—masters at looking past the obvious for the real story hidden in the dark. Rolling Stone has published a number of collections, but the best remains Reporting: The Rolling Stone Style, edited by Paul Scanlon. It contains some of the magazine’s best stories from the “Me Decade.”

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