Monday, March 19, 2018

'Damn you, Kraut, what kind of lousy trick is this?'

A few weeks ago I rewatched Wings, the original Best Picture Oscar winner from 1927. That World War I classic made me curious about the "war-air" pulps that flourished around the same time or shortly afterward. Conveniently, I had a chance to sample one such magazine. Dare-Devil Aces was an early Popular Publications title, launching in February 1932 and lasting through the end of World War II. I've been making my way through the January 1937 issue, and even though I'm only halfway through it I realize what a challenge it must have been to write for the war-air pulps. There doesn't seem to be a lot of stories one can write about the war in the air, compared to the comparatively infinite possibilities of the chaotic war on the ground. Nor could one take anything like a nuanced view of World War I, apparently, as the audience for Dare-Devil Aces, on the evidence of this issue, was a lot more juvenile than the audience for Wings or the later films of screenwriter John Monk Saunders. In the war of the Dare-Devil Aces the Germans are always vicious, arrogant and cowardly, preferring to attack only with superior numbers and, whenever possible, with secret weapons. To write for the magazine, your story had to have a gimmick. In the lead novelette, star writer Robert Sidney Bowen's "Black Vengeance," the Germans have gimmicked tracer bullets that release clouds of poisoned splinters that paralyze enemy pilots on contact. In Eliot Todd's "Dynamite Buzzard," the Huns have a prototype "range finder" that allows anti-aircraft guns to detect Allied planes through clouds and in complete darkness. Fortunately for the U.S. and their Entente pals, these prototype superweapons are always destroyed and, ideally, their inventors are killed before they can fully share their insights with the high command. Some stories have gimmicks that have nothing to do with special weapons. In Reg Dinsmore's "Hell's Hooligan," for instance, the gimmick is that our American pilot hero is such a ginger snap that both allies and enemies laugh at his appearance until his heroism shuts their mouths. It's not much of a gimmick, admittedly, but it wasn't much of a story, either. Dare-Devil Aces seems to have been monotonous stuff; the target reader must have had a mental button that really needed pushing to keep buying the pulp month after month. It's the first pulp I've read that really reminded me of reading a comic book -- of the Golden or Silver Age sort -- in its high-concept simplicity. My understanding was that in 1937 a more cynical attitude toward the Great War prevailed in pop culture, though that would change very shortly, but Dare-Devil Aces reads as if the war was still on -- or, depending on your perspective, as if the war had already re-started.

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