Saturday, July 25, 2015

ca. October 1950: PLANET STORIES, STARTLING STORIES, THRILLING WONDER STORIES and their companions as GALAXY debuts, conclusion/part 5

Cover by Allen Anderson?
read this issue at
Part 1
Part 2 
Part 3 
Part 4
As readers of the previous installments might know, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine made a big splash in sf circles and beyond with its October 1950 first issue, as part of an effort by a very successful European magazine publisher trying establish some lucrative US projects, after their international hit in various languages, the all-ages romance comics title released here as Fascination, flopped. Galaxy, however, was an immediate success, if not the kind of huge moneymaker World Editions was hoping for...and it was widely hailed in the sf community, with good reason, as the best new sf magazine to arrive in at least a year, when heavily fantasy-oriented The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction launched, and possibly ever (see Robert Silverberg's brief testimonial in Part 1).  But the tendency to discount the contribution and quality of many of the magazines already in place at Galaxy's foundation (and at least one just after, Damon Knight's Worlds Beyond) are, by me, unfortunate at best, and for this last installment, we deal with three of the best extant rivals of Galaxy at its birth, and their certainly not-bad reprint companions. 

Love Romances Publishing Co./Fiction House; 
Jerome Bixby, editor
If any sf magazine was more loved and more mocked, with only some justice, than Planet Stories, I'm not sure which title that might be.  Planet was the epitome of adventure sf magazines; despite its title for today's literary taxonomists in sf circles, it was the unabashed home of space opera as well as planetary romance (is your adventure in free space or on a planetary or other gravitational body?), and also would publish rather more sedate pieces, not least as one of the first regular markets for Ray Bradbury. In fact, among Bradbury's first professional publications was his collaboration with the single greatest writer as well as the heart and soul of Planet throughout its 1939-1955 run, Leigh Brackett. While most of Planet's editors throughout the 1940s apparently barely demonstrated knowing how to properly hold a red pencil, they were fortunate in having Brackett as a passionate and prolific contributor of some of the best and most heartfelt adventure sf yet published. And she wasn't alone...actually, throughout the history of the magazine, it published no little good or better work from a range of the best writers in the field, including many who were also stars over at the much more widely respected Astounding Science Fiction, where Robert Heinlein served as the primary example of what that magazine could produce...but, unfortunately, the 1940s Planet editors
Cover by Kelly Freas
seemed just as happy to take in the writing of the likes of Stanley Mullen, some of the clumsiest bits of prose you don't want to read. But with the appointment of Jerome Bixby to the editorship, officially under the founding and magazine group editor Malcolm Reiss,  the old crew of writers, such as Brackett, Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Nelson Bond and the wildly uneven Ross Rocklynne, were supplemented by Poul Anderson, Charles L. Harness, Margaret St. Clair, Allen Kim Lang, John D. MacDonald and others (including Bixby himself) who were just coming into their own, and writing often brilliant fiction by any standard. (Unfortunately, Bixby also published a Mullen or two, whether because he inherited the clunking stories in inventory or not, I don't know.)  Like Columbia's magazines and Marvel Tales, Planet and its stablemates at Fiction House were also cousins to a flourishing line of comic books; Bixby was also editing Jungle Stories, the original home of Tarzan clone Ki-Gor, who with his pal Sheena, Queen of the Jungle were major figures in the likes of Jungle Comics, which had as a stablemate Planet Comics. I don't know if Bixby was also editing Detective Book or any of their other crime-fiction magazines, which would also run Bradbury's fiction...or if Brackett sold much to their cf titles, as she was beginning to establish her crime-fiction writing career in the early '40s, which led directly to being hired by Howard Hawks to work on the script for the Bogart & Bacall-starring film adaptation of The Big Sleep from the Raymond Chandler novel...and her subsequent Hollywood career, which included adapting The Long Goodbye for the 1970s film, and, just before her death, writing the first treatment and version for the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Brackett's non-adventure sf novel The Long Tomorrow was recently issued in a new edition by the Library of America. For that matter, Jerome Bixby's writing career was also starting to pick up speed in the early '50s, when he would write and see published his most famous story, "It's a Good Life"...perhaps, like Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" or Lyn Venable's "Time Enough at Last", one of those sf magazine stories much better known for their Twilight Zone adaptations (and The Simpsons parody riffs) than in their original form. Bixby had some Hollywood work as well, including the original treatment for the 1960s film hit Fantastic Voyage.
Planet Comics #38 (1945) art: Joe Doolin

Major comics icons such as Will Eisner and Jack Kirby had important career turning points with the Fiction House graphic line, and the art on both sides of the product line were improving throughout the '40s and into the '50s...the garishness of some of the early Planet covers helped turn off some perhaps overly serious fans, who were embarrassed enough by the small-print "Astounding" over the large-lettered SCIENCE FICTION on that more subtly covered magazine. Nonetheless, the elegance of the exotic art on Planet Stories certainly improved at the turn of the 1950s (as see above), and no one had a good reason to take a snobbish attitude toward the magazine for its last six years or so, before being one of if not the last Fiction House title to fold in the wake of distribution troubles, comics censorship and loss of audience, and the general slumping sales and retail exposure given the pulps in the mid-1950s onward. 
Cover by Allen Anderson

Under Bixby, the magazine went from quarterly to bimonthly publication with the issue out at about the same time as the first Galaxy.

To read this issue online at
Cover by Allen Anderson
Also launching just after the Galaxy debut, the worst-titled sf magazine (at least among the fully professional ones) was launched as a reprint title, with also a rather awkward cover format. You know a writer of Bixby's skill could've come up with a better title for the magazine, which was presumably forced upon the 'zine by the publishing brass 
(they published other Two Complete...Books titles, but no others with such a sad attempt at a new label for their content). Note also the first issue's rather interesting mix of still-reasonably-famous writers, both remembered today in some part for their religious work...the atheist Asimov for his presidency and staunch support of the American Humanist Association, Hubbard, of course, for the Church of Scientology...Dianetics, its core, had such a vogue in sf circles that even the skeptical Christian James Blish writes an article about it (which involves Bixby) and sees it published in Planet (see above).

Standard Magazines/Better Publications, Inc.; 
Sam Merwin, Jr., editor
And the last of our magazines from the US newsstand set in the last months of 1950 are the Thrilling group sf magazines, stablemates over the years of such titles as Thrilling Mystery and Thrilling Adventure; Standard bought Hugo Gernsback's second major sf magazine, Wonder Stories, and augmented its title slightly in 1936; the first editor after the takeover was Mort Weisinger, who, even before Ray Palmer would at Ziff-Davis's magazines, aimed TWS and its eventual companions Startling Stories and Captain Future magazines squarely at a young audience (Weisinger's fantasy magazine, Strange Stories, was slightly more adult), and in doing so had the letter columns theoretically conducted by a Colorful old space-hoot named Sergeant Saturn, who had an irritating alien companion he called WartEars. Weisinger left the magazine to become the editor at Superman and other National Periodicals comics in 1941, and the less acute Oscar J. Friend continued most of the bad policies at the magazines (Strange was folded with Weisinger's departure; the Captain would lose his own magazine as Friend was about to leave, in 1944). But in 1945, Sam Merwin
1952 Bergey cover, a mix of "GGA"(Good Girl Art)
and the tragic for the first monthly issue.
was placed at the editor's desk, and announced an immediate desire to make his magazines better, including getting rid of  "Sarge" and starting to publish as much rather sophisticated sf as he could gather, trying to lean toward adventure fiction but not to the same degree as Planet (though TWS and Startling would also run a number of stories by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Margaret St. Clair, Leigh Brackett, Eric Frank Russell, Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner and Frederic Brown that pulled in other directions), and Astounding-style technologically rigorous work was welcome (from the likes of Clarke, James Blish or Charles Harness), but it wouldn't be the hallmark of the magazine, either.  Sadly, perhaps, the Captain Future novellas were retained for inclusion in Startling Stories (not the best work Edmond Hamilton or, sometimes, Manly Wade Wellman among others were doing, but who better?), but the magazines did markedly improve. The packaging was often still similar to what it had been earlier, including covers by Earle K. Bergey much loved by at least a few vocal readers of this blog (and its writer, and not without reason), but the fiction was much more engaging and diverse. Merlin's 1952 successor, Samuel Mines, got to reap even more reward with this, as his version of Startling became briefly the bestselling magazine in the field...and Startling absorbed its stablemates for the last few issu
es in 1955. Merwin would go onto assistant editing at Galaxy (as did Jerome Bixby), editing early issues of Fantastic Universe, and eventually editing Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

Thrilling Wonder Stories had perhaps the best lineup for the late 1950 issue, if perhaps also the worst of a bad set of cover illustrations:
But it's certainly close...Jack Vance head to head with John D. MacDonald and Eric Frank Russell...and the letter column is full of fans who would go on to write and edit in field when they weren't doing so already...
Cover by Earle Bergey

And the Thrilling Group added their own reprint magazines to the mix, beginning in early 1950, with a new story or two in each issue of Fantastic Story Quarterly (with one by Merwin and one by "William Morrison" in this issue):
And, reviving an old Gernsback tradition, Wonder Story Annual was introduced, as an all-reprint magazine, in mid 1950:

And, so, thanks for all the kind notes, more of this particular project to come, for now, but even a cursory glance over this blog will suggest this kind of post happens rather frequently...

And thanks for all the fine work done by the folks at ISFDB and Galactic Central, from which most of the images and all the indices have been borrowed. Thanks to ComicVine for information on and image of Planet Comics.


Walker Martin said...

I love these 3 titles and I even had two sets of STARTLING until recently. I still have two PLANET STORIES sets, one of them being the white pages Frank Robinson set. His set was so beautiful that I had to buy another set for reading purposes.

The larger pulp format of 7 by 10 inches showed off the cover art a lot better than the smaller digest format.

Todd Mason said...

it certainly could, Walker...though the upgrades in title-design on the Thrilling Group magazines they'd see in 1952, if put in place earlier, probably wouldn't have hurt sales. But the group-think in fandom probably wouldn't have changed Brackett noted in the introduction to her 1976 Planet anthology, the cover image in the text above: “It was fashionable for a while, among certain elements of science-fiction fandom, to hate Planet Stories. They hated the magazine, apparently, because it was not Astounding Stories. . . Of course Planet wasn’t Astounding; it never pretended to be Astounding, and that was a mercy for a lot of us who would have starved to death if John W. Campbell, Jr., had been the sole and only market for our wares[...]"

Unknown said...

These were, I think, all defunct by the time I started buying the magazines. But I've collected some of the issues just for fun.

Todd Mason said...

Yeah, Fiction House was shut down in 1955, and only the occasional WONDER STORIES reprint digest (then TREASURY OF GREAT SCIENCE FICTION pulp-sized) issues would come out from the Pines organization's paperback line, Popular Library, after they shut down their pulp magazines in 1955, as well.

I've certainly been glad to read issues of PLANET, TWS, STARTLING, WEIRD TALES, ASTOUNDING and the good FANTASTIC ADVENTURES issues, among others...issues of IMAGINATION and OTHER WORLDS (and the first FANTASTIC and Goldsmith AMAZINGs) were among the first older digests I collected as a 13yo...