We recently took a look at the pulp magazine’s treatment of blacks – a wildly racist and predictable trope of these old rags. But island natives and African cannibals were by no means the only threat to a mid-century male’s psyche. These action/adventure magazines were littered will all manner of threats: Commies, the Japanese, Hoodlum and Biker Gangs, Evil Sheiks, and, above all, Nazis.
The curious thing is – a good portion of the Nazi themed magazines came out well after WWII. Sure, many came out during the war, and G.I.’s in the trenches enjoyed reading about the evil Nazis being vanquished. However, most came out in the 1950s and early 60s. So what gives?
Well, the first obvious answer is that Nazis will forever be the perfect villain; tailor made for sweaty action mags. The other reason is a bit more complicated…
If you look at the pulp magazines coming out after the war, they generally featured women having all sorts of terrible things done to them by the Nazis. You get the distinct impression this was some kind of erotica, twisted as it may be. Mid-century males evidently enjoyed reading about various abuses towards women – and, since it was the Nazis doing it, they could read it with a clear conscience. There’s nothing wrong with reading about the perversions of the SS when you’re a good-guy American who would never do such a thing…. right?
The idea that the Nazis simply provided a conscience-cleansing vehicle to deliver sadistic smut is just my personal theory. I don’t have any proof to back it up, but I do have a Ph.D. in Armchair Sociology.
Of course, women weren’t always the helpless victims of the SS. (Left) Sometimes, they were in league with the Nazis; ferocious devil-women who were a menace to unsuspecting G.I.’s. (Right) Or, they played decoy, using their womanly wiles to defeat Hitler.
But, more often than not, it wen’t something like this…
Women in their undergarments being molested by Nazi sadists – a mid-century staple in men’s adventure magazines. Again, it’s quite alright to read about their crazy Third Reich shenanigans – the more perverse the better – because you can be assured the Americans will save the day at the end of the tale. It’s a story of good vs. evil, not a sexually deviant smut….. right?
Of course, traveling down this avenue of thought, it’s easy to overstate things – to paint mid-century readers as torture fetish misogynists. This stuff is tame compared to much of contemporary porn, so we shouldn’t be too judgemental. After all, the Beauty & the Beast and Damsel in Distress tropes have been around forever, and it’s not unusual for these tales to take a turn towards the naughty and disturbing.
Further, if we’re going to wag our fingers at the mid-century males who gobbled this stuff up, then we should also do a little wagging toward ourselves posting these covers and having a look 50+ years later. Truthfully, what’s so appealing about them isn’t just the brilliant artwork, but also the wonderfully lurid and over-the-top content.
Do we have an equivalent for this today? Does there exist in 2015 popular media which consists of raving, raping villains and their female prey? Perhaps the modern pop-culture consumer doesn’t buy into such one-dimensional fare anymore. Plus, things are bit more politically correct to allow for such themes to persist. But then, you could argue the horror genre, with its slashers and serial killers, is somewhat a continuation of the trope.
Another question: Why are the Nazi covers so much more explicit and disturbing after WWII? Perhaps the main reason is the historic case: The United States v. Samuel Roth (1958).
Samuel Roth was a “smut peddler” whose publications included American Aphrodite and Good Times. In 1953, he was charged with disseminating obscene materials; his defense was that his stuff was “erotic art” not obscenity”. The result: the first definition of obscenity in American law:
The dominant theme had to promote lust and be obscene in a manner appealing to prurient interest.
Perhaps even more importantly, the court required that the publication had to be judged based on the whole, rather than just a single sequence or picture. Furthermore, the court stated that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance – unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion – have the full protection of the guarantees of the free press.”
The result of this decision was a tidal wave of adult-oriented men’s interest publications. The violence and bondage on many of these men’s adventure magazine covers became more extreme.
Oddly enough, Samuel Roth was found by the court to be a “public menace” and was found guilty. He served five years in prison. But Pandora’s box had been opened, and censorship was dealt a historic blow.
[Note a good source for more information on this, and a generous supply of cover art is the Taschen book, Men’s Adventure Magazines in Postwar America (2008).]
So, although Roth was imprisoned, the door was now left open for publishers to sell their naughty wares. Magazines other than the sweaty men’s action rags such as Playboy benefitted in a big way from the censorship loosening in 1958.
Incomprehensibly, the men’s action magazines refused to go down that road (until it was too late). Having a girl in her underwear, bound and gagged, being whipped by the Gestapo was okay… but showing a little nipple was verboten. Thus, the skin magazines, which had no issues with showing as much nudity as they could get away with, started to steal away readers from the men’s action rags. The end was near.
There was one reason for keeping the Nazi sado-masochism but drawing the line at an exposed boob. These magazines sold well on military bases, and some publications even had deals with the PX’s. If they started to show nudity, there was threats that their magazines would be banned from military bases.
That all changed with another court case: Overseas Media Corporation v. McNamara (1967). Overseas Weekly was a popular read among G.I.’s and had started to offer a fully nude centerfold – which, as you can imagine, made it even more popular. The military sought to ban Overseas Weekly, but Overseas Media Corp. sued and won.
Thus, the door was now open for the men’s action magazines to finally show nudity and compete with Playboy and its brethren. The change was immediate…
Men’s adventure magazines morphed into skin rags seemingly overnight. Expecting to now join the ranks of Playboy and Penthouse (who aggessively entered the scene in 1970), they were, instead, buried and lost in the shuffle. The skin rags trounced the men’s action rags, rendering them basically extinct by the end of the 70s.
The men’s action magazines had made a fatal mistake…
When they morphed into skin rags, they completely lost their identity. The Nazi punishers were gone. In their place – just photographs of nude chicks. The whole sordid, seedy, borderline degenerate aspect of the men’s action rag that we knew and loved had been jettisoned in favor of Playboy/Penthouse style nudie pictorials.
America had seen the last of drooling Nazis sexually assaulting women on magazine covers. And we are so much better for it…. right?