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Pulp fiction fans flock to annual Windy City convention

This original 1953 drawing many original drawings by Virgil Finley are part collectiDoug Ellis his home BarringtHills. | Ruthie Hauge~Sun-Times

This original 1953 drawing and many original drawings by Virgil Finley are part of the collection of Doug Ellis at his home in Barrington Hills. | Ruthie Hauge~Sun-Times Media

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Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention

When: Friday through Sunday

Where: Westin Lombard Yorktown Center Hotel,
70 Yorktown Center, Lombard

Cost: $25 per day Friday and Saturday;
$10, Sunday; or $35 for all three days


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Updated: April 10, 2013 5:06PM

Before “Law and Order,” fans of crime procedurals followed in the footsteps of detectives on paper.

Books were expensive, so people mostly read magazines — low-cost periodicals printed on cheap “pulp” paper, which published thrilling stories not only about Private Eyes, but also about cowboys, spacemen and more.

Collectors of such early pulp fiction will convene in Lombard this weekend for the annual Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention. Fans looking to add to their collections can browse more than 100 vendors selling vintage pulp magazines, used paperbacks and artwork.

“All of the major pulp dealers in the country will be there,” says Doug Ellis of Barrington Hills, one of the event’s organizers.

Ellis, 49, an attorney, started collecting pulps as a boy in Buffalo, N.Y. He enjoyed “Doc Savage” stories, which he read as reprints, he says.

“I was probably one of the only 12-year-olds who read the indicia pages,” Ellis says, and that led him to the original magazines in which the stories first appeared.

Pulp magazines ran the gamut from “Air Adventures” to “Dime Detective” to “Modern Love” to “Wild West Weekly” and “Zorro” stories, but this year’s convention celebrates the 90th anniversary of science fiction and fantasy magazines. Although the first periodical completely devoted to science fiction, “Amazing Stories,” wasn’t published until 1926, and “scientific fiction” began appearing in magazines as early as 1911. An issue of “Science and Invention” published in 1923 is accorded the status of “first science fiction magazine.” Or close enough.

“We observe somewhat odd anniversaries,” says Ellis.

A genuine 90th anniversary is that of “Weird Tales,” launched in Chicago in March 1923, and famed for stories by such writers as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

Central to the pulp world, Chicago was the onetime headquarters of Ziff-Davis, which took over “Amazing Stories” beginning in the late 1930s, and several other publishers. Cuneo Press, a large Chicago printing company, ran off tens of thousands of pulps for publishers coast-to-coast. And one of the most famed pulp adventure writers ever, Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of “Tarzan,” “John Carter of Mars” and others, lived in Oak Park.

“A lot of writers who became famous started out writing for the pulps,” says science-fiction author Phyllis Eisenstein of Edgewater, who with her husband, Alex, has been collecting since the 1960s. The Eisensteins will be exhibiting, as well as selling, part of their collection of original pulp illustrations. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Max Brand, Isaac Asimov and Leslie Charteris all wrote for the pulps. (So did Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

“There was a tremendous appetite for these things,” says Eisenstein. “The stories always moved fast,” she says, and allowed readers to experience vicariously the lives of international spies or cowboys or superheroes.

Many famed American icons came out of the pulps — Dr. Kildare, The Saint, Sam Spade, Conan the Barbarian, The Shadow — before they were in radio or TV shows or films. “They’re part of American folklore,” says says Bob Weinberg, 66, of Oak Forest, a nationally known pulp expert and the author of more than 60 books.

“It’s a fun collectible,” Weinberg says. “People collect coins; people collect stamps. Pulps are interesting to read; they’re interesting to look at.”

The daytime dealers’ room is the centerpiece, of the convention, while the evenings offer live auctions and speakers. Additionally, a film festival concentrates on historic Fu Manchu films, honoring the 100th anniversary of the Sax Rohmer character, as well as some movies based on “Weird Tales” classics, such as “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.”

Every magazine had to have an attention-getting cover to attract newsstand browsers, so colorful, sometimes lurid pictures of square-jawed Western heroes, steely-eyed detectives and bug-eyed monsters menacing scantily clad women abound.

In 1958, a young Roger Ebert wrote from Urbana, Ill., to Future magazine complaining: “You seem to be in a sort of a rut. You’ve had a girl on the cover of the last five issues. ... Don’t feel too badly — Infinity has had girls on all but one of its seventeen covers! Astounding [a more erudite magazine] has had one girl in the last twenty-seven issues, and she was a scientist with a turtle-neck sweater and a jacket on.”

“The magazines ran the gamut from very pastoral to exceedingly exciting,” says John Gunnison, another organizer.

“Reading a pulp magazine is like getting into a time machine,” says Weinberg, not only for the stories, but also for the art and even the advertising.

“You are stepping into a part of history that I find utterly fascinating,” agrees Gunnison, “and the magazines represent it.”

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.

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