Robots, Rogues, And Rare Paper — The Almost-Secret Origins Of Popular Fiction In America


"They already amount to several hundred separate publications, and circulate to the extent of many hundred thousands. This need hardly be stated to any one who is in the way of casting his eye on the counter of any railway book-stall or newsdealer's shop.

…the American public is used to not only the assertion, but the fact, of enormous, marvellous sales of cheap literature."

You might think that reads like a commentary on the rapid rise of the American comic book in the late 1930s.  75 years ago as I type this — give or take a few weeks — the Sub-Mariner by Bill Everett was likely being shopped around as part of a movie theater giveaway comic book with sample copies of Motion Picture Funnies Weekly #1, and the character went on to become one of the cornerstones of the earliest days of Marvel a few months later.

But that's not commentary from some contemporary of Bill Everett in 1939.  Rather, it's Everett's own grandfather, William Everett, writing in 1864 — 150 (!) years ago as I type this, give or take a few weeks — on the rapid rise of an earlier form of cheap fiction for the American masses, the dime novel.

For a business and art form that spent much of its existence relegated to the margins of popular entertainment culture, the community of comic book fans and pros has done a pretty decent job in preserving its history.  We always hope to know more, and interesting new discoveries are found with each passing year, but overall, groups of comics history enthusiasts are examining the details in an organized way, interesting new books are being written on a regular basis, and more and more people are paying attention.

And when you've paid attention long enough, you tend to want to push back a little farther and see what was going on before that — and in many regards, that means the pulps.  And even then, because of the long shadow of names like HP Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and characters like Conan, Tarzan, and the Shadow —  books are being written, and examinations continue to be made.

But when you want to push back farther than that, beyond even the first World War to the dime novels, story papers, and nickel weeklies of the prior decades… it gets somewhat harder. For you collectors who have handled a fragile 75 year old comic or 85 year old pulp…  imagine what that paper would be like if it was of even lesser quality and 125 years old.  More of that old paper has crumbled to dust, and we are two or three (or more) extra generations removed from the primary sources.

This is not to say that there aren't people exploring this area of history — such as Jess Nevins, and John Adock, for example.  But to someone used to the living and still-unfolding history of the American comic book form, the dime novel era feels a little bit like undiscovered country.  Forgotten legends, arcane science, and hidden treasures await beyond every valley and mountain pass.

illustrated-dime-novel-price-guideThat's why when I read the newly-released Illustrated Dime Novel Price Guide Companion by Joseph L. Rainone and E.H. Sanchez-Saavedra, which serves as an excellent overview and introduction to the field, I knew I had to find out more.  Here's a few questions answered by Joe Rainone, an authority in this area who has also written and lectured extensively on the subject.

Bleeding Cool: Joe, the popular newsstand fiction of the 1850s to early 1900s is HUGELY influential on the next 150 years of American print, film and games, but compared to comics and pulps — where there are a significant number of history books available — there's relatively little out there covering dime novels, nickel weeklies and story papers.  Why do you think that is?

Joe Rainone: There are a number of books that mention dime novels and some that mention story papers but none that focus in on the American Dime Novel like that of J. Randolph Cox's book, The Dime Novel Companion. That is why our Guide Book is sort of a "companion" to the the Companion.

There are a few other books that give some detail but the only one comprehensive is on the firm of Beadle & Adams, by Albert Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime Novel and Nickel Novels: The Story of Vanished Literature in three volumes.  There has been much done on pulps in the last 20 years, with many reprints of different authors, including facsimile editions. Comics, of course has exploded with many illustrated publications.

BC: There is an entire category of nearly-forgotten dime novels featuring what you call in your book "techno-fiction", which a modern audience would immediately identify as Steampunk.  Steam robots, and a countless number of flying, floating, crawling, and submerging inventions with which various adventures could be had.  What do you think is behind the resurgence in popularity of this type of fiction over the last couple decades?

Joe: The story papers, first introduced in serialized form, starting with Frank Reade, the imaginative invention stories in America were no doubt influenced by the stories of Jules Verne. The first SF story ever was based on an actual Steam man invention from 1868.  (I go into detail in my first book on the subject, The Art & History of American Popular Fiction Series Vol. 1 still available on Amazon.  The interest with the Victorian era and the Age of Invention has been ongoing.  My favorite movie was The Time Machine from 1959 based on a story by H.G. Wells from 1900… Why Steampunk is popular now, to this extent, may be a combination of the more recent successful movies, along with the advancement of cinematography and digital effects, as well as role playing games introduced in the past 30 years, especially with the advancement of various forms of computer gaming.

detective-library-james-boysBC: There is a class of dime novels featuring fictionalized adventures of real-life figures such as Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill.  And one of the modern echoes of that is the recent Deadwood HBO series — where fiction and truth sort of feed on each other and create something new.  How did this area of fiction get started in the US?

Joe: There were always celebrities, along with others who have interest in them, be they hero or villain.  The early story papers would at times incorporate heroes such as George Washington, Kit Carson and later those you mentioned, often with some historical basis, be it the California Gold Rush, the Custer Massacre or just Wild West Justice.   This continued in later forms, reprinting from the story paper as well as original stories through the dime novel and nickel weekly era.  Popular fiction is about giving the masses what they want…and if inserting a celebrity in a story –even a bad one like Jesse James — sells as it did, then we will continue to see the Hannibal and Ripper-like, serial killer shows/stories of today that are found in books, TV and the movies.

BC: When I recently stumbled across notorious postal inspector Anthony Comstock's book Traps for the Young, I was startled by how much it reads like Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent — yet it's some 70 years earlier.  From your viewpoint in examining the history, is it inevitable that these censorship conflicts be replayed every generation or two?

Joe: Great question!  In a word, yes. From time to time, we hear today that this or that has gone too far.  Even today numerous books have been banned from college campuses while others that may incite most Americans do not.  Censorship in America goes way back to 1734, starting with John Peter Zenger.  Comstock, like Wertham, started with good intentions and they both inspired change; especially in the case of Comstock who eventually achieved unprecedented power to be able to close down a publisher or newsstand, fine them and place in The Tombs, simply of his own volition for what he considered to be indecent literature.  I do not think we will ever see that degree of power again…let's hope not.

BC: You've told me a little about Ned Buntline, who was both an important creator of this material and an incredibly larger-than-life figure in his own right.  Tell us one of the noteworthy Buntline anecdotes.

Joe: Ned Buntline, actually Edward Carrol Judson Sr. certainly had a real life that would be the envy of any of the heroes he wrote about in his novels.  The one that stands out for me, is neatly tied up, nicely on wiki, "Buntline had a romance with the teenaged wife of Robert Porterfield in Nashville in 1846. On 14 March 1846, Porterfield challenged Buntline to a duel; Buntline killed him. At Buntline's murder trial, Porterfield's brother shot and wounded Buntline. This allowed Buntline to escape in the chaos. He was subsequently captured by a lynch mob and hanged from an awning. He was rescued by friends, and the Tennessee grand jury refused to indict him for murder."

Buntline was one of the first celebrated American story tellers in pop culture and a name that Americans should know today, for a number of reasons, right along with other prominent people we've heard about in school.


Here's Joe's description of his new book, which can be previewed at Amazon and purchased there, on ebay, and via his website. Tell Joe that Bleeding Cool sent you when ordering from him before the end of the month and he'll send along a free dime novel as well.


Until now, there has been no reference work that even begins to encompass the incredible variety of imaginative graphics that appeared on dime novel covers between 1860 and the 1930s. At newsstands across the country, small boys would feast their eyes on bold woodcuts showing slavering Indians tying captives to torture stakes, square-jawed trappers killing grizzly bears with bowie knives, or Revolutionary War heroes sabering British dragoons.

Combining an overview of dime novels and story papers with a practical guide to rarity, condition  and relative values, this profusely illustrated one-volume reference also features double-page spreads dealing  with individual publishers, fictional and factual heroes and villains and specific genres. Over 300 series are listed alphabetically with three full-color cover images per series. The authors hope that this guide will introduce a new audience of dealers, collectors and scholars to the "wild and wonderful" lost world of Nineteenth-century popular literature.

Dime Novels and later Nickel Weekly, along with Story papers, were the Comic Books of their day! Many ideas, characters and story lines would later develop into the Newspaper comic strip and the comic book, as we know it today. Even the 32 pages, two staple format was developed during the Dime Novel era.Learn about the history, publishers and characters; see the illustrated cover art that prompted the coming of age for our beloved Comic Book characters…all in cover with over 1700 images of dime novels.

About Mark Seifert

Co-founder and Creative director of Bleeding Cool parent company Avatar Press. Bleeding Cool Managing Editor, tech and data wrangler. Machine Learning hobbyist. Vintage paper addict.

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