Brooks Hefner and Circulating American Magazines

I spoke with Dr. Brooks Hefner, Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at James Madison University, for Reframing History because of the fundamental way his digital humanities research offers the opportunity to know more about American culture. Hefner, along with Ed Timke, received a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Advancement Grant for Circulating American Magazines, a data visualization project designed to make 100 years of circulation figures for major American periodicals publicly accessible. In our conversation, we spoke about the origins of the project and how he sees his digital humanities practice as means to expand scholarship, engage students, and reach out to the public.


Visualization, Publishing, Pulp Magazines, Comics, American Popular Culture

The Conversation

Chambliss: Hi, my name is Julian Chambliss and you’re here for another episode of Reframing history. Today I’m talking with Brooks Hefner, who is a professor at James Madison University. [He] is also the director of graduate studies and an author. His book Word on the Streets: American Language of Vernacular Modernism came out in 2007. The reason he’s on Reframing History [has] lots to do with a digital project he’s doing right now called Circulating American Magazines, which is a data visualization project designed to make over a hundred years circulation figures for major American periodicals publicly available. To me, this was an ideal project [for talking] about these questions of creating public knowledge and, I think importantly, [the] hidden labor associated with Digital Humanities. Brooks, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today for the podcast.

Hefner: Thanks for having me.

Chambliss: Could you give people a little bit on your background? Where’d you get your degree? How [did] you come to James Madison and how [did] you hit upon this very interesting digital project?

Hefner: I did my PhD in English at the CUNY graduate center in New York city. And my dissertation, which ultimately evolved into that book you mentioned, was really about looking at popular forms of publication and giving writers that are often below the line when we think about literary production a little bit of credit and beginning to kind of contextualize experimentation. What that led me to really do is think about the practices of publication for popular writers a lot. And it got me really interested in periodical studies, which is one way magazine history is framed, especially within the discipline of English.

I took the job at James Madison after I finished my degree in 2009 and [I’ve] been there ever since. In the process of working on revising the dissertation toward a book publication, one of the things I got interested in was essentially debates between writers and editors about the success or failure of a given magazine. And I can trace a lot of this back to reading some letters between Erle Stanley Gardner (the detective writer who created Perry Mason and began his career writing for pulp magazines and as an editor) and a couple of editors with a magazine called Black Mask, which was one of the really famous pulp magazines. You know, we’re [talking where] Dashiell Hammett [and] Raymond Chandler got published first.

And so, Gardner really didn’t like Hammett. He thought he was too artsy. And he wrote to the editor saying, “I’m sure every time you publish Hammett the magazine’s circulation drops.” And it was interesting because it was a window into the mind of writers, especially popular writers thinking about how their work might influence the circulation of a given magazine. And there’s some other stuff about this particular magazine you’ll sometimes see where people [like] historians will kind of throw off these lines about, “Oh, well, when this guy’s name appeared on the cover, circulation jumped 20%,” or whatever. One of the things I realized is that there’s really, for most people, no way to verify any of these claims.

Chambliss: This is an important point. When a lot of historians talk about print culture in this period, we know publications are popular, but we’re often just estimating the numbers.

Hefner: Exactly. And a lot of times, if you get numbers, you’re getting them really processed, right? You might get an average at the time that the magazine was at its peak or you might just be getting one number that represents the highest circulation [of] a magazine number. Or you might get an editor making something up in a memoir in order to inflate his own ego and legacy. Or you might even get a magazine editor who’s trying to reimagine his magazine or her magazine as a more coterie publication and deflating the numbers.

Chambliss: This is one of the things that occurred to me when I saw the initial announcement for your project. When I think about these characters, because I often think about pulp publications [as a] precursor to comic books, the authors I strongly associate with a character format that will become a superhero character like, say, Tarzan or a character like Conan, Doc Savage, or the Spider. They all appear in these magazines and, while I don’t usually say, “this character sold this magazine,” it’s the selling of the magazine in total that taps into this popular element. This is a popular magazine. I know that it sells a lot, but the reality is, do I know for a fact when Robert E. Howard is Conan is appearing in Weird Tales or some magazine like that? It feels more than say, Kull, who was regarded by scholars of Howard not as popular character. Conan is popular because his popularity really kicks in later as a paperback property. What you’re talking about is crucial to how we formulate a narrative of publication history for popular characters. And that’s why it’s really interesting to see that you’re using these digital humanities tools to really answer this fundamental question.

Hefner: Yeah, I mean, so here’s kind of how this unfolded. When I started asking these questions, I came across a reference to a really pretty obscure volume in the Library of Congress. And I believe the reference was in the work of David Earle, Re-covering Modernism. It was a great book on the pulps. It talks about the way modernism gets repurposed as a kind of pulp phenomenon. And it was a kind of offhand reference to something that seemed really mysterious, something called an ABC Blue Book. I went on WorldCat looking [up] this ABC Blue Book, [like] what would it be? And I’ve discovered that, essentially, it only existed as far as I could tell at the Library of Congress. Fortunately, I live a couple of hours from the library Congress and I can go in and do research visits there pretty easily. I set up a research visit and I believe this was in 2010.

I found these really thick [things], they were blue on the outside, [these] bound volumes [that were] collected publishers’ reports submitted to an organization called the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The Audit Bureau of Circulations was created in 1914 by advertisers who really felt they were getting ripped off because magazines could claim they had any number of readers. [So], this Audit Bureau was created [and] you had advertisers who were members and could receive the information. And you had magazines who were members, who could have their numbers essentially audited and proofed by The Audit Bureau. It meant advertisers could trust these numbers and therefore advertising rates could be a little bit more standardize. I find these volumes and, initially, I’m trying to answer this one very simple question, right? Was the presence of Dashiell Hammett, did it correlate with better circulation or not?

I thought it’s [got to be] pretty simple to find the answer to this question. And the answer is Erle Stanley Gardner was dead wrong. The serialization of the Maltese Falcon in Black Mask was the highest circulation that magazine ever had in 1929. It also happened at a moment in which the magazine industry was expanding really wildly. So, you had a lot more readers and it was right before the stock market crash, [when] the magazine industry took a huge hit. You can’t necessarily make a one-to-one causation argument. You can definitely see a correlation.

But what I also discovered in these reports is that, not only did they give figures certified (not audited) and sworn by the publisher for every issue of the magazine that was published, but they also would take a single issue and give a breakdown geographically by state of newsstands, sales, and subscriptions. These reports were issued twice a year. That means for every year, you have maybe a spring and a fall issue that’s used to give [to] advertisers. They were the intended audience for these numbers, a snapshot of where people were reading the magazine. Were they reading it in middle America or were they reading it on the coast? How many subscriptions were there? How many a newsstand sales were there? And it took me a little while after initially encountering this in 2010 too really wrap my head around what a wealth of information this was because the volumes [are] at the Library of Congress. The earliest volume is from 1924 and the latest volume is from 1972. This is really for people who study magazines. I mean this is the golden age of American magazines. This is the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look. This is all that stuff.

Chambliss: For those magazines, are they breaking them out in terms of…I’m thinking of some lifestyle magazines for African Americans that came out in that era. All titles, including the African American publisher or a more specialized audience because there are, of course, ethnic-themed magazines as well, or hobbyists or specialized.

Hefner: It’s interesting because it was a kind of opt-in. If you’re a magazine and you want to attract advertisers, you would seek to become a member of the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation). Not every magazine is in there, but what’s interesting, to your question, is a lot of African-American publications beginning in the 1940s—like Ebony, Jet, Jive, Bronze Thrills, Tan, and Sephia—they’re all in there because they were seeking advertisers. They were really aggressively seeking bigger advertisers and attempting to demonstrate the broad consumer base reading their magazine to the advertisers.

Chambliss: Which is an important part of the story, the emergence of the Black consumer audience.

Hefner: Absolutely. It’s interesting within; I mean, it’s also interesting without. Some magazines you mentioned [like] Weird Tales I think was the kind of magazines that started very small. …I should know this, but I think it [was] initially published in Indianapolis. And they didn’t really necessarily feel they needed to join, but when they get bought by the company that publishes short stories, they ended up in the ABC. You see, Weird Tales kind of shows up in the late ‘30s, after Howard’s dead and after Lovecraft is dead. But you still see it. And you can still get a sense of where it is vis-à-vis other publications.

There were also publishing combinations where advertising was sold in bulk. So, Street & Smith was one of the earliest publishing houses. They submitted their circulation numbers by month, as a whole. And they list all the magazines that are within each month. This also is true for comic publishers who were involved in the ABC. Marvel joins I think in ‘46. We have data from the Marvel comic group beginning in 1946 through ’72, and we have data from what is called National Comics. You know, that’s the publishing house, I guess the publishing group, but it is essentially DC from around the same time. So again, those are kind of larger numbers and bigger groups, but it’s ultimately planning to make all this available and allow interesting visualization. You can take it in [an] interesting direction in terms of comparative analysis.

Chambliss: That brings to the crux of my second concern about talking to you. Of course, this is a digital project, and definitions of Digital Humanities are complicated. But a broad definition is the use of digital tools in the study of humane topics. And you’re…explicitly [describing this] as a data visualization project. How are you creating [the] project, or who’s working with you? How are you creating a project and what’s your approach here in terms of making this public knowledge?

Hefner: Yeah, I sat on this information for a while because I was working on my book and I had an inkling of how massive this was. I was pulling information that was interesting to me for my specific research, but was holding off on doing anything too much with it. And then, a couple of years ago, I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on magazines in New York. And talking to people there really got me thinking more about some of the data I’ve collected and thinking this actually would be an immensely viable tool for people. I met someone there who was working on audit bureaus. He was a historian of media. I knew there was no way I could do this by myself and that I needed somebody who had a little bit more experience in media history if this was going to get off the ground. I asked him, his name’s Ed Timke, and he’s now at Duke University, to come on with me as co-director of this and we decided to apply for a National Endowment for the Digital Humanities Advancement grant, which we were fortunate enough to receive last year and [that] covers the two-year period.

We’ve kind of hit the ground running, but the amount of work is pretty extraordinary. I think that, if I had a better idea of the amount of work earlier on, we might’ve made this more [of] a four-year project instead of a two-year project. It’s a lot and the…work that’s involved, I think probably anybody who does digital humanities can tell you, it’s just assembling and putting together the data. The majority of our grant request was for money for student labor to put in data. Both Ed and I had been putting in data ourselves. We’d have other people on the main team that had been putting in data. But the majority of it is going to students, who are working through those images of sheets. Ed and I have been to the Library of Congress multiple times. We’ve been to a couple of other spots. And we’ve taken, I don’t know, 25,000 photos ([as] a low estimate) of these reports. They’re not the kind of thing you can OCR. The data that’s in these reports has to be input by hand and so, you have to imagine, okay, we’re 50 years roughly with this really intense data that involves 100 data points per magazine twice a year. We’re already at probably half a million data points for this project.

Chambliss: Are [the] students [you] are using undergrad students or graduates?

Hefner: We’re hiring undergrads to do it.

Chambliss: And you’re training them?

Hefner: [Yes], on how to read the sheets. It’s pretty easy. And what we’ve done, I mean, a lot of the work that we’re doing, we’re actually doing through Google Drive. We have a sheet, an image, and then we have a sheet that’s basically set up in the same general organization as the image with auto sums that allow students to check for quality control. And then, students get a batch of these, they work through the batch, they get another batch. It’s been pretty much the process for assembling all those, [and] the end goal here is to make all this data downloadable, which is definitely a very important thing for us to have it freely downloadable.

People who are working can play with the data themselves, but we also are working with a developer to build a visualization tool that will allow you, if you’re interested in Marvel and you want to see the kind of history of Marvel circulation, you can lay that out on a timeline. If you want to compare Marvel versus DC in terms of state-by-state data, you can look at a couple of different choropleth maps—heat maps that will show you, “Oh, well, this sold better in the south and this sold better in the Midwest.” One of the things I’m excited to do is in the mid ‘40s because the titles were so popular [is] National Comics, which is what we think of as DC [when they] decided to sell advertising in Batman and Superman separately. We have a couple of years where Batman and Superman are pulled out of the general group and we have actual circulation numbers for about two years’ worth of those individually. And I could see people doing very interesting things by putting those side by side and thinking about what sort of regional differences might occur in readership.

Chambliss: Oh, right. Yeah.

Hefner: With those two titles, right? I mean my instinct would be, “Oh, well, Superman, the Heartland, he’s gonna circulate more in the country and Batman is the kind of gritty urban thing that would appeal to the coast.” But it might in fact be exactly the opposite. We have all that information but, you know, we haven’t put it through the visualizations yet.

Chambliss: Yeah. There’s so much. Frederic Wertham and anti-communist hysteria around comics, for example.

Hefner: Oh, it is intense. If you look at the numbers for Marvel, even just for a mainstream publisher like Marvel [and] the drop in the ‘50s. I mean, it plummets and you can really see it in terms of the way the publishers change what they’re doing or are impacted by the negative publicity around comics. I think you were talking about contribution to the public or public knowledge. I think, for me personally, Digital Humanities works best when it works in concert with the traditional humanities—that it’s not within an echo chamber. Which, you know, maybe I’m a bad digital humanist for saying this, but I do feel like it was important for me in this project that the project be something people who didn’t do digital humanities could access and get something out of.

I began to uncover some of this material and Ed and I started collecting more and more of it. [We realized] “Oh, this title is in here or this title is in here.” Thinking about how historians, literary scholars, media historians, media studies scholars, sociologists, and anthropologists might say, “I’m really interested in the history of domesticity in 20th century gender and domesticity. Let’s look at Good Housekeeping and where can I find reliable information about where people were reading Good Housekeeping? I want our project to be that kind of place where somebody can go and say, “Now I have reliable information about how popular Good Housekeeping was, where it circulated more, where it circulated less.” That kind of information, I think, [makes it] pretty easy to make the leap from being in the digital world to being really valuable evidence in the production of scholarship and scholarly arguments.

Chambliss: Right, you said so much there because I agree with you that one of the things that defines effective digital projects is this ability for it to amplify and clarify questions that we already are talking about or [something] we’ve said in the historical debate. This project, in particular, is so amazing to me because, when I talk about the impact of a Black character in comics, a lot of that is a qualitative argument. We’re making the argument that the first appearance of something matters. But then, over time, we often argue that these publishers are seeking out this sort of untapped market. Is a character like Black Panther, when he’s added to the Avengers after his first seminal appearance in the Fantastic Four, is there a change in sales? Is there a possibility that we can see, as the roster of characters at a particular company becomes more diverse, their sales transform? This is a way for us to do that beyond how we usually do it, which is we make a kind of qualitative argument or we use the letter page and react to it in newspapers or letter pages or in fan publications. And the other benefit here, of course, is that, because it’s numbers, it seems so much more compelling to people. He’d counted them!

Hefner: Absolutely. Right. I think that, for me, the end here is not just having the numbers, but the kinds of stories the numbers can tell just exactly like what you’re saying. How do we understand? And in some ways, it goes back to that very first question that I had, which was, so what about Dashiell Hammett and Black Mask? This is exactly the same kind of thing you’re saying with Black Panther. What does it mean for this writer to appear? What does it mean for this writer’s name to appear on the cover? One thing we found out very quickly was that, in fact, when Tarzan appeared in Blue Book Magazine in the 1920s, circulation was higher than when he didn’t appear.

I think one of the other things that that’s really intriguing for me as someone who works in the early 20th century is that, when you have a massive amount of information like this, you start to see certain kinds of patterns that make you ask better questions. And I can give you a really good example. When we started putting in the data for issues, it was really intriguing. I kept saying, “Oh, well, how is this that every magazine, whether it’s the bestselling magazine in the country or a kind of bottom feeding of pulp magazine that’s not doing particularly well, always has better circulation in the winter; [like] peaks in the winter and bottoms out in the summer?” And I’d never seen any scholars really talk about this [or] think about this, the kind of seasonal quality of magazines. And of course, I mean, the kind of sloppy answer for me is, well, yeah, in the summer, people have more to do. They can be outside. In the winter, people are more likely to buy magazines and sit inside and read cause the weather’s bad. Right? Right. But beyond that, what does this mean for an editor? If you’re an editor and you know you have something that’s going to appeal to more people, you’re going to put it on the cover. It’s going to attract more people because it’s a really good piece of writing, because it’s a really sensational story because it’s already gotten buzzed somewhere else. Do you run it as soon as you get it or do you strategically put it [out] in the winter or in the summer? I think editors are making choices about the bottom line in a lot of cases.

And so, when you begin to see these larger patterns, I think it allows you to say, “Oh, well, maybe this is why they always publish this guy in the summer when they only had their core readership, but they published this other guy in the winter when they thought they might attract new readers and get some cross over readership. Or vice versa.” Maybe we published the crossover guy in the summer to try to flatten readership out so that we don’t have really lean summer months. But I think those kinds of judgments are taking the numbers, identifying the patterns, and then moving with it. Right? Moving into the realm of argumentation. And, to a certain degree, speculation. But I think it’s nice to have things to speculate on because I think it helps us explain the big picture on popular publishing and that’s ultimately the goal of the project.

Chambliss: That goal is broadening our public understanding of the history of print culture in the US is important, especially as digital culture seems to be really putting pressure on the print medium. You’re at a teaching institution. Is this something you’re using in the classroom as a teaching tool? Are you envisioning incorporating that into the final website to allow people to submit lesson plans or think about how they employ it in the classroom?

Hefner: I certainly hope so. I certainly hope that once word is out about the project [what] we’re trying to do is to promote it in any way we can. Our hope is that people will begin to develop assignments around it. I mean, there are a lot of people in English, for example, who are working in periodical studies who, I think, seem interested in using this. [They’re interested in] some of the stories I’m talking about, but also [in discovering] other stories about some of these major locations [like] the New Yorker, for example, is in there from virtually its inception. Esquire, especially in the 1930s and ‘40s, published the biggest names in American literary history. We definitely want to get the word out there.

I teach a couple of different courses where this is probably going to play a role. One is a graduate course on modernist magazines, both high and low. Having this data could allow students to do projects on individual magazines [and] gives them yet another resource to draw on to tell the stories of these particular publications. I also teach a course on pulp magazines and there are a lot of pulp magazines. They wanted advertisers, most of the pulp magazines especially [and] the ones that lasted more than a few issues are in there. You’ve got multiple large publishing combinations, not just Street & Smith, but Munsey Popular Publications, Thrilling Publications, these big publishers. [It] gives you a real sense of how vast the pulp readership was. We can do things like pick the population of a state and correlate it with the number of a certain publisher in there and say, “Wow, there’s one magazine from this publisher for every 15 people in Nevada or something this year.” And you just think how it allows you to really see the pervasiveness of this magazine or that magazine.

I think of this project as a labor of love and it’s a lot of labor, but it’s the project I’m most interested in [and] what other people do with what we put out there. Which is why we want to make all the data downloadable and why we want the visualization. I don’t want to own this data in a particular kind of way. I’m excited to see what other scholars, students, [and] teachers decide is really valuable about those and what they can make of it. Because there are so many of these little pieces that you notice as you’re moving through. [Like], here’s a spike, what’s up with that? Here’s when this magazine begins to fail, what’s up with that? There so many of those little stories that I think could generate great scholarship [and] great assignments, so I’m certainly hoping it gets used in the classroom. We want it to be pretty user friendly and intuitive on the ultimate website. It’ll probably be ready later this year, so I certainly hope it will be useful.

Chambliss: That’s a great place to stop. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your project.

Hefner: Thank you, Julian.

Chambliss: It’s my pleasure. This will be a great conversation for my students, who I’m planning to have listen. But I also will make sure that, when we publish this episode, I will put a link to your site. Hopefully people will find it because I’m excited about getting a chance to use it.



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