Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gold Medal 199 (1951)

Title : Sumuru
Author : Sax Rohmer
Cover art : Barye Phillips
   [Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett Gold Medal, 1951. No. 199. Paperback original. Mystery featuring the Sax Rohmer character, a Fu Manchu-like enchantress with quasi-supernatural powers who enslaves men and can turn people to stone].

style ***
substance **
collectibility ***

    The character of Sumuru has always benefitted from colorful front cover art (movie posters too). See here for a sampling. The quintessential Oriental villainess with supernatural powers seemed ready-made for the splashy 1950s paperback treatment, especially with Gold Medal as the publisher, whose stable of very capable artists included James Meese and Barye Phillips.

   At the same time there was a there was a burgeoning lesbian paperback surge in the 1950s* - the novels of Packer, Bannon, et. al were very popular at the time (and much commented on today in the print and online literature). But perhaps even more fascinating though much less frequently referenced is the appearance of lesbian themes and ideas in mainstream novels of the time, a case in point being our present title of interest, Sumuru (inasmuch as stories about Oriental arch-enchantresses with super-human powers could be mainstream).

   The Cover art for GM 199 depicts an exotic-looking brunette (presumably the title character) beckoning with a finger to a half-naked, draped (Caucasian?) redhead, who peers from a distance from behind a half-opened curtain. The Asian woman holds a gold chain in he her left hand and what appears to be an opium pipe in her right hand, while smoke from the pipe gently wafts nearby, all providing a nice atmosphere of forbidden Eastern exoticism (and perhaps eroticism, as well). Barye Phillips' cover art takes the Mysterious East theme a risqué step further by subtly suggesting a hint of lesbianism with the depiction of two beautiful, scantily clad women, the Eastern woman's come-hither gesture, and the other woman's glance back at her.

   I’m not qualified to say whether any lesbian themes actually appear in the novel, as I’ve not read the ‘Sumuru’ stories. But my guess is probably not. This was the vintage pb era, and they tended to put more spice on the covers than in the book's contents. -- BCS

   * With the conspicuous exception of the various sleaze publishing houses, the cover art for books by said and other authors tended to be fairly restrained and tasteful, usually far less suggestive than Phillips’ rather daring imagery for GM 199.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ace Double D-379 (1959)

Title[s] : Drink with the Dead ; Mistress of Horror House
Author[s] : J. M. [Jay] Flynn ; William Woody
Cover art : Paul Rader (Drink with the Dead)

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

A winning Ace Double, this, arriving rather late in the company’s evolution. Dead has terrific cover art by Paul Rader : a sculpture-like tough guy with impossibly large hands and forearms has a menacing grip on neck of pretty blonde. There's a review at Vintage Hardboiled Reads.

Mistress has an even more interesting if less polished cover: a curvaceous, floating-in-mid-air blonde in see-through negligee and high heels dominates the cover. A Siamese cat lurks at her feet. The background includes missiles and nuclear explosion, and sketchily drawn figures of desperate-looking man and two tussling shadowy figures. It all makes for a wonderfully surrealistic if conceptually scattered design. I’d never heard of the book's author William Woody. In any case this is decidedly the junoir partner of this Ace double production, the fetching cover nothwithstanding. See also the aforementioned review for a brief description of the book.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Brit noir

Title : Gunning in England
Author : William J. Elliott
Cover art : uncredited
  [London: Gerald Swan, 1946. First printing. Miniature-size hardcover. “Ed. Gunning takes the stage again in Gunning in England, a thriller by William J. Elliott”—T.p.]

style **
substance ***
collectibility **

It's tough to find biographical information about British mystery writer William Elliott, whether the sources be print or online. We glimpse him in places like Classic Crime Fiction and ABE Books. He apparently wrote quite a few mysteries for Swan in the 1940s, and his sprightly style might be described as a Britishised Chandlerese. The cover art for the present book reflects the slightly different British take on the tough formula – leaden figures which don’t quite capture the buoyancy of the vintage American style. Pluses include the vintage Forties car and the girl’s red hair & green dress. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dell 833 (1952)

Title : Recipe for Homicide
Author : Lawrence Blochman
Cover art : Verne Tossey

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

Despite the girl's rather melodramatic pose this cover stands out for a certain delicacy and restraint, qualities we don't usually associate with the vintage pb style of ca. 1950. See also review at Pulp International : Two Covers for Recipe for Homicide.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The gestalt of the hardboiled

Geoffrey O'Brien, Hardboiled America : Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, New York : Da Capo Press, 1997. Expanded edition. 197 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 23 cm. Front cover design : Trudi Gershenov [adapted from James M. Cain, Sinful Woman, Avon 174, c1947; cover artist unknown].
Contents : Chapter 1. Icons on Yellow Paper.  Chapter 2. Origins of the Paperbacks. Chapter 3. A Disposable Gallery.  Chapter 4. Mythologists of the Hardboiled.  Chapter 5. The Paperback Detective and His Discontent.  Chapter 6. Afternoon of the Fifties. Epilogue - The Long Morning After.  Appendix. The Hardboiled Era: A Checklist, 1920-1960.
[Originally published, 1981, as Hardboiled America : the Lurid Years of Paperbacks].

Mirroring the plethora of riches offered by the vintage pb originals is the ever-growing critical literature on the topic. Indeed it seems that hardly a year goes by that we're not blessed with another deluxe volume with ever more vivid graphics and atmospherics [1]. Most of these volumes are of the coffee table variety and they subsequently – and rightly – emphasize the visual elements, i. e. many high quality cover reproductions. Some of these have sprightly texts which focus on the ironic and camp qualities present in the covers. 
   Standing out, however, for its historical sensitivity and polished style is O'Brien's classic tome, which lovingly talks of all things paperback. The small book also surveys, somewhat less compellingly, the great practitioners of the hardboiled art, the usual suspects of Hammett, Chandler, Goodis, Woolrich et al. In one sense this slim volume is little more than an extended essay, to be precise the aforementioned two essay topics in one. The first three chapters in particular on the history and aesthetics of the paperback are where the true stylistic nuggets and critical insights reside. Like pearls on cushiony velvet, O’Brien’s mots justes roll off his pen in seemingly effortless fashion :  

   It is easy enough to see them as farcical relics of an earlier generation’s suppressed desires, monsters safely declawed and defanged. But those passionate stances and the artfully rendered settings in which they are framed – alley, tenement, motel room, barroom – were linked, at their origin, to the real feeling of a particular place and time . . . . it is their fate to be perceived as lurid and absurd by the skeptics who came after. Yet, if we look hard, we can still discern in these toylike figures the heroes and demons of a generation, the enduring archetypes of an era haunted by all-too-real violence and tormented by desire it could not quite fulfill.

   The people on the paperback covers lived in a single image, frozen forever in a moment of violence or in a sullen calm preceding the outburst of some unimaginable passion. What came before? What would come after? . . . . Against a murky background of menace or erotic suggestion, the human creatures stood out with stunning clarity, sculpted, motionless.
   What surprises in the end is how much of the paperback art of the Forties and Fifties conveys a sense of reality and a warmth of emotion. Even the fantasies have a homespun texture, and the most unreal of them are brought down to earth, if only by the crudeness of their execution . . . . when the bright lights and synthesized soundtracks of today's conglomerate marketing merge into a single vast blur, it is comforting to rest a while in the clear lines of the ramshackle porch on the cover of Erskine Caldwell's Journeyman, or to sit with Studs Lonigan in the park on a warm summer night. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that such simplicity once sold books. 

   One could cite many such passages, but what is most important is that O’Brien’s florid yet eminently accessible style is always in the service of the subject matter, and as a result the whole is the equal to the sum of its disparate parts. Hardboiled America is a veritable gold mine of information on a surprisingly broad range of topics - art and graphic design, literary criticism, popular culture, film noir, gender studies, among others - and will richly reward repeated readings.

[1] For a partial listing see my posting at History of Vintage Cover Art I [fn 7]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dell First Edition #27 (1954)

Title : Night Walker
Author : Donald Hamilton
Cover art : Carl Bobertz

style ***
substance ***
collectibility **

Hamilton’s Red Scare paranoiac thriller Night Walker has been praised to the skies. See herehere and here for a sampling of reviews. Fascinating to compare Bobertz’s classic-era art with that of the Hard Case Crime reissue. For me it’s no contest : the Dell is early 50s hyper-realistic cover art at its best, and a rare case where the guy gets the attention rather than the buxom redhead in the background here. The guy’s grimacing facial expression, intense eyes and claw like hands prying at the bandages sum up the character’s tortured inner state. I’m a big fan of Hard Case Crime and their covers but Tim Gabor’s rather flat, cartoonish - albeit lively - rendering is another case where the remake does a pretty good job of capturing the letter and flavor but not quite the magic of the original. See also : Carl Bobertz’s original art.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Pocket 643 (October 1949)

Title : The Case of the Drowning Duck
Author : Erle Stanley Gardner
Cover art : Louis Glanzman

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

"Complete and unabridged." Louis Glanzman's depiction of floating heads of two women & a claw-like left hand holding a baby duck is a primo example of the ca. 1950 lurid phase of this usually reticent publishing house. The lively cover art of Pocket 643 has an  unsettling creepiness to it with the combination of the forlorn looking women, the menacing hand, but mostly the bright colors of orange and yellow, to suggest : the fires of Hades? an out-of-control sun? nuclear explosion? Whatever, it's a terrific, more-or-less one of a kind cover effort from little known artist Louis Glanzman.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bantam 779 (1950)

Title : The Case of the Unhappy Angels (Six Silver Handles)
Author : Geoffrey Homes
Cover art : uncredited

style **
substance ***
collectibility **

N. Y. : Bantam, 1950. [Pseud. Daniel Mainwaring]. Anon. cover design. Originally issued as : Six Silver Handles. Bantam edition published, April 1950. Creepy cover art with gloomy atmosphere; ambiguous reaction of the two women; distorted body proportions and posture, along with claw-like left hand on seated woman. The two women's rather ordinary/masculine features belie the cover blurb: "Two lying beauties play a dangerous game." In fact, the seated woman downright creeps me out : her head is much too large, is positioned too far to the right and seems to float in mid-air with no connection to the headless [?] upper torso dressed in purple.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bantam 109 (1947)

Title : Blood from a Stone

Author : Ruth Sawtell Wallis
Cover art : uncredited

style **
substance **
collectibility *


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pocket 6043 (5th printing, 1960)

Title : The Case of the Fan Dancer's Horse
Author : Erle Stanley Gardner
Cover art : uncredited

style **

substance **
collectibility *

The cover art for Pocket 6043 is done in the 'Charles' style, but no artist is credited. A shapely blonde wearing exotic dancer garb seems to be sitting on some kind of wall. Or is she suspended in mid-air? BTW love all that red on the cover! Anyway, the evidence suggests that Fan-Dancer’s Horse has been rather well served by vintage cover art; a glance at LibraryThing and ABEBooks reveals at least six pb editions which appeared during the (more or less) classic years of 1940-1968, all with pretty tasty cover designs. The most direct comparison is of course the somewhat more risqué Pocket first printing (no. 886) of 1952. In this version cover art legend Earl Bergey depicts in most tantalizing fashion a naked brunette wearing only red high-heeled shoes hiding behind a fan.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Quote of the month

"Columnists need obsessions, even addictions. We simply couldn’t keep turning out 900 words on a regular schedule if we weren’t allowed to indulge ourselves every now and then. We recognize that readers don’t necessarily share our cravings, but occasionally we are compelled to ask for your tolerance. Sometimes the only way to make a deadline is to ingest our literary drug of choice and report on the experience. If you read Booklist, you know what I’m talking about. My friend Michael Cart has Freddy the Pig, and I have pulp-paperback cover art.
-- Bill Ott, "Confessions of a Pulp Junkie," Booklist, v105 n5 (Nov. 1, 2008), p. 80.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Fawcett Premier No. T-480, 1968

Title: Seize the Day
Author: Saul Bellow
Cover art: uncredited
  [Introduction by Alfred Kazin. The Masterworks Series. The anonymous cover art of expressionistic cityscape recalls Robert Jonas’s city scene for the 1940s Penguin reprint of James T. Farrell Short Stories. The book title and author's name are inserted against a blue backdrop resembling the sky. A sparse but curiously effective cover design from the twilight era of the great vintage paperbacks].

style **
substance **
collectibility *

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Popular Library 247, 1950

Title : Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep  
Author : Richard Sale
Cover art : uncredited
  [First published in hardcover, N. Y., Simon and Schuster, 1936. "Love, violence and hate on the high seas."  The basis for the 1940 film Strange Cargo starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford].

style ***
substance *** 
collectibility **

"They were fugitives from horror."

Not Too Narrow’s
cover art features a tough guy menacing an island maiden (love the bright red/orange sarong the girl is wearing!). Popular was one of the foremost practitioners of vintage style cover art, but here, for one of their most unforgettable cover designs, the artist is alas unattributed. The story takes place in the Caribbean but the girl’s appearance and garb suggest a Polynesian setting. In any case, whoever the cover artist may be, it’s classic Popular Library/Belarski-esque – intensely hyper-realistic; bright colors; bad guy menacing girl theme.   “A strange tale with a supernatural hovering of wings throughout.” – review, C. Richard Lanman, Atlanta Constitution, April 26, 1936, p13A.

Dell No. 146 (1946)

Title: The Man in Lower 10
Author: Mary Roberts Rinehart
Cover art: Otto Storch  

Dell 146 is a mystery about a train ride with murder, robbery & romance -- are their any other types of train rides? At any rate, Lower 10 benefits from terrific front cover art by Otto Storch of surrealistic vision of anthropomorphized train. Back cover : map of The Washington Flier – Scene of Murder.

style ***
substance **
collectibility *


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The pulp heritage

“The pulp magazines were all about three things : action, adventure and sex – not necessarily together or in that order.” – Peter Haining, The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines.

“What is it about pulp art that makes it stand out as unique, different from the kind of cover art featured on books and magazines today? Only its outrageousness. It dared to be wild, and too much was never enough.” – James Van Hise, quoted in : Robert Lesser, Pulp Art.

The pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s were the direct precursors of the classic era vintage paperbacks [1], with both the pulps and pbs favoring sensation-laced stories and spicy cover art. The pulps’ influence also extended to the earthy 1950s men’s adventure magazines [2]. Indeed, the men’s magazines of the 50s might be seen as the last gasp of the pulps, even if their general style tended more to the postmodern.

As for vintage paperbacks and the pulps, the differences were more a matter of degree, not content; for all their flamboyance the vintage pbs generally had a more restrained, elegant tone in packaging and message [3], in some cases even aspiring to real literary pretensions.

But ultimately it’s the very over-the-top outrageousness of the pulps, referenced in the aforementioned quote, that, to my way of thinking anyway, makes them so much fun, even more so than the vintage pbs. Speaking of outrageous, my personal favorite genre was the ‘shudder pulps', in all their Technicolor, high-camp glory.

In any case, and paralleling the comeback in recent years of vintage pbs, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the pulp magazines, and some of my favorite survey volumes include : Peter Haining, The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines (Chicago, Chicago Review Press, 2001); Robert Lesser, Pulp Art : Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines (New York, Gramercy Books, 1997); Lee Server, Danger Is My Business : An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1993); Max Allan Collins, History of Mystery (Portland, Collectors Press, 2001), pp. 32-57.

[1] Curious – perhaps not so curious – that at the same time the pulps were dying out (ca. 1946) the vintage pb’s were just beginning to hit their stride.

[2] Here I’m thinking more of titles like Argosy, True, Saga, Adventure and For Men Only. These had the hardcore blue collar ethic of the pulps; the other 1950s men’s magazines like Playboy and Esquire - and even low-rent cousins like Cavalier and Rogue - with their ersatz intellectual tone, upwardly mobile audience and slick production values, were just a little too civilized to be considered genuinely pulpy.

[3] Especially so after the show trials Congressional investigations of 1952-53.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Quote of the month

“Mickey Spillane is just about on the same low level of phoniness, and as far as I’m concerned just as unreadable. I did honestly try to read one just to see what made them click, but I couldn’t make it. Pulp writing at its worse was never as bad as this stuff.”   
   -- Raymond Chandler, on Mickey Spillane (letter to Dale Warren, 11 January 1952, referenced in : Selected letters of Raymond Chandler, ed. Frank MacShane, N. Y., Columbia University Press, 1981,  p310.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Paperback Library #52-472 (1967)

Title : The Haunted Dancers
Editor : Charles Birkin
Cover art : Victor Kalin
   [N.Y. : Paperback Library #52-472. First Printing. "A Black Magic Book of Terror." Originally published as The Tandem Book of Ghost Stories, London, 1965. Includes contributions from Shamus Frazer, Flavia Richardson, Lady Eleanor Smith, and M.F.K. Fisher. Bizarre cover art by Victor Kalin despicts a death shroud figure embracing Kim Novak lookalike].

style ***
substance **
collectibility *

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gold Medal k1503, 1965

Title: The Company Girls
Author: Mona Williams
Cover art: Robert McGinnis[?] 

  [Fawcett Gold Medal K1503, 1965. First printing. "Their office hours were sizzling enough; what went on after hours could only be told in whispers." Front cover art depicts three nude women (partially obscured by strategically placed towels and puffs of steam) lazing in a sauna room. The cover has been attributed to Robert McGinnis and it's certainly his style but no actual credit is given in this printing. Love those 1960s hairdos!].

style **
substance *
collectibility *

“The Company Girls were supremely shrewd, supremely efficient and supremely female."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pocket 896 (1952)

Title : Miami Murder Go-Round
Author :
Marston La France
Cover art: Morgan Kane  

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

"The complete book; not a word missing."

 In this 1952 reprint, Miami Murder Go-Round gets the full pulp treatment by the usually conservative Pocket Books. Murder Go-Round benefits in particular from the high intensity front cover art by Morgan Kane -- bright red colors frame a view from the top of a 3-D stairs, with bad guy at bottom, knife in hand. The Spillane-esque fun continues on the back cover with the blurb:

  “This private eye, Rick Larkan, is really tough and needs to be. He’s got a blonde in his apartment, a blonde with half a million bucks in cold cash belonging to someone else. The blonde’s girl friend has been tortured and murdered. His own buddy has been killed. His clients want him to turn up another murderer, and the police want his help in cracking a gang of smugglers. And all this in America’s most lush playground, Miami … a town where vicious people often play too rough at vice and smuggling, and swollen citizens come floating in from Biscayne Bay … dead and stinking.”

This is the only novel by the rather obscure author Marston La France (1927-1975). His mystery writer credentials are on the curious side: one source lists him as a farmer in New York in the 1950s, another says he wrote Miami Murder Go-Round to finance his college expenses. Fun to compare the cov
er art for the Pocket version with the original 1951 hardback printing by World. Both are strong covers but for me the Pocket's in-your-face immediacy carries the day. 

Apparently there was an Italian translation [Girandola a Miami, Verona: Editore Luciana Agnoli, 1954; tr. Luciana Agnoli Zucchini]. Would love to get hold of this one; love that title!

Site of the month 2

("images from the underbelly of the rare book world") is Heldfond Books’ satiric take on vintage pulp.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gold Medal 921 (1959)

Title : The Wife Next Door
Author : R. V. Cassill
Cover art : Uncredited

style **
substance **
collectibility **

 "They met like two comets in the night - the bored and restless man, the lush and willing woman!" - front cover. 

GM 921 has great racy front cover art featuring the title character in pink negilgee leaning against a chair. She's rendered in a Barye Phillips style, but, alas, no cover artist is credited.

Risqué details aside, for me what's most interesting about the cover design are those red, brick-like shapes sprinkled through the center of the front cover. What exactly are they? Bricks to suggest the houses of the adulterous individuals? (it's the wife next door, after all). Some sort of wacky, cubist/abstract desire motif? Or maybe a hieroglyphic code? (they vaguely suggest some kind of Mayan script). Whatever, it's all great fun in this mild example of vintage sleaze from a mainstream 1950s paperback publisher.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Site of the month

A tasty - if selective - vintage paperback sampler is posted by Annie at LifeLounge (Dec 23, 2007), Satan was a Lesbian. The unlikely inspiration is a restaurant, Thai to Go, located in Melbourne, AUS : 

  "There is an amazing Thai restaurant near me that I eat at regularly for two reasons. One: it has tasty food. Two: it has a collection of vintage smut paperback covers on the walls. So I have to credit Thai To Go for inspiring this collection of coverart I pulled together from all the corners of the WWW. It's gold guys, absolute gold. Prepare yourself for gems like, The Sexy Saucer People, Trailer Park Trash ('Their love was as mobile as their home and just as carefree'), Ball And Chain and Evil Friendship." 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blue Murder (Dennis Mcmillan, 1987)

Title : Blue Murder
Author : Robert Leslie Bellem
Cover art : Joe Servello
  [Miami : Dennis McMillan. First paperback edition, October 1987. Soft Cover. 158 p. Part of the Classic Hard-Boiled Detective Series. Introduction by Bill Pronzini. Originally published in 1938 by Phoenix Press].  

style ***
substance ***
collectibility **

Bellem was the author of over 3,000 pulp stories, many of them featuring the ribald, wacky adventures of "private skulk" Dan Turner. Blue Murder features terrific retro-style cover art by Joe Servello of tough guy with smoking gun and sweaty redhead in low cut gown. The portrait of the sultry femme fatale recalls Cloutier's oily cover art for Dan Brennan's The Velvet Rut, which similarly depicts a languorous brunette veritably dripping in sleaze.

Phoenix Press, 1938


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Dell 414 (1950)

Title : Cleopatra's Nights
Editor : Allan Barnard
Cover art : Ray Johnson
  [Dell Publishing Company Inc., New York, August 1950. First paperback edition. Dell # 414. “The Life and Loves of the Queen of Egypt.”]

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

This rare venture by Dell into historical fiction has the added crossover appeal by being a representative – at least marginally so – of that popular if not so easily definable genre of vintage sleaze. However, as was the case in so many paperbacks from the golden era, the racy promise of the book’s cover is never quite delivered in the contents.
Nonetheless, Dell 414 has much to recommend; the various chapters are well-written, even poetic, and Ray Johnson’s lush cover art balances just the right amounts of glamour and luridness, representing a nice departure from Dell’s earlier, non-realistic designs. Best of all, this was one of the last of the company’s famed mapbacks, and this map’s a doozy – the known world, ca. 30 B.C. (i.e. Middle East & the Mediterranean), “where the pagan Queen of Egypt lived and loved.” The usual suspects -- pyramids, sphinx, Paros lighthouse -- they’re all there.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Newsstand Library #U168-ASN (1961)

Title : You Can’t Escape Me
Author : John Tyler
Cover art : Robert Bonfils
  [Chicago : First printing, July 1961. 'Adult reading.' 'A Newsstand Library Magenta book.' - title page. 'She was the high priestess of evil -- rapacious and insatiable. Hell was her home, and Satan, her lover.' - cover. A lively entry from vintage sleaze publisher Newsstand Library. Cover art by Bonfils depits an upside down naked blonde captured in mid-air, presumably tossed out of highrise].

style **
substance *
collectibility **

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Quote of the month

“However, the covers were sometimes printed in advance, before there was a story. So what the editor did was show me the cover or a drawing - it was usually a picture of a half-naked woman and someone stripping the rest of her clothes off her. And on that basis I wrote dozens of stories.” 
  -- Bruno Fischer, quoted in : Lee Server, Danger Is My Business : an Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines, p. 114.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mexican vintage

Title : Mexicana : vintage Mexican graphics
Editor : Jim Heimann
Cover art : Torrero
   [Köln ; London ; New York : Taschen, 2002. "Icons" series].

style ***
substance ***
collectibility **

An irresistible, all-color collection of printed ephemera from the Golden Age of Mexican graphics [1], Mexicana is indeed a little off-topic, and not owned by me personally, but a fun discovery and worthy of inclusion for its high quality graphic art which connects it, however indirectly, to the vintage paperback movement.

The subject matter covered includes bottle and can labels, matchbook covers, cigarette packets, bullfighting and wrestling posters, travel brochures, menus, magazine covers, advertisements, and especially calendar paintings. A number of illustrations are the fetching if rather idealized portraits of Mexican women, and herein is the closest connection to the vintage paperback aesthetic of more or less the same era.

A substantial number of images derive from the travel industry, and they tend to present Mexico as a bucolic paradise of lush landscapes and Old World architecture, populated by vibrantly happy [if somewhat Anglicized] beauties dressed in Old Spain [or in some cases, mythic pre-Columbian] garb, and often accompanied by similarly traditionally dressed country squires. Fair enough – travel advertising today gives much the same message, albeit in less quaint visual language.

When a signature on the illustration is legible there's names like : Diego Rivera, Carlos Merida, Armando Drechsler, Antonio Gomez R., and Jesús Helguera – a goodly company indeed. A minor quibble is the paucity of descriptive detail for the individual items; in fact the only textual material in the entire volume is a one-page introductory summary [in English, German and French, but curiously not Spanish].

Covering much the same terrain is Mexican Calendar Girls, by Angela Villalba ; foreword by Carlos Monsiváis (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2006). The rather significant difference is that this work has all the exquisite textual and descriptive detail, bilingual no less, which Mexicana lacked. Nonetheless, Calendar Girls and Mexicana share many qualities. In particular, both books might be described as a pleasing combination of graphic design, mythology, kitsch, cultural history and cheesecake art [2]. Come to think of it, this is q pretty good description of the qualities of vintage paperback cover art, but again, it's the cheesecakey female depictions which are the most direct connection to classic era vintage pb art [3].

The Art Deco element present but not dominant in Calendar Girls and Mexicana comes front and center in Deco España : Graphc Design of the Twenties and Thirties, by Steven Heller and Louise Fili (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1997). It’s a tasty, wide-ranging collection of Spanish graphic design styles as employed in fashion, book and magazine covers, travel, and of course Spanish Civil War posters. Like Mexican Calendar Girls the present volume has a sprightly text and good documentation of individual items, with the illustrations being of a more abstract and purely graphic nature, lacking the emotional charge of the two Mexico books. Deco España then has a more 20th century sensibility, if you will, as opposed to the folksiness of the two Mexican titles, the images of which conjure up a timeless, romanticized, and myth-invoking nostalgia.

[1] Why does it seem that the ‘golden age’ for almost anything is the 1930s and 1940s?

[2] As Carlos Monsiváis puts it so succinctly in his Introduction, “The calendar art mixed Hollywood fantasies and Mexican legends.”

[3] Indeed, Mexican calendar artists occupy an analogous place to that of American vintage paperback cover artists; so many of the calendar paintings today considered brilliant were created in the thousands by anonymous, underpaid artists who were little appreciated at the time. But the differences were fascinating as well; the women in the Mexican calendar art, however seductively depicted, nonetheless have a natural and wholesome quality that contrasts sharply with the vintage pb’s highly stylized, urban, decidedly femme fatale look.