Saturday, January 30, 2010

Site of the month

Sivupolut. A fun discovery, this. Quite the collection of paperback covers (including a nice cross section of vintage American covers from the golden age). Pin-up art and various other pulpy stuff, too, with the content leaning a little toward the softcore vintage sleaze. The site seems to be related to the author's bookstore, and I must confess that the organization is a bit of a mystery to me. But not to worry -- this is a highly entertaining resource, and the Finnish perspective is refreshing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vintage Espionage I

Chronicle Books, ISBN-13: 978-0811828871, 2001
Title : Red Scared! : The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture
Authors : Michael Barson, Stephen Heller

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

The subtitle pretty much says it all in describing this immensely enjoyable tome. The authors go to pains to express that the book is not an apology for the real Soviet threat posed by its military, and by extension, its spy apparatus, to the Western democracies in the roughly two decades following the Second World War. Rather, Red Sacred! is a pulpy, camp romp through the excesses and absurdities of Cold War imagery [1].

Ace graphic arts commentators Barson and Heller contribute a sprightly text but the real joy is the plethora of over-the-top illustrations from books, movie posters, advertisements, magazines et al, in all their orange-, red- (no pun intended), and yellow-splattered glory.

The style is vintage paperback lurid all the way, and almost every page is a visual delight, and thus it’s difficult to pick out some favorites, but I’ll try anyway! The poster for the film The Red Menace [2], which has been described as the Reefer Madness of Cold War movies; an article from the magazine True Pictorial Stories, April 1940 (“The Mysterious Woman Who Rules Stalin”), which posits the unlikely concept of Stalin-as-romantic heartthrob; the hopelessly in bad taste paperback Red Rape, the cover of which takes vintage sleaze to new heights (or would it be lows?) [3]; the poster for the film I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13), which features a sexy photo of a ‘nameless, shameless woman!’ (Janis Carter), who has a crazed look in her eyes and a sinister smile with gleaming, wolf-like teeth (perhaps de rigueur qualities for Red seductresses) [4].

[1] For more scholarly takes on Cold War pop culture in the 1950s, see : Meredith Hohe, American dreams and Red nightmares : popular media and the framing of a Cold War enemy, 1949-1962, Master’s thesis (M.A.), Ohio University, 2010; Thomas Doherty, Cold war, cool medium: television, McCarthyism, and American culture, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003; Margot A. Henrikson,  Dr. Strangelove’s America: society and culture in the atomic age, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997; Douglas Field, American Cold War culture, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2005; Greg Barnhisel, Catherine Turner,  Pressing the fight : print, propaganda, and the Cold War, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.
[2] I just saw a clip from this film on YouTube. Actually it's pretty good, in a camp sort of way.
[3] But for the ultimate in kitschy sleaze see the cover of the unforgettable [alas not referenced in Red Scared], Commie Sex Trap.
[4] Or as one commentator colorfully describes the phenomenon of the Red femme fatale : “That fixture of 1940s noir, the femme fatale, is prominently featured in I Married a Communist; Janis Carter’s predatory image dominates not only the film itself, but all the publicity materials for the project. ‘Nameless, shameless woman,’ the poster screams. ‘Trained in an art as old as time . . . trading her love . . . yielding kisses that invite disaster, destroy, then – KILL!,’ superimposed over the image of Carter spilling out of a low-cut evening gown, her hair swept back in a platinum blonde hairdo, as her teeth glisten with an almost vampiric urgency.” (Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, New Brunswick, N. J., Rutgers University Press, 2009, pp. 82-83). For more on the American cinema’s response to the Red Scare, see Better Dead Than… the “Red” Communist Films during the 1950…, which includes a list of films, with commentary, that were in one way or another influenced by the Red Scare era.

Arrow Books Ltd, No. 576 [Reprint edition, 1963]
Title : The Eunuch of Stamboul
[First published in harcover, London, Hutchinson & Co., 1935]
Author : Dennis Wheatley
style **
substance **
collectibility *

Eunuch is a Between-the-Wars story by the now largely forgotten British mystery author Dennis Wheatley. The plot is about a gentleman amateur spy, Captain Destine, who is dispatched to Turkey to foil a plot to overthrow the Ataturk regime and restore an Islamic theocracy to power. The Arrow reprint benefits from the unforgettable [and, alas, uncredited] cover art of the title character. The orange-red halo that engulfs the entire front cover creates a subtly sinister effect. The guy on the cover is not the kind of character I would want to meet in the proverbial dark alley! The novel was the basis for the 1936 film Secret of Stamboul (a.k.a. The Spy in White) starring James Mason.


Pennant #P3, 1953 
Title : Epitaph for a Spy
[First published in harcover, London, Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1938.]
Author : Eric Ambler
style **
substance **
collectibility *

“Prostitution may be the oldest profession in the world but that of the spy cannot be much younger.” - Eric Ambler, Footnote to Epitaph for a Spy

An ordinary man of uncertain citizenship finds himself caught up in international intrigue on the French Riviera over a mistaken roll of film. Epitaph for a Spy was one of the first ‘modern’ spy thrillers, and paved the way for such later writers as Ian Fleming, John Le CarrĂ©, and Robert Ludlum. The 1953 Pennant reissue features stunning cover art by an uncredited artist. The Cold War was at its peak and the cover updates the interrogation scene to depict a very threatening and decidedly Sovietesque police chief questioning a down-and-out prisoner as a guard hovers nearby.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Signet 1151, 1954

Title : Mafia
Author : Ed Reid
Cover art : James Avati

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

We generally associate the covers of James Avati with Erskine Caldwell-esque scenes of soft summer nights and languorous figures, albeit rendered with an undercurrent of tension and dissatisfaction. Here is a rare venture into the crime and hardboiled milieu for this usually restrained artist [1]. Mafia shows that Avati could boil hard with the best of them; the book is executed (no pun inteneded!) with his usual low key lighting but he sure gets the message across – the cover depicts a hit man putting a gun back in a shoulder holster as he looks down at a dead guy sprawled on a table. Here Avati’s preference for earthy tones suits the gritty subject matter perfectly.

The book’s presentation is such that it looks more like a novel than nonfiction, in fact I thought this was the case until I did a little research and discovered that the book indeed is nonfiction, a mid-century classic on organized crime in America, a collection of 16 stories of the Mafia and its members, to be precise.

[1] In the popular imagination old, or vintage, paperbacks – particularly those of crime fiction – are generally thought of in terms of “good girl art,” “lurid,” “sensationalist,” or “pulp fiction,” as portrayed in over-the-top glory by publishers like Avon, Popular Library and the like. Avati and Avati-influenced covers, with their Rembrandt-esque lighting and predilection for browns and grays, are really a different strain in the popular culture and can be thought of as a different school altogether.
Probably due to commercial demands, even Signet, the quintessential Avati publisher, occasionally had to come into the lurid fold, as is witnessed by the Signet versions of Mickey Spillane novels and, later, the James Bond novels. [Even Avati himself did a couple of Spillane covers!]
Bantam A1875, January 1959

Title : No Vacation for Maigret
[Translated from the French, Les Vacances de Maigret, by Geoffrey Sainsury]
Author: Georges Simenon
Cover art : uncredited
style ***
substance **
collectibility ***

Simenon being one of the most prolific of authors, it’s embarrassing to admit that I've never read any of the Maigret novels, only having seen a couple of movies and a few episodes of the TV series. Be that as it may, it’s been my, perhaps erroneous, impression that Simenon and Maigret have been rather poorly served by vintage paperback art. Happily, Bantam A1875 is an exception. The design manages to be both restrained and sensationalistic at the same time, rendering the title character in exquisite detail which brings out both his frumpiness as well as intellect and determination. An especially nice touch is the Paris street scene which depicts the dead woman in red dress and gawking onlookers. Alas, no cover artist is credited. For a time Bantam listed the cover artist on the inside first page with a little annotation, but not here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dell First Edition 46, January 1955 (First printing)
[Inscribed by the author on inside of front cover : "To Fred with best regards -- Donald Hamilton."]

Title : Line of Fire
Author : Donald Hamilton
Cover art : Raymond Pease
style ***
substance ***
collectibility ****

It’s been said that Line of Fire is Hamilton’s best book. I can’t offer an opinion since I haven’t read it, but it’s certainly graced with one of the best vintage paperback covers ever by Raymond Pease, truly one of the unsung heroes of vintage art. So many good things about this cover : the wonderful sfumato shading; the general restraint, compared to the sledgehammer-like vintage paperback style of only a few years prior (with the more subtle look providing a clue as to the more low-keyed direction that cover art was headed in); the dreamy (or is it concerned?) look on the girl’s face as she takes a break from magazine reading; the intense looking man inspecting the rifle in a businesslike fashion; nice but not overpowering lettering; that only about 2/3 of the cover is used for actual illustration; the way the off-white lampshade blends in with the nondescript light blob that’s the upper third of the cover. But what I like best is the ambiguous nature of the two characters, rendered as much by the artistic style itself as the demeanors of each. Overall, a masterpiece of subtlety and intensity by a much under-rated artist.