Saturday, February 27, 2010

History of Vintage Cover Art II

[editor’s note : this historical survey was originally written as one article, thus the sometimes bumpy transitions between the individual postings]

Yes, the pendulum has swung back and vintage paperbacks are on a roll [1]. But they were not always held in such high regard [2], and it’s a mixed verdict of art-historical justice that these disposable little books, little more than professional embarrassments to their creators, would ultimately be found to have so much art and artistry in them [3]. It all began back in 1938, when the ever-conservative Pocket Books released a limited print run of The Good Earth, then quickly followed with ten titles drawn mostly from the classics. With Pocket thus leading the way and other publishers gradually joining the paperback party, the subject matter as well as the packaging of the early paperbacks differed little from their reticent, more respectable hardcover cousins. Then, ca. 1946, everything changed. The lurid era had begun.

[1] The cliché ‘embarrassment of riches’ comes to mind when contemplating the depth of the vintage paperback lode; even with all the coffee table books, magazine articles, blogs and internet sites out there on the topic, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this amazing cultural phenomenon. One perceptive analysis of the vintage pb gestalt can be found at : Where Utter Sleaze Meets Genuine Artistry.

[2] One measure of how respectable paperbacks have become is the appearance of entire books devoted to individual genres, especially the ‘scandalous’ topical fiction which appeared in the early & mid 1950s: Stephen J. Gertz, Dope Menace : The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks, Port Townsend, WA, 2008; Katherine V. Forrest, Lesbian Pulp Fiction : The Sexually Intrepid World Of Lesbian Paperback Novels, 1950-1965, San Francisco, Cleis Press, 2005; Jaye Zimet, Strange Sisters : The Art Of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969, N. Y., London, Viking Studio, 1999; Michael Barson & Steven Heller, Teenage Confidential: An Illustrated History of the American Teen, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1998.

[3] The current resurrection of vintage paperbacks provides yet another example of the historical paralleling of film noir, a cinematic genre revered today by critics and devotees but regarded in its day as little more than escapist, second-tier trash.


William Faulkner. Knight’s Gambit. N. Y. : Signet, 1950. #825. The basis for the 1972 film Tomorrow starring Robert Duvall. Even Faulkner wasn’t exempt from the gaudy paperback treatment. Here, however, Barye Phillips’s cover design shows the James Avati influence with its subdued colors and rather ordinary looking subjects. Phillips adds texture to the scene with the interesting glowing effect that bathes the three characters.

Roden, H. W. Wake for a Lady. N. Y. : Dell, 1946. Mapback. Number 345. Front cover : [William George Jacobson]. "A Sid Ames and Johnny Knight story." The mapback illustrates the town in which Ames and Knight probe murder in Wake for a Lady. Great front cover art of a more or less unique idea from Dell, the winking babe in a casket, though it does sort of fit in with their 1940s Surrealist-influenced covers. The Dell trademark keyhole in the coffin is downright creepy. Altogether the cover is a nice combination of the whimsically macabre and the realistic. BTW love the texture on the candle!

Keene, Day. Framed in Guilt. Hasbrouck Heights, NJ : Graphic Publications, 1952. No. 51. Cover art : uncredited. The cover here really captures the sweaty desperation of a character in a tight spot. The sheen on the clothes is first-rate, especially the detail on the girl’s suit. The hyper-realistic flash-of-lightning style has all the hallmarks of a nightmare, one of those where you’re being chased and can’t get away, with the guy’s stepping though the barbed wire adding such a nice bit of extra intensity to the scene. And what’s with the shadowy, grayish blob in the cover's upper left-hand corner? Rocks on a mountainside? Or perhaps it represents a sinister individual who oversees everything with omniscient malevolence? In any case, this is one of the best covers from Graphic Books, one of the more under-appreciated purveyors of paperback cover art in the early fifties.

Baker, Ledru. And Be My Love. Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett Gold Medal, 1959. #183. Cover : Barye Phillips. Fourth printing, January 1959. I must confess that I never heard of Ledru Baker before stumbling across this book. Information on him is scarce; apparently he wrote some mystery novels set in California. In any case, the great Barye Phillips treats us to one of his most intense covers with his vivid depiction of a tough guy grabbing a startled brunette from behind. This cover is a classic example of the vintage pb technique of obscuring or chopping off the image of the man on the cover, allowing the female subject to emerge front and center in the viewer’s attention. Here there is great detail in the features of both figures; even the hands get top-notch treatment! Trivia : was the stunning B actress Laurette Luez the inspiration for the girl on this cover?

Kummer, Frederic Arnold. Ladies in Hades. N. Y. : Dell, 1950. Mapback. #415. First printing, August 1950. Back cover : map of Hell, "where some famous sirens bare their pasts." Time of map : immemorial. With 6 illustrations done especially for the Dell edition; 4 of these are based on the Gordon Ross illustrations for the first edition. Ladies in Hades is a Fantasy of history's most [in]famous wicked women, who get together in the infernal realms and swap gossip. Among those present are the usual suspects : Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, the queen of Sheba, Lucrezia Borgia, Delilah, Salome, Sappho, Thais, and others. Whimsical front cover art of some of the title characters in the style of Ray Johnson's art for Dell 414 (Cleopatra's Nights).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Novel Selections/Detective Novel Classics 47 (1946)

Title : Blood on Nassau’s Moon 
   [Digest-sized paperback; abridgment of the original; first published in harcover, N. Y., Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1945]
Author : (Ethel) Walbridge McCully
Style **
Substance **
Collectability ** 

A 1940s second-tier mystery writer with an unlikely name, Walbridge McCully penned three novels, with Nassau’s Moon being her last. But certainly her best-known book is the nonfiction Grandma Raised the Roof (1954), which recalls her building a house at Little Maho Bay on St. John, the Virgin Islands, where she lived for about fifty years.
The two (alas, uncredited) cover artists for the Doubleday and Detective Novel Classics versions take the word ‘moon’ from the title and bring it to the foreground in most stylish fashion; there’s great atmosphere in both covers, nicely suggesting the tropical and offbeat setting of the Bahamas. I can’t quite decide which cover I like better, though I lean toward the one with the red clouds. However, the Detective Classics version earns some cool points for including the front page of the New York Times worked into the front cover. Nassau’s Moon concerns a hospital nurse on assignment looking after a rich lady in the Bahamas who finds she has been framed for a murder in N.Y. and is now the prime suspect.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

History of Vintage Cover Art I

But it was the covers that led me to these wonderful words of sleaze, booze and the supernatural. They were like magic doors decorated with wondrous figures that writhed and beckoned. I'm still a sucker for a good cover. I still buy books solely on their covers. Of course, I know the cover often has nothing to do with the book itself. I'd be surprised if the cover artists for these marvelous paperbacks actually read the book they were doing the art for [1].

The paperbacks, on the other hand, tell of a dark world below the placid surface, a world whose inhabitants tend to be grasping, dissatisfied, emotionally twisted creatures. Here all is not well; from the looks of it, all could not be much worse. This other America, when it is not a bleak rural wasteland inhabited by murderous primitives, is a glittering hell ruled by money and violence, flaunting images of beauty that are either deceptive or unobtainable [2].

The golden age of the phenomenon we know today as vintage paperbacks [3] lasted from about 1940 to 1960 [4], but the real peak years were 1947-1952, when the most sensationalist practitioners flourished, publishers like Avon, Lion, Eton, Pyramid and Century, with their wildly melodramatic cover designs and sordid subject matter. In their glory years the greatest and by definition most visible element of the paperback aesthetic was the flamboyant and barely restrained cover art which still inspires much devotion and affection among collectors to this day. Alas, and for a number of reasons, the bright (or perhaps more correct, dark) lamp of paperback cover art gradually burned itself out in the mid and late Fifties, to be replaced by a sleeker, more modern look.

Happily, after decades of neglect and scorn, there are signs that a renaissance may be in the offing.
One bit of evidence is the relatively recent elevation of the cover artists [5], who have attained a cult status equal to and in many cases greater than the book’s authors themselves. Even more compelling are the numerous blogs and Web sites that specialize in vintage paperbacks [6] and the cover art in particular. Some fine books and articles have also appeared [7], and there’s even a handful of legitimate academic collections [8].

[1] Ricky Grove, For Love of Vintage Paperbacks, Booklad blog, 6-26-06.
[2] Geoffrey O’Brien, Hardboiled America : Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, N.Y., Da Capo Press, 1997, p. 16.
[3] Throughout I’ll use this terminology instead of the better known but less precise ‘pulp fiction.’ The term ‘pulps’ will refer to the pulp magazines popular in the twenties and thirties.
[4] 1940 to 1960 is the consensus choice for the golden age, though some commentators extend the date as far as 1964 and even 1968. Depending on one’s point of view, the paperback revolution as a manifestation of mass consumerism either began in 1935 with the founding of Penguin Books in the UK, or in 1939 in the U. S. with the launch of the first ten Pocket Book titles. But in the popular imagination the cultural phenomenon we know today as vintage paperbacks – and all its attendant stylistic characteristics 
 actually began ca. 1947 with the advent of the lurid style which recalled the pulp magazines of a decade or so prior. 
[5] Dare to Judge This Book : Great Paperback Cover Artists and GGA Vintage Paperback Artists. See also : Alice-Azania Jarvis, The Colourful World of Pulp Fiction, The Independent, 13 Sept 2010.
[6] Pulp Serenade; Vintage Hardboiled Reads; Killer Covers; Pop Sensation; BookScans; Flickr ‘vintage paperbacks’ tag; Australian Pulp Fiction.
[7] Thomas L. Bonn, UnderCover : An Illustrated History of American Mass Market Paperbacks, N.Y., Penguin, 1982; Max Allan Collins, The History of Mystery, Portland, OR, Collectors Press, 2001; Kevin Hunsanger, “Under Wraps : Collecting Vintage Paperbacks,” Biblio, v2 n5 (May 1997), pp. 26-31; Richard A. Lupoff, The Great American Paperback, Portland OR, Collectors Press, 2001; Geoffrey O’Brien, Hardboiled America, N.Y., Da Capo, 1997; Piet Schreuders, Paperbacks USA : A Graphic History 1939-1959 (Tr. from the Dutch by Josh Pachter), London, Virgin Books, San Diego, Blue Dolphin, 1981; Piet Schreuders, “What a Body! Paperback Covers of the 1940s and ’50s,” in : Sex Appeal : The Art of Allure in Graphic and Advertising Design, ed. Steven Heller, N.Y., Allworth Press, 2000, pp. 230-236; Lee Server, Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of American Paperbacks 1945-1955, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1994; Susan Stryker, Queer Pulp, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2001; Ian Young, Out in Paperback : A Visual History of Gay Pulps, Toronto, LMB Editions, 2007; James Scott Forman, Softcover Manhood : The Rise of the Paperback and the Fear of Unmanliness, 1939-1959, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1994; David Ellis Morgan, Pulp Literature: a Re-evaluation, Ph.D. dissertation, Murdoch University, 2003.
[8] The George Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection; Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Buffalo; Passions Uncovered : Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Pulps, Special Collections Division, University of Saskatchewan Library; Roland E. Bounds Science Fiction Paperback Book Collection, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library; Special Collections' Pulp Fiction Collection Exhibition (November 2010), University of Otago, New Zealand. 

Ellington, Richard. It’s a Crime. New York : Pocket, 1951. #756. First printing, January 1951. “Complete and unabridged.” Cover illustration by Paul Kresse. The cover for It’s a Crime is typical of Pocket’s more lurid entries, ca. 1950, after a decade of relatively restrained cover art. (Competition has its consequences). The cover blurb “My gun-butt smashed his skull!” seems hardly necessary given Paul Kresse’s vivid cover design depicting a slightly oversized gun tearing into the side of a guy’s head.

Crofts, Freeman Wills. Cold-Blooded Murder. New York : Avon, 1947. No. 126. Original title: Man Overboard (Dodd, Mead, 1936). “An Inspector French mystery.” Unforgettable cover art by Ann Cantor, over-the-top even by the standards of Avon Books, one of vintage paperbackdom’s most sensationalist practitioners. Terrific combination of bright colors, beautiful frightened girl, and a touch of the macabre, all Avon cover hallmarks. A nice touch, how the girl’s red dress matches the blood-dripped lettering. 

Zola, Emile. Nana. New York : Pocket Books, 1945. #104. Cover artist uncredited. Seventeenth printing, August 1947, which features the ‘scandalous’ cover art portraying the title character in a transparent, see-through dress. The racy cover art was quite a departure for the usually conservative Pocket Books.

Walsh, Paul E. KKK. New York : Avon, 1956. No. 742. “The bold novel from the South that reveals the shocking truth that the KKK never died.” Another luridly splashy cover from Avon, this time befitting the sensationalist subject matter -- a woman’s terrified, screaming face dominates the front cover, with fiery cross to her left and hooded Klansmen hovering nearby. Alas, the cover artist is unknown.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Site of the month

Steamy East. “The Orient was never like this.” The Mysterious East has long been one of the most enduring of vintage genres, and here’s a terrific site devoted to books with an ‘Oriental’ setting or theme. Two of the more interesting sections are : Resources and Image Studies.

The “Steamy East” site is by the same folks who who created the News Nishikie site, which catalogs, with many translations, woodblock prints used by Japanese newspapers in the 1870s to illustrate and tell many colorful and interesting stories.

“Do not, therefore, expect to find on this website the sort of consistency that is likely to be seen a monograph written and edited by a single mind in a single state of delusion. The states of confusion on this site are rivaled only by the dimensions of the Steamy East universe itself -- vast, warped, full of black holes -- and otherwise the sort of space no manner of matrix math magic could map into the flat, uniform world one will often encounter in writing that dwells on faulting Steamy East fiction for its tendency to portray Asia and Asians as strange, exotic, mysterious, inscrutable, sexist, cruel, or not quite human, if not mystical, otherworldly, superhuman. . . . What you see here will be what is out there in the natural world of Steamy East fiction -- with no apologies for the blunt and tasteless titles, cover art, and stories one sometimes encounters in the literary jungle.” – description of the Steamy East site, from : About Yosha Bunko and Affiliated Websites.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Four Square 341, 1959

Author : Henry Kuttner (ghosted by Cleve Cartmill?)
Title : Man Drowning
Cover art : Josh Kirby*

Josh Kirby's cover art for Man Drowning depicts a shapely, glowing blonde who seems to be floating in mid-air, and wearing a tight-fitting green dress with green high heels. Also in the cover are a giant undersea beast [a scorpion? or a bizarre rendering of seaweed?] and a figure of a dead man [at the bottom of the ocean?]. The style of the cover art represents a curious, Britishised attempt at a late vintage hard-boiled style, with strangely surrealistic results and a decidedly different look and feel from the prevailing American practice at the time.** The use of the rare color of green for the woman's dress and shoes is a nice change of pace. Man Drowning is sometimes attributed to ghost writer Cleve Cartmill.

* Any relation to Jack Kirby?
** Though to be sure there are overtones of the Mitchell Hooks collage style popular in the late 1950s.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Quote of the month

“Even if pulp fiction is still just too pulpy for you, take time to admire the covers. Damn were they cool.”

-- Bill Ott, ‘Women Write Pulp,’ Booklist, v100, n6 (Nov. 15, 2003), p.624.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Signet 1528, October 1958 (first printing)
[first published in hardcover, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1956]
Title : Nightwalkers
Author : Beverley Cross
Cover art : Robert Schulz

style ***
substance **
collectibility *

A real sleeper, this one. A largely forgotten novelist, best known today as a screenwriter; plus a terrific cover by Robert Schulz, yet another underappreciated cover artist of the 1950s and 1960s. What makes this cover stand out is twofold. First is the highly prominent use of the color blue, a rarity in vintage cover art (which went more for garish yellows and reds). It's employed to good effect here, with the blue tones nicely depicting the rather desperate-looking, gun-wielding guy who is superimposed menacingly over the woman. Which brings us to the second thing worthy of note -- the figure of a woman, rendered so delicately and ambiguously. The peekaboo depiction makes it difficult to tell : is she wearing something? nothing? or is the figure a sculpture? mannequin? Whatever the case, a memorable cover. [p.s. : pretty spiffy lettering for the title].