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.

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