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).

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