Friday, March 12, 2010

History of Vintage Cover Art III

   Several factors contributed to this new art form, which sprang seemingly full-blown in all its over-the-top glory : greater competition; the Mickey Spillane influence; evolving tastes; changing reader demographics. But even more to the point was the sudden availability of many veteran pulp artists. The old pulp magazines were a near extinct species by the late 1940s [1], and legendary names such as Rudolph Belarski, Norman Saunders, Raphael De Soto and Earle Bergey were only too ready to lavish their talents on the latest publishing phenomenon [2], in turn bringing a vigorous pulp aesthetic to paperback covers [3]. They were not shy about borrowing ideas from themselves. Indeed, art that had appeared on a periodical cover would later turn up on a paperback, slightly varied or reproduced in toto. The artists further benefited from good timing; these were the early, mystery-dominated years of paperback fiction, filled with the sensation-laced stories of writers like Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy and Erle Stanley Gardner. [Not so coincidentally, many such authors got their start in the pulps in the 1920s and 1930s].

[1] 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; Collins, History of Mystery, pp. 32-57.
[2] One important artistic convention which the pulp artists brought to the paperback covers was the portrayal of figures frozen in an instant of maximum dramatic intensity – a tough guy firing a handgun at the muzzle flash moment; a knife plunging into flesh, or a fist tearing into a grimacing face; a terrified heroine captured in mid-scream. Another significant, indeed essential, pulp influence was the depiction of women in various states of dress and undress, mostly the latter (Haining, Classic Era; Lesser, Pulp Art, pp. 97-121; Server, Danger Is My Business, pp. 79-90). “Even the most casual observer of cover designs must have wondered why the shoulder straps of women’s dresses and brassieres were always loose, slipping or undone.” (Bonn, p. 103).
[3] The covers’ lurid-chic flamboyance was rather dubiously spiced by the portrayals of racist, ethnic, and gay & lesbian stereotypes, and the depictions of violence against women. A catalog of these shockingly politically incorrect images* would include : libidinous inner-city blacks**; sinister exotics, especially ‘Oriental’ villains and seductresses; swamp-dwelling Southern White Trash amazons; hot-blooded ‘native’ women; languorous, vaguely sinister lesbian couples; thuggish Slavic torturers and interrogators [a Cold War specialty]; and perhaps most disturbing of all, vivid tableaux of square-jawed tough guys roughing up beautiful women.*** This last example of hardboiled excess was one of the most popular cover themes of the era, and it had a special pungency with its barely concealed delight in the righteous, she-had-it-coming undercurrent. Alas, however unpleasant, un-pc is inevitably a double-edged sword : insensitivity and bad taste are a large part of vintage pb’s charm and camp appeal for today’s audience. 
      * The insensitivity extended to book titles as well, one of the most notorious examples being 12 Chinks and a Woman (later reissued as the more discreetly titled 12 Chinamen and a Woman).  
      ** See here and here for more on racial issues.
      *** The unpleasantness was dispatched via whips, ropes, fists, butts of guns, chokeholds, yanked heads of hair, and various other means. See : Kiss My Fist! [aka The Dead Stay Dumb] (Eton 112, Harlequin 124) for the ultimate in exuberant tackiness. These types of scenes had a precedent - of a sort - in the earlier 'shudder pulps,' in which scanily clad maidens were constantly menaced with the threat of physical violence and/or torture by arch-fiends, mad scientists, and especially their depraved, barely human (and frequently hypodermic- or knife-wielding) assistants. (Haining, Classic Era, pp. 130-153; Server, Danger is My Business, pp. 105-116). What was different – and unsettling – in the vintage pb depictions was that the character inflicting the violence was not some fiendish ogre or madman, but rather the story’s ‘hero,’ or at least anti-hero. 

Farrère, Claude. Fumée d'opium (Black opium). N. Y : Berkley Books Paperback #G-120, 1958. 1st printing. “The shocking ecstasy of the forbidden.” - front cover. Notorious novel of drugs & sex in the Mysterious East, with classic cover art by Robert Maguire of apparition of naked blonde emanating from the smoke of an opium pipe. Arguably Maguire’s signature cover. For more on Maguire see : Jim Silke, Dames, Dolls and Gun Molls : The Art of Robert A. Maguire, Dark Horse, 2009; and, for a great collection of Maguire photos, Illustration Magazine, v1 n3 (Reissue, Summer 2009) pp.4-43. 

Kuttner, Henry. The Murder of Ann Avery. New York : Permabooks, 1956. # M-3058. Paperback. A Michael Gray mystery. Cover art : James Meese. “Psychoanalyst solves brutal slaying.” – front cover. James Meese was another of the unsung heroes of golden age paperback cover art; his style combined the glamour of Barye Phillips with the earthy realism of James Avati. His sensitively wrought portrait for Ann Avery gives subtle insights into the subject’s character, and there’s also the wonderful juxtaposition of the beautifully coiffured woman with that of the knife at the center of the table.

Keith, Carlton. Gem of a Murder. N.Y. : Dell Books #1007. First printing, Nov. 1959. Pseudonym of Keith Carlton Robertson. Also released as: The Diamond-Studded Typewriter. Story about four desperate characters in search of a fortune in stolen jewels. Cover art by Harry Schaare depicts a black-haired femme fatale in tight fitting red dress smoking a cigarette as two tough guys tussle in the background  next to a car. Schaare was another of the under-rated pb cover artists who were active in the 1950s. His cover for Gem arrives a little late in the classic vintage cycle, but the curvaceous woman in the red dress, along with the generally realistic style, recalls the covers of a decade prior.

Walsh, Thomas. Nightmare in Manhattan. N.Y. : Bantam Books, 1951. #895. Cover art : uncredited. “Complete and unabridged.” The (alas, anonymously produced) cover for Nightmare in Manhattan is a great example of the tough guy school of vintage pb art. Both figures look back at the viewer in an abrupt and obviously startled manner. What are they looking at? The kidnapper? A cop? The setting is rather ambiguous; it could even be a library! And what about the figure in the background with the red cap? Who/what is he? The woman has a classic about-to-scream/shout look, but she is rendered unremarkably and she looks very pale (from fright?). The cover’s highlight is the depiction of the tough guy with the gun and the great detail in the (very intense) left side of his face, dripping blood and all.

Head, Matthew. The Accomplice. N. Y. : Dell, 1949. No. 346. Pseud. John Canaday. Front cover art : ? Back cover : view of 'the strange house of Mimi Decors/scene of weird death' ; i.e. interior decorating shop owned by Mamie Kerr (aka Mimi de Coeur) in Kansas City, Mo. Inset : floor plan of section of the shop. Time of map : 1935. Accomplice is the bizarre story of reincarnation, international intrigue and necrophilia. Cover montage [alas, uncredited] of dead woman with purple hair, with backdrop of Eiffel Tower through window, is one of the most sensationalist covers in the history of vintage paperbacks.


No comments:

Post a Comment