Monday, April 26, 2010

Signet 689, 1948

Title : The Silver Tombstone Mystery
Author : Frank Gruber
Cover art : Robert Jonas [?]

[New York : Signet Books, 1949. No. 689. "First printing, October 1949." Anonymous cover art, though some sources credit Robert Jonas.]

style **
substance **
collectibility **

The uncredited cover art for Signet 689 dates from the company's pre-Avati period and features cartoonish tableaux of two tough guys scuffling, with screaming redhead nearby. Fun to compare the cover art of this version with the 1959 reprint [Signet 1677] by Bayre Phillips. I like the later version better.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Crest Giant s178, 1957

Title : The Spiked Heel
Author : Richard Marsten
Cover art : uncredited

  [Crest Giant s178. Paperback. First Crest printing, August 1957. Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) writing as Richard Marsten. Cover art of a woman in bright red high heels standing over a dead? man on the floor is rendered in late fifties, quasi-expressionist, Mitchell Hooks style].

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

The golden age vintage paperback cover artists well understood the erotic charge of high heels and women’s legs, but seldom do high heels become the focal point of the cover, much less the book’s story itself. But that’s exactly the case with (you gotta love the title!) The Spiked Heel, a novel of nefarious doings in the shoe industry. The terrific, spicy, and alas, anonymous, cover art for the Crest printing is an eyeful, and perhaps has an allegorical as well as representational function. To wit : “Would you like to know the secret of success? I’ll tell you. Smile. Smile, and crack skulls. Crack them, but smile while you’re doing it.” 

Fascinating to compare the original cover art with the re-worked Third Printing cover of Crest d581 [1963]. Granted, the latter has a certain felicitousness with the image of the girl’s legs inside the form of a giant white high heel, but I much prefer the elegance of the 1950s version; even its lettering is better!

[Reviews : Richard Sullivan, Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1956, p. B11; James Kelly, NY Times, August 12, 1956, p. 219.]

High heels and legs still rule! (ca. 2012)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Site of the Month

Fly-by-Night : Canadian Paperbacks of the 40s and Early 50s is quite the pleasant discovery -- a blog devoted to the Canadian take on the tough style.

Harlequin 45 (May 1950)

Harlequin 154 (1951)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

History of Vintage Cover Art V

The packaging as well as the stories then had to reflect male tastes [1], and this largely accounts for the trend to more sordid, i.e. violent, content, along with the sexed-up cover designs. As a result the cover style ante was upped, year by year, book by book, envelope by envelope pushed ever further [2]. After all, the primary vehicle to sell the books was the cover art, and it never seemed to matter that the actual contents of the books seldom lived up to the covers’ spicy promises – sales were booming and ever more publishers seemed only too happy to jump on the paperback bandwagon [3].
   With such a predominantly male audience, the not-so-secret and hardly surprising weapon of choice in the marketing wars was the front cover portraiture of beautiful and usually scantily clad women. There were plenty of good cover artists around to meet the demand [4], and paperback publishers quickly discovered they had a winning formula with this deft synthesis of sensationalism, elegance, and titillation, with the final result being some of the most imaginative and technically accomplished cover art in the history of book publishing [5].
   Each publishing house had its own star artist[s] whose particular style influenced the entire line. Popular Library had a Belarskiesque look to its covers, bright, hyper intense and quintessentially pulpy, the cover art frequently depicting women of strangely glowing flesh. Signet covers, on the other hand, favored a James Avati look, low-keyed and naturalistic with a preference for browns and grays. In dramatic contrast, Gold Medal’s burnished, yellow-and orange-heavy covers were a perfect fit for its most successful author, John D. MacDonald and his Florida locales. The lush romantic style of frequent Gold Medal illustrator and MacDonald cover interpreter Barye Phillips contributed to GM’s overall ambience. Avon Books usually produced uncredited cover art that nonetheless had an uncanny consistency in style and tone, which was a felicitous blend of dark romanticism, emotionalism and sleaze that recalled the old pulp magazine illustrations of two decades prior [6]. Bantam’s and Dell’s oddball, cartoonish covers (many of them tinged with deco and surrealistic touches) were mild aberrations, but competition eventually forced them to come into the lurid fold as well [7].

 [1] In a curious turnaround, the risqué element in 1940s and 1950s vintage cover art* metamorphosed in the mid-1970s into (in its own way the equally sleazy) paperback romance novel,** with its female-dominated market and corresponding cover art depicting a partially or totally undressed male as the object of desire. The style, content and readership had changed but not necessarily the cover artists (McGinnis, Avati, Phillips & Marchetti being prominent examples), who altered their styles to fit the new aesthetic sensibilities.

  *Both in the cover art as well as the content, the lurid era paperbacks were (almost) always marketed to predominantly male readers, with the resultant plethora of cover illustrations of disrobing or disrobed sexy woman, often accompanied by fully clothed male.
  ** To be sure, romance novels and romance novel cover art were not invented in the 1970s but had been around a long time, at least as long as vintage pb’s, as an alternative to the dominant lurid/hardboiled style of the classic era [see : The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel, by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002; see here for a review of the book and a concise history of romance novels and their covers].

 [2] The saturation point was reached, ca. 1952, with a corresponding backlash that included Congressional committees and all sorts of public huffing and puffing. One of the results was a gradual toning down of the cover art. “Hardboiled fiction and paperback publishing together created a cultural phenomenon, marked by mass production, mass distribution and finally mass outrage that took Congressional hearings to appease.” (Meriçli, op. cit.). “The government investigations into ‘pornographic materials’ made the paperback industry largely shy away from its more extreme behavior, those covers with leering faces, bosomy babes, and bleeding corpses.” (Server, Over My Dead Body, p. 68). 

  [3] The uncertain, paranoid times assured a wide spectrum of readership. The hardboiled novel in particular lent itself well to stories involving the threat of the Red Menace on the one hand as well as the evils and excesses of capitalism on the other, thus appealing to readers from both right- and left-wing persuasions.

  [4] The women depicted on the covers were presented in many styles and shadings, usually – but not always – rendered within the bounds of prevailing aesthetic propriety. There were all manner of heroines and anti-heroines – femmes fatales, of course, but also : virtuous girlfriends in peril; wives next door; exotic temptresses; belly dancers; slave girls; gypsies; secret agents; carnival girls; gun molls; courtesans; aliens***; high priestesses, princesses and goddesses; ‘Oriental’ villainesses and enchantresses; and, at the farthest extreme, outright apparitions and hallucinations. And they appeared in all the fictional vehicles – mystery and private eye primarily, but also sci-fi & fantasy, spy, adventure, westerns, & general fiction.
     Robert Maguire, Barye Phillips and Robert McGinnis are the consensus choices as the best vintage interpreters of women, but other important figures included Rudolph Belarski, James Meese, Mitchell Hooks, Earle Bergey, Walter Popp, Victor Kalin, Stanley Zuckerberg, Lu Kimmel, and British lingerie specialist Reginald Heade. Phillips and McGinnis in particular specialized in beautiful, well-heeled (or well-heeled aspiring) women who wrapped themselves in a Hollywoodish aura of elegance and sophistication. The legendary James Avati was a bit of a contrarian with his more naturalistic, ‘Rembrandtesque’ style and penchant for rather plain-looking subjects. In any case, the various artists’ beguiling renditions of their subjects – an irresistible combination of artificiality, realism, and noirish illicit glamour – still delights collectors and devotees to this day.
  *** The strong, quasi-Amazonian women - both alien and human - depicted on paperback covers from this era with such forceful, positive energy, have an almost protofeminist quality to them. This is especially the case in sci-fi stories and novels of the late 40s and early 50s. (Robin Roberts, “The Female Alien: Pulp Science Fiction's Legacy to Feminists,” Journal of Popular Culture, v21 n2 [1987], pp. 33-52).

[5] The somewhat confusing phrase ‘Good Girl Art’ (GGA) is often used to describe this type of paperback cover art. GGA is especially associated with femme fatales, virtuous heroines, and gangster molls in hardboiled crime stories in the late 40s and early 50s. Like paperbacks generally, there are entire Web sites devoted to GGA : Classic Good Girl & Romance Covers; Good Girl Art Paperbacks; Flickr ‘GGA’ tag.

[6]  “Avon books were really pulps in paperback form.” (Schreuders, Paperbacks USA, p. 31). Much the same could be said of all paperbacks of this era, but of the larger houses only Avon’s and Popular Library’s covers consistently recalled the pulpy style of the magazines.

[7] Curiously, Pocket Books, the first and most quintessential of paperback publishers, never developed a distinctive cover “look” or style. 

Williams, Ben Ames. Death on Scurvy Street. N. Y. : Popular Library, 1949. # 194. Also released as: The Bellmer Mystery. Cover illustration by Rudolph Belarski depicts a thug terrorizing a man while a blonde woman in a low cut red dress hides behind a curtain (actually, isn’t she hiding in front of the curtain?). Whatever. Belarski comes through with another fine cover, with his patented maximum dramatic intensity moment style. Here we have yet another cover with a blonde in a low-cut dress, with great use of two of the artist’s favorite colors, red and green. A nice touch : we see only the bad guy’s forearm and hand gripping his victim’ neck. 

Kruger, Paul. Message from Marise. Pseud. Roberta Elizabeth Sebenthal. Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett Gold Medal, 1963. # k1323. Cover : Stanley Zuckerberg. First printing, July 1963. Paperback original.  Zuckerberg was among the most accomplished of the James Avati-influenced cover artists who strove for an emotional-realistic style. But his Message from Marise – a rather late entry into the vintage cover art canon – has a splashy, quasi-expressionistic quality which shows how far the lurid style had evolved by the early 1960s. 

Phillips, Rog. Time Trap. Chicago : Century Publications, 1949. No. 116. Cover art : Malcolm Smith. Century Books was a second tier golden age paperback publisher with a penchant for sleaze material, and the present title is a fairly representative example. Time Trap is a marginal sci-fi story of two inventors from 1949 who are propelled forward to 1999, and the world is occupied by the Varg Thrott, a mysterious three-eyed race of humans from out of Earth's past. But the plot is incidental; what makes No. 116 primo collectable is Malcolm Smith’s eye-catching cover art which features a scantily clad, shapely blonde with a third eye holding a flash light (or is it a heat lamp? hair dryer?). The quasi-sfumato shading of the girl’s flesh creates a gently glowing quality, which along with her wavy blonde locks, strategically placed scarf, and the flaming red curtain backdrop, combines to create a most felicitous design. By the way, what’s with that name, Rog Phillips? And what exactly is behind the red curtain that she is so coyly opening (or perhaps closing)? 

Crane, Frances. The Applegreen Cat.  N. Y. : Popular Library, 1951. #344. First printing. “A Pat Abbott mystery.” Cover art : Rudolph Belarski. Sometime New Mexico resident Frances Crane achieved mild success in the 1940s then had an eventual falling off in popularity. Today there are signs of a revival of interest in her work. Applegreen Cat, alas, is not set in NM, but the Popular Library reprint benefits from one of vintage paperbackdom’s most unforgettable cover designs. One of Belarski’s most fetching heroines attempts to grab a pistol but some sort of flying dart (hypodermic?) is [maybe] about to tear into her hands. Ouch!

Louys, Pierre. The Woman and the Puppet.  N.Y. : Avon, 1951. #358. Cover art : uncredited. [Cover design originally issued as Avon 135, 1947]. Originally published, 1898, as La Femme et le pantin, and the basis for the 1935 film The Devil Is a Woman starring Marlene Dietrich. Avon Books was fond of the formula cover with the aristocratic woman in low-cut gown being nuzzled by a fawning, somewhat effeminate-looking admirer. (In fact, they liked the formula so well for Woman and the Puppet that they recycled it a few years later as #668). In any case, nos. 135/358/668 are also representative of the vintage era’s predilection for sexing up the covers of a classic and treading right to the edge of borderline sleaze. To wit : is the rather suggestive placement of the “Complete and unabridged” front cover blurb for 358 accidental? 

Friday, April 9, 2010

Avon Books No. 159, 1948

Title : This is murder, Mr. Herbert, and other stories
Author : Day Keene
Cover art : Ann Cantor
  [One of Keene’s first books, this is a collection of four hardboiled stories drawn from the pulp magazines. Includes title story plus : With Blood In His Eye; Sweet Tooth Of Murder; If A Body Meet A Body].

style ***
substance ***
collectibility ***

Avon 159 benefits from terrific bondage-style front cover art : a guy brandishes a pistol and terrorizes a tied-up woman in red dress, while a hand grips the Venetian blind in background. I always thought the guy on the front cover of This is Murder was one of the creepiest looking villains in vintage paperback history. He’s not really sinister, but instead repellant in a geeky sort of way – pudgy, with unkempt hair and a deviant look in his eyes, holding a gun in his left hand held against the girl’s neck. His right hand appears to have a grip on the shoulder strap of her dress, pulling it down in most sleazy fashion [1]; the poor woman in red dress has every right to look a little uncomfortable! And what a great touch, the hand slithering through the blinds! It’s all done with the gaudy colors and over-the-top panache typical of Avon Books in their glory years.

 [1] But is he really pulling on her dress, or rather holding the lamp which is inserted in the cover a bit clumsily? Whatever. It’s still a bold, eye-catching cover design.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Quote of the month

“But of all covers, most potent are the crime fiction ones – largely due to the lurid lasses who adorn them. Redrawn in voluptuous detail, the crime cutie is an idealized and sexualized female. She passively poses, she exists purely to be looked at and desired.”

 – Toni Johnson-Woods, Pulp : A Collector's Book of Australian Pulp Fiction Covers, Canberra, National Library of Australia, 2004, p. 10.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Macfadden Books, #50-203, 1964

Title : Dead Man Control
Author : Helen Reilly

Cover art : uncredited
[Macfadden Books 50-203. 1964. An Inspector McKee mystery. Luridly splashy cover art by an uncredited artist].

style ***
substance **
collectibility *

The prolific Helen Reilly has been well served by the covers of her books; that Dell Silver Leopard cover in particular is an absolute classic[!], over-the-top even by the most sensationalist standards of the vintage pb’s peak years. I’m not too familiar with Macfadden Books, the publisher of our present title. It’s my impression that they came to the vintage paperback party a little late in the day, and, fair or not, I tend to think of them as decidedly second-tier. But they did produce some cool cover art that recalls (in a 1960s sort of way) the vintage era’s pulpiest, pinch-of-trash publishers like Avon, Eton and Graphic. And indeed, the Dead Man Control cover, with its early sixties vintage, does arrive a little late in the classic cycle, but who cares? What a cover! How can you ever go wrong with a bright red backdrop and yellow lettering? By the way – what about that title? What exactly is ‘dead man control’? Something to do with zombies?. Anyway, things I like about the cover : the splashy, choppy red color which dominates the cover; the shadowy figure of the P.I. lurking in the background ; and the girl’s late 50s hair style, blue dress and matching blue shoes.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Vintage Espionage III

Chaber, M. E. The Splintered Man. Pseud. Kendell Foster Crossen. N. Y. : Perma M-3080. Cover art : Roger Schultz. First printing, April 1957. [First issued in hardbound, N.Y. Rinehart, 1955]. Undercover agent Milo March tracks down a defecting West German. The Perma reissue benefits from one of vintage paperbackdom’s most unforgettable covers : a prisoner (agent March?) is being held by two KGB thugs, while in the foreground there are two sinister-looking red hands, one of which holds a red hypo. Splintered Man is of principal interest today for two reasons : 1) it's one of the earliest fictional treatments of LSD; 2) its cover, which is a colorful representative of one of the most beloved of all vintage paperback cover art themes, that of the giant hypodermic.

Mason, F. Van Wyck. Two Tickets for Tangier. N. Y. : Pocket Books 1115. First printing, April 1956. The mysterious, exotically beautiful city of Tangier has always been a natural as a backdrop for international intrigue, ranking with the likes of Vienna, Istanbul, Havana, et al. In this somewhat far-fetched Cold War yarn, the city is a principal character as globetrotting intelligence officer Col. Hugh North matches wits with a mad scientist, a Soviet master spy, and an assortment of exotic beauties in the race to find the formula for the mysterious chemical ‘Thulium-X.’ Cover art by Lou Marchetti depicts mysterious goings on in a Tangier nightclub : a scantily clad exotic dancer surreptitiously passes a note to a very suspicious-looking Col. North, with African musician in left foreground. “Colonel Hugh North tracks an alluring spy in the world's most sinful city.” – front cover.

Reed, Eliot. The Maras Affair. [Pseud. Eric Ambler]. N. Y. : Perma Books #M3025. First printing, October 1955. An American journalist in unnamed Iron Curtain Balkan country is caught up in helping refugees and also finds romance along the way. James Meese’s cover art adds emotional texture to yet another Cold War interrogation scene, this one depicting the title character in a tight spot indeed and looking very nervous as she is questioned by a menacing Red agent while a guard hovers nearby.

Sereny, Gitta. The Medallion. London : Pan Books Ltd., 1960. The story of a boy, hunted and alone behind the Iron Curtain, culminating in a hunt in occupied Vienna. An early Cold War fiction entry by an author known mainly for her nonfiction works, most notably Albert Speer : His Batle with the Truth. Nice, murky, paranoid-style front cover art, alas, unattributed. "The tension becomes almost unbearable." -- Manchester Evening News [from back cover].