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? 


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