Friday, May 21, 2010

Ace D-310, 1958

Title : Mocambu
Author : Marcos Spinelli
Cover art : uncredited
   [N. Y. : Ace Books (Ace Double Size Novel), 1958. No. D-310. Paperback original. By the author of The Lash of Desire. "Complete and unabridged." - front cover. Adventure story set in the Matto Grosso in Brazil. Terrific, anon. cover art of whip-brandishing Ava Gardner lookalike. "She was queen of a jungle outpost." -- front cover. "Her whip called the tune." -- back cover.]

style **
substance **
collectibility **

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pocket 651, 1950

Title : The Fourth Postman
Author : Craig Rice
Cover art : Harvey Kidder
   [N. Y. : Pocket, 1950. No. 651. First printing, March 1950. Pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig.
“Why in hell would anyone want to kill a postman.” Gorgeous cover art by Harvey Kidder in the montage style that would become popular later in the decade.]

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dell 332, 1949

Title : Fact Detective
Editor : W. A. Swanberg
Cover art : photo of female model
   [N. Y. : Dell, 1949. No. 332. Mapback edition. Edited by W. A. Swanberg. Pin-up girl front cover photo. Titiel page : "These fact detective mysteries were especially written for this book, and are based on true stories of those crimes which were first published in Inside Detective and Front Page Detective magazines." Back cover : map of U. S. depicting the 'scenes of the crime' in the stories within.]

style **
substance **
collectibility *

Friday, May 14, 2010

Crest d578, 1962

Title : The Watchman
Author : Davis Grubb
Cover art : uncredited
   [Greenwich, CT : Fawcett Crest, 1962. No. d578. “First Crest printing, Sept., 1962.” First published in hardcover, New York, Scribner, 1961. Crest 578’s, alas anon., cover art is another late vintage title with expressionist overtones].

style **

substance **
collectibility *

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

History of Vintage Cover Art VII

Along the way there were intriguing confluences and connections [1]. The exuberantly subversive aesthetic of the vintage cover art style paralleled its cinematic equivalent film noir [2], and also anticipated any number of developments as far ranging as men’s magazines in the 1950s, blaxsploitation and sexploitation films of the 1960s and 70s [3], the James Bond craze, sci-fi & fantasy art, and graphic novels. Even today there are publishers who try to emulate the old style [4]. But somehow the special alchemy of the originals remains just out of reach and untranslatable, their photographic, flash of lightning style a perfect metaphor for their brief candle in publishing history.

   We look back today and marvel at how such sordidly unpleasant content, however poetically expressed, could have existed [5]. The subject matter of the cover art was no less than a voyeuristic, dystopian paradise of crime, lust, sadism, paranoia, weapon brandishing, greed, and numerous other less than uplifting themes and emotions [6]. What did it all say to us then? Was there a dark, undercurrent message that all is not well? And what to make of its re-emergence nearly fifty years later? Do our troubled times in some way mirror the post-WW2 years? Or . . . . 

   Does this kind of analysis read more into the picture than is actually there? Are such concerns merely a way of protesting too much and not seeing the obvious? Things like, well, what’s inside the books : the stories and the writing style itself [7]. To be sure, Chandlerian repartee, fast-paced plots, and ambiguous characters are cool once again and offer an alternative to today’s mega-blockbusters. Yes, the writing is good, even glorious, most of the time anyway. But the literary merit argument can only take us so far. After all, do a particular book’s qualities not carry over into many different editions, printings, bindings, design styles, and even translations? Well, maybe, and maybe not. In any case, it all gets us back to the primacy of the covers. Ultimately the cover designs and the phenomenon of vintage paperbacks are so intertwined as to be virtually synonymous. And perhaps it’s best simply to marvel at the bravura and cheek of the cover illustrators and indulge ourselves in a little guilty pleasure at the general naughtiness of it all. Even today, in spite of (perhaps because of) their undeniable kitschiness and quaint sensibilities, they endure and fascinate, even thrive, in our all too modern, unquaint world.

  [1] The vintage cover art, as well as the writing, was imitated by publishers in other countries. Alas, the results were at best uneven, a case of something being lost in the aesthetic translation. A look at the slightly different British and Euro approaches to Peter Cheyney mysteries is instructive. For an Australian take on the tough style see : Toni Johnson-Woods, Pulp : A Collector's Book of Australian Pulp Fiction Covers, Canberra, National Library of Australia, 2004. Along these lines see also the Australian Pulp Fiction blog. Then there’s the Spanish take on the vintage style, and for somewhat more risqué material, try the companion French site. There's also Finnish and Danish takes on the tough formula. The whole area of exporting the vintage aesthetic to other countries is a ripe one for further research; I see a dissertation or two in the making! 
   A interesting recent book which considers 'pulp fiction's' influence on, and reflection of, broader currents in American society in the 1940s and 1950s is: Paula Rabinowitz, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, Princeton Univ. Pr., 2014.  

  [2] Film noir was a cinematic style famously known for its black and white look, in contrast to vintage cover art’s bright, near-hallucinatory colors. However, the film studios’ publicity departments were never above borrowing a little color if it was good for box office : the poster art style employed to hype the noir movies recalls, indeed directly imitates, the highly spiced colors and hard sell lettering of the vintage cover art style. (See : Eddie Muller, The Art of Noir: the Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir, Woodstock, Overlook, 2002). In fact the basic aesthetic is so similar that’s it’s hard to determine which influenced which more, an artistic/historical case of the chicken or the egg. As we generally accept the primacy of the cinematic art form we assume that the film posters carried more influence than paperback covers, but it may actually be that the opposite is true (See also O'Brien, 1997, pp. 122-125, for more on the movies' influence on the vintage pb aesthetic). Incidentally, both vintage pb cover art and film noir coincided with the Red Scare peak years (roughly 1945-1955), and indeed both used Cold War and Red Scare themes for material. But these various issues, as they say, are another story, and a subject for further research.

  [3] The influence extended to ‘respectable’ films as well, a classic case in point being the ‘Girl Hunt’ tough guy parody ballet from The Band Wagon, an otherwise quintessential bit of 1950s MGM-musical fluff.

  [4] Hard Case Crime Publications in particular does a good job of capturing the old style. See also the Megan Abbott retro vintage covers.

  [5] All the more surprising given the official line of bland optimism in the post-WWII years. Kemp’s pithy commentary of the gestalt of film noir might well be invoked to describe the essentially subversive aesthetic of vintage pb’s and expecially their cover art : “From this viewpoint, film noir can be seen as a riposte, a sour, disenchanted flip-side to the brittle optimism and flag-waiving piety of much of Hollywood’s ‘official’ output of the period.” (Philip Kemp, "From the Nightmare Factory : HUAC and the Politics of Noir," Sight & Sound v55, 1986, p. 270). 

  [6] For all the complaints about the covers being a come-on with little connection to the book itself, a case can be made that the vintage covers more often than not mirrored the tone – if not always the exact letter – of a book’s contents. “Sociopathic heroes, unpunished crimes, and depressive endings were not only allowed in these paperbacks, they were encouraged.” Server, Over My Dead Body, p. 15.

  [7] A forceful argument for the importance of the writing is made by : Lisa Morton, Smart Broads and Tough Guys : The Strange World of Vintage Paperbacks

Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Backward Mule. N. Y. : Pocket Books, 1951. # 855. First printing, September 1951. Mystery about a man who gives his girl a Chinese statue which is later used in a murder. The cover art [by Frank McCarthy] of a guy in a tuxedo punching out a girl in a green dress is an exceptionally pungent example of the tough school of vintage cover illustration, all the more so in coming from the usually conservative Pocket Books. Just in case we don’t get it, an additional point is made by the cover blurb, which graphically and literally spells out what many other covers of the era had only implied : 'Killer or not - she had it coming!'

Becker, Stephen. Shanghai Incident. Greenwich, Conn., Fawcett Gold Medal, 1960. #994. Cover art : Robert McGinnis. [First published by Gold Medal Books in 1955 (#456).] Robert McGinnis was an incomparable portrayer of barely clad women who graced paperback covers in the 1950s and 1960s. He also did several of the James Bond film posters in the early and mid sixties. Some of his more risqué covers venture perilously close to soft-core porn, but not this one. The cover art for Gold Medal 994 is a model of restraint and delicacy. The exotically dressed woman who stares out at the viewer is a personification of Eastern mystery and understatement; her persona is spiced by the yellow dress, orange umbrella and high heels. For more on McGinnis see : The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis, compiled by Art Scott and Wallace Maynard, Boston, Bond Press, 2001.

Cushman, Dan. Port Orient. Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett Gold Medal, 1955. #535. First printing, Nov. 1955. Paperback original. Cover art : Lu Kimmel. Vintage-era pbs were always fond of exoticist themes, especially those with an Asian setting, such as the above mentioned Shanghai Incident. Dan Cushman specialized in ports of call adventure-romances, and his Port Orient likewise is a story of adventure & intrigue in the Mysterious East, this time in Siam and China. The main character of Gold Medal #535’s cover, as rendered by Lu Kimmel, is an attractive, half-dressed, rather forlorn looking woman. Dressed in faux-Asian clothes, she’s apparently the ‘exotic’ element in the cover, but her features are actually quite Caucasian. A nice touch : the murky figure of a guy in foreground holding a gun.


Krasney, Samuel. A Mania for Blondes. N. Y. : Ace Books, 1961. #D-495. “A suspense novel of a sex murderer.” -- back cover. Cover design by Paul Rader depicts a dead, half naked blonde floating head down in blueish-green pool of water [and oil?]. Mania for Blondes exploits another favorite vintage cover theme, that of the sexy dead woman. With its nice combination of reds, blues and greens, the cover art presents the floating dead girl in an image that’s both surrealistically grotesque and strangely beautiful.

Aarons, Edward. Nightmare. N. Y. : MacFadden Books, 1963. #50-171. Originally published in hardcover in 1948. Cover art : Jerry Podwil. MacFadden 50-171 is a late vintage entry with a quasi-expressionist take on the tough style, with exaggerated figures and gloomy atmosphere. Nice touches include the smoke wafting from the guy’s cigarette and the woman’s rather tacky hairdo. 

Cheyney, Peter. Ladies Won’t Wait. London, Fontana Books, 1954. #27. “First issued in Fontana Books, 1954.” Also released as Cocktails and the Killer by Avon Books. Fontana No. 27 is a good example of the slightly different British/Euro vintage style : an exotic-looking beauty in the foreground leans on a table; she is flanked by a guy in a tuxedo. The woman seems to be poised to grab the nearby gun which is lying on the table. Nice, understated use of color blue.

Masur, Hal. Murder on Broadway. N. Y. : Dell, 1959. # D298. Front cover : Victor Kalin. 'First Dell printing, July 1959.'  First published in hardcover, Simon & Schuster, 1958, as The Last Gamble. Published in the UK as The Last Breath. Variant issue : back cover, advertisement for Paris Belts. Victor Kalin's covers had an  incandescent quality which worked well in the context of the vintage style. More Kalin covers can be found here. Additionally, Kalin's daughter Rebecca has compiled a collection of covers here

Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Angry Mourner.  N. Y. : Pocket Books, 1960. #6042. Fifth printing. Erle Stanley Gardner was well served by Pocket Books’ cover art in the 1940s and 1950s. The cover design for 6042 is a knockout, featuring cheesecake art in the Barye Phillips/'Charles' style [but alas no artist is credited]. Totally or partially unclothed women behind see-through negligees, nightgowns or curtains* were a staple of vintage paperback cover art in the classic era. The present title is primo, presenting a curvaceous blonde behind some sort of scrim that provides her with the strategic covering.

 * One of the few examples of a woman being viewed in front of a see-through curtain is the rare dust jacket for the Pocket reissue of The Maltese Falcon (#268, 3rd printing, 1945, Stanley Meltzoff). The cover art rather cheekily depicts a partially unclad Brigid O'Shaughnessy in a scene from the novel which doesn’t appear in the movie. Permabooks later used this cover in an early 1950s printing.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Consul Books #1133, 1962

Title : The Men in My Life
Author : Marthe Watts
Cover art : uncredited
[London : World Distributors, 1962. Consul Books edition, #1133. First published in hardcover by Christopher Johnson Publishers Ltd, July 1960. Printed in Great Britain by C. Nicholls & Co. Ltd. "The wickedest woman in London." Memoir of a French prostitute who worked for the Messina vice ring in London's West End in the 1940s and 1950s. The Consul reprint benefits from the anonymous cover art which depicts the author in a late vintage neo-realist style]. 

style **
substance **
collectibility **

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Popular Library Giant G-121, 1953

Title : Look Down in Mercy
Author : Walter Baxter
Cover art : uncredited
  [N. Y. : Popular Library Giant, 1953. G-121. Popular Library edition published, March 1953. Cover in James Avati style, but cover artist is uncredited. "A savage novel of forbidden love." First published in hardcover, London : Heinemann, 1953]

style ***
substance ** 
collectibility **

The author's first book, Mercy is a WWII novel about a British soldier in the Pacific Theater who has an affair with a Eurasian nurse. Includes graphic descriptions of jungle warfare and Japanese atrocities. The [anon.] cover art for the Popular Library reprint depicts two somnambulist-looking guys who frame a shapely, forlorn brunette who wears tropical clothes. Nice texture is provided by bright lighting of the individuals from the undefined source in background. One criticism : lettering for the title is a little too large, and tends to mar an otherwise beautifully balanced design. The cover blurb (“a savage novel ….”) may refer to hero’s affair with the nurse. Some sources refer to a gay theme in the novel -- this may also explain the use of the word ‘forbidden.’

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

History of Vintage Cover Art VI

All told, it was a glorious run for these and other publishing houses, but the vintage style and the white hot intensity of its disturbing images could only sustain itself so long, and it vanished almost as fast as it had appeared. By the late 1950s its best years were far behind [1]. Postmortem analyses could cite factors like the public outcries, threats of official intervention, and howls of critical disapproval, all of which were ultimately unnecessary. In a final flurry of self-immolation, the sensational era of vintage paperbacks essentially did itself in, due mostly to other, eminently practical considerations : over-production [2], market forces, different types of fiction being written, a newer generation of illustrators. Most of all, times, and tastes, were changing. It was the New Frontier of the early 1960s and the paperback art both literally and figuratively needed a fresher, more stylish look. Paperback publishers rejected the seemingly old-fashioned, realistic, oil painting-heavy cover art style in favor of a lighter touch [3] – leaner, quasi-abstract covers which favored brighter colors, all as if in a conscious effort to avoid the unpleasant, subterranean realms of their predecessors [4]. The golden age of paperbacks thus quietly passed into history, languishing for nearly half a century [5].

[1] “The cover artists of the postwar period either changed their style or faded from the scene. In either case, by the mid 1950s their variously mesmerizing, haunting and outrageous art was fast becoming a thing of the past.” (Server, Over My Dead Body, p. 68).

[2] But competition and over-production had its price – as unsold inventories languished, the desperation to survive drove publishers to even lower standards of promotion, which only reinforced the popular opinion of paperbacks as trashy literature.

[3] Consequently, the curvaceous temptresses who had adorned the postwar pb covers gave way to sleek, Audrey Hepburn-ish types who dominated the new aesthetic, a case of the illustrators and art directors literally preferring a lighter, leaner look.

[4] One could cite at least four alternative paperback cover art styles of the 1950s which challenged the then-dominant Good Girl Art, or Lurid, aesthetic : 1) the aforementioned lighter, leaner style; 2) a related style which rejected the realistic, action-dominated covers and instead favored a collage-like overlapping of graphic images which showed the influence of abstract expressionism, exemplified in the works of Mitchell Hooks, ‘Darcy’, and – sometimes – Barye Phillips; 3) the earthy, low-keyed James Avati look; 4) the flat, quasi-abstract cover designs of Penguin and Penguin USA.

[5] In the ensuing years vintage era paperbacks were largely forgotten except for a small coterie of dedicated individual collectors. (Schreuders, Paperbacks USA, pp. 228-233). To be sure, there were some good publications on vintage pb history (especially Bonn, Schreuders, and O’Brien), but it was the Internet culture of ca. 2005-2010 that allowed a higher public profile, especially for the cover art, with a resultant dramatic increase in both popularity and respectability.

Sterling, Stewart. Nightmare at Noon. N. Y. : Dell 693; May 1953. [pseud. Prentice Winchell]. Front cover : Bob Hilbert. Sterling was considered the ‘king of the specialty detectives,’ with Nightmare at Noon being a mid-range entry of the Fire Marshall Pedley series. Bob Hilbert's gloriously over-the-top cover art is a memorable contribution to the fire/explosions vintage subgenre.

Levin, Ira. A Kiss Before Dying. N. Y. : Signet, 1954. No. 1147. First printing, September 1954. Cover art : uncredited. Features an exceptionally intense cover depiction of a guy kissing a beautiful, terrified(?) woman while he strokes her throat with his fingers menacingly. Love that bright red lipstick the girl’s wearing! No credit is given for the knockout cover : there's what appears to be a signature just above the word 'year,' but it's too small to make out.

Coates, Robert M. Wisteria Cottage. N.Y. : Dell, 1948. Mapback. # 371. "A novel of criminal impulse." Also released as : The Night Before Dying. Front cover art : uncredited. Back cover : map of Wisteria Cottage (of the Hackett family), near Port Jefferson, Long Island, New York. This one sure delivers the goods for a psychological thriller-with-a-touch-of-psychosis genre. What a cover! My favorites: the guy’s eyes (surely the look of a madman), the figure of the girl in his forehead, and the Dell trademark keyhole, always a great creepy touch. The, alas anonymous, design is representative of Dell’s fondness for quasi-surrealist covers in the 1940s. BTW the novel’s psychotic villain works in a bookstore and fancies himself a writer – I like it! Adapted, twice -- once for TV, in 1950-51, for Suspense, and later, in 1958 as the film Edge of Fury.

Shallit, Joseph. The Case of the Billion Dollar Body. N. Y. : Avon, 1954. #558. Cover art : uncredited. "She looked for thrills -- and found murder!" -- front cover. Mystery about an athletic instructor & judo expert who takes a job as a bodyguard for a rich man's mistress. Features another gloriously sensationalist cover [unattributed, alas] in Avon’s best style : a tough guy grabs a blonde in yellow dress by the hair and yanks her head back as he’s about to slug her with a pistol. On the back cover, she turns the tables, biting the guy’s arm as he’s trying to strangle her. Fun to compare the Avon cover to a new Ramble House reprint. I like the Avon cover (quite a bit) better! 

Peter Cheyney. Dark Street Murders. N. Y. : Avon, [1957]. #764. [Released earlier by Avon, #93, 1946, with a different, somewhat blander cover design]. The first Mr. Quayle mystery. Also released as Dark Street. Cover artist is uncredited. Avon 764 is another classic example of the mysterious, not-so-clearly defined figure lurking in the shadows with a beautiful woman in the foreground, in this case part of a woman, anyway! Covers depicting women’s legs, especially when they were adorned with high heels, were a staple of the vintage era, but seldom have they been done with such panache as here, by yet another anonymous artist from the Avon stable of uncredited cover artists. It’s hard to go wrong with hot pink high heels and matching skirt!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Vintage Espionage IV

Chaber, M. E. So Dead the Rose. Pseud. of Kendall Foster Crossen. N.Y. : Pocket, 1960. Number 1274. Front cover art : Jerry Allison. First printing. [Originally published in hardcover, New York, Rinehart, 1959]. “She was dangerous – but beautiful!” Vintage Cold War skullduggery in East Berlin & Moscow : insurance investigator (and former OSS & CIA agent) Milo March is recruited by the CIA to recover stolen government files. Jerry Allison’s front cover art for the Pocket reissue depicts the elegantly sinister Soviet femme fatale in most alluring, spider-woman fashion.

Hamilton, Donald. Death Of A Citizen. Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett Gold Medal, 1960. Number 957. First printing, January 1960. Matt Helm, a former WWII OSS agent, revives his career as a professional government assassin. The first of the nearly 30 Helm novels. Cover art is in the Barye Phillips style, but no artist is credited.

Miller, Marion. I Was a Spy. Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill, 1960. This copy inscribed by the author : "To Thelma Spring, Nov. 15, 1961, God bless America! Cordially, Marion Miller." An irresistible slice of Cold War nostalgia, I Was a Spy is the true story of a Los Angeles housewife who was recruited as an undercover agent by the FBI in the 1950s to spy on the Los Angeles Committee for Protection of the Foreign-Born (LACPFB), a purported communist front organization. Miller’s story was later adapted for television by General Electric Theater, starring Jeanne Crain as Marion Miller and Ronald Reagan as the author’s husband Paul Miller. [the GE adaption is recalled by Reagan in : Reagan : A Life in Letters, edited by Kiron K. Skinner et al., N. Y., Free Press, p. 145]. See also : Michelle Nickerson, “Politically Desperate Housewives: Women and Conservatism in Postwar Los Angeles,” California History, Summer 2009, pp. 11-13.

Caillou, Alan. Marseilles. (Pseud. Alan-Lyle Smythe). N. Y. : Pocket Books, 1964. Pocket Cardinal 35006. Paperback original. Nefarious goings on in the ever-wicked city of Marseilles : former OSS agent Mike Benasque, now an out-of-work journalist, is hired to pentetrate a French terrorist organization. The second novel in Caillou's Benasque series. "His job was to expose a terrorist organization-which had already marked him for death." Cover art by Harry Bennett in high intensity, expressionist style.