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!

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