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.

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