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March 16, 2009

Pulp: Original and Recycled

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The 1920s and, especially, the 30s were the heyday of pulp magazines, the term "pulp" referring to the rough, cheap grade of paper they were printed on.

Michael is the lit major of the Blowhards crew, and I'll defer to him regarding the written content of the pulps. Instead, I'll deal with their cover art which has been undergoing something of a revival in recent years.

My personal experience with pulps was nil, other than seeing them on news stands when I was a kid in the late 1940s. By the time I was old enough to get away with buying my own magazines (other than comic books) and bringing them into the home of my (probably) watchful parents, pulps were well on the way out. My favorite genre at the time was science-fiction, and sci-fi magazines by then (early-mid 1950s) had mostly graduated from pulp to digest format.

The thing to remember about pulps is that they were cheap. The pulp paper was cheap. The writers weren't paid well compared to fees for contributors to "slick" magazines (so-called because they were printed on a better grade of slick-feeling paper) such as Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. Cover artists weren't paid very well either, though the covers were printed in color on semi-slick stock. Since almost everything about them was cheap, the pulps, like movies, did well providing inexpensive entertainment during the Depression years.

They provided employment for several classes of illustrators: (1) those on the professional skids, (2) artists content to be full-time pulp artists, and (3) young artists needing both income and experience on their way up the ladder to glory in the slicks. Examples of the latter include Tom Lovell, Norman Saunders and Everett Raymond Kinstler -- the latter eventually becoming a well-known portrait artist.

As far as I'm concerned, cover art for pulps was often pretty bad (though some better examples are shown below). In many cases, this was because the artist was a journeyman hack, incapable of doing top-notch work. Other artists did hack work because they were new at the game and using the experience to improve their skills, as I noted above.

Perhaps the main reason why pulp cover art wasn't especially refined was because pulp editors and art directors (if there were any -- often the editor dealt with art as well as with words) didn't want refinement. What they wanted was eyeballs, and the way to attract the attention of people scanning magazine shelves of news stands was dramatic scenes and bright colors. As a matter of fact, cover artists were often ordered to include areas of bright red because it was thought to be a good attention-getter. Another important factor had to do with the low pay; artists couldn't afford to spend much time on refinement if they expected to make any kind of living painting pulp covers.

That was then. Today in place of pulps we have paperback book covers and covers of comic books and their pricier kin "graphic novels" or "sequential art." The need to grab attention is still important. What has changed is the quality of the artwork. Even though college-based art schools have been stressing creativity and individual expression over teaching basic skills for decades, a number of artists have sought out practical training and now produce cover art that offers action and attraction just as in the pulp era while maintaining higher artistic standards.

For today, I'll mention only Glen Orbik who has done a good deal of well-rendered pulp subjects. I show a couple examples of his work below along with some pulp cover art from the classic era.


This is for the April 1942 issue of Spicy Mysteries, the artist being H.J. Ward. It's a typical setup: pretty, partly-clad girl threatened by a really nasty-looking character. In this case, the gun at the lower right suggests that help is on the way.

Here is a sci-fi cover by Earle Bergey, who spent much of his career illustrating that genre. It's the same deal as the previous illustration: endangered not-much-dressed girl, the nasty threat and her potential savior.

Another sci-fi cover, this by Howard V. Brown for Future Fiction. This illustration shows more skill than the previous two; well, the people seem to be more realistic. Nevertheless, Brown made sure that the girl-in-distress was wearing a nice, attention-getting red dress.

The Mysterious Wu Fang, March 1936 cover illustration by Jerome Rozen, one of the better pulp artists. Note the interesting use of attraction-getting-red in the reflected light. The large dark area at the top was where the magazine title would be inserted.

Here is a Norman Saunders cover for a 1938 issue of Ten Story Detective. Although the damsel is wearing the required red, she is fully clothed and there is no apparent salvation from the nasty guy with the heat.

Pretty much the same deal for this July 1946 New Detective Magazine cover by Rafael ("Ralph" to his friends) de Soto, another pulp stalwart. Here, the girl is fully dressed in red, but the garment is a revealing evening gown.

These days most people probably associate the Doc Savage character with the paperback book covers illustrated by James Bama, who I wrote about here. Before Bama, the signature Doc Savage artist was Walter Baumhofer, one of whose covers from around 1934 is shown above. The subjects are well painted and I find the purple-blue shading interesting -- these colors are roughly complementary to the yellow and orange of the faces.

This is a paperback cover illustration by Glen Orbik. It's attention-getting and artistically more convincingly done than the classic pulp illustrations shown above.

Here's another Orbik, this with more pulp flavor. On second thought, the flavor almost shades into film-noir because the woman is not in blatantly obvious danger. On the other hand, there are pulpy elements: she isn't fully dressed and the items on the table -- booze, handcuffs and pistol -- suggest past or future trouble. Nicely painted, too.



posted by Donald at March 16, 2009


Glen Orbik; what a find?

The seated woman is soooo hot.

Thanks Donald for the find.

Posted by: Slumlord on March 16, 2009 10:59 PM

Great stuff. Fun to see some of the classic old traditions being perpetuated too.

Question for everyone: Why are the topnotch (or at least fun and influential) popular visual artists of the 20th century not nearly as well known as the topnotch popular musical artists? Doesn't it seem like, where visuals go, we overfocus on the high-art or gallery-art crowd? Why are we so much more comfortable with thinking popular music can be great (and with learning a lot about it) than we are with thinking popular visual art can be great?

BTW, I notice that Glen Orbik does a lot of work for Hard Case Crime, a groovy and inventive publisher that publishes (and republishes) two-fisted fiction in classic paperback form.


Small brag here: Hard Case Crime's publisher Charles Ardai gave The Wife and me a nice blurb for our audiobook.

It all connects finally, doesn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 16, 2009 11:55 PM

The melodramatic, bordering-on-ludicrous cover illustrations of the earlier "pulps" suggest the social class distinctions among crime fiction readers of the time: people who considered themselves educated and sophisticated read mystery novels, i.e., books — Agatha Christie, Earle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler — the working class read short stories in magazines.

Still, some of the cover artists transcended the genre, as you note. Did they kick themselves for giving the publisher more than he paid for? Maybe, but often artists, of whatever caliber, can't help putting more of their talent into their work than is absolutely necessary.

Glen Orbik is a new name to me. The two paintings you show are remarkable, the women studies in eroticism.

Finally, I was interested to see Henry Kuttner's byline on one cover. He was still writing science fiction when I was a kid. I think I read his stories in Astounding (later Analog) Science Fiction.

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 17, 2009 9:29 AM

Thugs wore suits, ties and fedoras back then? Clearly things have come down a piece.

I'm even more impressed with the lighting effects in some of these illustrations than the attention to detail. Tough stuff to pull-off.

Posted by: ricpic on March 17, 2009 11:08 AM

If the measure of the merit of a painting is how often I've come back to look at it, the one of the sex kitten with the serpent-like cable around her arm scores high marks. Rrrrumph!

Posted by: dearieme on March 18, 2009 4:40 PM

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