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Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines by Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson, Collectors Press, 1998, 204 pages, $39.95
Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art by Vincent di Fate, Penguin Gallery, 1997, 320 pages, $45.00
You're reading this on the pages of one of the last remaining descendants of the "pulp" magazines (so named for the cheap paper on which they were printed). The pulps in their day were bestsellers: one of the principal forms of popular fictional entertainment. In their time, roughly the first half of the century, there were hundreds of these pulps available on the newsstands—Amazing Stories, The Black Mask, Argosy, Western Romances, Spicy Mystery Stories—and millions of people across the country bought them for 10, 15, sometimes 25 cents, to lose themselves in the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, Talbot Mundy, Otis Adelbert Kline, and thousands of other writers (some remembered, most long forgotten). Many of SF's greatest names got their starts in the pulps: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, C. L. Moore, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon. Some spent their whole careers there—H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner. The pulps were the cauldron in which most of the genres we know today—mystery, SF, horror, crime, western, romance - took form.
While names such as Edgar Rice Burroughs could have a magazine hopping off the stands, what really sold the pulps month-in and month-out were the covers. Colorful, striking, and imaginative, often lurid and sometimes even offensive, pulp covers competed for the prospective reader's eye in bright reds and yellows, with blazing guns, dashing heroes, and scantily-clad heroines. As one pulp editor put it, "gaudy covers do sell the magazines, and . . . this is the most important thing any publisher considers." It's this world—the world of the pulp artists—that Robert Lesser and his various contributors examine in Pulp Art.
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror were just a small part of the pulp field, and consequently Lesser devotes only one chapter (albeit the first) to the SF pulps such as Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Wonder Stories, and their ilk. Subsequent chapters cover the detective pulps (The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, Detective Story Magazine, etc.), aviation, war, and western pulps (Fighting Aces, Battle Birds, Wild West Weekly, etc.), and genres which appeared in a variety of more and less specialized magazines, such as adventure stories (Tarzan appeared in such pulps as Argosy and Blue Book, which printed other sorts of fiction as well) and "ladies in peril," a motif found on the covers of almost every pulp magazine, from Ace Detective and Weird Tales to the more single-minded "spicy" mags, such as Spicy Western Stories, Spicy Mystery, and others.
To a large extent, Lesser focuses on each artwork distinct from the magazine on which it was used; indeed, Lesser is so interested in highlighting the art in its own right that, wherever possible, he reproduces the original paintings themselves, free of the type and other elements that were added to form the final cover. Each chapter ends with several full-page reproductions that reveal the true grandeur of the work: Margaret Brundage's sleek female figures, Rudolph Belarski's kinetic war scenes, Frederick Blakeslee's swooping biplanes, Frank R. Paul's wacky alien cities, and J. Allen St. John's incomparable images of high adventure. Free of distracting type, and in their full colors (which were sometimes muted by the reproduction process on the magazine covers), the art of the pulps emerges as art, not simply as the marketing tool it was born to be.
After flipping through these pages, the reader's heart breaks to learn how few original paintings from the period have survived—of perhaps 50,000 individual covers produced during the pulp years, only about 1% of the originals have been recovered. The main reason for this, Lesser tells us, lies in the nature of the business: these artists didn't think of themselves as such, and often they were ashamed of the work they did for the pulps. Some, such as John Newton Howitt (known in his time as the "Dean of Weird Menace Art" for his covers of Horror Stories, Terror Tales, and other scary pulps), may even have destroyed their originals themselves. Others simply never asked for them back from the publishers; and, often enough, the publishers couldn't even give them away. Even decades later, most pulp artists weren't interested in their original paintings. When Street & Smith, one of the biggest pulp publishers, was sold to CondÈ Nast in 1961 and needed to clear out their warehouse space, they called the artists to see if they wanted their work back. Most said no. Street & Smith tried to auction the paintings off, but there was no interest. They told their employees they could have any they liked—free—but still very few were taken. In the end, hundreds or even thousands of paintings ended up on the street to be hauled away with the garbage.
Lesser's concentration on the original art does have the drawback of limiting his pool of examples—since so few original paintings survived, he can't necessarily select the very best or most representative pieces, and some of the pulp fringe—such as Zeppelin Stories, of which I'll say more soon—aren't noted at all. Pulp Art is by no means an exhaustive survey of the subject—nor does it mean to be. Lesser's text, likewise, makes no attempt at an extensive history of the pulps or the artists who worked for them. Nevertheless, his astute analysis—and the short essays contributed by such experts as Roger T. Reed (director of the Illustration House gallery), the late SF historian Sam Moskowitz, John de Soto (son of pulp artist Rafael de Soto), and Bruce Cassidy (editor of western pulps in the late 1940s)—make for a good introduction. Sometimes Lesser's suggestions are off—as in his identification of the Biblical Adam as a literary precursor of Tarzan—but for the most part his discussion of pulp art and iconography rings true. He points out pulp art's conceptual roots in the "storytelling" art of earlier eras, especially in depictions of the Crucifixion and saintly martyrdoms, as well as similarities to near-contemporary works by such artists as Winslow Homer. Wisely, Lesser stops short of pressing his point too far—he's not arguing that pulp art and "fine" art are indistinguishable. What he does argue for are pulp art's virtues on its own terms, and the acknowledgement of the craftsmanship and (yes) artistry of its creators. No one can emerge from Pulp Art doubting any of that.
Pulp Culture by collectors Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson certainly overlaps the territory of Pulp Art—it even includes some of the same images—but the similarities remain superficial. Robinson and Lesser approach their subject from the perspective of collectors (each illustration has a bullet ranking to indicate the relative value of the issue it depicts), and they take a much broader view, as their title implies. Here we have not only pulp art, but the whole pulp experience on display. Robinson and Davidson produce a more thorough (though still hardly exhaustive) history of the pulps, their publishers, writers, artists, and readers, and they offer a much larger gathering of illustrations—more than 400 cover shots alone. Read—or surveyed; these books invite browsing more than a straight read-through—after Lesser's, Pulp Culture expands and enriches an appreciation of the pulp era.
Like Lesser, Robinson and Davidson divide their text into chapters, here along the lines of literary genres more than artistic imagery. SF pulps hold an even smaller place here than they did in Pulp Art—16 pages out of more than 200, though that's about the average for each chapter. Along with the detective, western, and war pulps that Lesser showed us, we glimpse the sex and romance pulps (Range Romances, Breezy Stories, All-Story Love Tales, Pep Stories, etc.) and the sports magazines (Fight Stories, Thrilling Sports, Football Stories, etc.) that are not heavily collected today and usually receive less mention in discussions of the pulps. As the pulp era rolled on, the publishers competed with gaudier covers and more specialized concepts and titles; Robinson and Davidson give us the pulps in all of their outlandish—sometimes downright silly—diversity. Among the familiar Amazing, The Shadow, and G-8 and His Battle Aces, we find Speakeasy Stories, Fifth Column Stories, The Railroad Man's Magazine, Gun Molls, The Danger Trail, and (my personal favorite) Zeppelin Stories, which ran for only four issues and featured, on the third, a most outrageous illustration for its lead story, "The Gorilla of the Gas Bags." The authors fill us in on some of the sillier items found behind the covers as well, including Ejler Jacobson's hemophiliac detective, known as "the world's most vulnerable dick." They're not afraid to admit to the absurdity with which the pulps often flirted—Robinson and Davidson even get a little snide in their captions ("how many stories would you want to read about speakeasies?" they ask).
Pulp Culture has its faults, though they're relatively minor. The sheer number of illustrations almost hypnotizes after a while—that's why it's better to browse than read straight through—and they're not arranged chronologically, even within each chapter, so it's hard to get a clear sense for the developments and changes that Robinson and Davidson describe in their text. To compare, you need to pay very close attention to the dates given in the captions. And the text, while more detailed on topics such as the origins of the pulps, doesn't always strike me as reliable. I'm no pulp scholar, so I hesitate to criticize, but for instance Robinson and Davidson take veteran pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard's claims of world travel and adventure as writ, while recent historians of the genre have determined that Hubbard's autobiography was by and large as fictional as his stories. Such a lapse has to make the reader cautious about the information in the rest of the book.
Like Lesser, though, Robinson and Davidson seem wholly reliable when they're sticking to the material they know best—the magazines themselves. And while they may get some of the ancillary details wrong, they and their book offer the fullest evocation I've ever encountered of the thrills of the pulps. "The pulps had their faults," they admit, "bad writing was as prevalent as good and they mirrored their times in their insensitivity to race and frequently adolescent attitude toward women—but when they were good, they were very good." As a devoted fan of Lovecraft, Howard, and dozens of other pulp writers, I couldn't agree more.
Vincent di Fate's compendium of SF art, Infinite Worlds, expands our scope of inquiry even further. He covers the pulp era, certainly, but he extends an eye to SF art both before and after that time, and we see what became of the pulp style as the decades passed. Things were lost and things were gained, but the eye disposed to be moved by the work of Hannes Bok, Frank R. Paul, Hubert Rogers, and J. Allen St. John can hardly be disappointed by the haunting grandeur of Paul Lehr's futurescapes or the meticulous renderings of Michael Whelan.
Di Fate begins with a look, not unlike Lesser's, at the origins of SF art. Because he focuses on SF rather than the pulp mode in general, he identifies somewhat different roots—the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci and the visions of Hieronymus Bosch, for instance, in which he identifies two opposite but complementary artistic responses to technological change. Da Vinci's futuristic weaponry, vehicles, and devices generally convey a positive feeling about the effects of new technologies, while Bosch's nightmarish images reveal his deep uneasiness with the changes that technology and invention had caused in society. Di Fate suggests, quite rightly, that SF art has continued this conversation up to the present day.
The latter two-thirds of Infinite Worlds consist of an alphabetical gallery of SF artists—not every one, but a generous and representative selection, with biographical and critical notes by di Fate. (The section dedicated to di Fate's own artwork has notes by fellow artist Murray Tinkelman.) Here again it's easier and more rewarding to browse than to attempt a linear reading. A couple of hours flipping through the gallery pages, from the surreal imagery of Don Ivan Punchatz to the atmospheric work of Stanley Meltzoff, from the familiar (Frank Frazetta) to the obscure (R. G. Jones), from the innocent imaginings of Frank R. Paul and H. W. Wesso to the gritty and disturbing imagery of Marshall Arisman and Rick Berry, and you'll have an armchair tour of an SF art museum that doesn't exist, outside of books. If for no other reason than that di Fate's book surveys the field up to the very present, Infinite Worlds offers an experience unlike that of any other book on the shelves today.
What emerges most forcefully from di Fate's survey is a sense that, while SF art has gained in technical mastery and elegance in the years since the pulps filled the stands, it has inevitably lost something of the spirit of those early years. Pulp art, as revealed in Pulp Art and Pulp Culture, possesses an infectious sense of freedom and energy, and while it frequently appeals to "baser" instincts with images of violence and titillation, it also has a kind of innocence that makes that vulgarity not merely acceptable but, paradoxically, virtuous, in that its appeal is so direct and honest that the viewer can hardly feel sullied. Pulp art lets us revel in the uncomplicated emotions that first brought us to reading, SF or otherwise.
In that sense, pulp SF art is not unlike pulp SF fiction, and the changes that have occurred in the one are not unlike those that have taken place in the other. On the whole, SF writing today sports a greater command of literary technique and encompasses a much broader range of possible approaches than it did in the days of the pulps, and, as Infinite Worlds makes clear, the same holds true for SF art. As di Fate puts it: "At no time in history have there been more artists in the SF specialty who can draw and paint with so high a degree of excellence. What many of these artists lack, however, is an extrapolative keenness . . . that carries SF to a higher level." Something similar, I think, might be said of the literature itself.
Which is not to suggest that today's SF—art or literature—is somehow worse than what the pulps had to offer. It is to admit that with greater technical and conceptual sophistication comes a loss of simpler things—and that those simpler things have their merits, too. As Lesser argues in Pulp Art, it's not that pulp art should be considered in the same ways as fine art, but we can acknowledge and enjoy the pleasures that it brings as well, without abandoning our appreciation for Rembrandt or Caravaggio. It need not be a question of either-or: we can, and we do, have both.
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