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The Art of the Story

“Never judge a cover by its book.”

The Clarke/Duke Project

Stanley Clarke & George Duke

Book covers have a special place for me. They are the first thing I remember about my parent’s library. Here were these hundreds of books, all with bright and unusual pictures on them, a glimpse of what stories might reside within. Even though I wasn’t yet able to read them, I was already dreaming of the stories because of the covers. I still fondly remember the cover of Roadmarks (Roger Zelazny, Del Rey/Ballantine, 1979). It included several elements that just screamed story to me. Darrell K. Sweet’s cover had everything to create an unforgettable piece of art. From the sign claiming the Last Exit to Babylon to the dragon to the blue pickup, it was a combination that made me look forward to the day I could read the story inside.

For many years, movie posters, advertising bills, and book covers were the only way most people saw speculative fiction art. Few galleries showcased art with such whimsical creations as aliens, fantasy creatures, worlds never seen, or starships plying the dark corridors of space. The general viewpoint was those items were fine for certain things, but certainly not fine art. However, magazines, dust jackets, and paperback book covers used the art as a new way to entice buyers and, sometimes, let prospective buyers have an idea of what would be described within.

The earliest dust jackets for books were used in the 1830s to protect the cloth covers when given as gifts. By the 1840s, steam presses allowed for gold foil to be impressed into the cloth cover, giving birth to the first true covers. In the 1860s a new printing technology, chromolithography, was introduced to publishers, allowing up to four colors to be used. At this time, the cost of printing had dropped significantly, giving rise to a new form of book, the paperback. They were also called “yellowbacks” due to the tendency for the paper to be made from cheap wood pulp with a noticeable yellow tint. An even more famous name for these is “penny dreadfuls.”

Lurid covers, with pirates, masked vigilantes, vampires, and other fantastical creatures battled for the attention of the public. While the gentry poked their noses in the sky over being seen with such cheap vulgarity, publishers noticed how well the paper volumes were selling. By 1880, the simple single-color impress covers began to give way to more designs. Japanese art heavily influenced the covers and by 1890, book covers had gained not only more colors but an artistic asymmetrical layout. The basic style and designs would remain until the 1930s.

Once again, the lower cost of magazines began paving the way for modern covers. A new form of “penny dreadfuls” began appearing on the newsstands. Called “pulps,” once again because the paper was cheaply made, these magazines focused on a particular genre, such as westerns, romance, crime, and science fiction. While the statement has been made “never judge a book by its cover,” the pulp publishers wanted to grab the attention of as many people as possible. To facilitate this, they hired artists to create eye catching and full color paintings to grace the front of their publications.

Modest Stein, starting in the early 1910s, he created covers for All-Story Weekly, Argosy, and Love Story. He would continue later to paint covers for The Shadow His work is noted for minimal backgrounds with a strong focus on individual faces and upper torsos until the mid-1940s. His work expanded to include pulp magazines like Doc Savage and Amazing Stories. At this point in his career, he shifted to including backgrounds, though still minimal. Another alumnus of The Shadow was George Rozen. His covers were still focused on the primary subject’s face but included backgrounds. The scenes were also painted with a level of action significantly different from Stein’s work. Another of the first pulp artists was Hubert Rogers. His covers in the 1930s were primarily for Adventure and Argosy magazines, though by the 1940s he would branch over to Astounding Science Fiction, where his bold covers would be marked by strong lines and darker colors.

Eroticism and scantily clad females were the topics of Margaret Brundage’s covers for Weird Tales. Working in pastels, she would create some of the most memorable covers of the magazine’s initial run, as well as creating covers for almost every issue to include any of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales, like “Queen of the Black Coast” (May 1934). Her work was also one of many to be cited in the decency standard being pushed by Fiorello La Guardia, the then-mayor of New York.

Starting in 1938, the paperback book grew in popularity after World War II, as prices for printing and paper declined. They were sold in non-traditional locations like pharmacies, grocery stores, and Five and Dime stores on swivel racks. Like their pulp magazine forebearers, the publishers wanted eye catching covers. In speculative fiction books, this would lead to a wide variety of styles. Richard Powers, who would become the art director for Ballantine Books, painted huge, surrealist cityscapes, where the people, when seen, were limited to small silhouettes without features. As he continued working with covers, the covers would move even further away from realism into a deeper form of surrealism. Penguin Random House’s art director Germano Facetti followed a similar path with Penguin’s Science Fiction line in the 1960s, gathering modern artists like Yves Tanguy, René Magritte, and Max Ernst to paint covers in very abstract styles.

But surrealism and modern art weren’t the only styles being used. Kelly Freas painted over 200 covers for various publishers from the 1940s through the 1980s. His work is characterized by bold color choices, strong lines, and a slightly off-centered focal point. His more realistic stylings would be de rigor by the late 1970s. Book covers and motion picture posters would become more brightly colored and realistic. Noted covers included pieces by Darrell K. Sweet, Michael Herring, Michael Whelan, and Dean Ellis. They would all produce works that would transcend the status of being only book covers. Several pieces of their art would be printed additionally as posters or in coffee table art books with no direct connection to the books they had originally graced.

Moving into more modern times, the book cover began to change again, though this time spreading into a multitude of art styles. Some hankered back to earlier eras, such as the cover art of Tom Kidd with his softer touch and heavy use of oils. Others moved steadily forward using the latest technology in their designs. Computer art and computer composition has continued to grow in popularity, with artists like David Mattingly and Kurt Miller using the tools to produce striking visuals for book covers, collectible card games, and video game boxes.

This is only a brief look at the fantastic (and sometimes not-so-fantastic) covers of speculative fiction and the artists who created them. A sampling of a much broader grouping. I encourage you to look over your own collection of books and see the amazing work the artists have done. Even better, join us in the LibertyCon Art Show. Stroll through the gallery and see what amazing pieces of art are available in speculative fiction. Plus, get a glimpse of the next generation of great artists as they start on their own personal journeys.

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