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Pulp Fiction

In the 1920s, 30s and 40s escapist literature called Pulp Fiction, was a major player in the illustration/publication market.  An immersion in fantasy, it was a quick-read---a much-needed antidote to world wars and food and money shortages.  The widespread popularity of ‘low-brow’ Pulp Fiction mixed with other commercial aspects of illustration stirred accusations, especially from 1950s Abstract Expressionist painters and their promoters, that illustrators were not ‘real’ artists.  The argument was that paintings and drawings by illustrators were not linked to personal expression and creativity, the traditional spheres of fine art, but were merely assignments completed for outsiders in exchange for money.  In other words, anybody who did artwork under pressure of editor deadlines and subject assignment was in violation of the aesthetics that defined a ‘real’ artist.

Excluded and temporarily sidetracked in the public’s appreciation for several succeeding decades were not only pulp illustrators,but other highly talented and respected artists such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth.

Well-known pulp monthlies included Argosy, Blue Book, Popular, Excitement, Amazing Stories, Black Mask and Top-Notch.  Heroes were The Shadow, The Spider, Doc Savage, The Phantom, Tarzan and Operator #5.  Writers included Max Brand with Dr. Kildare, Zane Grey and his many western adventure novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan and the Apes.   Science Fiction, Adventure, Horror Stories, Romance, Westerns, Religious Drama and Detective Plots were popular subjects.

‘Pulps’ were mass-produced by a formula that insured low-cost volume---cheap paper and dry-brush interior illustrations to avoid the cost of half-tone engraving.  The primary cost and the key to selling the issues was the cover art, “often with flesh-creeping, brain–haunting pictures of men in pain and women in terror of what was about to happen to them. . . those with the most bright, excitement, and senses-pounding colors per square inch won.” (Lesser 6)  Dry-brush drawings earned the creator ten to twenty-five dollars for a double-spread and seventy-five to one hundred fifty dollars for a full cover in oil.  Pulp illustrators during the Depression earned from fifty to three-hundred dollars per cover, which “was a starting place for young artists on the way up and a haven for veteran illustrators on their way down.” (Lesser, 51)

Among the top Pulp illustrators were Rudolph Belarski (1900-1983), who depicted aviation and science fiction subjects and Walter Baumhofer (1904-1987) described as the “King of Pulps” for being so prolific and creating more than 1500 pieces including western novels about “Doc Savage”, and pieces for Liberty magazine.  Nick Eggenhofer (1897-1985), traveling extensively in the West, did more than 30,000 illustrations, and was at the forefront of those pulp illustrators portraying the wagon-train, frontier settlement era.  Margaret Brundage (1900-1976) of Chicago illustrated for Pulps in the 1930s, and became known for her,  “Brundage beauties”, ladies in distress.  With her story illustration of The Slithering Shadow, she was the first of the pulp artists to depict torture, something she introduced in a whipping scene.  

Science fiction and fantasy pulp artists tended to be regarded as being in a world of their own and were considered, not only by artists exploring abstract art, but by their illustration peers as somewhat peculiar.  Although fantasy subjects had fiercely loyal fans, its publishers had the lowest circulation and the lowest pay scale for its artists.  James Allen St. John (1872-1957), chosen personally by Edgar Rice Burroughs to illustrate his Tarzan stories, was one of the leading fantasy artists.

Other distinguished names among pulp illustrators are Norman Saunders (1906-1988, Gerald Delano (1890-1972), Robert George Harris (1911-), Herbert Morton Stoops, twin brothers George (1895-1974) and Jerome Rozen (1895-1987), Richard Lillis (1899-1995), Ernest Chiriacka (1920-), John Clymer (1907-1989), Harold Winfield Scott (1898-1977), A. Leslie Ross (1910-1989) and John Gould (1906-1996), who estimated he did about 12,000 pulp illustrations before turning to “the slicks” such as Redbook, Colliers and The Country Gentlemen.

By the end of the 1940s, the demand for pulp fiction illustration subsided due to photography replacing much of the visual material that had been hand-painted, and also due to lessening demand for sensationalism from a country whose real circumstances were getting better and whose populace could find happy diversion in reality.

Sacrificed with the ebbing of pulp fiction was much of the original cover art because these drawings and paintings were regarded as being without value once they had been used.  Eventually a majority of the originals ended up in New York garbage trucks, having been discarded in midtown Manhattan and Lexington Avenue, which was the center of pulp printing and publishing.   According to illustration art scholar Roger Reed, “Of an estimated fifty-thousand paintings made for all pulps, only about 1 percent has been recorded to survive today.” (Lesser 8)

Because of the need for money, many illustrators were willing to become targets of accusations of selling out aesthetically.  And a positive was that editors of the “slicks” such as The Saturday Evening Post and McCalls regarded the pulps as a training ground for illustrators of their more ‘high-minded’ publications.   In this ‘more refined’ group were Amos Sewell (1901-1983), Robert G. Harris, and John Falter (1910-1982).   However, some of the ‘slicks’ were folding.  In the 1930s, with ravages of the Depression and audiences wanting a less-lofty form of entertainment, Vanity Fair, Judge, Smart Set and the original Life magazine ceased publication.  But other periodicals survived such as Fortune, a men’s fashion magazine launched in 1933.  They added fiction, travel and sports and a full page by George Petty (1894-1975) of his ‘Petty Girls’, meaning young females with skimpy attire.  The New Yorker continued through rocky times supported by cover artist Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) and cartoonist Peter Arno.

World War II

During the World War II years, 1942-1946, many illustrators like other Americans focused on patriotism and support of the war. Reflecting the general mood of the country, their drawings and paintings became more restrained and unresponsive to the lavish styles of Harvey Dunn, Harold Sundblom and Maxfield Parrish.  

Some illustrators such as cartoonist Gilbert Bundy (1911-1955) and Harold Von Schmidt became artist-war correspondents.  Bundy saw combat in the South Pacific and spent 24 hours in water, the sole survivor of an attack.  Tom Lovell (1909-1997) was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, and did paintings that remain the most extensive Marine Corps visual history of World War II.  Harold Von Schmidt designed posters for the U.S. Navy, served as invited artist-correspondent for the U.S. Air Force in the European theatre, and was artist correspondent for King Features.  Al Parker was popular, especially in the Ladies Home Journal, because of his widely published magazine fiction mostly directed to families, especially women, waiting for returning soldiers.  Mead Schaeffer (1898-1980) painted many Saturday Evening Post covers showing soldiers in various branches of the service.  Under the auspices of the military, his work was exhibited in more than ninety cities in the U.S. and Canada to stir support for the war.

Images of pin-up girls were much sought after by American troops, and illustrators such as Alberto Vargas (1896-1983) met those demands.  His ‘girlie’ pictures were reproduced in the millions, which earned him a post-war sixteen-year contract with Playboy magazine.  Gil Elvgren (1914-1980), a student of Haddon Sundblom, was referred to as the ‘Norman Rockwell of cheesecake’.  Many of Evgren’s damsels found themselves in distressing situations that caused their skirts to fly high.

Zoe Mozert (1904-1993) was unique, not only for her art talent, but for being a female pin-up artist.  She began her career during World War II and had a thriving profession after the war.  Brown and Bigelow editors hired her for their calendars.  She also illustrated for romance magazines such as True Confessions, and was a movie-poster artist including for The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell and Howard Hughes.  Howard Christy created ‘The Christy Girl, which for many persons established the American concept of feminine beauty.  According to Judith Cutler, co-founder of the National Museum of American Illustration, Christy’s female images set the criteria for contest winners in the Miss America Pageant”, which was begun in the 1920s. (Goldsmith 64)  A focus on appealing to women rather than men with pin-ups was the goal of Jon Whitcomb (1906-1988), who did male pin-ups for females waiting for their lovers to return from the War.

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