Pulp Fiction (no, not the movie) was termed from the cheap paper on which these publications were printed. Often, they were illustrated with vivid depictions of the story at hand. Each and every cover and illustration of the books and dime novels was done by hand, typically in a large scale with great attention to detail. These pulp magazines eventually evolved into comic books and, later, into graphic novels as the story lines became more complex and the illustrations more elaborate. Fredrick Blakeslee (1898-1973) and Water Baumhofer (1904-1987) launched successful careers from pulp illustration, their work gracing the covers of series such as Battle Birds and Doc Savage. Such artists paved the way for today’s well known graphic-novel illustrators such as Darwyn Cooke and Frank Miller.
Blakeslee became a leader in the field of aviation pulps, as well as a top cover artist for railroad pulps. He was also a top pen & ink artist who drew over 1,000 interior black and white story illustrations. Blakeslee painted 423 pulp covers — 306 of those appeared on issues of Battle Birds, Captain Combat, Dare-Devil Aces, Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds, and G-8 and His Battle Aces.
Baumhofer too had an enormous impact on the genre–the artist once said to NBMAA Low Illustration Committee member Walt Reed in 1968, “I doubt if anybody did as many pulp covers as I did in the ’30s. I had a contract with Street & Smith for three or four years to do 50 covers a year. In addition to this, I was turning out Lord knows how many covers for Popular Publications, and illustrating for Liberty.”
Both artists, though working in a genre that didn’t garner any much recognition, could accurately render the forms of their subjects. They were emotive and captured the feeling of the story of which they prefaced. Eventually, the heroes in the novels combined with the fluid, expressive and just plain beautiful images of the illustrations blended to become part of the comic-book craze of the mid-century. Even pop artists began to cross into the world of comic books, most notably, Roy Lichtenstein. He often used comic books as direct inspirations for his works, using typical comic-book conventions (the font, the colors, the form, the colot dots, etc).
As the hype began to cool, artists and writers looked for new and exiting ways to energize their work. With the advent of digitally aided art, the illustrations began to take on a new form. They became more sleek, edgy and most of all, dark. Frank Miller re-imagined series with a dark, abysmal twist. His work from The Dark Knight Returns was darker than any Batman series before, yet still retained much of what Braumhofer and Blakeslee had originally envisioned. Even in Cooke’s rendition of The Hunter, the overall effect moves the story forward, much as the original illustrations of the pulp magazines did.
The New Britain Museum of American Art is fortunate enough to have hundreds of original artworks that were subsequentlt reproduced as pulp covers and illustrations. Robert Lesser has donated to the Museum some of his numerous pairings of the original paintings framed with the first-edition pulp publication. The remainder are promised gifts to the Museum. In the Low Illustration Gallery, there are always three or more examples on view. To view more of the Robert Lesser Collection of Pulp Art, see this website.
What do you think of pulp art? Do the original paintings count as “art”? Or does their creation for reproduction as covers put them in another category? How do you think they compare to modern illustration?