17 February 2009

Pulp Friction: Hard Case Crime's Retro Cover Art

When I was a kid I read whatever I could get my hands on, which meant trips to thrift stores. The books were dirt cheap and I could (and still can!) buy whatever I wanted. Of course, what I often wanted was gritty detective fiction written by Ross Thomas, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane and a passel of others. Can't say for certain, but the lurid covers may have had something to do with the initial appeal...maybe?

Covers like this one (left) from the 1970s also had to be removed--surgically cut off and preserved for, uh, storage. If my parents had seen these covers it would have been bye bye, blackbird. As I often had my nose in a book, my parents either assumed I was reading something harmless or they got tired of asking.

The original covers from the pulp magazines of the 1920s-1950s were both tamer and more provocative. The art was painted by legends like Robert McGinnis and Frank R. Paul. Beautiful art of heaving bosoms and barely constrained/restrained flesh, but not the soft core photography of some 70s covers. The women-in-peril (and women-AS-peril) themes of these earlier incarnations seem both more subversive and more gothic--qualities I didn't recognize at the time. Today there are volumes of this art available and possibly university MFA programs. I'm not a student but I am a fan, though the covers still have to remain hidden--this time from the kids rather than the 'rents.

Niche publisher Hard Case Crime has made a mission of resurrecting the pulp covers of the earlier era--with a twist: their covers are original commissions, not reprints. Many of the books are also originals and you can view the covers and read sample chapters here. These days I am spending more time in the fictional worlds of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, but I am a member of Hard Case's book club--you should always feed your inner curious-eleven-year-old.

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