Pulp is old now. Even new pulp’s been around a decade or more, depending on which argument you want to listen to. New times and new readers call for new considerations. How much of what compelled 1930s audiences to plunk down their two bits still lures a modern readership to give Amazon their credit card details? What assumptions about class, gender, sexuality, and race that were unquestioned back in the day now have to be handled with perception and sensitivity? What’s great about the stuff that’s come before that has to be preserved at all costs, and what’s new and exciting and deserves a place in a living and developing art form?
That’s much too big to discuss in one guest-column, so let’s look at just one aspect of the phenomenon: the cover. What’s the same and what’s changed over the years? How does the art we put on the front of our books tell us something about the choices we make about what‘s written inside?
Let’s dig back to 1845. Sure, you Americans count pulp starting with Burroughs and Chandler and Howard et. al, but we British know it really kicked off with cheap weekly periodicals like Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood, that gruesome and interminable horror tale in 220 parts comprising 670,000 words that chilled early Victorian audiences. Here’s the cover of #1:
Notice straight away the familiar techniques to sell the magazine. There’s the “slutty” title, a central distinctive image of a gruesome menacing horror, a damsel in distress, and some cover blurb to hook the casual browser into parting with his penny. How different is that really to these September 1934 and July 1942 covers of Weird Tales?
Okay, so it’s probably not a revelation that sex sells, then or now. The cover had to be a grabber. It competed with its rivals on the news-stands, it established a book’s brand, it got the buyer interested enough to turn the page and look inside. Shocking images, often with a line explaining the context of the dramatic situation, were and are an effective tool. Covers then and now use distinctive logos, recognisable names – author or character – exciting art, and alluring titles.
Eventually publishers have begun to understand the importance of series loyalty. Sherlock Holmes was probably the first “breakout” character to command enough public support to enable an ongoing bestseller series. He was also the first to be subject to a letter-writing protest campaign at his cancellation in His Last Bow. Once fictional creations became popular enough in the public consciousness to drive sales then covers began to reflect that.
Compare these covers for Eisner’s The Spirit Weekly, 1940 and the recent Rook volume two cover by George Sellas and written by, um, someone-or-other:
Another cover technique is the adventure-in-progress image. We get to see some action happening, or about to happen, which makes us want to dive in and see what’s going on. I argue that the action cover is a later development than the menace cover; it might be a function of the rise of the motion picture and of TV.
As readers became viewers their expectations of images changed. The posed tableau was no longer enough. Now we got two-fisted heroes socking the villain, we had enemies tussling on the wings of aircraft, we had things exploding and crashing.
The difference is well illustrated by a couple of volumes I recently contributed stories to (from Pro Se Publications). One has a classic example of the Big Hero cover. The other is the Hero In Action cover:
The rise of the movie poster also led to the rise of the montage cover. Remember the original Star Wars poster, with Luke stood above Leia, light saber raised above him, while the disembodied heads of the rest of the cast watched his back? Except for one brooding ghostly visage of Darth Vader menacing him with tiny Y-Wings. For a while every pulp cover had to be a symbolic montage too.
But that fashion was short-lived. It was killed off by the next thing that influenced the development of pulp fiction: the internet.
Sales models for pulp are a lot different now from the heady days of 1930s news-stand distribution. Volume of sales tends to be lower, with far more product to choose from and a much higher production price point. At least half of my sales these days are of e-versions of my work. And that means many of my readers hear about my output and buy it online.
That in turn means that they probably first see my book covers in thumbnail. That little inch-high graphic on a search engine or sales page has to grab them enough to look at an enlarged image or read the accompanying blurb. And that has again changed the requirements for a successful pulp cover.
In news-stand days, magazines needed their titles and vital info in the top quarter of their cover, preferably in the left-hand corner where someone flicking through a stack on a spinner rack would read it. In these Amazon-sales days the vital image and the vital text has to stand out even when shrunk down teeny-tiny. Complicated montages of floating heads won’t do it. Teeny expository on-cover text is useless. Strong central graphics and bold clear print will get the job done.
So now we get images like these on our pulp books:
Note also that the comic-book influence on covers remains. The logo at top left and splash title are hard-wired into generations of US readers because of the traditional layout of Marvel and DC publications.
What does any evolution tell us, then, apart from the fact that publishers will do what they think is best at the time to sell their books? Well, the gradual decline of the woman-in-peril cover, hand in hand with the growth of the woman-adventurer cover, tells us something about the changing values and audience for pulp fiction. The appearance of non-white characters in non-villain roles on covers is another sign. The use and reuse of familiar poses, situations, and characters is a sure sign that we’re more versed in previous generations’ stories and art than those that have come before. We’re working with a mix of old and new, cooking up something different with the same ingredients.
And it tells us that potential readers still look before they leap, so that before we lay that feast of story before them we have to tempt them to sit down with that appetiser of a cover. Long may it be so.
I.A. Watson is a freelance writer operating out of Yorkshire, England. He’s authored four award-shortlisted novels and a whole load of short stories, all described at the above-mentioned http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/iawatsonhome.htm
His work on classic airman detective Richard Knight appears in The New Adventures of Richard Knight, volume 1 (on sale now) and volume 2 (forthcoming), from Pro Se’s Pulp Obscura imprint.
His work on African adventurer Armless O Neil appears in Blood Price of the Missionary’s Gold: The New Adventures of Armless O’Neil, also from Pro Se’s Pulp Obscura imprint.
A volume of I.A Watson’s essays and comments, Where Stories Dwell, is currently in production.