Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Last week, we talked about how science fiction cover art evolved into the colorful, pulpy art we love today. Now, here's our look at the evolution of cover art from 1930 to 1955, as pulp styles exploded into awesomeness.

Pulp Fiction 1930-1949

The Great Depression created a tremendous demand for escapism, one quickly filled by an explosion of pulp magazines. Named for the cheap paper they were printed on, pulps were intended to be read quickly and then discarded. Artists typically painted one cover a week for an average of $50 a painting. It meant giving up creative control and artistic integrity, but $50 was decent money in a time when employment was as fictional as the covers they painted. "They figured they were going to go on beyond this," said art dealer Steve Kennedy, "This was just to cover for rent and food during the depression. Little did they realize, 90% of them, this is what they'd be remembered for."

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

The antagonism of the beginning of the century between fine art and industry, or commercialism, persisted through the pulp era. Most artists were classically trained and aspired to be gallery artists, or at the very least, paint for more respectable publications. Many of them, upon submitting a painting for pulp publication, didn't care what became of the original work afterwards. Robert Lesser explains that, "Almost all of the pulp art was destroyed, thrown away, burned, ignored, and hated by the artists themselves. They took in this prejudice that fine art was worthwhile and pulp art, commercial art, was something to be shunned. That's why so many of the paintings are unsigned." Lesser owns the largest collection of original pulp art and is working to bring light to pulp art as an important and fascinating part of American culture.

Everett Raymond Kinstler is one of the few original pulp artists still painting today. He's also one of the few who spoke positively of his time as a pulp cover artist. "I never look down on anything I did in the pulp years. With the pulps I was a storyteller, and that means everything to me. Not a picture maker, that's different. You make pictures because you want to sell something. I was a storyteller. The thing that appealed to me most is that I didn't know I was working hard. I was enjoying what I was doing."

Pulp art is characterized by tight compositions focused on one or two figures, with highly saturated colors and a contrasting background. Brush strokes were often visible because of the speed the artists worked at to make deadlines. This added to the illusion of motion in the figures. Violence and sexual overtones appeared on covers like never before, no longer merely suggesting adventure but beating you about the head with it.

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Conflict was very black and white, good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and good always triumphed over evil. Women were voluptuous, in distress, and often scantily clad. Men were rectangular pinnacles of testosterone fighting the bad guy to save the pretty girl. All the figures were in motion, twisting, fighting, and overacting to sell their moment of peril to passersby with ten cents to spare for the pleasure of learning how the moment would end. All this drama is what publishers stuck to because it sold the story; it's what the depression era public wanted to see. And it walked a fine line of acceptability in a time when sex and swearing didn't exist anywhere in the media.

Science fiction covers stood apart by showcasing awesome technology and the awesomely horrible nature of creatures waiting for us on other worlds. The covers motifs break down into a few basic categories: Creatures and Robots, Spaceships, Ladies, and Mad Scientists. The future according to sci-fi pulps was bright, optimistic, and subconsciously terrifying.

Robots and Creatures

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Amazing Stories, The Drums of Tapajos, cover by Leo Morey, 1930.

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Astounding Stories, Raiders of the Universes, cover by H.W. Wesso, 1932

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Astounding Stories, Proxima Centauri, cover by Howard Brown, 1935


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAstounding Stories, Shadow Out of Time, cover by Howard Brown, 1936

Monsters in sci-fi, like monsters of any era, represent fear of the unknown. During the pulp era they symbolized a subconscious fear of outer space. Like technology, space creatures could be anything and do anything because the biology of the universe was not hedged in by modern absolutes. Sometimes they were ten-legged beasts of burden. Sometimes they were giant gaping maws that popped out of the bushes and ate your whole party. Other times they offered great wisdom from the far reaches of space and time. And sometimes they stole all your women.

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Amazing Stories, Peril Among the Drivers, cover by Leo Morey, 1934

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Amazing Stories, The Mentanicals, cover by Leo Morey, 1934


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, Adam Link Saves the World, cover by Robert Fuqua, 1942

No longer the mindless novelties of the Victorian era, robots symbolized the subconscious fear that our technology would surpass our ability to control it. Unlike space monsters, robots depended on the technical skill of the artist and on the imagination of the writer or publisher who described the robots' appearance. Early robots borrowed heavily from medieval armor designs, giving them a much more organic look than the crab machines and spindle-legged humanoids of later years. But sometimes they looked like sentient trash cans, which is hilarious but also a little scary.

Spaceships

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Amazing Stories, Another Dimension, cover by Leo Morey, 1935


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, The Brain, cover by James B. Settles, 1948
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, Prometheus II, cover by Malcolm H. Smith, 1948

Spacecraft, on the other hand, glorified our mastery of space. Like flight before it, space explorers became heroes going boldly into the dark unknown. The standard rocket design evolved into the streamlined bullet most likely because artists and publishers guessed that firing a gun, or arrows, and launching a ship into the stratosphere were theoretically similar. A long narrow body cuts through the air better

Spacecraft covers were like the flight themed covers of the previous decades. They didn't need to be more over the top than a ship flying past the moon because the very idea of space travel was radical.

The Ladies

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Uncanny Tales, Pawn of Hideous Desire, cover by ?, 1939


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtStartling Stories, The Isotope Men, cover by ?, 1948
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtStarling Stories, Shadow Over mars, cover by Earle Bergey, 1944
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtThrilling Wonder Stories, Star of Treasure, cover by Earle Bergey, 1944
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtPlanet Stories, The Great Green Blight, cover by Parkhurst, 1945
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, Trail of the Astrogar, cover by Robert Gibson Jones, 1947

Robert Lesser said this of the stereotypical pretty girls on the pulp covers, "Part of the fantasy was here is this beautiful young girl, blond, in dire trouble. She's being attacked by this terrible guy and you're going to save her. And she, of course, is going to be very, very grateful to you in as many ways as a woman can."

Where science fiction is concerned, you could also say that all manner of creature, animal, vegetable, mineral, dead, or disembodied, had a fetish for Earth women. Sex was the main selling point of covers depicting women. Sure the creatures that abducted them were fascinating, but boobies are better. Terrified at the hands of their creature captors, the helpless, barely dressed woman perpetuated the popular stereotype of the era that women were weak and helpless. But not all covers played to this gender convention.

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Amazing Stories, Lord of the Crystal Bow, cover by H. W. McCauley, 1942


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, Carbon Copy Killer, cover by H. W. McCauley, 1943
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtPlanet Stories, The Blue Behemoth, cover by J, Rozen, 1943
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtFantastic Novels, The Conquest of the Moon Pool, Cover by Lawrence S. Stevens, 1948
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtPlanet Stories, Enchantress of Venus, cover by Allen Anderson, 1949

Sometimes the ladies kicked ass and wore cheap evening gowns over their paste-on bras. Most women on sci-fi pulps, however, wore far less clothing than their male counterparts, begging the question of who really was the weaker sex if women could survive all manner of climate and atmospheric conditions in what amounted to an aluminum bikini top and half a cheap evening gown. The girl abducted by the Astrogar lucked out with a full body space suit. Good thing, too. The Astrogar looks itchy.

Mad Scientist

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Amazing Stories, The World Aflame, cover by Leo Morey, 1935


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, The 4-Sided Triangle, cover by H. W. McCauley, 1939
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtMarvel Tales, Test Tube Monster, cover by J. W. Scott, 1940
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtTerror Tales, Mistress of the Dark Pool, cover by Rafael De Soto, 1940
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtPlanet Stories, Werwile of the Crystal Crypt, cover by Allen Anderson, 1948
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtFantastic Adventures cover by Edmond Swiatek, 1949

The mad scientist is the oldest archetype of science fiction figures and ladies were his choice test subjects on pulp covers. Their laboratories were dark, lit by the glow of their instrument panels and the rows of test tubes filled with women pickling in chemical brine. The doctors were often depicted ugly, stooped, and a little manic about the eyes. If they weren't evil scientists, they looked like regular guys in white coats marveling at their work.

Most things on pulp covers were black or white, but the mad scientist held on to the moral grey area. At some point their science crossed the line from good to evil and they acknowledged it or they didn't. Where robots and creatures embody fear of the unknown and the boundaries of our technology, the mad scientist is the moral catalyst. His experiments show the potential for the best and worst of scientific advancement and the thin line between them.

The 50s and the Rise of the Paperback

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Amazing Stories, Slaves of the Crystal Brain, cover by Arnold Kohn, 1950


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, Empire of women, cover by?, 1952
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtPlanet Stories, The Golden Apples of the Sun, cover by Kelly Freas, 1953
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtMarvel Science, Forbidden Weapon, cover by Norman Saunders, 1951
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtAmazing Stories, The Girl Who Loved Death, cover by Walter Popp, 1952

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Changing tastes and changing attitudes during and after World War II put the final nails in the pulp magazine coffin. Now that everyone was busy with the war effort at home, pulp fiction seemed "contrived and outdated." Soldiers overseas were living the adventures they read about in the pulps and took to carrying paperbacks, which were smaller and more portable. As we entered the 1950s and the Atomic Age, pulp fiction magazines had all but disappeared by 1955. Television absorbed most pulp writers and carried on the tradition of cheap, thrilling stories. Photography started taking the place of illustrators in magazines because it was cheaper and simpler to produce. Artists either turned to advertising, movie posters, paperback novels, or simple gave up their painting careers.

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Puppet Masters, Robert A. Heinlein, cover by?, signet, 1952


Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtConquest of the Space Sea, Robert Moore Williams, cover by?, Ace, 1955
Citezens in Space, Robert Sheckley, cover by Richard Powers, Ballantine, 1955
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtMan of Earth, Algis Budrys, cover by Richard Powers, Baallantine, 1958
Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover ArtThe Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut, cover by Richard Powers, Dell, 1959

Paperback novels took over as the go to publication for cheap fiction, but their covers were static by comparison to the pulps. Figures were posed and lacked the compositional energy of their pulp predecessors. In science fiction, saturated colors continued on covers influenced by the graphic styles of modern and post-modern art movements. Illustrated covers adopted more neutral colors and toned down the sexuality. Subtle storytelling was now preferred over the vampiness of the pulps.

Robots, Mad Scientists and Damsels: Astounding Pulp Cover Art

Rising trends in the storytelling of the late fifties covers included: figures in dominating landscapes, the explorer and his spacecraft, and the esoteric idea of science and outer space. Highly abstracted covers became a popular method of grabbing attention after so many years of objective realism. It also mirrored the changing themes in science fiction writing. Scientific fact started limiting the scope of the future aesthetic on objectively illustrated covers. People were no longer immediately impressed with bizarre technologies because technology was quickly becoming part of their everyday lives.

Sources: Guardian, Guardian, Wine Press of Words, the Franklin Institute, Graphic Style: From Victorian to New Century, 3rd Edition, Seymour Chwast, Steven Heller, New York, 2011, and Pulp Fiction Art: Cheap Thrills and Painted Nightmares. DVD, 2005