The Retro-Hugo Awards

Science Fiction and Fantasy Art and Artists in 1938
by Jane Frank

A condensed version of this article was first published in a booklet distributed by Loncon 3 at the Hugo ceremony at LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 Worldcon.

1938 was a very special year for science fiction and fantasy art, because – according to many fans and scholars – that year marked the beginning of the first Golden Age of Science Fiction. Often recognised as spanning the years 1938 – 1946, this “Golden Age” was a time during which the science fiction genre gained wide public attention and many classic science fiction stories were published.

It was also a time when magazines, specifically pulp magazines, were the main way readers got to see how artists were illustrating those imaginative stories, novellas, and even novel length works – because serialisation of longer works was common practice for the pulps, to keep buyers coming back for the next instalment! The “pulps” were inexpensive fiction magazines, so-called because they were printed on cheap wood pulp paper, and were memorable then (as now!) because they featured lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art.

Pulp magazines were the main vehicle for early fantastic and science fictional stories. In fact, some critics have argued that “Until the decade of the 50s there was essentially no market for science fiction books at all” (Silverberg, 2010); the audience supported only a few special interest small presses. There were some publishers: a few special interest small presses (like Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., established by the author in 1923 to protect and publish his own works), and publishers like Grosset & Dunlap, which specialised in publishing reprints of Burroughs’ novels, often using the same J Allen St John art that previously appeared on the covers of (for example) Argosy magazine. But for all intents and purposes, it was the pulps – and not the “slicks” (mainstream magazines on glossy paper) or book jackets – that would have been the source of any art coming to the attention of science fiction and fantasy fans.

Pulps were a primarily American phenomenon and at their height, in the 1920s and 1930s, the most popular of the magazines (among them Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Horror Stories, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown, and Weird Tales) could sell up to 1,000,000 copies per issue. The Audit Bureau of Circulation in 1938 listed 126 pulp magazine titles, with a combined circulation of 10,346,573 – showing that, despite the Depression and the growing popularity of movies, people were still buying magazines. And when you consider the number of actual readers that these buyers represent (the usual calculations are readership = circulation x 3) you get over 30,000,000 pulp readers, an astounding percentage of the entire reading public (Earle, p.77). The typical reader was young, male and middle/working class, and drawn to writing that featured heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or mechanical “gizmo”-filled adventure. And in 1938 the pulps delivered what the audience craved: the year marked the start of John W Campbell Jr’s remarkable tenure as Editor at Astounding magazine, where he turned the genre toward “hard” SF stories celebrating scientific achievement and progress, while on the fantasy side male youth continued to swoon over bizarre and macabre stories with shocking and often titillating cover art.

In 1938 the magazine industry was in the process of transforming itself, from one based on many independently published pulp magazines to one based on magazine chain ownership. The pressures of decreasing sales and lack of distribution caused many pulp publishers to sell to larger magazine chains, and illustrators were not spared from the resulting changes in the art field. The major publishing chains had more money and, in general, art rates went up. At the same time, the chains were run as one large business, so that science fiction magazines received the same attention and treatment as any other pulp. Tight deadlines and miserliness when it came to fees paid for art promoted imitation; publishers used whatever artwork they could get. Artists moved easily from one genre to the other, depending on the magazine chain that employed them, and borrowed from each other with impunity. Given the constraints of the industry it’s surprising that there was so much individuality expressed in the art.

Chains like Ziff-Davis had a full-time staff of artists working for their magazines, who were responsible for not just science fiction and fantasy titles, but for all the publications. Illustrators who were already working for pulp chains illustrating westerns, romances, and mysteries suddenly found themselves responsible for science fiction art as well. Most of the chain-magazine artists were strong craftsmen and handled their new assignments competently, if not exceptionally. Some of the many artists who entered the science fiction field remained there for much of their artistic career, while most continued to work across genres/pulp titles, and a few would stay only a few years before being drawn away by the second world war, or other careers, never to return to the genre again.

Weinberg saw these distinctions as representing two “waves” of illustrators: the first wave occurred when science fiction magazines began publication in 1926, and artists were recruited from other magazines and pulps. Although a number of them had some previous experience with science fiction or fantasy, they were pulp illustrators first and science fiction illustrators second. The second wave of illustrators was artists who emerged from the growing ranks of science fiction readers. They were fans of the magazines who believed they could do a better job of illustrating the stories than the men who were working for the pulps (Frank, p.19). In 1938 there were more artists working in the field who belonged to the first wave than the second; a notable example of the latter, second wave would have been the artist Virgil Finlay. He was a reader of the science fiction magazines and Weird Tales; he knew his art was better than anything appearing in that magazine when he showed his art to the editor and got his first commercial job, in 1935. He was right, and within a short time he became the sensation of the fantasy and science fiction field. For a change, an artist entered the field not as a general pulp artist but as a specialist in science fiction art. Since the mid-1930s, the science fiction field has remained a mix of the two waves: artists who begin as illustrators and then enter science fiction, and artists who aim their work specifically at the science fiction field and have little interest in illustration outside the genre.

Who were the artists whose work was being seen by science fiction and fantasy fans in 1938? Who was active and producing work of interest?

Hundreds of interiors – line drawings in pen-and-ink – were produced each year, filling the pages of pulp magazines, while on the covers were images produced, in some cases,  by only a handful of artists, used so extensively by the chain publishers that only one or two artists might carry entire runs of magazines for years. Fans easily could recognise their styles, if they were paying attention – although they rarely (if ever) would have a chance to see them in person. Because there were no SF conventions, let alone convention art shows, in 1938.

As Robert Weinberg, an expert on the subject, has observed, ‘Early pulp magazines bought all rights and kept the originals as well. Only under special circumstances or arrangements, and only reluctantly, did magazines return the artwork to artists; it was all considered the property of the magazine and “work for hire”. As a result, if publishers did not have adequate storage space, or interest, they either threw it out, auctioned it off to fans, or gave it away to authors. At Street & Smith, for example, if the authors were not interested in taking possession of the art that went along with their stories (and they were often given that option), the art went into basement storage rooms (Frank, p.43). As a result, just about the only way collectors and fans could make their appreciation known would be by buying the magazines and writing to the editor.

Science fiction artists in 1938 were influenced not only by the Art Deco movement but by an intense focus on depicting SF’s preoccupation with rising technologies: mighty, futuristic cities and machines. The “Big Four” science fiction illustrators of the 1930s, in terms of the frequency with which their art was seen on or in the pulps, were Howard V Brown, Leo Morey, H W Wesso, and Frank R Paul. On the fantasy side, the major artists were Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok and Margaret Brundage. However, many other artists were also working hard in the field in 1938, and if you were a fan you wouldn’t have been able to avoid seeing their art – among them Jack Binder, Mahlon Blaine, Elliot Dold Jr, Jay Jackson, Julian Krupa, Charles Schneeman, Alex Schomburg, and “Joe” Tillotson (Robert Fuqua).

Wesso, Dold, Schneeman, Binder and Brown were all working for the Street & Smith chain in 1938 and just about every issue of Astounding Science Fiction contained their work – either on the cover, or inside. Astounding was among the very few magazines at the time that was still doing well, and at first their new editor, John William Campbell Jr, made no significant changes – but that situation would not last long for this highly influential editor. The first issue over which he had direct control was for January 1938, and in his first year at the helm he published the first SF stories of Lester del Rey and L Ron Hubbard and reintroduced Clifford D Simak – his first short story “Rule 18” appeared in the July issue, with a cover by Brown. The August 1938 issue also featured Campbell’s own highly memorable novella “Who Goes There”, written under the pen name Don A Stuart – with cover art by Wesso.

Howard V Brown (5 July 1878 – 1945), one of the most popular of early science fiction illustrators, had by 1938 developed into an artist noted for his striking use of colours and willingness to portray fantastic monsters; he was one of the greatest of the BEM (bug-eyed monster) painters for the pulps. His interiors, done in charcoal pencil, were much more subdued but equally well done. Brown was very prolific, with his science fiction art at first representing only a small part of his total output. From 1913 – 1931 Brown was the cover illustrator for Scientific American, although he also illustrated for Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter (1916-1917), and painted over fifty cover paintings for Science and Invention (1919) and did some SF covers for Argosy in the 1920s. But when Astounding Stories of Science Fiction was bought by Street & Smith and relaunched as Astounding Science Fiction, Brown was brought in to handle the covers, displacing Hans Wesso. When Campbell became editor of the magazine, succeeding F Orlin Tremaine late in 1937, he preferred something less garish, and Brown’s “wild” covers were out. By 1937 – 1938 Brown was alternating with Wesso (who made a brief comeback) and other artists for covers.

Hans Waldemar Wessolowski (19 August 1894 – 12 May 1948), who worked under the professional name of H W Wesso or simply “Wesso”, was one of the most influential artists of the 1930s. He produced covers and interiors for a wide range of pulp magazines, including westerns, men’s adventure, and mysteries, among them titles such as Clues, The Danger Trail, Adventure Trails and others. He earned his reputation in the SF genre, however, primarily for the thirty-four covers he did in the 1930s for pulp publisher William Clayton’s Astounding Stories. Wesso produced all covers for all issues from January 1930 to March 1933, when Street & Smith took over the publication. He was then dropped and replaced by Howard Brown, who did the next forty-four issues in a row. In 1938 Wesso was in the midst of his brief comeback, lasting for issues in 1937 – 1939, before disappearing entirely from the pulps. Most of Wesso’s paintings were done in watercolours, which gave his images a brighter and clearer look than those painted in oils (the medium favoured by other pulp artists of the day). Like Brown, he was exceptional at painting bug-eyed monsters and action-packed adventure scenes.

Charles E Schneeman Jr (24 November 1912 – 1 January 1972) was influenced by illustrators such as Winsor McKay as well as Wesso, and he started illustrating for SF magazines right after graduating from the Pratt School of Art and Design in 1933. His first SF illustrations were done for Wonder Stories in 1934, and by 1935 they were also appearing in Astounding. He painted two covers for Astounding in 1938 (May and December) and several others, but his preference was for brush and ink, using simple line or dry brush shading, and he was known primarily for his black-and-white interiors. When John W Campbell Jr became editor of Astounding, Schneeman became the chief interior artist for the pulp – and 26 examples of his black-and-white art appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 alone.

William Elliot Dold Jr (3 October 1889 – 1957) and Jack Binder were two artists also mainly well known to fans of Astounding for their interior art. In New York, Dold started his career in advertising art, and after the first world war started painting magazine covers as well as interior illustrations for the publisher Harold Hersey. These were beautifully done pen-and-ink drawings in an art nouveau style, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley. Dold created numerous illustrations for Hersey’s publications, and throughout the 1920s did air and western pulp paintings for magazines such as Cowboy Stories, The Danger Trail, and Eagles of the Air. He then persuaded Hersey to start up a (short-lived) SF magazine, Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories, in 1931, with Dold as editor and creator of all the cover and interior art. After the magazine died, Dold began working for Astounding in late 1933 when Street & Smith purchased the magazine from the bankrupt Clayton magazine chain. From 1934 through 1937 he was the leading artist for Astounding and, while he did some work in colour, his most notable contributions to that magazine consisted of high contrast black-and-white interior drawings, rendered with no greys. Pieces were prepared double the size of the actual illustration on illustration board. Although not very good at illustrating people, Dold was a marvellous detailer of machinery and interpreter of grand concepts, “depicting huge machines, great ships, and complex technological cultures in a style that was an unusual marriage of marginal primitivism and art deco elegance” (DiFate, p.152). Dold contributed his pen-and-ink works to ten of the twelve issues of Astounding in 1938. By 1941 he had left the field, and never returned.

Jack (John R) Binder (11 August 1902 – 6 March 1986) was one of those “all-around” artists referred to above, who worked as an interior artist for Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories in the late 1930s, while also working for the Harry Chesler Studio as art director in the comic field, which he joined in 1937. Binder started working for Astounding in 1936 and was working for both that magazine and Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1938, with interior art in just about every issue of both magazines.

In the same way that staff artists working for magazine chains produced art for all the titles they published, whatever the genre, artists were also carried along from publisher to publisher, as magazines were bought and sold – in that way becoming a kind of “asset” which publishers accessed over periods of time. There arose “core” groups of artists whose art might be seen in multiple magazines in any given year. One example of that would be Howard Brown’s career with the Standard magazine chain.

By 1936 Howard Brown’s paintings were already on covers for the Thrilling pulps brand of magazines, a diverse group of magazines published by Ned Pines which, over time, included science fiction, fantasy, romance, westerns and detective stories, all notable for their imaginative covers by leading freelance artists of the day. So, when Gernsback sold Wonder Stories, which had already been published under several titles, to Pines at Thrilling Publications (AKA the Standard Magazine chain), where it was renamed Thrilling Wonder Stories – and his main artist Frank R Paul stopped doing covers for that magazine – Brown then did every cover from August 1936 to August 1940, with the exception of the August 1937 issue which was done by Wesso. And when Standard started up another SF magazine, Startling Stories, in 1939 it used the same artists as for Thrilling Wonder Stories, including Brown.

Another artist who was working for the Standard Chain at the time was Alex Schomburg (10 May 1905 – 7 April 1998): one of the very few SF artists whose career spanned six decades. Like Brown, Schomburg started his SF career working for Gernsback; his earliest artwork appeared in two 1925 issues of The Experimenter, and when it was folded into Science and Invention in 1926 he did covers for that magazine as well. He also painted more than fifty covers for Radio Craft, another Gernsback title – and all these magazines, published before the birth of Amazing Stories, featured science fiction stories. When the Depression came, Schomburg’s pay was cut in half and he was forced to become a freelancer, doing many works of war and aviation art. If you saw these early works on display, you might see them signed “XELA” (Alex, signed backwards), a practice that he didn’t carry into his work in the 1950s. Schomburg did a lot of work for Standard magazines, and you would have found his work in four issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories from 1938.

Ziff-Davis, a publisher of fiction and hobbyist magazines, was another company which produced their magazines through the use of a full-time staff. A group of writers on their payroll created most of the stories for the pulps, while another group of artists did all of the artwork; very little was done by outside help. So, when Ziff-Davis first took over publication of Amazing Stories (also founded by Gernsback) in 1938, the first few issues featured photographic covers, until their house artists could start producing paintings. Ziff-Davis rejuvenated Amazing Stories – then in decline – by installing Raymond A Palmer as editor from June 1938. It is unknown whether any artwork from Amazing Stories during the early days, when it was published by Hugo Gernsback, existed when Palmer took over – but as of now, no artwork from those times is known to exist.

Palmer, like Campbell, was an influential (some would say “infamous”) editor who assumed a radically different editorial policy, concentrating on action-adventure fiction, much of it mass-produced by a stable of authors using “House Names”: pseudonyms invented by publishers for both authors and artists, sometimes used as a convenience to hide the fact that an artist (or author) has more than one illustration (or story) in a single given issue. This practice, widely accepted in the pulps, also caused confusion among readers attempting to credit artists for their work, just as it did for bibliographers of stories they published.

Most story illustrations were done by the staff artists, based a brief summary of the story or a quick reading of the manuscript. However, sometimes artists were told to produce a painting without any story behind it. Then the art was shown to an author and a lead story was written around the painting. Born of the desire to keep staff artists working continually, this unusual concept of having the cover before the story is still used occasionally in today's magazine field (e.g. Algis Budrys’ Tomorrow magazine, which used Paul Lehr’s art on ten covers from 1993 to 1996).

Where Campbell was trained as a scientist, and favoured works by the Futurians – a group of highly talented new writers of believable, science-based fiction – Palmer came from the ranks of SF fandom and favoured the outrageous: adventurous space-operas, stories of the paranormal, stories that were colourful and strained credulity (even for fans of science fiction and fantasy). And a perfect match for these stories was the colourful art of Frank R Paul.

It would be impossible to mention Amazing Stories without talking about the cover art of Frank R Paul (18 April 1884 – 29 June 1963), the first of the great science fiction pulp illustrators. Paul provided all of the covers and most of the interior illustrations for Gernsback’s earliest magazines, and when in 1930 Clayton magazines started publishing Astounding Stories, within a short time Paul began illustrating for that as well. Paul was extremely popular with the fans of the early 1930s, although everyone who has seen his art would agree with Weinberg: “His art was bright and garish” (Frank, p.370). Paul was the Guest of Honour at the very first World Science Fiction Convention, held in New York City in July 1939, although from 1936 (when Gernsback sold his science fiction magazines) until 1939 you wouldn’t have seen Paul’s work in more than one magazine (Marvel Science Stories, November 1938 issue). He was basically out of work in 1938, and did little in the field again until the early 1940s; but many fans would still have had the chance to see his art that year, because he was featured in the Family Circle magazine, which then had a circulation of more than 1.4 million. The article “Bogeyman”, in the 26 August 1938 issue, concentrated much more on Paul’s art than on the artist, but still was probably the most exposure any science fiction artist had received in a national publication. It was heavily illustrated with many of Paul’s best covers.

In all, through the course of his career, Paul would paint more than 150 covers for Gernsback (closer to 190 if you count Science & Mechanics and Forecast), with a further 28 front covers for various non-Gernsback SF magazines including all twelve for Charles D Hornig’s Science Fiction, and also a series of full colour back-cover paintings for the Ziff-Davis Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures (1939 – 1946). He also did all the illustration for Superworld Comics, a Gernsback experiment of 1939. So it would be close to impossible for a fan to be unfamiliar with his art in 1938, even if it was not on a current issue of a pulp magazine.

Leo Morey (24 October 1899 – 1965) also started his career working for Gernsback’s Science and Invention magazine, and since Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing Company also owned Amazing Stories, he started illustrating SF stories for that magazine, too – beginning in 1930. It wasn’t easy for Morey at first, because he had the task of replacing Frank R Paul, who had been the primary illustrator and cover artist. When Gernsback lost control of Amazing Stories in 1929, due to a bankruptcy lawsuit, it was the only SF magazine being published. Gernsback immediately started up Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories and took Paul with him to work on the new magazines. Left without a regular cover artist, in 1932 Amazing’s new owner, Teck Publishing, gave Morey the job – and he painted nearly all of the covers for Amazing until 1938. Morey worked in gouache and ink, and if you saw his work it would be signed “Leo Morey” or “L.M.”. He worked hard to make his illustrations and paintings reflect the authors’ descriptions of their creations; like many other artists, he branched out into western and detective covers for other Teck magazines, and soon was their leading cover artist. When Amazing Stories was bought by Ziff-Davis in 1938, Morey was replaced by staff artists from that chain. He continued to work in the SF field, producing covers and interiors for a number of other smaller chains for a while, and then moved into the comic book field.

Who were the staff artists for Ziff-Davis in 1938? Some notable ones working on Amazing Stories that year were Jay Jackson, Harold McCauley, Julian Krupa, and Joseph Wirt Tillotson.

Jay Jackson (10 September 1905 – 16 May 1954) worked for Amazing as well as other pulps in the Ziff-Davis line. He was a long-time editorial and features cartoonist for the Chicago Weekly Defender newspaper when he started freelancing for most of the pulps in the Chicago area. He worked for Amazing, Mammoth Detective, and Weird Tales, and even did one cover for the December 1938 issue of Golden Fleece – a short-lived and now rare SF magazine published 1938 – 1939. Jackson also had the distinction of being perhaps the first black artist to work in the science fiction field (this cannot be verified with certainty). What is known, however, is that his newspaper career, as illustrator and award-winning cartoonist, qualifies him as a “pioneering cartoonist of colour” according to Tim Jackson (no relation), editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Defender and publisher of Pioneering Cartoonists of Color.

Harold W McCauley (11 July 1913 – 16 December 1977) studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for four years and at the American Academy of Art for a year, and then studied with J Allen St John, whose work for the Edgar Rice Burroughs books had introduced McCauley to science fiction in 1927 and made him a lifelong fan of the genre. At the Academy, McCauley studied under the famed artist, Haddon Sundblom, and it was through Sundblom that he got his first illustration work. His art caught the attention of the art director at Ziff-Davis, and soon afterward McCauley became a staff artist; his first year with the company was in 1938! His art appeared in five issues of Amazing Stories in that year, and he continued to work in the field until the mid-1950s doing covers and interiors for numerous magazines as well as advertising art for Coca Cola, Pepsi, Orange Kist, Schlitz beer, and some calendar art. Fans especially loved McCauley’s attractive women on covers, which came to be known as “The Mac Girl”.

Julian S Krupa (7 January 1913 – 18 December 1989) was born in Poland, and became an accomplished violinist before studying at the National Academy of Design and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He worked for the largest Polish newspaper in the USA at the time, the Daily Zgoda, and in 1936 wrote and illustrated a science fiction comic strip there, before joining Ziff-Davis in 1938. Like many artists working for Ziff-Davis, he illustrated for all of the magazines published by the chain including Radio News, Pets, Flying, and Popular Aviation. But in 1938 you would have seen his black-and-white interior art – done in a stipple technique using a brush – in the October, November, and December issues of Amazing Stories. His colour art (gouache and watercolour) first appeared on Amazing’s covers in 1939.

Joseph Wirt Tillotson (30 January 1905 – 1 September 1959) was another prolific artist who started working for the Ziff-Davis chain in 1938, and had the distinction of publishing his work under both his own name, Joe Tillotson or Joe W Tillotson, and the brush name “Robert Fuqua”. This pseudonym likely derives from his mother’s maiden name, Belle Fuqua Oursler, combined with her father’s name, Robert M Fuqua. He usually used that name for colour work, in which category could be found many of his science fiction cover paintings – including those for the October, November and December issues of Amazing Stories in 1938. Weinberg tells the anecdote that Tillotson and the science fiction writer, Earl Binder (Jack Binder’s brother), were classmates at the Boys High School in Chicago and that, when they met some years later, Tillotson remarked how much he enjoyed painting the cover for Binder’s short story “I, Robot”. Binder was surprised to learn that Tillotson and Fuqua were the same (Frank, p.449). Perhaps to enhance the appearance of diversity or even-handedness in assignments, Tillotson occasionally was credited under both names in the same issue of a publication (e.g. Mammoth Adventure, May and December 1947), which undoubtedly further helped preserve the fiction of two different artists working for Ziff-Davis.

1938 was an eventful year for the major fantasy pulp Weird Tales as well; after years of being published in Chicago, it was bought by the publisher of Short Stories and moved to New York City. And among the artists hardest hit by that change in the publishing industry was the first female cover artist of the pulp era, and the most frequently-appearing cover artist on Weird Tales during her stint with the magazine, Margaret Brundage (9 December 1900 – 9 April 1976).

When Weird Tales, whose financial situation was never good, was sold in late 1938 by its founder J C Henneberger to William J Delaney, owner and publisher of the magazine Short Stories, and the editorial offices moved to New York, Brundage found herself without a job. She only worked in pastels, a fragile medium that presented practical problems with shipping the art from Chicago to New York. Her artwork, usually painted twice or three times the size of the published cover (i.e. approximately 20 by 16 inches) had to be kept under glass at all times, and shipping glass to New York was expensive. She knew the disadvantages of pastels, and knew she would have to go into another medium to keep the contract, but she could not, or would not, switch. There was also a time limit; Brundage worked two months in advance, and that left little time for corrections at long distance. Brundage also used to visit the editor Farnsworth Wright at his office every week to discuss cover ideas after she had read the story, and that was now impossible, too. But perhaps an even more important reason for her losing the contract was the new “decency” standard being imposed (primarily through the efforts of then-mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia) on pulp magazines sold at newsstands, and the nude or semi-nude young women that had been the primary subjects of Brundage’s covers were not acceptable. As a result, into the breach stepped Virgil Finlay, her chief competitor, who lived on the East Coast, and took over all cover assignments for Weird Tales.

Virgil Warden Finlay (23 July 1914 – 18 January 1971) began working for Weird Tales in 1935, after submitting his portfolio to the editor, Farnsworth Wright. Finlay’s skills as an illustrator, especially his pen-and-ink interior illustrations, clearly set him apart from any other artist of his day, and letters of praise from fans soon flooded Weird Tales – not raves about the stories but about the illustrations that accompanied them. Finlay was paid eight to eleven dollars an illustration for his work in Weird Tales in the 1930s. Although this was not a huge amount, he usually contributed five or six illustrations per issue (in 1938 his work appeared in all issues for the year but one!), so his work for the magazine – his only client at the time – provided a reasonable income during the Depression and beyond. By 1937 Wright was already using Finlay on the covers of Weird Tales as well, alternating his work with that of the still popular Brundage. Finlay was paid $100 a cover (to Brundage’s $90) which, combined with his money for interiors, made him one of the highest-paid monthly pulp illustrators. Finlay raised the level of interior art from illustration to fine art and became the most popular interior artist ever to work in the science fiction field; it would have been difficult to ignore his work in 1938, and that would hold true for the next 30 years.

If you happened to be an active member of the fan community on the west coast, specifically the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, in 1938, it’s possible that you would have met and seen the work of Hannes Bok (2 July 1914 – 11 April 1964). Born Wayne Woodard in Kansas City, Missouri, the artist used the name Hannes Bok for most of his professional career (at first “Hans”, and then “Hannes”, Bok – it is believed, in honour of the composer Johann (Johannes) Sebastian Bach). He was one of the few stylists in the pulp magazine field, and by the 1940s was on a par with Virgil Finlay as one of the best in the field, albeit also one of the most unique personalities of early SF and fantasy illustration. Bok and his good friend Emil Petaja, a SF author with whom he shared an apartment (and a lifelong friendship), attended a meeting of the Society in 1938, and Bok became good friends with Ray Bradbury. Bradbury, in turn, showed some samples of Bok’s work to Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, during his trip to New York in 1939 for the first World Science Fiction Convention. Wright liked what he saw, and Bok soon moved to New York to work for the pulp magazine, where he lived for the rest of his life. His first professionally published painting was the cover for the December 1939 issue of Weird Tales.

It is also possible that fans of erotic and macabre fantasy art in 1938 would have come across a re-issue of the Venus Sardonicus Portfolio from Mahlon Blaine (16 June 1894 – January 1969), first published in 1929, or, if not that, possibly his art folio Nova Venus, limited to 300 copies, and published by Jake Brussel. In the 1920s Blaine was a major book illustrator of horror and fantasy fiction, with an unusual style strongly influenced by the artist Aubrey Beardsley. His art was theatrically bizarre, variously described as “sensuous, sadistic, bawdy” – and it certainly was not to everyone’s tastes. When illustrated books disappeared during the Depression, Blaine fell on hard times and made a living producing drawings for the erotic book trade, and doing private commissions for patrons. If you were a fan in 1938, you might have hired him yourself!

Hardcover publishing of science fiction and fantasy continued during the 1930s, but the books rarely matched the lavishly illustrated volumes of the late 20th century. A few artists became famous for their work in the fantastic fiction field, but in most cases they were not thought of as genre artists, in the sense of being linked professionally to a distinctively science fictional or fantastic literary genre by fans. Weinberg, the expert on early science fiction, notes that in the late 30s “science fiction was not yet thought to be a distinct branch of modern fiction, and while from time to time novels in the field were published as original works in hardcover or reprinted from the pulp magazines, with rare exception most genre illustration was lacklustre or ignored” (Frank, p.15). Often, when a serial was reprinted from Argosy or its companion magazine, All-Story – two pulp magazines that frequently published fantasy-related stories – the original cover illustration used for the serialisation was also used for the book jacket.

In such fashion would art by J Allen St John, as a prime and important example, be seen by readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs on the dust jackets of hardcover books in 1938 – although nearly all of his novels appeared first as magazine serials. Indeed, by 1936 the last of St John’s art for the Burroughs company (formed by ERB in the early 1930s to print his novels) had appeared in hardcover. Feeling that St John charged too much for his art, Burroughs had begun using other artists’ work on his covers. And while St John had earlier (1932) discovered Weird Tales – then still published in Chicago, St John’s home city – by 1936 he was dropped from the magazine in favour of Margaret Brundage. Although St John’s paintings were much more fantastic than Brundage’s, Weird Tales’ editor Farnsworth Wright thought that sex sold better than fantastic monsters. St John would return to the pulps in 1940 – but his work would not have been seen on pulps or first edition books in 1938.

To whom did Burroughs turn to illustrate his books, if not St John? Among the artists were some of his own relatives, including (and foremost) his third child, John Coleman “Jack” Burroughs (28 February 1913 – 22 February 1979). The Burroughs family as a whole was much involved with ERB, Inc./Tarzana, and “Jack” Burroughs was trained as an artist and illustrator who, unsurprisingly (because he had grown up in an atmosphere surrounded by his father’s creations) was keen to illustrate his father’s works, and painted in a style heavily influenced by St John. At age 23, he produced the cover and two interior illustrations for his first ERB book: The Oakdale Affair and The Rider, published in 1937. The illustrations were a success, and John Coleman went on to illustrate all future ERB books published during his father’s lifetime — a total of thirteen books and over 125 illustrations — beginning in 1937 and continuing until Edgar Rice Burroughs’ death in 1950. If you were a fan in 1938, you would have seen his art published that year on two of those books’ covers: The Lad and the Lion and Tarzan and the Forbidden City.

The Golden Age was a boom-time for the pulps and 1938 was just the leading edge of an explosion in artistic talent. The numbers of science fiction and fantasy magazines grew exponentially in the early 1940s, as did the number of artists whose names would be indelibly linked with the genre. The few paintings surviving from 1938 and earlier at the time moved from hand to hand, estate to bookshop to collector. As for how readers and fans valued these artistic works at the time, Frank cites Weinberg’s story of how, at the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939, an attempt was made to raise money for convention expenses. An auction was held, featuring items donated by editors and attending authors and artists. Original pieces of interior art by Virgil Finlay, Paul, and other major artists were sold… for a dime. Paintings went for a dollar or two. “Art was considered an interesting bit of science fiction memorabilia but nothing more,” says Weinberg. “Fans could visit editor Ray Palmer in his offices in Chicago, after Ziff-Davis took over the publication of Amazing in 1938, and get art … for free” (Frank, p.44).

© Jane Frank, 2013.

References

Vincent DiFate. Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art. (Wonderland/Penguin, 1997)
David M Earle. Re-Covering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form. (Ashgate, 2009)
Jane Frank. Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary. (McFarland & Co., 2009)
Robert Silverberg. “Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age”. (Library of America, 2010. Accessed July 13, 2013 at www.loa.org/sciencefiction/why_silverberg.jsp)
Robert Weinberg. Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. (Greenwood Press, 1988)