Dare to Judge This Book

Some Great Pulp & Paperback Cover Artists

“… the covers were sometimes printed in advance, before there was a story. So what the editor did was show me the cover or a drawing – it was usually a picture of a half-naked woman and someone stripping the rest of her clothes off her. And on that basis I wrote dozens of stories.”
Bruno Fischer, in Danger Is My Business

Gleefully incorrect, decidedly garish and intentionally suggestive, the cover art of pulp magazines and paperback books, produced by both the major publishers and the semi-underground press, had one purpose: to move the product.

And move product they did. By the shitload. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for publishers to establish distinctive, deliberate graphic identities so that consumers could easily pick out their product from among the hundreds of pulps and paperbacks being sold in drugstores, newsstands, bus stations and yes, even bookstores. These days, most of the authors whose works filled the pulps and the paperback racks long ago may be forgotten, and yet the very same books are being hunted aggressively by collectors solely for their covers.

After all, the cover frequently bore a greater responsibility for sealing the deal than the hack or hacks who actually wrote the insides. I mean, you have to buy a book to read it, and you have to read it before you know if it sucks, but the cover’s right there, man.

In your face, laying it all on the line.

The covers were a promise of things to come, and were thus by turns sexy, suggestive, moody, violent, dangerous, wicked, and, yes gleefully over the top and sometimes totally tasteless. No argument here.

Still, in these days of high school shootouts, pimped-out child stars, cancel culture, trigger warnings and bestiality.com, they don’t seem that bad. There’s something straightforward and almost innocent about these covers. Sure, they were smirky and sexist and racist, relying far too heavily on stereotypes, depictions of violence and objectified women and plenty of other stuff that would be a hanging offence these days (and probably rightfully so), but the nostalgia value and the sheer exhilarating in-yer-face quality is very high indeed. And these guys were great artists, make no mistake about that!

Before the onslaught of film and television, it was these guys who conjured up the images that filled our heads. So, you can talk about Chandler and Hammett and Daly and a zillion others who influenced the Shamus Game, but these cover artists and illustrators also served:


List respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Randal Brandt for his big helping hand on this one, including entries on Ruth Belew, Leo Manso, Rafael Palacios and Robert Stanley. And to Mark M. Reid for his eagle eye.

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