Thursday 25 February 2010

More of the Dark Stuff - The Pulps - The Bloody Pulps

Art responds to the environment that surrounds it, trends come and trends go like a succession of waves re-etching the shore line. Nowhere was this maxim more true than in the wake of the passing of the first golden age of illustration, best epitomized by the work of illustrators such as Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. These men lived like princelings richly rewarded by the surge in popularity of the mass circulation magazines that were their patrons, magazines such as Colliers and Scribners; spawned by the revolution in color lithography that occurred around the turn of the last century. The meager returns that their forebears had had to endure were now but a distant memory. These men regarded themselves as heir to the tradition of fine artists working on commission for wealthy patrons, only their patrons were publishers not Renaissance aristocracy.

It wasn't to last and with the American slump of the 1930's there arose a new generation of artists whose brief was entirely different. These were the pulp artists, pulps being the polar opposite of The Ladies Home Journal or Good Housekeeping Magazine, these things were printed on cheap newsprint, the most expensive part of the production process being the covers which did utilize colour lithography but even there deals would be cut by merciless publishers leaning on print houses all too desperate for work in the lean times they now faced. In keeping with the general tenor of the times the previous generation's ideals of heroic fantasy went out the window as artists working for often appalling rates of pay and merciless deadlines created schlocky artwork to pander to the testosterone fueled fantasies of a generation of frequently semi-literate men. Women in this male dominated world were transformed into objects of lust to be depicted in various degrees of violent undress, victimized by male tormentors replete with guns, branding irons, whips - you name it! A trip to the seedy offices of these terminally non PC purveyors of violent fantasy would confirm your worst suspicions. Once past the jaded receptionist, a lonely token of femininity in a world of stale musk and cheap after shave, the environment beyond was indeed hell's kitchen, editors were men with fists like hams, boots with studs to pulverize unworthy artwork, sweat stained shirts, green visors, half chewed cigars and irascible temperaments. You had to be a hard-boiled cookie to even consider working for dese' schmucks.

But with a delightful twist of irony, the artists producing this work were real gentlemen and one of the premier artists of this hard-boiled world of rampant misogyny was perhaps the gentlest of them all. When Rafael De La Soto first arrived in New York in 1923 he could barely speak a word of English but he was determined to find work as an artist and through a variety of jobs he did eventually graduate to becoming one of the premier artists of the Pulp school of illustration. His background was entirely at variance with the subject matter he was engaged to produce. He was in fact born on the island of Aguadilla off the coast of Puerto Rico and as a result of the early death of his father was raised in a Catholic seminary and trained for the priesthood but his drive and determination to pursue a career in art and the tacit encouragement of the priest who oversaw much of his development ensured that he would be able to pursue that dream.

The covers that he produced for these magazines were iconic, swathed in "noir'esque" lighting and hinting at a narrative that went well beyond the immediate impression his stunning artwork created. His work was so arresting that he found himself in the position of creating artwork that would then be given as a springboard for writers, which was a complete reversal of the normal way such artworks are produced.

Anyway let's cut to the chase and have a look at some classic Rafael De La Soto.

There is a really fantastic essay on this great man by David Saunders (son of another great pulp artist Norman Saunders) in issue number 10 of Dan Zimmer's Illustration magazine and more can be read and seen in Robert Lesser's "Pulp Art" the definitive book on this subject. For UK readers of this blog, both items should be available from The Book Palace, the ultimate UK source for this kind of material.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Cloud 109 - Episode 19

All kinds of dark stuff is going down in the cybernetic Babylon otherwise known as Cloud 109.The Dungeon game that Cary persuaded them would provide 100 easy credits, courtesy of some cheats from his techy friend Matt has turned into a nightmare from which there is no escape, save logging off and logging on again and now they're back in the chat room but is it the chat room?

Are they who they think they are?

I must admit David and I are off in unknown territory here as we play around with the characters various incarnations. One of the primary drives with this narrative is to constantly question what is reality. If you think about it we now have a cybernetic world where you can go off and buy real estate, and beautiful and heroic avatars can conduct passionate cybernetic trysts unencumbered by the horrible truth that in fact their progenitors who are orchestrating these steamy romances are in reality a pair of fat and decrepit old men on either side of the globe.

Dark stuff indeed.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Art Colleges and Genius Students - Sometimes Uneasy Bedfellows

I read somewhere that Ron Embleton really considered that his best tuition was what he learned as a young artist working from the age of seventeen for publishers such as Scion (yup you read all about them on yesterday's blog), before his career was interrupted by a stint of National Service in the jungles of Malaya. As he stated he never responded well to formal tuition and it was really his own studies and drive to better himself as an artist that pushed his work into the premier division.

His observations made me think of some of my experiences when as a young and fairly callow illustrator I was invited to lecture on a part time basis at my old alma mater Brighton Art College. The Art College was built in the sixties, designed by Percy Billington in conjunction with Robert Matthew on Brighton's Grand Parade, a mezzanined monument in glass and steel, looking for all the world like an office block, which as some cynics were wont to remark, would greatly enhance it's resale value should the worst come to the worst.

Having been a few years previously through it's light and airy portals it was an opportunity to observe the art education system in reverse, some of the issues affecting art education then are somewhat redundant these days as we're talking thirty years ago and art education along with higher education in general is about to undergo some seismic changes which are going to really stimulate a lot of debate as students and parents see just how much (or little ) they can expect to receive in terms of education for the increasing amounts of debt they will have to shoulder to accommodate a dwindling public purse whose priorities lie elsewhere.

However that's another discussion for another time, my main concern with this posting is how the art education system responds to genius. It would be nice to think that art colleges in particular can embrace and encourage really talented students but it is not always so as there is an inevitable conflict of egos and sometimes the drive and determination of young artists to find their own way can be at odds with the demands of the course itself, which as Jarvis Cocker in a Radio 4 series broadcast in 2006, stated has becoming increasingly didactic as Government targets have to be appeased in all areas of the higher education system and that includes art colleges.

I happened to be teaching at Brighton when one of the most talented students to ever cross their portals arrived from somewhere North of Watford. John Watkiss was without doubt a truly exceptional talent and his list of subsequent achievements bears testimony to just how amazing he really is. You name it he's pretty much done it, from working as an in-house visualizer at Saatchi and Saatchi (he was signed up before he graduated) to teaching life drawing and anatomy at the Royal College of Art, to working on numerous graphic novels including Sandman and Conan, to working as a Hollywood concept artist (he it was who provided the springboard for the recent Sherlock Holmes film) as well as wowing the staff at Disney with amongst other great works his amazing acrylic paintings for 'Tarzan', he even painted a mural for The Ford Motor Museum. Books on drawing and anatomy - the list goes on ... and on.

Genius - the only word for it.

He was bloody brilliant when he arrived at the college and just proceeded to get better and better, but he did things his way and worked like a man possessed, which is what you've got to be to make it into the premier league, which is where he was most assuredly headed. I remember there was one morning I was in the studio and John arrived with a new painting which he'd created in the middle of the night, he fixed me with a look of almost religious zeal as he told me that he'd had this dream of a Daumier'esque scene which he just had to get up and paint ... at three o' clock in the morning! He it was who could also with a brush and ink and no under-drawing create a head and shoulders portrait on top of the image that he could so clearly see in his mind's eye as he stared at a blank sheet of paper. He even had anatomy sketchbooks going back to when he was fourteen - simply phenomenal!!!

But here's the rub, he was so good that as far as some of the people running the course could ascertain, he was not exactly being shaped by the course. These guys without being too cruel to them, had long ceased to make a living out of plying their trade beyond the confines of the art college, but unlike the part time staff (who were practitioners of illustration) their opinion had weight and this was brought sharply into focus when the final show assessments were being conducted. Quite simply there was a debate about whether or not one of the most stellar talents to pass through the college should receive a first class honours degree as opposed to an upper second and this purely on the criteria of whether or not it could be argued that John had benefited from the course - his talent not being in doubt.

I'm pleased to report that wiser councils did prevail along the lines of an assessment as perverse as that would run the very real risk of bringing the whole course into disrepute, but the fact that such an opinion could even be considered did wake me up to the realities of the kind of hubris which does colour the judgments of some of the people who end up in positions of authority within our education system.

The lesson, if lesson there is, from all this, is that true talent can manifest and develop in a variety of ways and art colleges (or art uni's as they're now rather pretentiously called) need to be more responsive and less didactic to the needs of their students, which means that people such as politicians none of whom I'm aware have ever been to an art college, need to back off and leave the running of these institutions to people who know what they're about and the role of part time tutors needs to be strengthened and not undermined to the extent that is currently the trend with part time tutors now drowning in a sea of unnecessary paperwork and obliged to acquire formal teaching qualifications, partly I presume to justify the ever upward tuition fees to the increasingly pissed off middle classes who have to pay them.

Anyway here to round off are some samples (culled from the net rather than breaking the spine of my Tarzan book) with apologies to whomever and the hope that you'll all enjoy looking at John's fantastic work as much as I do.

Monday 22 February 2010

Mushroom publishers from Mars

Today's Blog posting is from none other than the writer of "Cloud 109"; David Orme. David's appetite for trash culture is as you will discover as rapacious as mine.

If you like bad science fiction – and I mean really, really bad – you needed to be living in the UK in the early fifties. It was post war, and paper was still rationed, so reading material was at a premium. Small, fly-by-night publishers knew they could sell anything, as long as they could get the paper, and this was usually available on the black market. So bottom end of the market publishing mushroomed, and publishers like Scion and John Spencer and Curtis Warren started to pour out cheap paperback novels, generally priced around one shilling and sixpence (7.5 pence) . Science fiction was only one of their lines – sleazy gangster fiction was the most popular. This inevitably let to problems. What could be sold in bookshops or shown on the cinema was decided by local watch committees, and more than one publisher ended up in court, and some printers ended up in prison. By today’s standards, it was all pretty harmless stuff, but this was the nineteen-fifties.

An essential part of this publishing was getting cheap material. Illustrators would be paid no more than a fiver for a cover, and writers were on rates such as ten shillings (50p) per thousand words or 20 – 25 pounds flat fee for an entire novel. Needless to say, writers and illustrators didn’t spend much time crafting their work. It was, frankly, mostly awful, which is perhaps why this material has charm as collectors items today. Not all awful though – there were a few talented artists such as Denis McLoughlin and Ron Turner – here are some great Turner covers written for ‘Vargo Statten’ stories, 1950 – 52. Some really good writers such as John Brunner started their careers writing this stuff.

To find out more about this extraordinary era you’ll need to get hold of ‘Vultures of the Void A History of British Science Fiction 1946-1956’ by Philip Harbottle and Steve Holland – out of print and pretty expensive these days. Here’s a quote from the book to give a flavour of the publishing industry sixty years ago. It’s a reminiscence of Gordon Landsborough, an editor with Hamilton and Co who published Authentic Science fiction magazine.

‘I met a publisher who kept a writer in a cellar. It was a dark and chilly place, one of a warren of cellars along an echoing stone passage. The writer sat on a stiff kitchen chair at a small kitchen table, centred under a naked electric lamp suspended from the ceiling. A low-wattage lamp, I remember; the room never seemed more than half-lit. Against a wall was a hospital-type metal bed, and on it was a disorder of army blankets, brown and uninviting, and overcoats and clothes to keep out the night’s seeping cold.
 The writer was a thin and wasted creature, wan and blinking behind his glasses. I never knew his name. He sat at that table from morning till night, tapping timidly away at an old typewriter. I never saw him eat, though he must have. He was said to work all day and far into the night, and kept working at weekends too.

He was supposed to write two books a week!
 They were short books, of course, but 70,000 words a week, 10,000 words a day!

The publisher paid him seven pounds ten shillings a week for his work. But first he deducted two pound ten shillings because the boy slept on the premises.

I saw the boy one day, a washed-out ghost of a creature in daylight, feebly leaning against the publisher’s office door, both hands beating gently against it. He was like a moth fluttering there, crying yet still afraid to draw attention to himself. “I want some money,” he was saying. “I am hungry.”

The publisher, safely locked in his office, (he locked himself in any time he thought there was going to be trouble) shouted brutally for him to go away and work and then he would not starve.

So the writer went timidly back to his cellar, and we fed him on some cake that a typist wouldn’t eat because of her figure.’

Speaking of Authentic Science Fiction, I couldn’t resist including a scan of Authentic issue 1 – Mushroom Men from Mars! Cover definitely not up to the standard of Turner, but what more do you want for one and six?

Friday 19 February 2010

Bernie Wrightson, James Warren and the Advance

I'm in a hopeless lather this morning chasing ever increasingly impossible deadlines, so the piece I was going to run will have to wait until another day but in the meantime, here's another Wrightson masterpiece from his "Booth'esque" phase and a delightful and insightful anecdote culled from the excellent The Warren Companion which is the work of my good friend David Roach and Jon B. Cooke, who are without doubt two of the greatest comic historians you could ever encounter and the job they have done in indexing and interviewing all the main players in the history of this fascinating company is second to none.

So anyway the story that Wrightson relates, I'll leave to the man himself.

"About 1973 or '74, I was having trouble some financial problems (like that doesn't happen anymore! The more things change, huh?). Anyway, my phone bills backed up to the point that they shut the phone off and I needed something like two, three hundred bucks to have it turned back on again.

So I saw Jim (Warren) in his office and asked if I could have an advance on my current job for Creepy (I think it was "Cool Air"). Jim said, "Come in and have a seat." Suddenly very serious and all business. I sat down and he said, "I never give my artists advances, and here's why."

And for the next forty minutes or so he explained it to me. He said he's a businessman and he has to take a hard line about these things. He can't pay his employees until the work is finished and delivered. An artist enters into a business relationship with a publisher and an unspoken contract is immediately forged; the artist is given the asignment and completes the work on time and to the publisher's satisfaction, and then and only then, the artist is paid for his time, talent and effort. It's a mutual show of good faith, payment in full for services rendered, payment to be made only upon satisfactory completion of the work, on and on, straight from the text book of J. Paul Getty.

Then he went on to say that some artists {"not necessarily you") are unreliable or flaky, heads away in the clouds, virtual drawing machines but with no business sense at all. They forget or they think that it's not that important and they take their advance money and for one reason or another they never deliver the work.

"And think about this," he said. "Suppose I give you your advance and you walk out of here, cross the street and you get hit by a truck. You've got your advance money and I have nothing. That's why I never give artists an advance."

I was about to thank him for his time and leave when he said, " I can't give you an advance but I will give you a personal loan." With that he took out his checkbook, and wrote me a check, which I later repaid him from the job he wouldn't advance me on.

Fash forward six months or so. I'd broken up with my girlfriend and was moving upstate to Queens. Broke again and I needed two to three hundred bucks (same shit, different day) for the deposit on my new apartment. So I went into Jim's office to ask for another personal loan.

"Come in and have a seat. I never give my artists personal loans and here's why. "Businessman. Hard line. Unspoken contract. "And think about this; Suppose I give you a loan and you walk out of here and get hit by a truck." Deja Vu all over again.

"That's why I never give artists personal loans, but I will give you an advance on your next job."

So feeling like I'd been slapped on both sides of my head with a sock full of mashed potatoes, I took my advance, thanked Jim and left."