Out of This World: Graphic Design in the Realm of Pulp Fantasy

Out of This World: Graphic Design in the Realm of Pulp Fantasy

While many comic book fans, science fiction aficionados, fantasy artists and some designers appreciate pulp sci-fi/fantasy novel and magazine covers from the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s a world of genius design and visual art that’s often overlooked. These sleazy, sensational and sometimes shocking covers depict barbarians, astronauts, aliens and robots in ways that use both gleeful abstraction and stone-faced realism– but they also feature surprisingly strong design elements that still hold up today.  This article will take a brief look at the history of this art form, explore the design elements that make up its core and discuss how these covers still hold influence in the modern world.

A Brief History

  • 20s-40s – Pulp sci-fi and fantasy covers have their roots in the world of pulp novels and magazines from the 20s, 30s and 40s. These books were the young men’s magazines of their time and their covers were meant to sell a copious amount of copies. They depicted dashing men, sinister gangsters and beautiful women engaged in various acts of violence. Their titles were big and bold, and their taglines grabbed attention with phrases like “She was betrothed to a dead man” and “One beautiful dame, two kill-crazy thugs and three million dollars.” They were similar to many movie posters, but they were much more graphic in terms the sex and violence they suggested. Though these novels and magazines were consumed as avidly as people consume reality television today, the cover artists and designers were often given no credit for their work. Ironically, these non-credited covers were often the strongest selling point of the entire publication. In fact, publishers’ opinions that covers were the most important part of the pulps were tendentious—sometimes the stories themselves were written to reflect the covers instead of the other way around. It must be said, however, that many artists who worked in the pulps went on to become household names.
  • 50s – In the 50s, science fiction and fantasy emerged as a strong entity within the pulp scene. Many covers in this decade showcased a combination of art deco style and a sort of Cold War Futurism, depicting space age cities, flying cars and a variety of rocket ships. This era also saw some classic novels republished with more fantastical covers, which is a trend that has never quite went out of style. Toward the end of the decade and the beginning of the next, some covers began taking on abstract imagery, as demonstrated below.
  • 60s – The mid-60s marked a serious turning point in pulp cover design. As the rest of the world turned psychedelic, the pulps also took on many of those characteristics. Wizards, spacemen and alien worlds were all rendered in striking arrangements featuring strange colors. This decade moved away from the fantastical realism and faux futurism of the 1950s in favor of headier concepts and the pursuit of weirdness. Even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy got a makeover courtesy of Ace Books, as demonstrated below.
  • 70s – In the 1970s things really began to take off. Many people see this as the golden age of heavy hitters like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, who rendered rugged astronauts and savage barbarians with stunning realism. Depictions of monsters became more terrifying, landscapes became more hellish and the violence moved toward a new level of gruesome spectacle. Images of horror started to take center stage, and things just got plain weirder as evidenced here.
  • 80s-Present – In the 80s it seemed like science fantasy digests and novels either moved away from the realm of pulp entirely or took it to an even greater extreme. Since then, the pendulum has moved back and forth several times as far as pulp popularity is concerned. As we will discuss in the next section, many elements of these pulp covers live on today and still hold up very well from a design standpoint.

Common Elements

Though some pulp covers were horrifically messy and poorly designed, the vast majority of them are quite strong, especially considering their typically frowned-upon subject matter. These were great artists and designers who understood that their work needed to function as both the cover to a novel or magazine and a great piece of visual art. Let’s consider the following:

  • Lettering – Besides the art itself, the book’s title was its most important feature. Titles were almost always rendered completely in capital letters, and often feature primary colors outlined in white. They make good use of both traditional fonts and jagged or bubbly fantasy fare. The title is often placed over negative space (which is sometimes a misty landscape, strange night sky or actual outer space) or offset from the image entirely in a field of its own. Unlike many modern book covers, the titles featured on good pulp fantasy work always stood out and were never obscured with poor color choices or busy imagery.
  • Colors – Complementary colors were sometimes used to great effect—a blue background picturing an alien world or underwater civilization might feature a yellow title plastered across it, boldly proclaiming the book’s outrageous name. More often than not, backgrounds were dark and foreground images, particularly the skin tones, were set in a glowing, bright hue against them. Color contrast was generally strong, but adhered to years of tradition to remain tasteful.
  • Layout – Pulp covers usually featured one dominant image, generally depicting one person or object, two people, a person and one object or a person and a creature. There are exceptions to this rule that were very successful, but for the most part this formula was adhered to. This main image was then surrounded by a strange background that might contain moons, castles, ghosts, skulls, mountains or architectural designs. Sometimes the image itself only comprised part of the cover, and the rest would be reserved for a solid color, upon which the title and credits would be imposed. Layouts, above all, allowed the title of the book or magazine to stand out even among startling or sensational images.
  • Imagery – Though the images presented in pulp fantasy can be either extremely reserved or feverishly explicit, there are some standard themes that persist throughout the three decades. Astronauts, armored warriors, robots, barbarians, magicians and women in various states of undress were the usual subject matter. They were paired with terrifying creatures, spaceships, cities, castles and weapons. Doorways and planets were also common, as were images of body horror and violent conflict.


The Beauty of Perseverance

A good designer can take something useful away from any strong design and there are plenty of strong designs in these old pulp covers. There are elements of these designs, however, that retain prominence in modern pop culture. Many novel covers carry on the strong tradition of depicting something that never happens in the story, which is a holdover from the golden age of pulp fantasy. Comic books carry this torch as well, all the while adhering to the principles of logo placement, layout and imagery established all those years ago. Movie posters often strive for a retro design, and they often look toward these pulp classics for inspiration.

Fantasy art might always remain outside the ‘canon’ of fine art, but these treasures and relics prove that there is value in what high society might consider camp and schlock. These are extremely strong and memorable designs that convey exact ideas and generate immediate consumer interest—and isn’t that what good design is all about?


adam farwellAdam Farwell is an online publisher for the custom design t-shirt printer Blue Cotton. He blogs about design, marketing, art and the various creative projects he’s involved in.

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(1) responses

Might Makes Right

August 7, 2012

Mr. Russel Platt did a great job painting our pulp fantasy game of barbarians battles and babes! ;-)


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