The Art of Sci-Fi Book Covers: From the Fantastical 1920s to the Psychedelic 1960s & Beyond

If you’ve nev­er seen Gen­tle­men Bron­cos, the lit­tle-seen third fea­ture by the Napoleon Dyna­mite-mak­ing hus­band-and-wife team Jared and Jerusha Hess, I high­ly rec­om­mend it. You must, though, enjoy the pecu­liar Hess sense of humor, a blend of the almost objec­tive­ly detached and the hearti­ly sopho­moric fixed upon the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of deeply unfash­ion­able sec­tions of work­ing-class Amer­i­ca. In Gen­tle­men Bron­cos it makes itself felt imme­di­ate­ly, even before the film’s sto­ry of a young aspir­ing sci­ence fic­tion writer in small-town Utah begins, with a tour de force open­ing cred­its sequence made up of homages to the pulpi­est sci-fi book cov­ers of, if not recent decades, then at least semi-recent decades.

The style of these cov­er images, though ris­i­ble, no doubt look rich with asso­ci­a­tions to any­one who’s spent even small part of their lives read­ing mass-mar­ket sci-fi nov­els. To see more than a few high­er exam­ples, watch “The Art of Sci-Fi Book Cov­ers,” the Nerd­writer video essay above that digs into the his­to­ry of that enor­mous­ly inven­tive yet sel­dom seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered artis­tic sub­field.

Its begins with the world’s first sci­ence-fic­tion mag­a­zine Amaz­ing Sto­ries (an online archive of which we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) and its pieces of fan­tas­ti­cal, eye-catch­ing cov­er art by Aus­tria-Hun­gary-born illus­tra­tor Frank R. Paul. In the mid-1920s, says the Nerd­writer, “these cov­ers were prob­a­bly among the strangest art that the aver­age Amer­i­can ever got to see.”

It would get stranger. The Nerd­writer fol­lows the devel­op­ment of sci-fi cov­er art from the hey­day of the Paul-illus­trat­ed Amaz­ing Sto­ries to the intro­duc­tion of mass-mar­ket paper­back books in the late 1930s to Pen­guin’s exper­i­men­ta­tion with exist­ing works of mod­ern art in the 1960s to the com­mis­sion­ing of new, even more bizarre and evoca­tive works by all man­ner of pub­lish­ers (some of them sci-fi spe­cial­ists) there­after. “You can walk into any used book store any­where and get five of these old pulp books for a dol­lar each,” the Nerd­writer reminds us. “And then the art is with you; it’s in your home. As you read the sto­ries, it’s on your bed­side table. It’s art you hold with your hands. It’s not pre­cious: it’s bent, fold­ed, and creased. And above all, it’s weird.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter a Huge Archive of Amaz­ing Sto­ries, the World’s First Sci­ence Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Launched in 1926

Enter the Pulp Mag­a­zine Archive, Fea­tur­ing Over 11,000 Dig­i­tized Issues of Clas­sic Sci-Fi, Fan­ta­sy & Detec­tive Fic­tion

Pulp Cov­ers for Clas­sic Detec­tive Nov­els by Dashiell Ham­mett, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie & Ray­mond Chan­dler

36 Abstract Cov­ers of Vin­tage Psy­chol­o­gy, Phi­los­o­phy & Sci­ence Books Come to Life in a Mes­mer­iz­ing Ani­ma­tion

Down­load 650 Sovi­et Book Cov­ers, Many Sport­ing Won­der­ful Avant-Garde Designs (1917–1942)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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