The Pulp Tarot: A New Tarot Deck Inspired by Midcentury Pulp Illustrations

Graph­ic artist Todd Alcott has endeared him­self to Open Cul­ture read­ers by retro­fitting mid­cen­tu­ry pulp paper­back cov­ers and illus­tra­tions with clas­sic lyrics from the likes of David BowiePrinceBob Dylan, and Talk­ing Heads.

Although he’s dab­bled in the abstrac­tions that once graced the cov­ers of psy­chol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, and sci­ence texts, his over­ar­ch­ing attrac­tion to the visu­al lan­guage of sci­ence fic­tion and illic­it romance speak to the pre­mi­um he places on nar­ra­tive.

And with hun­dreds of “mid-cen­tu­ry mashups” to his name, he’s become quite a mas­ter of bend­ing exist­ing nar­ra­tives to his own pur­pos­es.

Recent­ly, Alcott turned his atten­tion to the cre­ation of the Pulp Tarot deck he is fund­ing on Kick­starter.

A self-described “clear-eyed skep­tic as far as para­nor­mal things” go, Alcott was drawn to the “sim­plic­i­ty and strange­ness” of Pamela Col­man Smith’s “bewitch­ing” Tarot imagery:

Maybe because they were sim­ply the first ones I saw, I don’t know, but there is some­thing about the nar­ra­tive thread that runs through them, the way they delin­eate the devel­op­ment of the soul, with all the choic­es and crises a soul encoun­ters on its way to ful­fill­ment, that real­ly struck a chord with me. You lay out enough Tarot spreads and they even­tu­al­ly coa­lesce around a hand­ful of cards that real­ly seem to define you. I don’t know how it hap­pens, but it does, every time: there are cards that come up for you so often that you think, “Yep, that’s me,” and then there are oth­ers that turn up so rarely that, when they do come up, you have to look them up in the lit­tle book­let because you’ve nev­er seen them before.

One such card for Alcott is the Page of Swords. In the ear­ly 90s, curi­ous to know what the Tarot would have to say about the young woman he’d start­ed dat­ing, he shuf­fled and cut his Rid­er-Waite-Smith deck “until some­thing inside said “now” and he flipped over the Page of Swords:

I looked it up in the book­let, which said that the Page of Swords was a secret-keep­er, like a spy. I thought about that for a moment; the woman I was see­ing was noth­ing like a spy, and had no spy-like attrib­ut­es. I shrugged and began the process again, shuf­fling and cut­ting and shuf­fling and cut­ting, until, again, some­thing inside said “now,” and turned up the card again. It was the Page of Swords, again. My heart leaped, I put the deck back in its box and qui­et­ly freaked out for a while. The next day, I asked the young lady if the Page of Swords meant any­thing to her, and she said “Oh sure, when I was a kid, that was my card.” Any­way, I’m now mar­ried to her.

The Three of Pen­ta­cles is anoth­er favorite, one that pre­sent­ed a par­tic­u­lar design chal­lenge.

The Smith deck shows a stone­ma­son, an archi­tect and a church offi­cial, col­lab­o­rat­ing on build­ing a cathe­dral. Now, there are no cathe­drals in the pulp world, so I had to think, well, in the pulp world, pen­ta­cles rep­re­sent mon­ey, so the obvi­ous choice would be to show three crim­i­nals plan­ning a heist. I could­n’t find an image any­thing close to the one in my head, so I had to build it: the room, the table, the map of the bank, the plan, the peo­ple involved, and then stitch it all togeth­er in Pho­to­shop so it end­ed up look­ing like a cohe­sive illus­tra­tion. That was a real­ly joy­ful moment for me: there were the three con­spir­a­tors, the Big Cheese, the Dame and The Goon, their roles clear­ly defined despite not see­ing any­one’s face. It was a real break­through, see­ing that I could put togeth­er a lit­tle nar­ra­tive like that.

Smith imag­ined a medieval fan­ta­sy world when design­ing her Tarot deck. Alcott is draw­ing on 70 years of pop-cul­ture ephemera to cre­ate a trib­ute to Smith’s vision that also works as a deck in their own right “with its own moral nar­ra­tive uni­verse, based on the atti­tudes and con­ven­tions of that world.”

Before draft­ing each of his 70 cards, Alcott stud­ied Smith’s ver­sion, research­ing its mean­ing and design as he con­tem­plates how he might trans­late it into the pulp ver­nac­u­lar. He has found that some of Smith’s work was delib­er­ate­ly exact­ing with regard to col­or, atti­tude, and cos­tume, and oth­er instances where spe­cif­ic details took a back seat to mood and emo­tion­al impact:

Once I under­stand what a card is about, I look through my library to find images that help get that across. It can get real­ly com­pli­cat­ed! A lot of times, the char­ac­ter’s body is in the right posi­tion but their face has the wrong expres­sion, so I have to find a face that fits what the card is try­ing to say. Or their phys­i­cal atti­tude is right, but I need them to be grip­ping or throw­ing some­thing, so I have to find hands and arms that I can graft on, Franken­stein style. In some cas­es, there will be fig­ures in the cards cob­bled togeth­er from five or six dif­fer­ent sources. 

These cards are eas­i­ly the most com­plex work I’ve ever done in that sense. The song pieces I do are a con­ver­sa­tion between the piece and the song, but these cards are a con­ver­sa­tion between me, Smith, the entire Tarot tra­di­tion, and the uni­verse. 

Vis­it Todd Alcott’s Etsy shop to view more of his mid-cen­tu­ry mash ups, and see more cards from The Pulp Tarot and sup­port Kick­starter here.

All images from the Pulp Tarot used with the per­mis­sion of artist Todd Alcott.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Clas­sic Songs Re-Imag­ined as Vin­tage Book Cov­ers Dur­ing Our Trou­bled Times: “Under Pres­sure,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” “Shel­ter from the Storm” & More

David Bowie Songs Reimag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers: Space Odd­i­ty, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

Songs by Joni Mitchell Re-Imag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers & Vin­tage Movie Posters

Four Clas­sic Prince Songs Re-Imag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Cov­ers: When Doves Cry, Lit­tle Red Corvette & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (8)
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  • Leslie Lowe says:

    would love to get this deck. Where and how is it avail­able?

  • Abby Rose says:

    Did Alcott leave space for peo­ple of col­or or any oth­er mar­gin­al­ized voic­es to see them­selves in the deck? I love the art and vision but I find this an impor­tant aspect for Tarot decks. Espe­cial­ly in this day and age. All I’m see­ing is main­ly white women.

  • Sunflower says:

    Def­i­nite­ly agree with you Abby

  • Nicole says:

    I agree with you Abby.
    I doubt it though as most peo­ple don’t…just like with th Angels.
    It’s unfor­tu­nate.

  • thomas says:

    Thanks a very use­ful mes­sage

  • Iftikhar Alam says:


  • Vasha says:

    The artist is draw­ing his mate­ri­als from a nar­row slice of pop cul­ture, and it’s a very white slice. What he los­es in uni­ver­sal­i­ty he gains in coher­ence — he knows this tiny world very, very well and can use its sym­bols as a lan­guage to tell a uni­fied sto­ry as he says: he’s the first tarot cre­ator I’ve seen talk so much about the uni­ty of the whole.

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