There's an aspect of comic art that's obscure for even the most devoted comics historians.
The world of pulp art – professional artists creating images to illustrate short, quickly written, often sleazy or cheesy stories for cheap magazines – is little known by many of us who love comics. Oh, we might occasionally pick up a copy of some old sci-fi magazine at a used book store and be blown away by the caliber of artists included in the magazine, but there's never been a comprehensive history of pulps and comic artists.
Thankfully now there are two books that explore this obscure area of history. One, Blake Bell and Michael Vassallo's Secret History of Marvel Comics, looks at the relationship between Martin Goodman's comics and his pulp magazines. The other, Astounding, Mysterious, Weird & True, is a kind of art portfolio presenting lost work by comic artists both obscure and acclaimed. Designer Steven Brower and writer Jim Simon join together to present some of their favorite pulp images in their new book, and deliver a wonderful collection of compelling art.
If you're talking about comics artists, you have to talk about Jack Kirby. This book contains a handful of pulp images that Kirby created very early in his professional career. These images are wonderful and powerful, of course, and represent a kind of parallel universe that Kirby might have explored if his career had gone a different direction.
Part of the fun of a book like this lies in discovering artists that you've never heard of who do phenomenal work. The image above, by George Oleson, shows a wonderful eye for deliriously thrilling detail, while the image below, by Matt Fox, is charming in its obsessive detail wrapped with crude linework.
But the real thrill comes from discovering brilliant work by favorite comic artists. Brower and Simon present a nice collection of pieces by the late, great Gray Morrow that show a delightfully gorgeous take on futurism:
Which is perhaps equalled by the gorgeous outer-space images of the brilliant Wally Wood:
Don't these images make you want to jump in and read the stores that go along with them? Page after page of Astounding, Mysterious, Weird & True is strewn with compelling images like this thriller by classic E.C. Comics artist Graham Ingels:
I only wish Brower & Simon delivered even more art in this book. A topic like this cries out for a coffee-table type book rather than a slim pulp magazine-sized portfolio. Heck, Ingels alone produced dozens of images for the pulps, and based on the image above I'd to see more of them. Art as wonderful and compelling as this material demands an equally wonderful and compelling presentation: a fancy hardcover celebration rather than a much smaller softcover CreateSpace book.
But then again, maybe the less slick approach is more appropriate, after all. The pulps were created as disposable entertainment that was intended to be enjoyed and then discarded in much the same way that comics were treated. Astounding, Mysterious, Weird & True feels homey and comfortable, like a pair of pulp fans sharing their favorite images with like-minded friends. If that feels like we're under-appreciating great comic art, then doesn't that also seem appropriate?
This book is available on amazon.com