Visual PULP

The original Penny Dreadfuls and Dime Novels of the 19th Century created a visual iconography which is instantly recognisable and from which Visual PULP has never completely escaped.

Comic books and feature films have delved into the stylised visuals of these Dimes and Dreadfuls, though with mixed success. Original detective stories focussed on locked-room mysteries, later perfected by the likes of Agatha Christie, or on scientific tales a la Jules Verne or HG Wells.

Genuine science fiction, or “spectulative fiction”, flew off the newstands as a popular alternative to Wells’ Time Machine.

The 20th Century brought a greater ease to publishing pulps, and with it a higher demand for new stories. The exoticism of the future was twisted into Orientalist exploitation with comic tales focussing on Dr. Fu Manchu, and from dry land to the high seas with pirates and sailors.

Eventually the birth of Clark Kent and his alter ego heralded the beginning of a globally recognised character, and PULP hit the mainstream.

Every Pulp genre has its own iconography, from the detective’s trenchcoat and fedora to the superhero’s cape and mask. Book jackets are often guilty of appropriating the more fantastical and unsubtle elements of Pulp in order to draw in a potential reader, but they often provide a welcome relief from the

Pulp Fictions, ed. Peter Haining

Pulp Fictions, ed. Peter Haining

Penguins and Vintages on the shelves.

Peter Haining’s anthology Pulp Fictions lifts a cover of an old, original Pulp which, in turn, clearly references Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction poster design (the font is nearly identical). Interestingly, Tarantino focuses on the femme fatale rather than the threatening male figure.

American Pulp, edited by Ed Gorman, once again takes old Pulp covers and rehashes them.

American Pulp, ed. Gorman, Prozini, Greenberg

American Pulp, ed. Gorman, Prozini, Greenberg

Cut-up images are an apt way to reference the form of the ‘story anthology’, but the split-screen cover design is less gripping than Haining’s.

Another Gorman anthology, The Adventure of the Missing Detective, has a much more aesthetically-pleasing design, with the various sections of the cover balancing one another nicely, the Pulp image inviting a more ambiguous interpretation (is the detective the prisoner, or the man in the hat?!).

The Adventure of the Missing Detective, Ed Gorman

The Adventure of the Missing Detective, Ed Gorman

The design is also more contemporary, almost heading into Michael Chabon comic book cover territory.

Heading back to some original Pulp, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries – originally published in Pulp magazine The Strand in the late 19th Century – benefited greatly from the vivid depictions of Holmes and Watson as drawn by Sidney Paget. The version of Holmes and Watson that Paget created in pictures has since been inescapable in any adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories. The power of the visual Pulp is such that anyone who comes across a deerstalker hat will make the jump to Holmes almost automatically.

Moving into Chandler’s world, Denise Hamilton’s anthology Los Angeles Noir exhibits the moody, smoky characteristics of much film noir. Combining the LA of Chandler’s fiction with the inevitable

Los Angeles Noir, ed. Denise Hamilton

Los Angeles Noir, ed. Denise Hamilton

influence of movie aesthetics, it is a sleek (and inviting) cover. The only odd element is the choice of LA’s Griffith Observatory as the cover image. It was featured heavily in movie and television sets, but its bearing on noir or Pulp detective fiction isn’t all that important.

And here is Raymond himself, gracing the terrible cover of Frank MacShane’s Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. This edition is from the early 1980s and is going for over $80.00 second-hand, which is understandable given the thoroughness of its portrayal of Chandler the man.

The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Frank MacShane

The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Frank MacShane

A distance from his protagonist Marlowe, Ray was an acid-tongued and prolific letter-writer, but nonetheless a man with many troubles. Given the dislike he professed at having his author photos taken, it seems backwardly fitting that books written on him seem only to feature photographs from this same session.

A distinctly English kind of Pulp detective author, Agatha Christie started out in the same publications as Arthur Conan Doyle.

Masterpieces of Mystery & the Unknown, Agatha Christie

Masterpieces of Mystery & the Unknown, Agatha Christie

The modern cover design for Masterpieces of Mystery and the Unknown takes its cues on the one hand from film noir (a genre not exactly familiar to Christie stories) and on the other from comic books (which have begun, strangely, to head in her direction). It is an attractive cover, however it perhaps suggests that she is more akin to Chandler novels than is truly the case.

Along the same lines is the clever cover image for Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder. The famous coutroom thriller was made into a 1959 movie starring James Stewart, and the modern paperback edition uses the same font as the movie poster, and lifts the broken silhouette of the murder victim to create a fairly striking

Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver

Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver

image for a classic Pulp courtroom tale.

A final look at Visual Pulp takes us a little more left-field, with a series of books by German author Bernhard Schlink. Despite his status as a ‘literary’ author, Schlink also has a number of detective genre novels under his belt, featuring protagonist Gerhard Selb (translated, for the sake of verbal puns in the titles, as Gerhard Self). Self’s Deception has, on the one hand, a very filmic-noir cover, the image playing on the title’s pun

film noir edition

Self's Deception, Schlink: film noir edition

(Self’s Deception – Selbs Betrug) with a mirror-image black and white cityscape and a lone figure. The detective credentials are concealed, and the subtitle “A Gerhard Self Mystery” is fairly subtle. This edition is clearly aiming to appeal to readers coming to the books via Der Vorleser – The Reader, Schlink’s most celebrated novel. The alternate cover might be called the comic book Pulp version, appealing to the detective-fever of crime readers, all fedoras and cigarettes, silhouettes and femme fatales.

Whether or not it’s all about the icons, it will be interesting to see which edition has sold more since its publication.

More Visual Pulp coming soon.

DLR 05.10.08

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