Tucson, Arizona. Pulp Fiction Cover Art – Might Equals Right

Posted on November 6, 2015

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download (3)Back in the day, before a couple of taps on a keyboard could transport a person to any place in the world, those of us east of the Mississippi formed our impressions about the American West from the popular entertainment of the times.

Of course, not all we read or watched was accurate, and one of the biggest culprits when it came to our ‘knowledge’ of cowboy country were comic books and so-called dime novels.

Cover artist: Sam Cherry.

Cover artist: Sam Cherry.

The dime novel – though their price through the years ranged from 5 cents to 25 cents – is usually thought of strictly as barbershop reading material, with easy, short stories designed to entertain, not educate, and definitely aimed at a male audience.

While the story lines were predictable at best, and the writing not the finest, the illustrations on the covers were actually quite admirable pieces of advertising art.  They were full of action, grabbed your attention, and perpetuated themes we – unfortunately – continue to embrace today.

They were known as pulp fiction because they were printed on cheap, wood pulp-based paper, as opposed to the more upscale publications printed on expensive slick paper.

20150415143444-Western_Heroes_harris_Sheriff_coverThe current exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art entitled, Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture takes an interesting look at the art that helped make pulp fiction so popular.

The exhibition is a survey of the artists and their work for this genre of loosely-defined literature from the 1920’s, to more modern graphics from the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

These cover illustrations portrayed then-popular stereotypes of Native Americans, cowboys, gunslingers, women and outlaws. The heroes were all square-shouldered and square-jawed. They helped form, and perpetuate, our ideas of what a cowboy – the most manly of men –  should be.

But they also perpetuated ideas of violence.

20150415142656-Harris-fight-with-Puddle-1935-illustrative-cover-Wild-West-Weekly

Artist: R. G. Harris

The artists themselves were usually, but not always, illustrators who were trying to establish themselves as serious painters, but took on pulp work to make ends meet.

download (2)There was a formula for each illustration – bold colors, usually confined to red, yellow, blue and sometimes green, with open space left in just the right place for the magazine’s masthead and call-outs.

Many of the artist’s names are lost to time. Once a painting was used, the canvas was removed from the frame, turned over, or re-primed and used again… and again.

We loved the covers as art, but couldn’t help noticing each and every one of them had one thing in common besides their color scheme – the presence of a blazing gun.

While the covers never show anyone actually being shot, the good guy is always in the process of overcoming the bad guy. With his never-ending supply of strength, courage and bullets he will rescue the girl, the town or the stagecoach, proving once again might equals right .

It’s something to think about, and that’s the purpose of all art.

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Posted in: Travel - Arizona