Originally published March 9, 2012
Pulp magazines and paperbacks, published from 1896 through the 1950s, are one of my favorite genres and are the source of an unlimited amount of interesting illustration, writing and advertising.
I’ve decided today to feature one of my favorite artists, Mort Künstler, who is best known for his more contemporary historical artwork of the Civil War and Old West. But in his early days Künstler was a prolific illustrator for men’s magazines and pulp paperbacks. Thanks to a terrific website called pulpcovers I was able to find both the original Künstler artwork along with the printed magazines for a particularly unique look at this often underrated art form. Click on any image for a larger version.
Künstler was born in 1931, which puts him in his early 30s when many of these pulp magazine covers were drawn. He would often produce three cover and two inside illustrations a month, and sometimes worked under various pen names so it wouldn’t seem as if the same artist was doing so many illustrations.
As you can see, in most cases the illustrations were drawn specifically to accommodate cover elements and type — the art direction seems very specific and tight.
“Pulp” magazines are so named because of the high wood-pulp content of the paper they were printed on, which was cheap and of generally poor quality. The covers were usually printed on “slick” paper, but as you can see from the color shifts from the original artwork, reproduction was crude.
Künstler studied art at Brooklyn College, U.C.L.A. and the Pratt Institute. His attention to detail is extraordinary and is one of the reasons his historical artwork is so coveted — he worked closely with historians to assure accuracy. Even in these fictional portraits you can see that he wanted to be realistic and that he obviously studied his subjects carefully.
Pulp magazines took many forms, the most popular being science fiction, fantasy and subjects geared toward men. These adventure-packed tomes were typically less provocative than the cover titles would imply.
Typically priced at under 50 cents, pulp magazines were very popular and could sell in the millions of copies. But I doubt that Künstler and the other artists got paid very much for their illustrations. Pulp magazines were considered “low art” and it was only much later that the talent of the contributors was properly recognized.
Later in life Künstler has enjoyed widespread popularity and has various movie posters, advertising illustrations and even a US postage stamp to his credit. His work is much collected.
But I’ll always think of Künstler as a provocative illustrator of sex and adventure. Magazines like “Male,” “For Men Only” and “Stag” are surely clichés at this point, but were taken very seriously in their time. I don’t know if I would have bought them had I lived back then, but I certainly enjoy them now.