You’d think a book entitled Breathless Homicidal Slime Mutants (hereafter BHSM) has a lot of personality while being short on heft and meaning. Clearly books shouldn’t be judged by titles as Steven Brower’s new celebration of the cover art of mass-market paperbacks manages to have both. Packed with worthy representatives from numerous genres, BHSM is a visual and visceral feast that provides a compelling introduction to the history of pop art in the 20th century.
The design for BHSM is excellent, as you would expect from a book that celebrates graphic design. The collection actually looks like a (slightly oversized) pulp paperback, complete with faux wear and tear. It even gives the tactile sensation of a slightly down-at-the heels classic you might pick up at a well-stocked used bookstore. The cover itself features an excellent visual trick that I won’t ruin by giving away.
The author/editor could have depended on the titillating covers of titles like Jailbait and The Blonde Died Dancing to draw in his readers. Instead, Brower decided to give us a history lesson, lifting the book out of the realm of “wow, look at how weird this art is” and making it a lively discussion of the sources and meaning of genre fiction. An opening essay entitled “The Birth of the Mass Market” details American cultural history in the era of paperbacks and pocketbooks rather than simply a history of the industry.
The history lesson is perhaps a bit prolonged. Brower gets a little too enthusiastic in tracing the long ancestry of his subject (we actually get several pages on the early history of the book, dating back to the 15th century) but once he finds his way into the 19th century he gives us a wealth of detail.
Collections of this type are sometimes little more than pastiche, pulp covers hastily selected for their eye-popping art and strange subject matter. Brower has carefully assembled some of the best covers and organized them by genre, each section featuring a short introduction. Every image comes attributed to its artist and a short appendix provides artist biographies.
The author’s willingness to make the book into a survey of numerous genres was a great decision. The world of the mass market paperback was not just about the alluring blonde in the bathrobe on the cover of Popular Library’s Farewell My Young Lover (a kind of mid-century Cougartown) or Gold Medal Books’ 1950 Women’s Barracks (the cover of which boasted that 1.6 million copies had been sold). Mass market could also mean highbrow as the American reading public became more educated in the post-war college boom.
Brower pays tribute to the less seedy side of the paperback by highlighting some of the great artwork done for Mentor Book’s biography of Beethoven and Berkeley books pocket edition of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy and even Homer have received the mass-market graphic treatment, often with gorgeous results.
The need to draw in prospective readers browsing in drug stores and tobacco shops often gave the classics (or soon to be classics) the hint of exploitation. Early editions of Erskine Caldwell’s books have notoriously sleazy covers (matching elements of the content). More surprising to some will be how the covers of novels by Steinbeck and Faulkner also feature bad girls in tight clothes about to be ripped off (although that is totally appropriate for Faulkner’s Sanctuary).
This excellent collection could probably have used a different name. I love that the chosen title is just a bit deranged, but it’s also too long and not especially descriptive of what this fine work manages to do. This is clearly not a book about exploitation paperbacks alone. Even the art that does favor barely clad women with phallic guns or spaceships should be recognized as serious pop art (really the argument of the whole collection). The title, intentionally ridiculous, takes away from that ever so slightly.
Science fiction also deserved a bit more coverage. Brower gives us some of the classic covers of August Derleth, Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson’s novels, though I think the genre as a whole required more representation. Classic sci fi covers provided models for much of later 20th century pop culture, influencing the look of comics, fanzines and even film. They deserved a bit more of the spotlight in this collection.
These concerns aside, anyone interested in pop art and design must own this book. It will make you feel less guilty about your guilty pleasures while opening your eyes to a whole world of lurid kitsch that became the engine and the inspiration for countless aspects of 20th century popular culture.