Where Have All the Pictures Gone

When we first considered bringing out a book of our short stories, which was to become The Red Man and Others, it went without saying that it’d be illustrated. I’ve got a background in illustration, so we’ve got the ‘in house’ talent, but we also like the look and feel of illustrated books: the art adds a sense of occasion.

Illustrated books, and not only children’s books, used to be common. When I take one of our old Rider Haggard books from the shelf, or Dickens, or our antique Hunchback of Notre Dame, I’ll find illustrations in there; at least a frontispiece. Yet, somewhere during the last century, illustrations disappeared from ‘adult’ books. There are different factors behind this, I think, some cultural, others technical. Many books of yore first appeared in magazines, which as a rule were heavily illustrated. Others, like the works of Dickens, appeared as cheap partworks, the predecessors of the pulps. Illustrations, in woodcut or engraving, offered a one-glance appeal to potential buyers.

Mostly, illustrations would be made ready for print by an engraver. They were highly skilled craftsmen. You can see this most clearly when looking at the work by Gustav Doré; some prints are neatly engraved with parallel hatching, others have a more organic, ‘woolly’ treatment. Maurice Greiffenhagen, who did many awesome paintings for H. Rider Haggard’s stories, painted his illustrations in gouache, after which they were rendered by an engraver.

Maurice Greiffenhagen, illustrating H. Rider Haggard’s “The World’s Desire”

Then, at the end of the 19th century, photographic reproduction became available to printers. It was cheaper but also more versatile. For magazines and newspapers in particular this was a revolution: They were no longer dependant on an artist’s impression of newsworthy items, or an engraver’s rendition of photographs; they could print photographs as they were. I wonder whether this had an impact on how illustrations were seen – as old-fashioned, perhaps, or ‘the next best thing after photographs’. Compare how radio plays took a backseat to films, even though radio drama is a valid art form in itself.

Illustrations kept going strong in the magazines and, when we talk about the science fiction and horror field, the pulps in particular. Really interesting things went on there too; Virgil Finlay is of course a fan favourite, though personally I find the illustrations by Lee Brown Coye and Hannes Bok much more imaginative. Hugh Rankin’s work may look rough and unfinished, yet on closer inspection has a delicious art deco sensibility and leaves room for the imagination. In fact, it’s Finlay’s work which I find less and less satisfying, reliant as it is on photo references. He did put a lot of work in stippling all those shades of grey, though.

Hugh Rankin’s illustration for Robert E. Howard’s first King Kull story, for Weird Tales

If you look at pulps from the time of their decline in the 1950s and ’60s, when they moved over to a digest format, you’ll see the illustrations change: they become more simplified and stylized. Science fiction then moved away from bug eyed monsters and big-bosomed girls in peril, and an atomic age sensibility took over. It’s noticeable that magazines like New Worlds opted for more abstracted and dynamic cover design, with no internal illustrations. The message to readers seems to have been that this was not like the old stuff: this was serious Science Fiction, not frivolous junk.

As paperbacks took over the spinner racks previously dominated by the pulps, and Weird Tales was no more than a fond memory (despite attempts to reanimate its corpse), illustrations could still be found there, but only with the frivolous junk Sword and Sorcery anthologies. Old Weird Tales illustrations were repurposed, Roy G. Krenkel illustrated Robert E. Howard’s stories for Donald M. Grant’s hardbacks (then badly reproduced in paperback), and Stephen Fabian diligently stippled his way through several paperbacks and fanzines. You get a sense that illustrations were used despite the trend; that they happened because of an editor or publisher’s love for the old pulp format. It just didn’t feel right to do without – even lesser publications had artists bravely stippling away. More recently, Wandering Star published Robert E. Howard’s work in luxurious hardbacks, illustrated by top talent like Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz. These editions were (affordably) republished in paperback by Del Rey.

Roy G. Krenkel, illustrating REH. My paperback of “The Sowers of Thunder” is falling apart.

Outside Weird Tales-derived anthologies (and even within – I’m not aware of a culture of illustrating Lovecraft), there wasn’t much illustration being done. Money had something to do with it too: illustrators need to be paid, and cost-conscious publisher were cramming as much (ever increasing) wordage within paperback covers as they could. I guess this then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a certain snobbery attached. I at least was smugly proud of myself when I read Lord of the Rings in the tiniest print imaginable. Of course, another kid in the bus yanked it from my hands and declared to all fellow travellers that I was reading fairytales with gnomes and such. ‘But… they’re not gnomes! They’re Hobbits! And it’s a recognised work of literature!’ I tried to stem the laughter, in vain. Illustrations might not have helped make my point.

Outside the safe space of fandom you could find illustrated books for two completely opposite market segments. You had the Folio Society books on one hand: expensive, illustrated hardbacks of classics. Then you had the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books: cheaper, illustrated hardbacks of contemporary bestsellers which were obtained by subscription: everyone could have their home library (and everyone’s heir their white elephant – as Wikipedia has it: ‘Despite this popularity, old copies are notoriously difficult to sell.’). What both series have in common is that they’ve got top talent illustrating, giving each book a certain allure. I certainly wouldn’t mind having the condensed Notre Dame for Ronald Searle’s illustrations alone!

Ronald Searle illustrating “Notre Dame de Paris” for Readers Digest.

And with digital making inroads in our reading habits, perhaps that’s where it’s heading: paper books as ‘have-things’. One book on kindle for in the bus, one for on the shelf. It’s certainly what I see in the bookshops, where classics in particular are sold in several formats, with different, stylish covers. Buying a book for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, has become an occasion again. It’s certainly what we’ve aimed for with The Red Man and Others: with the cover illustration, font choice and lay-out, with the title designs and especially the illustrations we wanted to make it into an attractive book, which people would want to put on their shelf, to occasionally pick up and dip into.

(RvS)