Strange book covers. Do they mirror inner fantasies and do they, in their own way, ward off sordid threatening aspects of modern existence. When containing the perverse under the sign of the normal is pushed to the limit….
Art Chantry (email@example.com ):
Of all the strange things I’ve collected over the years, there is none stranger than my collection of strange book covers. there was a brief time in US paperback publishing history when strange books were a staple money making sub genre. they all looked the same, they all had anthological collections of strange happenings and ‘true’ stories and they all had the word “strange” in the title. It was a sort of unwritten graphic standard of strangeness.
Many of them were collections the ‘best of’ articles originally published in the popular magazine “Fate”. however, as, the genre became more established certain authors and radio celebrities began to publish transcripts of their work (and often re-publish with a new strange titles). Noted period radio personalities like Frank Edwards and Ivan T. Sanderson and John Macklin and Harold T. Wilkins start to get bylines over and over. Then, you began to see ghost hunters and ufo researchers begin to invade the field and the whole emphasis shifted into different turf. The strange book was left behind to gather dust in old bookstores.
The life span of the strange book was only about five or so years. They began to pop up in the late 50′s (along with giant bug movies and atomic threats) and died out in the early/mid 60′s, as the flying saucer really grabbed the popular imagination and political/social/psychological strife replaced the outsider threats of the old world. These were the books you found on your uncle’s small bookshelf or maybe your grandparent’s spare bedroom.
The thing that fascinates me about these books is their appearance. They all looked alike. there are a couple of sub genres of style (and even sub genres of titles, like the ‘unknown” titled books), but the basic approach on each book is virtually identical – too much info set in bold splashy headlines, placed over and abstract expressionist tapestry background and serious MONSTER TYPE titling. It’s the same over and over and over. Always with that word “STRANGE” prominently displayed. They’re marvelous. All that color and mystery and in-your-face assault. It’s so STRANGE!
It’s a style unique to this genre of publishing. There are many companies involved, so how did this emerge? Apparently it was the old maxim of ‘monkey see/monkey do’ copycatting of each other’s successes that leads to graphic design language. No matter what the academics want to tell you, this ‘copycatting’ is the most powerful visual language tool of graphic design imaginable. It’s how everybody learns this stuff, whether they want to or not. It’s how we actually get our messages out, how we get our “artform” disseminated. It’s how we actually get into you minds out there. It’s our biggest secret weapon.
So, all the companies cranked out these crummy little books with the scary covers and it became a defacto graphic standards of strange.
The precedents are easy to spot. Harry Chester’s work in ‘famous monsters of filmland’ magazine are so obvious an echo, you begin to wonder if he didn’t actually design these things. But the stylistic shifts say otherwise. There are many designers at work here. This work was a the result of of a coincidence of talent and market and timing.
he book cover and the movie industries of this particular period was in transition between cultural tastes and economic turnover. They churned out hundreds of lettering artists competent, even brilliant, at creating sensational hand lettered headlines. These industries trained and then obsoleted most of this talent, just dumped them into the freelance market when they were deemed ‘out of style.’
If you look at the titles of even mainstream movies and book jackets of the same (and immediately prior) era, and you can see where the talent came from. Anonymous commercial artists specializing in monstrous lettering. Who were these people? I’ve been trying to trace them down for decades. Nobody really knows any more. They were nobodies, mostly. Brilliant nobodies.
One the of the things I noticed in studying these covers is that it’s actually NOT all hand lettering. If you look at the “S” in many of the examples of the word “strange” you’ll begin to see it’s actually the same letterform on many of the covers. Then you begin to see that it’s an actual TYPEFACE! there is an entire regimented font of this design out there somewhere! I collect type catalogs (maybe a thousand volumes at this point) and I have NEVER seen it before. Where is it? Who did it? All a mystery, again. I would love to see that full alphabet. Was it commercially marketed somewhere? nobody seems to know that, either.
One of the best things to watch is how the editors of these books instructed the designer in ‘one-upmanship’. each consecutive title seems to get more outrageous, more ‘out there’, dare i say STRANGER than the next. I put together a small collection (13 covers) that when read in order is like an intensifying form of silly madness in hyperbole. was this intentional, or did the guys just run dry of ideas and just keep grabbing at straws as the genre drowned. We’ll never know.
It’s all so STRANGE!