Images © the respective copyright holders.
There is no doubt that Frank R. Paul was a pivotal figure in the development of science fiction art. In some ways he invented it. Many prominent SF authors were drawn into the genre by his pulp magazine covers, and many later SF artists cite him as a primary influence. Sadly, I started reading SF too late to see any of his work when first printed. I only know it from reprint books of SF pulp magazines, and I have to admit I never warmed to it. I’ll try to analyze why later in this post.
Paul’s career as a pulp artist began when he met and teamed with Hugo Gernsback, the seminal editor and publisher of the genre, in 1914. Paul was Gernsback’s go-to man for art and design before long, and when the first SF pulp, “Amazing Stories” began in 1926, Paul was not only the cover artist, he designed that famous and unusual logo, seen above on the first issue. That book featured the Jules Verne novel, “Off on a Comet,” and the logo was meant to suggest a comet’s tail receding into the distance. I never saw that in it, but I do think it’s a great logo. I’ve already cited it as a probable influence on SF pulp fan Joe Shuster’s logo design for Superman, as it uses the same kind of telescoping drop-shadow, and the shape of the S in Stories is even similar, though no other logo I know of ever put the letters one behind the other like this one.
There were two main versions of the logo, this is the other one, with the drop-shadow going the other direction, minus the connecting bars, and overall much more rounded. Still looks great, and by the way, that’s the first visualization of Buck Rogers there, too. Paul even did a few comics covers, including the first appearance of the golden age Human Torch on MARVEL TALES #1.
But Paul’s background was in architectural drafting and design, and I think his biggest impact on readers was his ability to create a vast array of fantastic machines, spaceships and alien creatures drawn in correct perspective and with a realistic approach that made them seem believable. You can see a few above, many more are in this book.
So, why don’t they work for me? First, the colors are truly garish, often with a very bright solid background color that fights the depth of the design, flattening it out. Now, this may well have been required by Gernsback and other pulp publishers, to show off the magazine on the newsstands, but I find it very distracting. Second, while Paul could draw anatomically correct people, they seem stiff and unnatural, not lifelike. But I think what bothers me the most about his work is there’s too much crammed into it. Perhaps readers liked that surplus of elements and details, but I find it overwhelms the pictures in many cases. Look at that first “Amazing” cover, for instance. The bright yellow sky and primary colors of Saturn jump out, commanding eye attention, when the figures in the foreground should have it first. And the ships blend into the planet, flattening everything onto one plane. The Buck Rogers cover is better, though the yellow sky is a problem, but it’s not a typical Paul composition.
As a book about Paul, this is excellent. I learned a great deal about the man and his work, and he produced a ton of it for very little monetary gain, sadly. Only a few of his original paintings survived the trash bin, and those are also reproduced here, though not always well.
Here’s one I like, with a black starry background for once that gives the picture much more depth than many of his have. The picture was lit poorly when photographed, though, making much of the sky gray instead of black.
I adjusted that using Photoshop, above. A little time and expertise along those lines could have improved the book’s pictures, or better scanning/photography to begin with.
Still, this is a book that any SF fan is likely to enjoy, and it not only documents an important figure in the field, it’s a good read, and highly recommended.