Rediscovering the Art of the Book Cover

In my endless perambulation of the web I stumble upon all sorts of sources of design inspiration, some of them intentional expressions of design ideas and others more accidental and serendipitous. One example in the latter category is Cover Browser, a site which features nothing but images of the covers of books, comic books, and magazines. I have no idea why these covers were collected together and scanned and preserved, but it’s an extraordinary resource, and I plan to make full use of it.

The collection includes some of my favorites from when I was a kid and comic books were a rare and precious commodity and a source of an instant education in art and design, like Creepy, Hand of Fate, and House of Secrets, but what really caught my eye from a design perspective was the huge collection of covers from 1950s and 1960s pulp novels from Gold Medal Books who published writers like John D. MacDonald, Louis L’Amour, Richard Matheson, and Sax Rohmer, offering hours of escapism for 35 cents a book. The covers are lurid and suggestive and feature title designs which scream and bleed and express the nature and content of the books extremely well. They’re also very “period” — the same styles you find on movie or TV titles and record album covers from the ’60s, evoking the paranoia and unsettled character of the post-nuclear era.

When compared with pulp novels of the ’30s and ’40s the thing which really sets them apart is the title lettering. In the earlier pulp era title lettering was simple and functional and often printed on a single-color band in a very passive block type. By the ’50s that had started to change and custom lettering was coming into use, integrated with the cover art and an unique and important part of the overall look of the book designed to catch the eye of the unwary reader and draw them in to the world of scantily clad fallen women and iron-fisted heroes found in the purple prose on the pulp-paper pages. The books include a lot of detective fiction, suspense, westerns and some science fiction, some of it associated with very popular franchises. In some cases the title designs became so associated with the writer or subject matter of the books that you would see the same design repeated in movie titles when a particularly popular book was filmed, as happened with the Matt Helm novels and with some of John D. MacDonald’s books.

It’s rich material for a font designer looking for ideas. I’m already working on a font based on the most common title style from John D. MacDonald’s books and also one on the titles from an action/mystery novel called Drive East on Route 66 which features intriguing nesting characters — hard to duplicate, but worth the effort. It’s also a great resource if you want to see some really outstanding illustration from the period. Some of the book covers are very good, but it’s the work of artists like Frazetta and Wrightson which really stands out on the covers of Creepy. They made me want to go rooting through the garage to find my old copies and reread them. There are also some surprising book finds. I was totally unaware that the legendary Harlan Ellison had written a pulp novel about the rock and roll business called Rockabilly, but now that I’ve seen the cover I’m headed to to buy a copy for my collection.

Rich with visual inspiration and nostalgia, Cover Browser is an outstanding online resource.

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