Posts tagged ‘pulp illustrators’

April 12, 2010

Lonely Are the Brave; or, Hearting/Hating That Brave Cowboy Thing

by cowboylands

Another movie for the Iranian president to see, or any other person who yearns to be a movie-type cowboy instead of a real one.

Lonely Are the Brave, filmed in 1962 with Kirk Douglas as the drifter rejecting the modern West, and the great Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau as his costars.

It was based on The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, written over twelve years before Desert Solitaire. In its pages his unsentimentality about the West and humanity’s cherished dreams crashes into pretty-sunset-cowboy-romance pictures with forty tons of steel and the shriek of air brakes, literally two short pages before the last line.

The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, cover illustration by Roy Gifford, Pocket Books, 1957. from the collection of E. Smith

The book begins like most other mid-fifties western novels, with a cowboy drifter in the mountains, at peace with himself and his surroundings. “He was sitting his heels in the cold light of dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass,” Abbey writes, letting the drifter then enjoy a smoke under a juniper, scour his pan with sand, and then cajole and outsmart his horse, Whiskey, “the bitch”–a pastoral of the human as one with the wilderness. But the book ends with this elemental being struck from the face of the earth, as “…the traffic roared and whistled and thundered by, steel, rubber, and flesh, dim faces behind glass, beating hearts, cold hands–the fury of men and women immured in engines.” Damn that Abbey. If it weren’t such a good book, I would’ve sank into depression the size of Hells Canyon, Idaho.

Blowing through the text is a deep ambivalence about humans’ place in the wilderness and the movie kept that uneasy love/hate relationship with the mythic cowboy.

Although Jack Burns (Douglas) boldly proclaims his manifesto…

A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them…. Have you ever noticed how many fences there’re getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?

…he’s fully aware (okay, okay, the scriptwriter is aware) that that drifty thing comes with a steep price:

Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live. It’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you. Because he couldn’t love you, not the way you are loved.

(Note that “you” was Gena Rowlands–honestly, I would hang up my spurs for her. That Burns guy was nuts.)

So there’s a movie for the Human Beings Versus the West and the West Wins Category.

BTW, it’s not a movie from the fifties though; if you want one of those, check out *Wild Western Web newflash50 Westerns from the Fifties, which promises to reveal plenty of undervalued gems.

May 7, 2008

Outlaws 'R' Us

by cowboylands

Badlands, by Bennett Foster
cover illus. Norman Saunders
Bantam Books, late 40s, early 50s
from the collection of ES

“They Branded Him an Outlaw!” says it all. This dynamic man is the “little guy,” the proverbial clever tailor who can knock down an armed giant/gunman with a flip of his lariat. Go ahead and try it, any of you. Unless you’re a rodeo star, you’ll put your eye out.

The hero’s red shirt blazes with righteous indignation; his straight teeth are gritted with determination; his aim is sure. He will prevail against this gunman, although he himself has no gun. What bully would fire on an unarmed man? Easy! “Man branded outlaw” must mean western plot #3, in which the innocent hero is bullied by (take your pick) big business ranchers or greedy bankers.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, when faced with foreclosure and no recourse, the plucky hero in all of us could channel frustrated impotence and fight? And win? And let the big guy take the fall for once? But that’s not the only reason these tales were so alluring to the “little guys” of the forties and fifties: the hero not only won, but also got the girl and a ranch. His own spread! Meaning he could someday be a big business rancher or banker himself. So that’s how it goes:

If you can beat them, then join them.

Badlands is clean, crisp western penned by Bennett Foster, and this Bantam edition is crowned with a swirl of action from one of the great pulp and paperback illustrators, Norman Saunders. His compositions are always dynamic; this one’s Day-Glo vibrancy highlights a climactic moment in the book, when the hero of the story, in Laocoön-style composition (but without the grisly death), frees himself of his tormentor. Squint, and you’ll see the resemblance.
photo: Jean-Christophe Benoist, 2007
Saunders illustrated a wide range of paperback covers, specializing in vamps and virile men of noir and western genre. Like Stanley, Saunders often used himself as a model. He studied under Harvey Dunn in Minneaopolis (as did Norman Rockwell) and in the thirties and forties worked on pulps like True Confessions, then turned freelance. This fine illustration is one of ten western covers he did for Bantam.

April 21, 2008

Where to Find a Real Man

by cowboylands

The first Western novel I read was The Virginian, by Owen Wister. I was in pursuit of an original experience, because being a child of the seventies–a decade of pop image, synthetics, and appropriation–what I believed about life was usually a mishmash of half-remembered and vicarious experiences through books, movies, and blacklight posters. I began to hunt for whatever had informed my understanding of my experience of the world, a search without end as any philosophy student will say. Until the laconic Virginian. Why does a discussion about work shifts turn into a showdown? Why would a woman walk behind her man, or adamantly feel she must walk several steps ahead? All was revealed in those pages—actually just hinted at through the actions of humble/noble cowpokes. I knew these roles had some birth in a knightly consciousness, which in turn was an appropriation from an earlier Court of Love, which in turn was a created construct. It was a dusty trail heading into the mountains, with every summit promising to be the last, until I got to its top and saw the trail continuing to another promising vista. Was I, a budding Western scholar, doomed to chase down a phantom and become a Ghost Rider in the Sky? Um, no. I had a full-time job. (whoops—that’s right, had.) This stuff was just plain great to read. And lovely to look at.

Robert Stanley, illus., Raw Land by Luke Short. Dell Publishing Co., 1950s.

Take a paperback from a favorite author, Luke Short. More on him later. Check out the scene on the cover.

Robert Stanley is the artist. He worked for Dell after their “mapback” and keyhole colophon years, and between 1950 and 1959 he was a major contributor to the Dell look. Explosive, sometimes grim and violent, his illustrations manhandle the viewer. Stanley often used his family for models; while his wife, daughter, or father are not portrayed, the figure on the left, the one giving the hairy eyeball to whoever is standing in his way, is almost certainly the famed illustrator himself. Stanley knew where to find a real man: in the mirror. Give this artist a tin star!

If you want to be a real man, you now have your example. Break out of your cage. Come out shooting (metaphorically please; no need to get Rambo on us). Do what you have to do. Hairy eyeball and all.

Happy trails,