The fact that people from across the globe still are fascinated by the artwork that adorned pulp magazines more than sixty years ago is all the evidence you need that this art form possesses an inherent quality rivaling the so-called "fine art" of the day. Indeed, these wonderfully evocative pulp covers are perhaps more enduring and beloved than anything hanging in a museum.
But I'm not here to convince you this is "real" art - that debate, I think, has been settled by the test of time. I'm here to show you 40 examples of what I consider to be the best ever printed. Considering pulp magazines encompassed fantasy, horror, mystery, western, crime, and science fiction, I thought it best to narrow the focus. This time around we'll look at the cream of the crop in the science fiction genre.
Before I begin, let me quickly lay out what criteria I'm using to judge them. Given the fact that these "best of" lists are, by their very nature, completely subjective, my criteria is basically irrelevant. But, just so you know, I'm going by artistry and interest. In other words, I'm looking at how well the cover is illustrated (technique and composition) and, more importantly, how much the work "stirs me". If it was 1943 and I saw this on a newsstand, how much would this cover beckon me to lay down a couple dimes and take it home? Let's have a look at forty covers that I feel best exemplify this criteria.
#40 -Thrilling Wonder Stories v13 n03 1939
The aliens look absolutely ridiculous. I get it. However, the whole role reversal thing where we humans are the captive creatures has always struck a chord with me. The thought that we, who plunder the earth making it our bitch, could one day find ourselves no longer numero uno is a timeless and tantalizing concept.
#39 - Amazing Stories v35 n02 1961
#38 -Fantasy and Science Fiction v06 n03 1954
#37 -Cosmos v01 n04 1954
There's a not-so-subtle dominatrix theme going on in this one. What's more, the guy on the left seems not too upset by this predicament. Let's face it, a lot of sci-fi back then was just male fantasies in space.
#36 -Future v04 n06 1954
#35 - Out of this World Adventures v01 n02 1950
There's an obvious problem here - the artist has no ability whatsoever to convey action. The way the alien arachnid poses stiffly next to the maiden with a dagger awkwardly stuck in her belly as the potential culprit appears to yawn in the foreground.... really bad. Yet there's a sort of imagination-run-amok Alice In Wonderland quality here. Jack Kirby would frown on the poor depiction of action, but the sheer spectacle of this scene lures me in with a childlike creative flourish.... and that's something m'man Kirby would appreciate.
The unconscious lady being carried by either the brutish monster or the sweaty hero is a motif repeated countless times in the sci-fi and horror genres (look no further than my post on the matter). It would simply be wrong not to include an example in this list.
#32 - Imagination v06 n01 1955
I'm not sure what sort of accident would result in the driver sitting the road still clutching the steering wheel; however, I get the point. It's that Jetsons Utopia that's being evoked, and I love it. In the future, everything will be cool daddy-o just like the 50s, except there'll be nifty gadgets to make our lives even more swanky. Can you dig it?
#31 - Fantastic Adventures v05 n04 1943
#30 - Startling Stories v28 n01 1952
It's a fairly generic concept, but one that deserves inclusion on this list: stepping off the proverbial flying machine onto an unknown world. Exploration never looked so good.
#29 - Astounding v042 n06 1949
#28 - Planet Stories v04 n09 1950
There's so much going on in this cover (explosions, scantily clad damsel in distress, alien hero), yet I find myself transfixed by this badass space sled. I want one.
#27 - Fantastic Universe v08 n06 1957
#26 - Other Worlds 026 1953
This is the real incentive for space exploration - the off chance that our solar system is populated by beautiful moon maidens and martian queens. They wouldn't be bound by the Puritanical conventions of Earth - they would be scantily clad, uninhibited space vixens, unencumbered by our primitive earthbound etiquette. And even better if they cruise around on cool Galactic Senate "floaty things".
#25 - Thrilling Wonder Stories v35 n03 1950
Yeah, this one is just odd. However, the idea of being overcome by tiny gremlin is sort of a collective Jungian nightmare, isn't it? You may be big and powerful, but you will be overpowered by the synergy of the smaller weaker numbers. This cover I think depicts the age old Gulliverian horror perfectly.... but with boobs and lasers.
#24 - Fantastic Universe v07 n04 1957
#23 - If v04 n01 1954
Have they created some sort of manly paradise where men are outnumbered 20 to 1, and everyone is super hot, free of blemishes and unsightly flab? The philosophical and theological quandaries presented by eugenics and cloning were in the back of the minds of everyone at the dawn of the technological age. It's odd, but sixty years later as we are actually at a point where these methods are within our reach (and, to some extent, already in play), the concepts are barely spoken of. It's much better to keep up with the Kardashians than face these issues... they're too complex and uncomfortable.
#22 - Planet Stories v04 n11 1951
Is this Black Martian Amazon not the coolest sexiest thing you have ever seen? I don't mean that as hyperbole - I am completely serious when I ask that. Even the virile king of space shagging, James Tiberius Kirk, may find this eye-popping sexual conquest out of reach.
#21 - Fantastic Universe v03 n03 1955
#20 - Super Science Stories v06 n04 1950
I just like the perspective on this one. You're instantly embroiled in the action - a futuristic balls out cosmicgeddon (I just made up that word - maybe it'll stick).
#19 - Infinity v03 n05 1958
All that seems to be going on in the foreground are boobs, but beyond that is a truly engaging cover. There's something about the look in her eyes and the imposing aliens that reels in my interest.
#18 - Future v03 n06 1953
#17 - Other Worlds 04 1950
In the 1950s, aliens were either to be destroyed or shagged; the idea that they might be caring creatures was a verboten concept. The E.T. with a heart of gold has become a cliche over the years; however, this painting captures that trope perfectly.
#16 - Amazing Stories v32 n10 1958
#15 - Space Stories v02 n01 1953
Kudos to Space Stories for hitting us with something out of the ordinary. The limits of imagination, prophesying the future, creating worlds with our minds - isn't that what this genre is all about? If I were to find a single picture to represent sci-fi writing, this might well be the one.
#14 - Thrilling Wonder Stories v32 n02 1948
This cover has cast me in its hypno-erotic grip and won't let go. The transcendental combination of balls, breasts, and spheres is too much for my small mind to handle. They say the psychedelic movement began in the sixties - I say it began with pulp science fiction.
#13 - Galaxy v18 n04 1960
#12 - Fantastic Universe v01 n02 1953
The Planet of the Apes novel came out ten years after this magazine. I'm just sayin'.
#11 - Amazing Stories v30 n11 1956
#10 - Weird Tales v35 n05 1940
With the world embroiled in yet another world war, it's not hard to guess the inspiration for this piece. I just love the giant kick-ass laser-shooting skulls on these spaceships. Granted, the rest of the ship is fairly lame (propellers on their wings and goofy weaponry at their top); however, these f***ers are wicked evil looking - the stuff nightmares are made of.
#9 - Startling Stories v32 n01 1954
"Curse you giant naked fire maidens!" I love the way the crash-landed ship's explosion is illustrated - it's well crafted, sexy and really leaves an impression. I don't honestly see how this concept could be improved upon.
#8 - Strange Stories v01 n02 1939Sort of a horror-scifi crossover with a Frankenstein vibe. I love the expression on the chick's face and the glowing x-ray view body is outstanding.
#7 - Imagination v02 n05 1951
People forget that these science fiction stories could be every bit as scary as the horror pulps. The glowing tentacled orb, the frightening eyes, all cast in a pallet that perfectly elicits terror. This is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers styled fear that humankind will be undone, not by spaceships bringing Martian conquerors, but by sinister forces operating under the radar.
#6 - If v01 n06 1953
A very real fear, that may have dissipated some over the past few decades, was that robots would inherit the earth, enslaving their fleshy creators. It seemed only a matter of time before we'd all be bowing to our mechanical overlords. This picture looks to be painted by a sort of Industrial Age Hieronymus Bosch. Instead of Medieval fears of the Reaper and various denizens of the underworld, we have the twentieth century depiction of our communal fears of what the future may hold.
#5 - Science Fiction Monthly v02 n12 1975
On the one hand, a mushroom cloud illustrated as a skull could be considered cliche - something a high schooler might scribble on their folder, or perhaps a bad heavy metal album cover. On the other hand, this is executed well. It's a striking representation of the World Destroyer, the invention that can annihilate the human race with the press of a button. This painting sticks to the ribs as we stare eye-to-eye with the holocaust of our own making.
#4 - Thrilling Wonder Stories v09 n01 1937
Oh, hell yes. There's a giant glowing brain in the sky turning the masses into zombies - that alone warrants inclusion on this list. Add to that, the hideous contortions and expressions of the possessed, and I'm handing over a few shekels without hesitation and taking this son of a gun home. It's sort of a horrific twist on the "Miracle of the Sun" at Fatima which supposedly occurred about ten years prior to this publication.
#3 - Galaxy v17 n04 1959
The Cantina scene in Star Wars captured the imagination of thousands upon thousands of youngsters. Aliens with only a few seconds of screen time (i.e. Walrus Man and Hammerhead) got their own action figures.There's something about seeing a conglomeration of alien races all going about their business in the same location. Perhaps it makes us feel not so alone and isolated in the universe. Whatever the reason, this cover elicits that same feeling, nearly twenty years prior.
#2 - If v01 n04 1952
Dear God, what unholy abomination is taking place here? Science can be cool (i.e. lasers and Millennium Falcons and such), but it also has the ability to horrify and alarm us with its power. If I were to illustrate the hideous potential of science when in the hands of conscienceless power grabbers, I don't think you could do better than this. Plus, there's the element of reaching beyond our skill set - of unleashing something we are not equipped to deal with. This picture perfectly presents the scientists, blinded by their arrogance, and their horrific creation that can't be undone.
#1 - Infinity v01 n01 1955
Shhhh. If you scoot up close and put your ear up next to this image, you can hear the distant sound of my mind being blown. The Arthur C. Clarke story, which I've read, doesn't shed light on this enigmatic work. Although, the underlying theme of the title story is a reckoning of man's place in the cosmos, whether it be insignificant sentient beings or as some part of some divine plane. Like the end of 2001:A Space Odyssey, I know there's something deep going on, but I'm not quite sure what it is. But its fun to let your mind wander to try and figure it out.