Saturday 17 March 2012

Pulp fiction cover art and James Bond

The news that Ian Fleming's James Bond books from April will be published by Vintage – a stable-mate of Fleming's original publisher, Jonathan Cape – raises some interesting questions, not least with regard to cover design. Will Vintage return to the original covers or have covers derived from them, or use different designs altogether?

I recently read Gary Lovisi's excellent book, Dames, Dolls and Delinquents: a collector's guide to sexy pulp fiction paperbacks (2009, Krause Publications), and was reminded of the variation in cover design in the 1950s. In particular, the early US paperback editions of Fleming's first four novels look rather similar to some of the pulp fiction covers shown in Lovisi's book.

The resemblance, of course, was deliberate, as Casino Royale (retitled You Asked For It), published by Popular Library, and Live and Let Die, Moonraker (retitled Too Hot To Handle), and Diamonds Are Forever, published by Perma Books, were marketed to appeal to their publishers' core pulp-fiction reading demographic.

Let's look first at Casino Royale. Its new title, You Asked for It (1955), fits perfectly within the library of contemporaneous pulp-fiction titles, such as You've Had Your Chance (1951) and Take It And Like It (1951). The cover, too, showing Bond in the background smoothly fixing himself a drink, and a cool but sensual Vesper Lynd in the foreground, follows the conventions of pulp-fiction, as we can see when we compare it to, say, Blonde Hellcat (1954). Lovisi would probably place the Bond novel in his category of 'deadly femmes fatales', not least given the tagline: 'She played a man's game with a woman's weapons'. The cover artist is unknown, although Art Scott suggests that it's the work of Ray Johnson, who drew a number of covers for Popular Library.

Unhappy at the title change, Ian Fleming switched publishers to Perma Books. Live and Let Die (1956), the first of the Perma books, kept its title – it fits the usual range of pulp-fiction titles reasonably well – and had a cover, showing Bond and a chained-up Solitaire in Mr Big's lair, that is likely to have appealed to pulp-fiction readers. Indeed, the artist, James Meese, regularly drew covers for pulp fiction, among them Homicide Hussy (1955).

Moonraker followed, also in 1956, but like Casino Royale suffered a title change. The new title, Too Hot To Handle, was again typical pulp fiction. There are a number of similar-in-spirit titles among those selected by Lovisi for his 'Bad girl delinquents' category, such as As Bad As They Come (1959) and The Wayward Ones (1954). The cover, though, drawn by pulp-fiction artist Lou Marchetti, better fits Lovisi's 'Women in peril' category, as the cover for The Double Shuffle (1954) shows.

The final Perma Bond novel was Diamonds Are Forever (1957). This time there was no title change. Perhaps like Live and Let Die the title was consistent with pulp-fiction convention, as was the suitably brutal cover, by William Rose, which showed a women struggling to prevent a man from stealing her diamonds from around her neck. But Fleming was still unhappy with the Moonraker paperback and switched publishers again, this time to Signet.

The marketing of the early Bond paperbacks in the US tells us much about how Fleming's novels were regarded. Given Fleming's pacy, sparse writing style, which was modelled to some extent on American hard-boiled thrillers, particularly those of Raymond Chandler, it is little wonder that US publishers felt that the natural home of the Bond novels was in the world of pulp fiction.

Acknowledgement: Non-Bond covers taken from Lovisi, G, 2009 Dames, Dolls and Delingquents: a collector's guide to sexy pulp fiction paperbacks, Krause Publishing

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