Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A King of Pulp Painting

Norman Saunders (1907-1989) was a part of my life long before I ever knew it.

Take that Rockwell! (Norman...not Sam)
In elementary school in the 1980's, most of the kids had gone absolutely nuts over Garbage Pail Kids. Every recess the disgusting trading cards with silly names came out: trades were made, new ones were shown, and some kid always got to show off with cards from the rare and vaunted first series. In between series, the other card companies were quick to compete for the youthful attention and dollar, among them Wacky Packages.   There was something about this satirical send-up of advertising that appealed to me far more than the adolescent gross-out of the Garbage Pail Kids.  Don't get me wrong: I had complete sets of the 2nd-4th series of the Kids. But there was something one-note about the jokes, whereas, and I had no idea at the time, many of the Wacky's were jokes that were 20 years old at that point...and still going.

I eventually gave a way my Garbage Pail Kids...but I still have the Wacky Packs cards, and Norman Saunders painted more than just a few of them.

Despite having a distinctive style, a publishing record in the thousands and an indelible mark on pop culture, Norman Saunders, like so many great illustrators, never got the respect he deserved outside of his peers and fans of his work.  In 2009, his son, artist and pulp historian David Saunders put together the monograph that his father had always deserved.  This is no minor task as pulp painting originals as well as the magazines and paperbacks they were printed on have become very rare and highly collectible. And, I'm happy to say that I finally got my hands on a copy of one. (On a funny side note, one of the postcards inside the book was for a collector offering rewards for Saunders' originals.)

Remember to R.S.V.P!
Starting as a freelance cartoonist for the ribald Captain Billy's Whiz Bang magazine, Norman Saunders soon had a career doing pulp covers and interior art for Fawcett Publications in Minnesota. In them days, as the saying goes, an illustrator often began in the pulps while angling to get into the "slicks", the higher-end glossy magazines. Though he would try time and time again, Saunders found little luck in the slicks.  In the pulps, however, he had a veritable bonanza in a variety of genres. Saunders always prided himself on sticking to a distinctive style of painting rather than being tied to any one subject, which allowed him to work on westerns, sci-fi, horror, and the hardboiled among others

I know, I know: Frazetta = Conan. But this is still a first.
When the initial run of pulps began to fall by the wayside, paperbacks became the new medium, and Saunders moved into them painting the cover to the first paperback printing of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Conqueror.  Saunders also painted a variety of covers for a number of different comic books, and eventually became one of the kings of the Men's Adventure magazines.  It was through Taschen's wonderful book of cover images from these that I became reacquainted with Saunders, and then discovered his late work in trading cards. Wacky Packs were only one of many series he painted having rendered one of the most iconic series of all time: MARS ATTACKS!

I would've gone to more carnivals if this was the prize instead of an off-color stuffed Pink Panther.
If you haven any interest in this sort of work, I can't recommend this book highly enough. The multitude of high quality images, both published and originals, makes it quite a find. David Saunders keeps the writing short and congenial, conveying just the right amount of biographical information and enjoyable quotes to let the art speak for itself. Overall, it's a very fine quality book for an often criminally overlooked American genre of artwork.

Not sure this is Saunders, but couldn't resist.

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