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My uncle Oscar subscribed to some interesting publications.

Most of them what one might expect of a respectable middle aged CPA:  Business Week, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal.  Others, like his treasured hardcover run of American Heritage, reflected his interest in history and antiques.  Yet others, such as a little farm weekly called Grit, drew on his past, when the family farmed, first in Baldwin before it became a commuting suburb, later in Venango County.

And then there was The Saturday Evening Post.  

Oscar started subscribing to this folksy general interest magazine in the early 1970s, when it was revived with a generous dose of non-political pieces by Julie Nixon Eisenhower (daughter of one President, granddaughter-in-law of another), nostalgic short stories, and articles that reflected rock-ribbed traditional values.  It exemplified a conservatism (and a Republican party) that allowed one to believe in some aspects of the social changes that were sweeping America forty years ago without descending into the madness that has come to exemplify the modern version.

I didn't pay much attention to the articles back then; I was, after all, still a liberal Republican in my thinking, and remained such for years.  What I did notice was the cover art, some of which was still drawn by one of the greatest American illustrators, Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell's images of small town life are familiar to the point of cliché:  children running from a swimming hole,a policeman talking to a runaway before taking him home, a tomboy with a black eye and a satisfied expression on her face, a young couple applying for a marriage license. Beautifully composed and expertly painted, these works have led to the popular image of Norman Rockwell as a hack who exemplified all that is dreary, dull, and conventional in American life and art.  Few know, or remember, that Rockwell himself was far more complex than the stereotype of the pipe-smoking middle American dashing off yet another picture of white-bread America.

For one thing, Rockwell genuinely seems to have voted for individual candidates rather than a party ticket; he admitted voting Socialist in 1948, then voted twice for Eisenhower.  His paintings of the Four Freedoms may have led to athousand parodies, but he based Freedom of Speech on an incident he witnessed at a town meeting in Vermont when a man stood up to voice an unpopular opinion on the town budget.  His late masterpiece on integration, The Problem We All Live With, is a perfect visualization of how unfair, and how absurd, it was to force a tiny girl to walk to school surrounded by burly federal marshals, while another painting, the searing Southern Justice, was a response to the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi.   Most of his small-town paintings were based on the residents of Arlington, Vermont, or Stockbridge, Massachusetts, small New England towns that had been meccas for artists and creative types for decades.  Some of his models still live in Western Massachusetts, including a little Jewish boy in The Golden Rule who grew up to be a psychiatrist at an agency I worked for.

Rockwell himself is long gone, but his artistic legacy continues.  In addition to Saturday Evening Post cover artists like Robert Charles Howe, other illustrators have increasingly begun to acknowledge his influence on their own works.  A recent exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge of paintings by comic book artist Alex Ross explicitly compares some of Ross's magnificent depictions of Golden Age characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman to Rockwell works like The Right to Know, with plenty of notes by Ross himself.

As for Ross's paintings…if you live anywhere near Stockbridge, I urge you, see this exhibit.  He works primarily in gouache, an unforgiving type of opaque watercolor, and somehow makes his figures glow from within.  What looks good on a book color or the glossy pages of a graphic novel looks extraordinary in person, and I doubt there's an illustrator alive who's better at handling fabric.  Even if you don't like comics, this one is worth seeing.  

I've been under the weather lately due to a series of dull but persistent headaches that are either a low grade sinus infection or a mild concussion from when I bonked my head on my bathroom vanity reaching for my socks (don't ask).   Either way, I've been hitting the hay early and have had about as much interest in writing as I've had in contemplating the existential implications of changing the cat box.  This means that once again I've fallen back on what I always do when I run out of ideas I'm not at my best.

That's right…brace yourself…put down the tea cup and cookies, good gentles all, since I don't want to be responsible for anyone choking to death…it's time for Cover Art So Bad It's Good!

Tonight I bring you ten hideous examples of what art directors think will sell.  Bad anatomy, eye-searing colors, ridiculous poses - the following have it all:

Kesrick, by Lin Carter - I know Lin Carter was not precisely a stylist, and that his books have mocked by many, many, many critics (including your humble and obedient servant).  But even the man who inserted himself into a planetary romance deserves better than what appears to be Dirk Diggler riding a griffin covered with nonpareils, on a planet with a purple sky sprinkled with jimmies and pterodactyls.

Masque of a Savage Mandarin, by Phillip Bedford Robinson - I have never read this book, but anything that features a crazed surgeon standing on a tiny, tiny tussock of grass while attempting to hack a badly proportioned madman to death on a fainting couch is surely worth the time and effort.

The Trouble Twisters, by Poul Anderson - the back cover promises "lithe curves of unwary space girls," so why does the cover show someone using a blue dragon/horse thing as a platform for shooting space kangaroos?  Or am I missing something here?

All My Friends Are Dead, by Avery Monsen and Jory John - this poignant, minimalism drawing of a bewildered sock puppet brontosaurus mourning the loss of his fellow tiny-brained leaf eaters is a true commentary on the existential crisis that faces all life, at least for those of us with a morbid taste in humor...unless it's just a really dumb book with a depressing title and subject matter, in which case it's sort of blah.

Natural Bust Enlargement with Total Mind Power, by Donald L. Wilson, M.D. - yes, I know the cover is designed to appeal to despairing flat chested women who can't afford breast implants.  Yes, I know it was taken sometime in the 1970s, when self-help books with crappy black and white covers were all the rage.  But would it be too much to ask that the cover actually look like something other than a tank top surrounded by doughy grayish things that may or may not be the model's arms, legs, neck, and (ahem) mammary units????

Swing, Brother, Swing, by Ngaio Marsh - one would think from this stunning artwork that Ngaio Marsh wrote bad pulp noir instead of a classic well-plotted mystery featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigating the on-stage death of an actor...but one would be wrong.  Can 1950s paperback houses be sued for bait and switch, I wonder?

Russian fantasy (?) novel, by someone Russian - I can't read Cyrillic so I have no idea what is going on.  But a young Kenneth Branagh drinking a toast with an inebriated dragon?  AWESOME.

Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs - behold the Lord of the Jungle!  Contemplate the source of the Brylcreem he used to style his pompadour!  Gaze in awe at his perfectly muscled, superbly waxed chest!  Wonder just what is going on between him and that monkey!  HAVE YOUR CHILDHOOD MEMORIES RUINED FOREVER!

Nobody's Baby But Mine, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips - evil cherubs swoop down from a Baroque altarpiece to abduct a helpless infant in a horror novel cleverly disguised as a category romance about a brilliant physicist whose life is incomplete until she decides to conceive a crotchling by a hunky but not overly bright football player.  Won't someone think of the children?

Wonder Woman:  The Contest, by Nina Jaffe - who knew that Diana, princess of Themiscyra, dressed like the American flag as a teenager, well before she met Steve Trevor?  Or that Queen Hippolyta not only had married a Habsburg in a political marriage, but couldn't afford a good orthodontist for her unfortunate child?

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So, my friends - what horrible art has come to your notice lately?  Is there a Rob Liefeld abomination shoved into the banker's box containing your teenage comic collection?  A right-wing take on Norman Rockwell?  A Lin Carter novel with an even worse cover than the one I found?  Come and share!

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Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
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Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views Brecht, bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 4:00 PM Daily Kos Political Book Club Freshly Squeezed Cynic
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

6:40 PM PT: Tip of butterfly henin to Itzadryheat, who translated the Russian cover as It is Time and the author's name as Mikhail Uspenskii.  Score!

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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