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Air Wonder Stories, August 1929

I’m in a science-fiction kinda mood, and thought it’d be best to start with one of the forerunners of modern SF art; hence, Frank R. Paul. Born in Vienna in 1884, he was trained as an architect; upon emigrating to America, he met fellow emigrant Hugo Gernsback, and soon after was illustrating his new Amazing Stories magazine. After Gernsback lost the rights to Amazing, Paul followed him onward to Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. In the late ’30s, he began branching out to Planet Stories, Science Stories, Fantastic, and others, up until his death in 1963.

But his greatest impact was working on the old Gernsback pulps. Illustrating the covers to most of the early Amazing Stories issues for Hugo Gernsback, Paul was the first prominent science fiction artist, and had a huge influence on the genre.

To illustrate the point, I think it’s worth comparing the pulp magazine scene in the 1920s. Say it’s August 1927, and you’re a young reader with a sense of adventure, either in your teens or twenties, looking for something to spend your dimes on. At that point in time, genre pulps—and fiction genres in general—weren’t as well established as they are now. (“Science Fiction” didn’t even exist yet; it was still Gernsback’s “scientifiction” for another decade and change.)

In all likelihood you might start off looking at the leader of the pack, Argosy All-Story Weekly, a general pulp which covered the full spectrum from romance to western to sports and, in some cases, early science fiction and weird tales. In this case, you’d end up looking at this cover:

And if you were lucky, perhaps the newsstand had a leftover copy of a previous week’s magazine, in which case you’d see this:

Argosy‘s just the frontrunner; you could always go with something like Blue Book or Short Stories and see if there’s anything there to catch your interest. Westerns are still pretty popular; the west’s only been won for about three decades now.

Or, better yet, you could cut out the middleman and just look for the Adventure, which is much as advertised: action and adventure in flavor-of-the-bimonthly variety. In this case, you’re getting pirates.

But, again, you’re interested in new and unique adventures, not the old pirate and cowboy standbys that everyone else provides. Weird Tales has had some interesting stuff in the past; this month, it’s an Egyptian horror tale by Otis Adelbert Kline, who, in a few years’ time, would use Weird Tales as the vehicle for his Venus saga, firmly grounding him as the man who would be Burroughs.

And your other option is the year-old Amazing Stories. Compare, if you will, those other covers with the one Frank R. Paul illustrated for Amazing:

Amazing Stories, August 1927

Maybe it’s just because I love War of the Worlds, but it’s a fantastic cover; probably my favorite of Paul’s works. It’s lush and lurid, that beautiful blue playing off the red of the fire, which is reflected on the metallic hulls of those alien… things… Devices? Creatures? (It’s 1927; I’d wager even money you hadn’t heard of Wells before.) Whatever, they’re attacking those people and burninating the countryside; there’s nothing shown here that can stop them.

Better yet, this magazine tells you everything you need to know from title alone: it’s amazing! The colors and dynamism indicate where pulp fiction is heading: away from the turn of the century aesthetics, and into the realm of selling magazines based on an action-packed cover alone. This cover’s bright and garish to catch your attention, and the only way to find out what’s going on is to buy and read the issue. And considering science fiction—excuse me, “scientifiction”—was a brand new concept. The vibrant colors and images both attracted attention and set it apart from its peers.

Amazing Stories, July 1928

Most of these pictures are pretty grainy. Even factoring for some low quality resolution, I don’t think anyone can accuse Paul of being good at drawing human beings. To be honest, he was little more than a journeyman artist; his architect training shows in his art. He’s much more technically inclined, and while he can draw passable people in dynamic poses, most of them look pretty awful (check the girl and guy in the background). Paul is a lot better at depicting science-y things, buildings, and vehicles.

Though he captured what Gernsback—and his customers—were looking for. Paul had tons of creativity, and an unmatched hand (in the ’20s-’30s) for drawing the mechanical-technical dream devices of the future. Hence, his impact on the genre: Paul’s representative of what was popular in the 1920s-’30s, which happened to be Gernsback’s style of engineering prowess and scientific invention overcoming bug-eyed-monsters and robots and mad scientists.

Again, I think these are more informative of their era than of SF in general. People were shocked and appalled to see this cover of a robot fighting a lion, because it was deemed too violent and disgusting. Nowadays, you can see worse on prime-time network TV or in your average comic book. Back then, customers wrote letters to complain about Paul’s lack of decency (or, in some cases, to defend the cover).

Amazing Stories, August 1930

This is where Paul really shines: he took the aesthetics and technical know-how of the era, and used it to dream up all kinds of neat stuff. His spaceships are a good example; they scream 1930s, are impossible given our current knowledge of space and physics, and often don’t make sense. This one looks like a combination bus-submarine getting sliced open by a bouncing ball. But in the sliced cross-section, you can see his ’20s engineering knowledge at work in those generators and turbines. He knew his stuff, and that makes his imaginative designs feel more realistic (for the time period).

Science Wonder Stories, October 1929.

Of course, a lot of the time, it was just Paul’s imagination run riot. That’s part of his charm: it looks horribly dated now, besides being impossible, but back then, this was taking current knowledge to cutting-edge futures. If I wasn’t sure that this story would be written in the Gernsback-approved dated ’20s SF style, I’d look into this just to see what the hell is happening. Diving helmets used as some kind of television, telepathic communication maybe? Aliens? At the very least, Science! is afoot!

Amazing Stories, January 1929

See, global warming was a problem even back in the ’20s! Paul’s illustrations do run the gamut of themes SF had back in the first half of the century: the life and death of the city, the utopian mega-city, the power of aerial travel, mass-transit/strange vehicles, along with these themes adopted for space. In short, expanding on the scientific themes and discovery of the same few decades: manned flight, mass-manufactured vehicles, the smog-filled growth and glory of cities like New York and Chicago.

Science Wonder Stories, September 1929

Gernsback was a science-hobbyist first and foremost; he started his “scientifiction” binge when he was still running Science and Invention and Modern Electronics. As such, his taste in SF was for didactic tales of ivory-tower technocrats using science to overcome obstacles and save the day. Also, that the banal, everyday science in the future will be the glories published today. It’s reflected in a lot of Paul’s covers, which were intended to teach as much as entertain: here, it’s all about construction crews. (Really. Really?) I have to say, it is the most interesting magazine cover I’ve ever seen about excavation crews in space. The space suits are unique in placing their air canisters on the shoulder, and the excavators have chicken-walker legs.

What interested Gernsback doesn’t relate much to modern SF, to say the least; if John Campbell hadn’t left his mark on SF, the genre would be a very different place.

Science Wonder Stories, March 1930

Don’t mess with Moses and his planet buster. It’s telling that Paul used a big-ass gun for this dynamic cover; back then, atomic weapons in man-sized bombs dropped from ‘planes were more fictional than this device. Also: the layout to this gun emplacement is laid out like a planetarium. Scientists of the future get the really big guns.

Air Wonder Stories, November 1929.

Ah, the Depression; the only era where pink magazine covers could be construed as adventurous and intriguing. I love the ’30s for their ludicrous mega-cities and flying devices; this one’s a perfect combination with an eye-catching color scheme. (Not a great color scheme, but one that gets your attention.) If there’s one thing I miss from ’30s SF, it’s that massive flying cities no longer exist. Curse you, gravity!

Science Wonder Stories, November 1929

Apparently even Gernsback let Paul have plenty of freedom, because several covers are just like this one: here’s a strange and awesome picture, now write a story about it and I’ll give you a wad of cash—that $300 would be quite a bit during the Depression. I think this is one of Paul’s better illustrations: a very streamlined alien craft, with tentacle-manipulators and various rays, in contrast with the endless void of space and the blocky, squarish human building it clutches.

Science Wonder Stories, January 1930

Whatever that is, it’s both cool and scary. Are those circular saws on the end of its tentacles? And did Paul get inspiration from seeing a light bulb? I pity those poor puny humans; you can see that in their panic, they’re shooting all over the place at this thing. Paul had a great sense of scale and of alien technological terrors… which brings us full-circle, back to the War of the Worlds cover.