Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the bookshelves and newsstands of planet Earth were visited by pulp sci-fi books with out-of-the-world cover art. In his new crowdfunded book Rayguns and Rocketships, artist and writer Rian Hughes has brought together the best of these vintage science fiction book covers.
Currently in the homestretch of its Kickstarter pledge, Rayguns and Rocketships is a collection of the brash and lurid cover art from titles such as Rodent Mutation, The Human Bat vs The Robot Gangster, Dawn of the Mutants, and Mushroom Men from Mars. Depicting space-suited, laser pistol-wielding heroes and intergalactic damsels in distress, the book is a fascinating snapshot of the future viewed from a bygone era.
As well as cramming over 1,000 images into its 464 pages, Rayguns and Rocketships also features exclusive original artwork, a foreword by Steve Holland and an afterword by Philip James Harbottle. Fascinating examples of original artwork are included within the book’s pages, which reveal how artists such as the incomparable Ron Turner worked out the colours around the margins. This discipline is not found with digital art.
Another eye-opening insight from this book is how many of the illustrators from the time also painted the actual lettering on the boards as part of the illustration. Whereas today the two disciplines of lettering and illustrating are very different. It’s a revelation to see the varied skill of the artists behind these covers.
Speaking of what inspired the book, Rian reveals that this genre and its covers have always been something of a personal passion. “I have been collecting these vintage paperbacks for several decades, from market stalls, jumble sales and more recently, eBay,” he tells Creative Boom.
“The book began as a way to catalogue my collection but then grew and grew. As I’m by no means a completionist, I drew on other peoples’ collections for obscure items, original art, or for better condition copies – some of mine, especially the rarer titles, are pretty battered.”
As for what makes the art appeal to him, Rian praises their “unpretentious salesmanship, [and] the brash energy of them”. Given that these covers were commissioned first and the ensuing novel was written around them, these illustrations had to turn heads and convince customers to part with their cash. But besides that, Rian still praises “the fact that many still manage to be beautiful examples of the illustrator’s art.”
And by providing a visual basis for a story, the artist also sometimes set the tone. “The writer would then be given a title, a word count and a deadline – often a matter of weeks – and paid by the word,” Rian explains. “The finished novel would often come out under a house pseudonym. In one three-year period, one author – Robert Lionel Fanthorpe – wrote eighty-nine novels, which works out at one 158-page, a 45,000-word novel every twelve days.
“For each of these, he was paid £22 and ten shillings. It was fast and loose, and the fact that anything of any quality whatsoever was published is a miracle.”
Miracles can happen, though, especially when it comes to the covers. Out of this period of illustrators, Rian praises Ron Turner as undoubtedly the standout artist. “He painted his best covers for the ‘Vargo Statten’ and ‘Volsted Gridban’ (pseudonyms of John Russel Fearn and occasionally E. C. Tubb) titles published under the Scion imprint,” says Rian. “He had a vibrant colour sense and a keen eye for hardware design and dramatic composition.”
Want to support Rayguns and Rocketships and secure yourself a copy of this incredible book? There’s still time to support it with a pledge by heading to its Kickstarter page.