Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cover Me

I've been searching through my house for Phoenix Prime, a fantasy novel by Ted White that I read when I was in high school.

I'm not particularly interested in re-reading this book and I doubt seriously the story would hold up after all these years.

What I really want to see is the book’s cover.

The cover illustration for Phoenix Prime shows the muscular back and shoulder of man on some distant—and quite hostile-looking--alien terrain. He’s clutching a stone in his right hand as a pack of red-eyed wolves move in on him.

I had been laboring under the mistaken impression that this classic image of man versus beast had been created by James Bama, my favorite book cover artist.

But a quick jog around the Internet revealed that the painting had actually been done by Frank Frazetta, my other favorite book cover artist.

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy novels and I can only guess how many of these books had cover art by either Bama or Frazetta. Their work helped me and a lot of other teenaged boys get through adolescence.

When reality had nothing to offer by acne and geometry class, Frazetta and Bama provided an escape hatch to fantastic worlds populated by heroic savages, ferocious beasts, and scantily-dressed babes.

I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but come on—look at this stuff for God’s sake. How could you not pick up the book hoping that the inside would be as exciting as the outside?

In this age of CGI and digital everything, it’s important to remember that these artists created their work with just paint, canvas and talent.

Frank Frazetta, who died in May, was a prolific artist who painted movie posters, album jackets—his “The Death Dealer” on Molly Hachet’s 1979 LP reeks with unspeakable menace—and, of course, book covers.

He may be best known as the man who brought Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian to life in a series of fabulous covers for Lancer Books.

If you were a kid looking at Frazetta’s work you could easily imagine yourself as the fearless savage, lopping off the heads of evil wizards, commanding vast armies, and riding off into the sunset with a half-naked hottie…until your mother came into your room and told you to take out the garbage.

He was a native of Brooklyn, like myself, and he had lived in the Poconos--just like yours truly. His family established a museum displaying his work in Marshalls Creek, Pa., but that was after I pulled up stakes.

His paintings were the subject of a nasty family dispute, but I believe that's been settled. At least I hope it has. You can Google for the details if you really need to know.

James Bama created unforgettable images of another hero, Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, who took on all sorts of evil bastards and gave them what for. Bama’s version of Doc Savage depicted the pulp hero, his muscles rippling beneath his tattered shirt, in a way that displayed both brains and brawn.

Bama did 62 covers for the Doc Savage Bantam Books paperbacks, according to Wikiepedia, often using as a model actor Steve Holland, star of TV's Flash Gordon. He also painted the box cover art for Aurora's monster model kits, including King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. (I think I actually had the Mummy, while my brother had the Dracula model.)

Storm Clouds

One of my favorite Bama covers was the one he did for William Goldman’s novel Soldier in the Rain. The image is just that—an enlisted man standing in the middle of downpour, arms out, head back and shouting toward the heavens, as if daring God to strike him dead.

It is a rendering of the final scene in the novel and if you look at the cover long enough, you’ll hear the wind, sense the rain, and feel the pain.

I should mention that this novel was made into a movie with Steve McQueen as the eponymous soldier. It also starred Jackie Gleason and featured a brutish thug named “Lenahan”—please note the spelling—the “I’s” have it, so this guy and myself are not related.

The film lacks one important item, however, and that’s the scene with a soldier in the rain. I don’t want to give away too much, but Goldman’s gut-kicking finale was toned down considerably in the novel’s journey to celluloid, so there was never a live version of Bama’s painting.

If I had to contrast the work of the two men, I’d say that Frazetta created entire worlds that you could just about enter, while Bama painted characters so vivid they seemed ready to climb off the paperback and come right at you.

Frazetta’s recent death got me thinking about book jacket art and I decided to do a very quick and decidedly unscientific bit of research.

Returning from an assignment in Stamford, I ducked into a book store in Grand Central Terminal and did a brief recon of the paperback book covers.

Photographs seemed to be the dominant form of cover art today. The romance novels appear to be the only books with illustrations, but the ones I saw looked like pages from a kid’s coloring book compared with the work of Bama and Frazetta.

And now with e-books threatening to become popular, the notion of cover art will most likely disappear, since we won’t have any more covers—or books really, just streams of digitalized content.

Doc Savage probably wouldn’t be able to get his vastly superior mind around Kindle and Conan would undoubtedly smash it to bits with his broadsword. And then go looking for the people who invented it.

I still haven’t found that copy of Phoenix Prime, but I’m going to keep looking.

I have this one vague memory of a scene early in the book where the hero, Max Quest, is riding in a taxi and evil beings of some kind decide to punch his ticket by levitating the cab into the stratosphere and leaving Max with the quest of getting to terra firms in one piece.

Stunned at first, Max harnesses his hitherto untapped magical powers, steps out of the high-flying hack and gently floats down to earth, landing “on the tree-lined streets of Bay Ridge,” if memory serves.

It’s a cool scene, showing our hero using abilities he never knew he had. And it’s nice that my neighborhood got a plug.

But part of me sees that episode as a metaphor for life. As children we sail through the stars buoyed by fantasy, but as we get older we gradually come down to earth, get jobs and worry about paying bills.

Frank Frazetta and James Bama took me high and far away and I will be eternally grateful. And while I’ll never reach those heights again, it’s nice to know I have them in my corner when the wolves start closing in.

No comments: