Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Thrilling Comic Book Cover Art of Alex Schomburg, compiled by J. David Spurlock

I have no memory of buying this, and it was published in 2004, so it's probably been stuck in the middle of a pile for quite some time. But I finally got to it.

There's minimal text: just an introduction by Spurlock with the thumbnail version of Schomburg's life and career, and captions for each cover. The covers appear to have been reproduced from comics, but the images are nearly always clean, crisp, and color-corrected. (This book doesn't make the error, common to some modern designers, of treating old art as a yellowed, textured design element, but instead thinks of it as art and tries to reproduce it as well as possible.)

From Spurlock's introduction, I learn that Schomburg painted 199 comics covers for Timely from 1939 to 1949, and 296 for Standard over the same period. This book reproduces a hundred and two of those covers, in no obvious order. (It also only contains a handful of covers from 1940 and otherwise concentrates entirely on works from 1945-1948 -- with a few stray 1944 or 1949 pieces -- for no stated reason.) It's really a book for people who would prefer to look at pictures rather than read.

Those pictures, though, are in large part not to my taste. I did like some of the airbrushed work (under the pen-name Xela) of the later years, which prefigures Schomburg's later SF book-cover work. But the bulk of the comics covers are just flat, muddy color over decent pencils, and are very much of their time. The earlier covers also tend to be crowded and muddled, while the later works show much better composition and use of negative space. It's hard to put my finger on what makes Schomburg's "Black Terror" covers bland and something of a similar vintage (say, by Frank R. Paul) more interesting, but I think part of it is that the more SFnal and fantastic Schomburg's work gets (with jungle girls and alien spaceships), the better I like it. His crime-fighters and super-heroes are derivative and uninspiring, but his female heroes are specific, original, and exciting.

(I suspect Spurlock agrees with me, since he generally uses the pictures I think of as better as full-pages and uses the lesser works in a smaller size.)

Anyway, some of this stuff is good (to my eye) and some is not so good. The book will not be of much use to scholars, since there's hardly any text, but it does reproduce the art nice and large on good paper without any design silliness. I do wish the covers had been organized, because I kept flipping backwards and forwards to look at them in sequence. But, all in all, it is a good thing.

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