Saturday, December 29, 2007

Heade of the Class

Readers of this page probably know what a fan I am of “book cover porn”--that is, vintage novels that were ... well, up-front in their commercial enticements. U.S. illustrator Robert McGinnis is a particular favorite of mine (see a gallery of his work here). But I’ve also developed a fondness for R.A. Maguire and Walter Popp, as well as some of the artists currently working for Hard Case Crime (notably Greg Manchess, who did the front of Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin, and Glen Orbik, responsible for George Axelrod’s Blackmailer). Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Richie Fahey, who created the jacket of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, chosen by Rap Sheet visitors as one of the best covers of 2007.

But somebody I’ve said less about is Reginald Heade, who’s been described as “probably the best British ‘girlie’ paperback cover artist of the 1950s.” According to a quite wonderful site called Vintage Paperbacks: Good Girl Art,
[Heade] was born in 1902 or 1903--there is no record of his birth in England. He died in 1957, leaving no children, no will and no evidence of his existence other than his signatures on those gorgeous covers he produced. And in 1954, he even stopped signing his work, when the publisher of the books he illustrated went to jail on obscenity charges. Heade produced over 300 covers, most of them impossible to find. He is not listed in any British standard artist references--no one even recalls meeting him. A true man of mystery.
He’s hardly been forgotten, though. Independent Crime’s Nathan Cain has showcased several of Heade’s pulp jackets as part of his “book porn” series. And there’s an abundance of his lurid work on the Web. There was also, apparently, a digest-size book published in 1991--Reginald Heade: England’s Greatest Artist, by Steve Chibnall--that contains “[a] biography of this prolific artist, plus a complete checklist of his work.” It’s long been out of print, but I have given serious thought to buying one of the last-remaining used copies, even if it’s at a premium.

Not all of Heade’s efforts went into pulp crime novels; titles such as Sinful Sisters, Plaything of Passion, and Spoiled Lives were commissioned by a digest publisher called Archer, which did its best to fill the demand for mild eroticism--about as far into “sleaze” as most book houses were willing to venture during the 1940s and ’50s. Other publications--such as Paul Reville’s The Street of Shame (shown above) and Michael Storme’s Dame in My Bed--might belong in either genre camp, though they were likely intended to appeal to the same men who were buying those sexier stories. No matter what sort of tale he was illustrating, though, Heade had what blogger Cain calls “a knack for drawing women with gravity-defying clothes,” seductresses whose decency was preserved (more or less) by the resilience of a nipple--or two.

Yet it may be his crime-fiction covers that are best remembered these days. Heade did the jacket for the 1946 British edition of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife. And during the 1950s, he created covers for a variety of short detective novels featuring Sexton Blake (“the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes”), including The Crime in Room 37, The Case of the Criminal’s Daughter, and Secret of the Suez Canal. (Heade had previously lent his artistic talents to Blake’s comic-strip adventures in the late ’40s.) He also worked up memorable fronts for Coffin for a Cutie, Death for a Doll, This Way for Hell, and other books by Spike Morelli (apparently the pseudonym of William Newton); and had illustrated the controversial novels of Hank Janson (né Stephen D. Frances), a British book publisher who, recalls Steve Holland (author of The Trials of Hank Janson, 2004), subsequently “set himself up as a one-man writing and publishing industry, first of all banging out westerns on his typewriter before his distributors suggested that the market was awash with westerns.” At which point, the writer Hank Janson was born.

Remarking on the collaboration between Janson and Heade, Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted two years ago:
Once billed as “England’s best-selling author,” Janson wrote more than 300 stories for a post-war British paperback market high on U.S.-style gangsters and hot dames.

In their day, Janson’s covers were considered so obscene the Home Office [the British government’s internal affairs department] seized copies from newsagents and his publishers went to jail.

Artist Reginald Heade’s work from Janson’s early 1950s series on New Fiction Press, epitomise the classic sex-kitten pulp cover.
There’s certainly no questioning that last statement. Whether it’s the jacket from Blonde on the Spot (1949), The Jane with the Green Eyes (1950), Broads Don’t Scare Easy (1951), Skirts Bring Me Sorrow (1951), or other of Janson’s crime novels (a number of them thankfully reprinted by UK publisher Telos earlier in this decade), Heade set a high bar over which other book illustrators were expected to jump. At least those, like McGinnis, Maguire, and the still more blatantly erotic Paul Rader, who continued to find markets for their revealing artwork. (Not always an easy thing, especially in America during the sexually repressed post-war era.)

If, when I sat down to write this post, I was intrigued by Reginald Heade, I now find myself still more curious about him and his work. In our modern age, it’s hard to imagine a publisher producing a title such as The Filly Wore a Rod, much less hiring an illustrator to give it a cover that is at once compelling and sexy as all hell. Heade remains a standout. Guess I’ll have to Steve Chibnall biography after all.

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