Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Reader Speaks

In June last year (see my Digital Library post), I publicised the Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories covers by Frank R. Paul, available to view via the University of Leeds' Digital Library.

In that post, I mentioned that Paul's distinctive style became closely associated with these and other Hugo Gernsback publications. Now more than six months later I wanted to follow up with another Paul-related interest story by going beyond the covers of the magazines and into the obsessive, paranoid, and often downright strange territory of readers' letters. Most of these early pulps had a section devoted to readers' letters and the SF magazines were no different. 'The Reader Speaks' was a forum for fans to show their appreciation, or consternation, at the stories featured in each issue. But it was a letter from a Morris Miller of Brooklyn, NY, in an edition of Wonder Stories from January 1934 that drew my attention, primarily for its subject matter:- the artwork of Frank R. Paul. In his letter, Miller writes:

The attractive cover of the November issue depicts most remarkably the superb ability of its creator, Frank Paul, whose work, by the way is becoming less fantastic and more convincing, as well as within the bounds of reason. But I hate to have to see him draw an insensible picture like the one which appeared on the May 1933 cover. I hope the editors try their best to avoid such absurd means of arousing wonder in those not acquainted with our mag. I guess that is about all it can do. I also note the much improved lifelikeness in the faces of characters drawn by Mr Paul.

This is not the only topic covered in the letter, of course; there's a summary of the reader's favourite stories, a request for a science news section and speculation about the existence of canals on Mars:- 'perhaps they are not canals but some other super-structures which may account for everything...' However, the editors make it their first priority to address the comments relating to the cover artwork, responding with:

You seem to like our covers, like the majority of our readers, but there are a few who claim that they are too ‘gaudy’ or ‘loud’. We do not deny the fact, but we do say that it is necessary in order to have a newsstand sale. These covers are very attractive and draw the eye of passers-by, who may be persuaded to buy the magazine because of this fact, and thereby we acquire many new science-fiction fans who would not now be acquainted with the magazine if it weren’t for this. If we took a vote, we’d probably find that a large percentage of our readers were introduced to science-fiction by the cover of Wonder Stories.

Here, a debt is acknowledged to Paul's covers for drawing the eye and exciting interest in a potential 1930s SF reader. It's easy to imagine how these distinctive images would stand out on a crowded newsstand but perhaps this would be small comfort to a reader like Miller. The oddest thing is that a comparison of the 'attractive' November issue and the 'insensible' May issue reveal (to my eye) few discernible differences, although I could be missing something. For a man that can make sense out of canals on Mars, maybe a robot with tentacles is not too much of an imaginative stretch. But a flying man? That's evidently a bridge too far...

Insensible May issue
Attractive November issue

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