Judging a Book by Its Cover

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by Brandy McDonnell, courtesy of The Oklahoman

Amid the showy depictions of rearing horses, racing stagecoaches and deadly duels, a strange similarity becomes apparent between the solemn hero framed by revolvers on the cover of “Valley of Guns” and the frantic man clenching a bullet between his teeth on the front of “Bandit Trail.”

“With Robert Stanley, I liked the way he did his covers. And a lot of it was because they were him — he used himself and his wife as his models for every cover he made,” said Karen Spilman, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's (OK) librarian.  “I was fascinated by the fact that for every single one of these covers, a painting was created.”

Ten years into cataloging a vast collection of Western paperback novels, Spilman is paying homage to the illustrators who crafted covers that could match florid titles like “Skeleton Trail,” “Death Rides the Night” and “Deadline at Durango.”

The covers are the story in the exhibition “The Artistry of the Western Paperback.”  “As I was cataloging them, I noticed more and more of the illustrations being dynamic, bright, colorful, action-packed, and I just became fascinated with them,” she said.

Massive collection

On view through May 14, “The Artistry of the Western Paperback” showcases the covers of 50 paperbacks from the massive Glenn D. Shirley Western Americana Collection the museum acquired in 2006. The Western historian, writer and collector amassed thousands of movie posters, historical books, dime novels, photographs and other items over five decades. A Stillwater resident, Shirley died in 2002.

“It was an amazing collection. It was actually in a four-bedroom house across the street from where he lived,” Spilman said. “He had 4,000 paperback books in his collection. I'm in the process of cataloging them. I began cataloging his collection in 2006, and I'm still working on it — a decade of my life.”

As she worked through the paperbacks, the librarian couldn't help but notice that the same illustrators painted cover after cover.

“Some of these guys did thousands of covers … and they became well known in the illustrator world,” she said. “I was always wondering why I've not heard of a lot of these different illustrators — but some of them I had because they had gone on into the world of … fine Western art. I wanted to put together the exhibit so that people would have the chance to get to know some of these illustrators that never moved beyond being illustrators.”

The exhibit showcases book covers created by six different illustrators from the 1940s through the 1960s.

“The '40s and '50s are really considered the golden age of the Western paperback book, because it coincided with the Westerns of television and movies. That was the time frame that everyone was fascinated with the cowboys and the Indians and everything to do with the West,” she said.

“The thing to remember is these guys lived on the East Coast, so they really had no interaction with real cowboys or the real West. So, they used their imagination to create all this.”

Artistic aptitude

Of the six illustrators Spilman chose for the exhibition, Tom Ryan and Frank McCarthy went on to establish careers as Western painters and become members of the Cowboy Artists of America. The other four — Stanley, George Gross, A. Leslie Ross and Stanley Borack — remained unheralded outside of the publishing industry and now are largely unknown.

For each paperback cover, the illustrators had to create a full painting, composing the scenes with the same eye for perspective, form and figure used in fine artworks.

“They follow the same standards that your fine art artists would use to create these, but they did them so quickly because that's how they got paid, by the number they could create,” she said, surveying the exhibit of gaudy paperbacks under glass and enlarged versions of the flamboyant covers on the walls.

“So, I asked myself, ‘What is art? And who decides what it is?' ”  Although few of the full paintings whipped out to cover the 25-, 35- or 40-cent Western stories survived, the librarian said many of the paperbacks in the exhibit continue to be reprinted.

“What was catching my attention as I was going through them was seeing just the variety of the 4,000 different covers. … A lot of times they would only have, like, the title or just a few sentences of the story,” Spilman said. “These guys had to have been really imaginative to come up with all this.”

Interactive experiences

The librarian included samples of 25 other illustrators' paperback covers on an iPad that is part of the exhibit. But most of the interactive elements are surprisingly low-tech.

For instance, visitors can use magnet boards to combine common Western words like tombstone, sheriff and saloon with images taken from the museum's the Dickinson Research Center to create their own paperback titles and covers. They can snap photos of their cover creations and share them on social media with #mywest.

Attendees also can share their pictures as they step into the action with photo stand-ins for the “Outlaw on Horseback” and “Challenge to Danger” cover images.  “Usually we think of interactive spaces for children, but adults are just as invested in this,” said Inez Wolins, the museum's chief public experience officer.

“All (opening) weekend we saw adults sticking their heads in and people taking pictures of them. It forces them to look at something in a whole new light, so we're actually trying to integrate more interactives within the context of the special exhibitions and the permanent collections.”

Visitors also are asked to literally judge the books by their covers and cast their votes for their favorite cover and illustrator in “The Artistry of the Western Paperback,” Spilman said.

“There are 4,000 of these, and I've done this so long that I'm to the point where most of the time I don't even look inside,” she said.  “But there are some that come through that I have to thumb through. I just have to. You just can't stop because of the wild titles that are on there — and those covers.”