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Rudolph Belarski
Field Cover artist


Rudolph Belarski (born 27 May 1900 in Dupont, Pennsylvania - died 24 December 1983) was a renown artist of pulp magazine, paperback and men's adventure magazine covers.[1]

Contents

Biography

Belarski’s professional career started with a simple illustration on a whitewashed wall at a Dupont, Pennsylvania coal processing plant. Once the artwork was discovered his bosses set him to painting safety posters while still in his teens. At the age of 21 he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York to fine tune his enormous talents. The management at Pratt Institute was so impressed with his talents, in 1929, several years after he had graduated, Belarski was invited back to teach commercial art.

It was in the late 20’s that pulp magazines beckoned while he was still instructing at the Pratt. Pulpwood magazines had a voracious appetite for artwork, as newsstands were filled monthly with their provocative four-color covers. His first covers were destined for the air pulps being published by Dell. Aviation covers dominated Belarski’s easel with only a few exceptions until the mid-30’s when he started doing covers for Ned Pines and the Thrilling Group of titles. The number of titles being produced by Thrilling far exceeded those being produced by Dell, and Rudolph Belarski was one of the main illustrators for the publisher.

Early in 1937 Frank A. Munsey Company, publisher of Argosy and several detective titles, commissioned Belarski for their magazines, while still hard at work on covers for Thrilling. It was during busy times that Belarski would split his time between New York and cabins in Maine or Canada. Painting covers in the light of day while camping. Sometimes polishing off a canvas and shipping it out in a cardboard box overnight.

During World War II, Belarski continued to send work in to Ned Pines, and also entertained troops overseas in British hospitals. Between paper shortages during the war and a shrinking market for pulps, Belarski made the partial jump to paperback covers for Popular Library, also owned by Pines. It was late in 1951 that Belarski made the jump to strictly paperbacks, forever leaving the ragged edged pulpwood magazines behind. It’s a testament to Belarski’s talent that avid collectors of both paperbacks and pulps value his work highly.

Genres

This pictorial history of Rudolph Belarski’s pulp covers is divided up into seven different chapters. Ranging from adventure through weird menace, Rudolph Belarski’s eye for composition, color and action was rarely matched.

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Adventure fiction

Of all the genres that pulp magazine publishers published, the adventure genre were perhaps had the largest readership. Titles like Argosy, Thrilling Adventure, All-American Fiction, along with dozens of other adventure titles screamed for the readers attention. Their fiction spanned from ancient historical to future science. Characters sprang from their pages into the popular culture conscience. Characters like Tarzan, Doctor Kildare, Horatio Hornblower, John Carter of Mars, crept into the lives of their readers and spawned a new breeds of entertainment in the form of comic books, paperbacks and television.

Adventure fiction magazines continued to change to match the tastes of their readers. In the mid 30’s, French Foreign Legions fought and died in Saharan Africa. World War One doughboys bled in the trenches, and cannonballs shredded canvas sails fired by British Man o’ Wars. Archaeologists discovered tombs, and musketeers crossed swords on French soil. The horrors of real Europe had not invaded American shores and escape meant more of past adventures than present conflicts. A not so subtle change in story and cover art occurred as Germany, Italy and Japan began their wars of conquest. Stories of Yellow Peril sprinkled with Nazi Spies dotted the pages. Real war was soon to follow.

Belarski’s cover illustrations ran the gamut as well. In his covers you could almost see the sweat forming on the brow of some explorer hacking through an African jungle. The bullets tearing through the jodhpurs of some pith helmeted adventurer. Or see the sword that is about to decapitate the reader being swung by a Russian Cossack. Working for both Munsey’s Argosy and Pine’s Thrilling Adventures, Belarski brought to life many a dashing swashbuckler. As well as brought to life our fear of an unscrupulous Japanese invader.

Although adventure fiction magazines were among the last to die out when the pulps faded into obscurity, Rudolph Belarski turned in his last canvases for Argosy and Thrilling Adventures early on during World War II. For Belarski, his art was going to change course back to his past where he first got his start in painting covers for the aviation magazines… this time illustrating British, Canadian and American aviators.

During the late 20’s, pulp publishers were trying specialized titles, magazines with fiction that centered on a central theme. Gangsters, Fire Fighters, Spies, Navy Stories and flying into to fill a void came aviation magazines. Air Stories from Fiction House was the first aviation title, but it was soon followed by a host of others, including Dell’s War Birds. Belarski’s talented brush produced art for nearly all of them.

Aviation

Nearly a decade after World War I ended, and another decade prior to World War II, aviation pulps had stories about barnstorming, flying circuses, postal carriers by aircraft and of course those daring flying knights of World War I. Aviators from the Great War were romanticized well before the pulp wood editors got their hooks into them. Flying machines made of canvas and wood, exceeding speeds of 60 mph, looping and rolling without parachute or fear, World War I aviators made the perfect subject for countless covers.

Instead of depicting dogfights from afar, Belarski got us in tight with the action. Tightly cropped faces staring through their gun sights. Searchlight blinded pilots making a strafing run on a German airfield. Wounded defiant pilots cursing an unseen enemy as he goes down in flames.

Pulp magazines started to make the change from World War I stories to more modern yarns just prior to America being embroiled in the conflict. Without American boys officially in the war, Ned Pines started RAF Aces, highlighting Canadian and British RAF pilots’ desperate battle against the Nazi Luftwaffe. This magazine did not last too long as Pearl Harbor changed everything.

Detective fiction

Detective pulps were one of the mainstays of pulp publishing. The number of murders that filled the pages of all the titles would have packed the morgues in every large city in America. Pulp readers couldn’t get enough and the number of detective titles found monthly on newsstands dwarfed almost all other genres outside of westerns.

With Frank Munsey and Ned Pines, Belarski had a continuous market for cover art. For Munsey he painted covers for Double Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly. For Pines’ Thrilling Group he decorated the covers for a myriad of magazines with Thrilling Detective, G-Men and Popular Detective as the largess of most of his hard work. The problem that Belarski was faced with though was his need for models to pose for the scenes to be painted. Planes and battle scenes were one thing, but full figured women bound and gagged was another. Belarski liked to paint while in the wilderness of Maine or Canada, and bringing models even to his home studio in New Rochelle was difficult and expensive. Like Norman Saunders, Belarski hired a photography studio to shoot images for his reference images.

Belarski filled his detective canvases with action seemingly an instant away from mayhem and that moment just after. A scream captured just prior to it being heard. Gunshot frozen a scant microsecond before the bullet hits. Or the body yet to fall, mortally wounded with a dagger protruding from his back. Belarski became known for his women, both in peril and creating danger. Women were never in repose unless trussed, perhaps gagged and/or dead. Outside of having more clothes, Belarski’s women would have been comfortable on the covers of Spicy Detective. For the men, the weapons used included the famous Thompson submachine gun, the infamous German Luger, plain knives and deadly .45 automatics. A male model used at length appears to be Edward Magner, who posed with George Rozen for the famous hawknosed countenance of The Shadow. Belarski filled the covers for many detective pulps for nearly fifteen years and only switched to paperbacks when the pulps died out from under him. Certain paperback covers grace slightly repainted pulp covers, either used on the cheap or more likely a tribute to his powerful images.

Hero pulps

The Hero pulp was invented by Street & Smith, publisher of The Shadow Magazine. Like any other genre, pulp publishers jumped on the bandwagon to capitalize on the good idea. Ned Pines and his Thrilling Group were no different. Less than a year after The Shadow hit the stands, The Phantom Detective took up his cape and powers of deduction to battle evil. Written by a host of authors, The Phantom Detective sold well, but never in the numbers The Shadow, The Spider, or even Doc Savage did.

It was eight years after first publishing The Phantom Detective that Pines decided to make a change with his straight-laced detective pulp Black Book Detective. Pines commissioned pulp veteran Norman Daniels to produce a pulp hero whose monthly stories would be featured in Black Book Detective. Daniels’ The Black Bat shares an unlikely heritage with DC Comics' Batman in that they both appeared at about the same time in 1939 and both have bat-like personae.

What ties these two hero pulp characters together is a decision by the art director at Thrilling to feature the main characters cowled or masked face floating above the action on the cover. Years after Belarski had retired, he once complained to an interviewer that those cover constraints were a pain in the ass, yet his deft hand with composition and design made the best of the repeating theme. A number of the original Black Bat covers were repainted with the floating head removed and turned into paperback covers. This could only have been done if the foreground action was sufficient, and quite obviously it was as murder and mayhem once again targets innocent victims. The Black Bat or The Phantom Detective swing into action, bringing the guilty party to justice. Where The Shadow, The Spider or Doc Savage fought against more desperate odds, The Black Bat or The Phantom Detective’s exploits dealt in more down to earth crime and punishment. Although you would not be able to tell that from the lurid, action packed covers brought to life by Rudolph Belarski.

Horror

It was early 1932 and Popular Publications’s co-founder and publisher Henry 'Harry' Steeger was looking for companion magazine to go with his hit publication Dime Detective. With just a small twist of a name, Steeger invented Dime Mystery Book and published what was billed as a novel, albeit an abridged version in a 128-page pulpwood magazine. After about a year the numbers showed that the reading public did not take to the idea and Steeger found he needed to cancel the magazine or change the format. Remembering a trip to Paris, Steeger decided to pattern story lines around the theme made popular by The Theatre du Grand Guignol. It was there that patrons viewed ghastly and ghoulish theatrics. Whipping, flaying, dismemberment were a daily diet of the theater and the appalling scenes made quite an impression on Steeger. With a slight change to the title, Dime Mystery Magazine was reborn as the first weird menace pulp.

An axiom in the pulp publishing business was if you cannot come with a good idea on your own, you steal it from another, and Ned Pines saw the numbers for Popular’s Dime Mystery and their subsequent titles, Horror Stories and Terror Tales and cloned it with Thrilling Mystery. The formula was to have some impossible gruesome event occur and have it all wrapped up with a “plausible” ending by story’s end. Authors like Hugh B. Cave, G. T. Fleming-Roberts, Paul Ernst, Ray Cummings, and Henry Kuttner churned out the blood and gore stories by the fistful. Titles like Black Wings of Death, The Thing That Dined on Death, Dragon of the Gobi, Cargo of Horror and Doom That Dwelled Within lurched across newsstands nationwide.

Rudolph Belarski was no stranger to the macabre cover, and dug into this genre with gusto. Decapitations, giant snakes and women being tossed into a roaring flame was typical fare for the weird menace magazines, and after they died out due to censorship wouldn’t be seen again until Max GainesEC Comics recycled the idea in his horror comics of the 50’s.

Of all the mainstream genres that pulp publishers produced titles for, Belarski had his hand in on almost all of them.

Science fiction

Science fiction as a magazine genre has been credited to Hugo Gernsback and his Amazing Stories. Yet Argosy was printing fantastic fiction of authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, A. Merritt and others nearly a decade prior to Amazing Stories. It was late in the ’30s when Belarski was asked to contribute his visions of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. Belarski also painted covers for Thrilling’s Startling Stories, one of the leading science fiction magazines of the era.

Westerns

Western pulps along with detective titles were some of the best and most read magazines published. Belarski’s output was minimal, and the reasons for it are perhaps lost forever. His work for the Thrilling Group included West, which was bought from Doubleday and Popular Western. A number of covers also for Munsey with Silver Buck Western and Big Chief Western among the body of work within the western theme covers.

Sports

Sports pulps were a minor number of magazines produced. Nearly every publisher had his line of sports magazines, but the numbers of copies sold outside of the granddaddy Street & Smith’s Sport Story Magazine were minimal. For Belarski, the vast majority must have been a snap, with minimal background action and a simple figure kicking a football, or perhaps fielding a baseball was all that was going on. The one exception was the war/sport story theme covers during World War II. War theme backgrounds highlighted by a sport figure foreground were all the rage, and Belarski didn’t disappoint with a few of his own versions.

Common themes

Living skeletons. Walking boneyards. Specters of dread and doom. Fantastic images designed to evoke an emotional response to shock and titillate the reader. Rudolph Belarski’s use of these skeletal remnants span from aviation pulps through hero and detective magazines as well as where you’d imagine they’d be, a weird menace cover.

Belarski’s beady-eyed hooded allegory of death jumps off the printed page like a thunderbolt. It commands our attention and was a favorite cover scheme of not only Rudolph Belarski but used by a number of the great pulp artists. George Rozen used the same theme for The Shadow covers and other magazines. Norman Saunders had a dancing skeleton on Complete Detective. Frederick Blakeslee had animated corpses flying World War I airplanes against G-8 in G-8 and his Battle Aces.

For Belarski, the constant theme he stressed was involving the reader in his action. The covers for pulp magazines were designed to appeal to the reader before they even knew what they were getting inside. Fantastic images, bold color, outrageous action, all crammed on the newsstands of Depression Era America. The American pulp publisher knew that their audience was looking for escape. The pulpwood editor knew that action and adventure counted more than intricate plot. The art director and publisher knew which artist would sell more magazines. It was a cold hard fact that some publishers couldn’t pay their authors for stories, but the artist’s fee was paid for up front because it would be the cover that sold the magazine not the half-cent per word starving unknown author. Rudolph Belarski’s career lasted through a depression, and the eventual death of the pulps. He continued on in paperbacks, but the best work of his career was with those 128 page untrimmed wonders known as the pulps.

References


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