Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Popp Goes the Easel

My copy of the new “holiday issue” of Mystery Scene came winging through the mail slot a couple of days ago, but it wasn’t until this afternoon that I finally had an opportunity to peruse its contents. Included in this issue (#97) are features about Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen, Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason (Voices), collecting vintage Ellery Queen works, and Georgette Heyer’s “delightful mysteries.” There’s also a welcome tribute to the late L.A. journalist and pulp writer Joseph Nazel Jr. (Spinning Target, Canadian Kill), by Gary Phillips; an appreciation of the TV thriller series 24, by Ron Miller; and a fond profile of paperback cover artist Walter Popp.

Who, you ask? And you won’t be alone in doing so. While other mid-20th-century “pulp” paperback illustrators, among them Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire, and Norman Saunders, have enjoyed some latter-day renown, Popp--who died just three years ago--seems to have been quickly forgotten. I don’t find any Web site devoted exclusively to his artistic oeuvre, nor any bound collection of his illustrations for sale. Even the excellent Thrilling Detective Web Site, which gives background on a number of other pulp artists, neglects to so much as mention Popp.

Fortunately, though, Edgar-nominated mystery author and longtime magazine editor Gary Lovisi seeks to remedy those slights with “Popp Art,” a good-sized encomium to the life and labors of this man he describes as “one of the handful of important illustrators whose work ensured the success of the American paperback book and particularly the art of the mystery paperback.” In Mystery Scene, Lovisi recalls Popp’s birth in 1905, his early work for paperback publisher Street & Smith, his service in Europe during World War II, and his marriage to a model whose image he later employed in many of his cover pieces. Getting down to the real subject at hand, he notes Popp’s efforts on a spate of 1950s Mickey Spillane-like tough-guy novels, his skill at producing book jackets that were “hard-boiled [in] style, attitude and content” but “also very atmospheric” and “full of passion and sexual tension,” and his unpremeditated portrayal of future U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, at the time “a practically unknown politician,” on the cover of Stephen Marlowe’s 1955 novel, Model for Murder. (In the cover image shown on the left, Johnson is the man at the desk, while the guy with the glasses and fedora is Popp and the woman with the cigarette in a holder is Popp’s wife, Marie. Simply click on the image to see an enlargement.)

Over the course of a 50-plus-year career, Popp’s art graced books as varied--and forgotten nowadays--as The Big Fear (1951), by Theo Durrant, Dressed to Kill (1954), by Milton Ozaki, and Call Me Deadly (1957), by Hal Braham. He also did work for crime digests such as Manhunt and Verdict (the latter of which assigned Popp to illustrate a 1953 cover story called “Bay City Blues,” by Raymond Chandler). As Mystery Scene observes: “Walter Popp’s illustrations can be found wherever the odds are grim, the men tough, and the dames dangerous.” The artist apparently finished his career in the late 1990s, by which time he was working mostly on covers for cheesy romance novels.

Yet it’s his crime-related images that still attract, inviting us into a world of strong-jawed heroes and hoods, and curvaceous femmes fatales that now seems as long-gone as the Mauritius Dodo. Good for Gary Lovisi for reminding us of Popp’s art.


Rachel Marie said...

Walter Popp and his wife Marie are my grandparents.

Anonymous said...

Michael Popp - Thanks for your recognition of Father's early work. He and my Mother were very passionate about it. Someday I hope people will recognize his greatests works, which your refer to as the "cheesy romance covers". After 25 years of painting what some would most normally call "cheesy pulp covers", his skill as a painter, and at painting beautiful women in particular, excelled to the level of a true master painter. He was quite serious about his work. You're more then welcome to come by and check some out anytime to see for yourself.