Rick Poynor | Essays

It's a Man's World

We seem to have an almost inexhaustible appetite for graphic ephemera. Material that has effectively disappeared, unless you are a collector, constantly returns to us carefully itemised and annotated and beautifully reproduced in books published by the likes of Chronicle and Princeton Architectural Press. Opening one of these volumes offers a particularly intense kind of pleasure. The range and contours of a whole genre of image production are suddenly revealed with a density, clarity and detachment that its original consumers, encountering it on a daily basis, could never have experienced.

So it was with It’s a Man’s World, which I happened to see for the first time in a design book shop. It was immediately obvious that this collection of American men’s magazine covers from the 1950s to the 1970s was more than just the usual exercise in graphic nostalgia. The book is published by Feral House, the Los Angeles imprint founded by Adam Parfrey, a devotee of the dark underside of contemporary life, who first came to attention with the notorious anthology Apocalypse Culture (1987).

Parfrey’s latest project shows hundreds of covers painted by artists who specialised in rugged depictions of torn-shirted tough guys stoically battling with danger. The titles themselves tell a story: Male, Stag, All Man, Man to Man, American Manhood, Man’s Adventure, For Men Only, True Men, Bold Men, Real Men, Rage for Men. These magazines were read by men of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations – guys who are still with us – and one thing they seem to show is that in these years some men felt an almost hysterical degree of uncertainty about their sexual identities. “How masculine are you?” a questionnaire reprinted in the book demands to know. The cover lines dwell obsessively on nymphomania, the perils of homosexuality, how wives sap their husbands’ virility, passion-crazed divorcees, and ways to master the sexually aggressive woman.

In the 1950s these fears were often sublimated. Every available member of the animal kingdom seems out to harm our square-jawed heroes: bears, eagles, big cats, moose, rats, crabs, snakes, leeches, giant otters, and a gang of demented, flesh-ripping weasels (good to discover the origin of the Zappa album title, after all these years). By the 1960s, with women gaining in social and economic confidence and feminism on the rise, masculinity’s desire for redress was expressed with a sadistic relish that now seems incredible in publications freely available on the newsstands. Cover artists such as Norm Eastman depicted glamorous women clad only in their underwear about to be whipped, drowned, burned, electrocuted, branded, impaled and dismembered. The women look mildly alarmed rather than terrified by their persecutors, who are usually Nazis, though occasionally Cubans bearing a resemblance to Fidel Castro. In a few cautionary cases, Nazi she-devils and killer queens gain the upper hand and stick it to the men.

It’s suggested in the book that, from the artists’ point of view, these illustrations were tongue-in-cheek, but we can only guess at the raging psychopathology they fueled. Of all the covers, the images of torture are apparently the most appealing to collectors today. Postmodern ironists to a man, no doubt. So have we outgrown this kind of thing? Heck no. These days we have an even better way of delivering it. You’re using it right now.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Media

Comments [5]

if today's cosmopolitan cover bylines are any indicator, i wouldn't take the underlying psychology too seriously. not only was the subject matter designed to build hype, it was designed to build hype around issues which naturally breed insecurity in most folks—and move issues off of racks fast.

and i'm betting it was easier to build that sort of hype when men were more pressured to be utterly self-sufficient role-model machines. nothing's scarier than that of which few speak, and from what i understand men in that day and age probably didn't spend a whole lotta time discussing erectile dysfunction (or whatever) together at the local coffeehouse.

thematically related imagery can be found in taaschen's beefcake, which is an indespensible guide to physique photography from the same era. sort of like seeing the same issues of masculinity through a slightly different lens.

I think that we, as a collective group, have about as much a chance of outgrowing insecurity (sexual, emotion, intellectual, etc.) as we do outgrowing our stomachs.

Take a look at www.grouphug.us for a laugh, or a cry.

Yesterday I was flipping through Thames & Hudson's Street Graphics Tokyo, of which hentai and sex shows comprise the largest section. I found it really frustrating to flip through page after page of schoolgirls lifting their skirts without so much as a comment from the collection's editors. My frustration was not about what I wanted them to say but about the silence itself; it seemed like a punt. I'm not sure whether it's fair to expect authors to contextualize these collections, but I do know that I'm happy when they do. Vicki Gold Levi and Steven Heller's Cuba Style comes to mind.

Rick, great insight into the psyche of men back then which led to these covers. When I was seeking a way to depict the hidden terrors that many men today hide (including me previous to a diagnosis of prostate cancer) about their own health in a facade of lazy, cavalier and foolish behavior, I turned to these old covers. Using Photoshop, I altered them to reflect what I think is a crisis in men's health today: Men don't read about, think about, talk about doing the right things for their health, and they often let conditions get too advanced before they take action. That was my story, and that led me to create www.MansGland.com with my altered covers. Then I expanded the effort to create www.Pulp-It.com to show altered covers reflecting other terrors in men's lives today....
Kim Garretson

I read Rick's essay with great interest. I for one have been fascinated with the Pulps and particularly the post-world war II male "sweat" magazines. Of particular interest is how these mags portrayed the Nazis in the early 50s, a time before holocaust studies truly kicked in. I recently was invited to write an contextualizing essay for a Taschen book that will feature some of this material. For those who are interested in such things, I offer this short excerpt:

It was not difficult to demonize Nazis. American pulp magazines and B-movies from the late thirties through the early forties were saturated with negative stereotypes. One such was a character played on the screen by Otto Preminger, the sadistic SS colonel with obligatory dueling scar, monocle, and sneer who in his black "Aryan" knight of darkness uniform (perhaps the precursor to Darth Vader) was so convincing that he veritably oozed evil out of every pore. Such despotic characterizations of the enemy served Allied propaganda requirements well for it goes without saying that any enemy, especially Nazis, must be portrayed as inhuman. However, after the war Nazi movie caricatures were deliberately altered to suggest increased levels of psychological complexity, or what the historian Hannah Arendt referred to as the "banality of evil," showing Nazis as more than just black and brown but revealing a middle range of colors, if only to say that "good" and "bad" Germans shared equally in Hitler's crimes. Yet despite these and even more forgiving reappraisals, to put it simply, the enormity of the Holocaust, which began reaching wider public attention after the liberation of the camps and over a decade later with introduction of Holocaust studies, transformed the image of Nazis from mere racist bad-guys into murderous monsters. And once they were so designated the Nazis were not only further vilified but also paradoxically ripe for perversely entertaining exaggerations that at times trivialized the atrociousness of their real crimes.

Men's sweat magazine covers were founts of such trivializing sensationalism. In hyper realistic paintings Nazi barbarity was portrayed as absurd as it was violent and as arousing as it was disturbing. Never was the issue of anti-Semitism raised or the true horrors of the concentration camps honestly depicted. The melodramatic and comic tableaus of whippings, hangings, stabbings, and shootings at the hands of amused SS sadists were not exactly drawn from the pages of history books but sprung from wildly prurient imaginations that made even the most heinous torture seem more like a night at an S&M club. Following in the tradition of 20s and 30s pulp magazine covers that featured scary, threatening scoundrels and distraught, lustful dames usually in peril, the sweat Nazis growled and scowled, as well as abused and amused their way into the deepest fantasies of susceptible men (young and old) who vicariously savored such tawdry displays from safe distances - and did so on a regular basis. . . .

Steve Heller

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