Books: J. David Spurlock on The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage: Queen of Pin-Up Art

A secret history ... and her secret story.

By , Columnist

As the editor and publisher of Vanguard Productions, J. David Spurlock has overseen the release of a multitude of books over the course of his lifetime. Given that his own history is intertwined with those of dozens of past masters and living legends of illustration and comics, it’s little surprise that his imprint’s catalog features the work of such luminaries as Neal Adams, Carmine Infantino, Frank Frazetta, Jim Steranko, Joe Kubert and John Buscema, among others.

Spurlock is also the author an impressive number of books, including Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos, The Frazetta Sketchbook, Jeffrey Jones: The Definitive Reference, and How to Draw Chiller Monsters, Werewolves, Vampires & Zombies, which we discussed in an earlier installment of this column.

Still, as impressive as all of the above truly is, Spurlock’s latest book, a collaboration with noted art collector Stephen D. Korshak, just might be the crowning achievement of his career. An in-depth biography of Margaret Brundage—one of the most important, influential, and largely overlooked women to have ever plied her trade in the popular arts—it also proved to be one of the more difficult projects he’s ever undertaken, for reasons he details below.

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Just so we’re all on the same page, who was Margaret Brundage?

Margaret Brundage has long been known as "The Queen of the Pulps"—primarily for her historic run of 66 eerily sexy covers for Weird Tales pulp magazines in the 1930s. Brundage has ever been as mysterious as the works of Weird Tales authors including H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Conan creator, Robert E. Howard. Her paintings of smoldering nude and semi-nude women with overtones of bondage, lesbianism, and possibly flagellation were ahead of her time, very popular but—especially for her times—very controversial.

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So, how did you get involved in this project, why did you take it on, and did you have any misgivings or concerns going in?

My collaborator, Stephen D. Korshak, was discussing artists we should do books on to follow our seminal collaboration, The Paintings of J. Allen St. John. On most of them, I wondered if interest would support a book. Yet, when he mentioned Brundage, I was immediately captivated.

She always seemed as intriguing as her work. I felt that the book must be done. Now, after much work by various contributors, at long last the world will have a monograph on the ground-breaking first female pulp cover artist with a revelation of a biography, rare works, photos and, all of her legendary pulp covers reproduced with state-of-the-art technology.

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So what about her work made it so powerful and unique?

Mrs. Brundage was an innovator who created a hybrid between pin-up, fantasy and horror art. Her work garnered great attention and controversy before anyone knew the artist was a woman. Once it was revealed that M. Brundage was a woman, the controversy became an outrage. Still, the editor urged her to continue the sexy, mysterious imagery that she so quickly became known for. Most of her pulp art was in the unusual medium of pastels which, among other traits, brought a unique look to her moody, sensationalistic paintings of women in peril. Margaret was always fascinated by the feminine form and brought women to the pulps as never before — not just as her subject matter, but there is evidence that her work also drew a surprisingly high number of women readers.

Weird Tales for Sept 1937.jpg

Given that she produced such a small body of work—a total of 66 covers, as you mentioned earlier—how much of an impact has her work really had on her fellow artists, on pop culture, and upon American culture, in general?

Sixty-six covers, spanning a decade, on the title that launched the new genre of "weird fiction" in its golden era, is an absolutely landmark run. Her covers sold the magazine as much or more than the stories by Lovecraft, Bloch, Howard and other famous authors. Brundage influenced many of her contemporaries including Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, and the early Saucy Movie Tales covers of Norm Saunders. Not only this but she was the forerunner of modern female masters of fantastic art including Olivia [De Berardinis], Doris Vallejo, Julie Bell, and Rowena [Morrill]. The latter contributed a foreword for The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage.

Margaret is remembered in all sorts of places from a recent New York Times article, to a 1990s Playboy article, and she was discussed in Law & Order: Criminal Intent: Season 4, Episode 2 “The Posthumous Collection” [which originally aired on 3 Oct. 2004].

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Well, if you don’t mind my playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, if she was so important, and so influential, why hasn’t anyone done a book on her before now?

She has always been a total mystery woman. Everything ever known about her stems from two interviewers who tracked the artist down, in her elder years, shortly before her death. Other than a few basic questions like “where were your parents from” and “where did you study art,” their inquiries were pretty much about her decade as the "Queen of the Pulps." No one ever knew the rest of her life was as interesting as her cutting edge pulp art. That and her covers have run in books on both Weird Tales and the pulps in general.

With some intense investigative reporting, we finally have a revealing look at this revolutionary, and tracked down her original art—both pulp and non-pulp—to get better reproductions than the pulps ever had.

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What other difficulties did you and your fellow editor face in putting this book together?

Stephen and I both worked on tracking down her highly coveted original works. Stephen started collecting all that was known on her. He acquired guest essays from Weird Tales historian Robert Weinberg; Men's Adventure Magazines: In Postwar America co-author George Hagenauer, and Stephen's father, First Fandom member and Shasta publishing founder, Melvin Korshak. The elder Korshak, along with his friend Forrest J. Ackerman, had met Brundage in 1940.

Also included is R. Alain Everts’ interview with Brundage and a feature originally for Playboy by acclaimed Mr. Sardonicus author Ray Russell.

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How difficult was it to dig up information about Brundage’s personal life and her world, and how long did it take you to put all of the pieces together?

As I was assembling, digesting, and editing, all of that, a sixth sense told me that we were still looking at the tip of a very elusive iceberg. It was only then that I started digging deep to find what had never been known before. The results are my included major biographic supplement, "The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage." I became obsessed with unraveling the mysteries and worked around the clock for many months, often only to find key witnesses had died in the last few years and some others in, literally, the last few hours! I sometimes have to choke back tears when discussing some of the details.

One of my most important finds was Margaret's beloved daughter-in-law, who was in her mid- 80s in a nursing home, and only able to answer a few questions a week. She blew the story wide open. I found her just in time. Since the book was sent to press, she too has passed away.

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What other kinds of surprises, pleasant or otherwise, did you encounter while working on this book?

A wild variety of things, from The Haymarket Massacre to Walt Disney; from the wildly bohemian Dil Pickle Club to McCarthyism; Bronzeville, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Nat King Cole, the Weather Underground, civil rights, Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson, the College of Complexes, President Obama's alleged secret, real father...

Margaret Brundage's life was an amazing ride.

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Did your research, and what you discovered, alter your opinion of Brundage’s work or her accomplishments in any significant way?

Yes. I started seeing greater depth in her work. Her inclusion of people of color... how she did her best to, at least slightly, empower the women she painted. Prior to Brundage, women were seldom the focus of pulp covers. When they were, like in the Spicy covers by Margaret's contemporary, H.J. Ward, the women were helpless, hysterical or cowering.

If Brundage was assigned to paint a woman in bondage with some terrible act about to befall her, she would show the ingénue as either not giving up or totally indifferent to the situation—but not hysterical or cowering. If she were assigned something with a whip, she would portray a woman in the power position with the cat of nine tails.

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What did you get from doing all of that hard work on this project that you might not have received from working on your other projects?

Researching the lives of Margaret and her husband Slim revealed America’s radical history and how it has been covered up in our history books. The subtitle to my “Secret Life of Margaret Brundage” is “Slim and Margaret: A Bohemian Romance of The Chicago Renaissance.” It is their story in the birth of the American counter-culture.

What do you hope that this volume does for its subject?

To reveal, for new generations, Margaret, her work, and her life with—and without—Slim; and what was important to them.

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How about the readers? What do you hope that they get from reading this book?

My last major book was How to Draw Chiller Monsters, Vampires, Werewolves & Zombies. That was published by the Random House imprint Watson-Guptill and reached #18 on Bookspan’s bestselling art book list. Most of my readers are art aficionados, artists and pop culture enthusiasts. They will be very happy with the Brundage book. The in-depth research will be a bonus to them. Still, we hope a broader audience will get the chance to enjoy the exotic human interest and romance of Margaret’s life.

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Let’s say there’s someone out there reading this who is not quite convinced that they should check out The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage. What might you say to sway their opinion?

If they like sex, art, social justice, real-life drama, passion, and/or intrigue, this book is for them. If they care nothing about any of those subjects, I have no idea what they should read.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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