Sunday, September 29, 2013

Covers of Unknown-Part 1

Unknown (later retitled Unknown Worlds) was in print from March 1939 to October 1943. There were thirty-nine issues in all, but only sixteen of those issues featured a full-color cover. I don't know why the editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., decided to switch from illustrated to non-illustrated covers. He must have known that covers sell magazines. If he decided to disregard that and go ahead with a supposedly more dignified cover, then he made what could have been a fatal error. The magazine carried on for more than three years after Campbell made the switch. That suggests a still respectable readership. But non-illustrated covers could not have helped circulation. In my mind, they could only have hurt Campbell's cause. In any case, here are the covers for the first calendar year of Unknown, March through December 1939.

This first cover of Unknown by H.W. Scott (1897-1977) is justly famous. It illustrates Eric Frank Russell's novel "Sinister Barrier," a story of the future, but the faintly Asian figure holding the globe in his taloned hands while looking down on burning ruins suggests the much feared Yellow Peril. The image also anticipates a world in flames, which would soon become a reality.
The cover of the second issue (Apr. 1939) was by Graves Gladney (1907-1976). It's a more conventional, even unremarkable cover. If you had seen it on the newsstand, you would not have known this was a magazine of fantasy. Note that the top and bottom halves of the man's body don't match.
H.W. Scott returned for the cover of the third issue, May 1939. Note that the main title logo is lit by the same effects as the rest of the design.
Scott's illustration for the fourth issue (June 1939) is another unremarkable cover. Was John W. Campbell ashamed of publishing a magazine of fantasy? 
Maybe not, judging by this cover from July 1939. The artist was H.W. Scott. 
Another cover (Aug. 1939) with Oriental imagery and a mundane setting. Except for the ghostly female figure, this looks like the cover of a standard adventure magazine. Art teachers will tell you not to cut your design in half, but it works here. The artist was Graves Gladney.
H.W. Scott did this cover for September 1939, the month the war started.
Don A. Stuart was John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Unknown. It's interesting that he would hold a certain opinion about Weird Tales, yet write a story called "The Elder Gods." The artist was Modest Stein (1871-1958), lover of Emma Goldman and an attempted assassin.
Graves Gladney did this cover for the November 1939 issue of Unknown. The bear looks more like a wolverine.
Finally, Edd Cartier (1914-2008) arrived on the scene, and though this is not his most effective work, it stands apart from the other covers from 1939 for its unambiguously fantastic elements.

Nineteen thirty-nine was the year of the World's Fair in New York City. The overall theme was the bright and shining Future. Unknown was a magazine of fantasy, a genre or collection of genres that cast their gaze into the past. (Science fiction is of course the genre of the future.) Despite that, the covers of Unknown strike me as progressive, forward-looking. For whatever reason, I associate Unknown with the look of the 1939 World's Fair. I think it's because of the streamlined appearance, the clean and uncluttered layout, the contemporary typeface used in the main title. The covers of Weird Tales on the other hand are ornate, with a feeling of the Gothic, the Baroque, or the Victorian. You could never have mistaken one for the other.
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley

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