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In defense of Rafael DeSoto

Today's artist is Rafael DeSoto.


Many of you have seen some of the pulp covers he created; most likely those for The Spider, Terror Tales, Dime Mystery or Dime Detective. I was recently reading a blog post about David Saunder's book on DeSoto (I can't find the link to the blog anymore), and one of the comments was about how the commenter didn't believe that DeSoto deserved a book, having painted only garish, violent covers. My reaction was immediate; I felt like telling the commenter to go forth and multiply, in slightly different words of course.



The second, and probably better reaction, was to do a show and tell of the wide variety of DeSoto's art, taken in context with a few quotes from the artist himself. I hope they show that he was capable of a wider variety of work, and how editors and publishers got what they wanted from illustrators, which was pictures that sold the magazines. It's easy to form a quick negative impression from low-resolution scans of printed covers that suffered from the limitations of the printing technology of the time. That's why I used the highest resolution scans I could find.

Enough talk, you say, on to the pretty pictures! Patience. A quick recap of DeSoto's career first. He started in the pulp magazines in the late 1920s; it's hard to pin down an exact date. First known covers date from 1930; he continued illustrating pulp covers till the 1950s. Then he switched to other magazines and paperbacks, continuing that till 1963. And after that nearly three decades of teaching till his death in 1992.

All right, stop shoving.

Here he seems to be channeling his inner Baumhofer.

All-Fiction Stories May 1931
All-Fiction Stories May 1931

Here's another western cover, this time more impressionistic (at least, that's what i think)
Triple-X Western September 1931
Triple-X Western September 1931

Here's something that might look more familiar. This is the cover for Complete Western Book Magazine, June 1933. This is either the second or third cover for a Martin Goodman pulp.
Complete Western Book Magazine June 1933
Complete Western Book Magazine June 1933

By the mid 1930s, pulp covers had become more and more garish and action oriented. DeSoto had this to say about painting for pay (from a longer interview by Keith Alan Deutsch):
...
Even in detective covers they would tell me to reveal as much as possible. I don’t know how they published some of them. I used to rip them up, you know. Show half the breast. The legs. Just enough to cover what you couldn’t show. Yes, I was told.
...
There was a lot of censorship in those days, but there were rules like that and an awful lot of pretty raw stuff went through. And when pocketbooks first started in the early ’40s, well most of that stuff was even stronger. I didn’t even read the books after I did a few. All you had to do was show a half-naked woman and a bed. That was a whole other era.

That didn't mean they were all garish, but the market demanded a certain type of illustration. As a professional artist, DeSoto delivered what was asked of him.

All-Detective Magazine October 1934
All-Detective Magazine October 1934
Ten Detective Aces February 1936
Ten Detective Aces February 1936

I cannot omit The Spider, whose outrageous adventures with death counts in the thousands DeSoto was asked to portray. I believe that he did those covers for four years, starting with the October 1939 issue and ending with the final issue in December 1943, as per the Spider Returns site.

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The Spider October 1939

The Spider December 1940
The Spider December 1940

The Spider December 1943
The Spider December 1943

Even though he was doing The Spider covers at the rate of one every month, he still found time to do other covers.

Dime Western Magazine February 1941
Dime Western Magazine February 1941
In the 1940s, he did a lot of Black Mask covers.
Black Mask February 1942
Black Mask February 1942
This is what he had to say about painting covers for Black Mask.
After I started on the important magazines, I always thought that I should do something different with Black Mask. To make it stand out. So I decided to work with very dark backgrounds. So I decided to put jet black backgrounds around the shadows right into the black. Only the light part would show.
When I brought the first one into Mr. Steeger, the publisher of Popular Publications, he hit the top. “Golly, that’s good.” he said. “That’s what I want.”
...
Black Mask November 1944
Black Mask November 1944
I worked very hard to make it distinctive. After a while I got the dark backgrounds and I worked all close up as I explained to you. Look at the gun on your cover. It looks like a cannon. I went to a place where they made props for the theater and I had them build me a .45, exactly authentic to the last detail, out of wood. And he painted it so you couldn’t tell the difference. Due to the shape of the handle, the grip of the hand was different from any other revolver with a .45. And I did sketches of hands holding it in all positions.

And one thing I hated to see was a gun not being held right. It looks like an amateur shooting. If an amateur is going to shoot, he’s not a gangster. He’s not a criminal. One thing you’ve got to say about my Black Mask covers. My villains can shoot!

He also did some Adventure and Argosy covers in the 1940s.
Adventure April 1944
Adventure April 1944

This cover of Argosy brought to you by MyComicShop.com.
Argosy February 1944
Argosy February 1944


Adventure May 1946
Adventure May 1946


By the latter half of the 1940s, the pulps were dying. He switched to westerns, science fiction and men's magazines.
altWestern Story Magazine October 1952
Western Story Magazine October 1952


Fantastic Novels Magazine January 1951
Fantastic Novels Magazine January 1951


Fantastic Novels Magazine November 1950
Fantastic Novels Magazine November 1950


The Card Game, from unknown magazine, 1950s
The Card Game, from unknown magazine, 1950s


July 1956 cover of Men magazine, taken from MensPulpMags.com.
Men, July 1957
Men, July 1957



From the 1950s onwards, he mostly did paperback covers. The one below is a preliminary for a yet to be identified paperback.
Preliminary for unidentified paperback
Preliminary for unidentified paperback

The one below is a cover for Teen-Age Gangs. Picture courtesy Grapefruit Moon Gallery
Paperback cover for Teen-Age Gangs
Paperback cover for Teen-Age Gangs


This one is for Treachery in Trieste.
Paperback cover for Treachery in Trieste
Paperback cover for Treachery in Trieste


That's it for today. If this whetted your appetite for more, you can see more than 100 full page color photos of his original paintings that he did for pulp magazines, men's adventure magazines and paperbacks in David Saunder's book on Rafael DeSoto, The Art of Rafael DeSoto. It's 9 by 12 inches, the right size and shape to display the covers.

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The Art of Rafael DeSoto by David Saunders


It includes a 18 page biography, rare photos from the DeSoto family archives, working drawings, printers proofs and many more interesting things. DeSoto's work speaks for itself as far as I'm concerned.

Thoughts? The comments section is open.

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