Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Roy Krenkel, Ace Books & Edgar Rice Burroughs

I've been a collector of Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks for a few decades, and a reader even longer than that. In just another year, it will have been 100 years since The Princess of Mars was published in the magazine All-Story under the title Under the Moons of Mars. He went on to publish dozen of books in various series: Venus, Tarzan, Pellucidar, the Moon, Kaspak and others. By the end of the 1950's, interest had waned in everything but Tarzan, and even the Ape Man was better known through films and television than books.

In the 1960's, all that changed when Ace Books began republishing the Burroughs library in paperback with exciting new covers and frontispieces. Although several artists were used, the artist who first caught my eye was Roy G Krenkel, a skilled penciller and inker who had learned his craft after World War II at the School of Visual Arts, then known as the Cartoonists & Illustrators School. 

Roy Krenkel

Like other aspiring artists at the time, Krenkel found his way into the pulp magazines where he inked illustrations for various mystery and science fiction titles. At one time, he shared a studio with author Harry Harrison (who started as a commercial artist) and Wally Wood, so well known to comics fans and readers of Galaxy Magazine. In an interview, Harrison remembered Krenkel as a "master penciller." Krenkel also found work in the burgeoning comic book industry.

And then came Ace Books and a renewal of my interest in the non-Tarzan tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Oddly enough, it was not one of his Mars books that caught my eye, but one from his lesser known stories set upon Venus, Escape on Venus. The sight of that orangeish cover with its impossibly elegant airplane with its vaguely insectoid wings and impossibly small propeller proved a fatal attraction to me.

I was hooked, so I had to go back and get the first in the series, Pirates of Venus. It was the story of one Carson Napier, an Earthman who did not set out for Venus (Amtor to its inhabitants) but ended up there anyway. Of course, as with all Burroughs' books, the story is absolutely true, but, this time, instead of receiving visits or manuscripts, Burroughs received Carson's tales through mental telepathy.

One trait of Krenkel's art obvious from the first is his elegance of line, and then there is his subtle use of color, which manages to survive the commercial printing process more or less intact. Everybody knows the old adage, you can't judge a book by its cover, but, at the same time, when your book is just one of many crowding each other at the newsstand, having a killer cover does not hurt. 

Above are three of the covers Krenkel did for Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars series, most of which detailed the adventures of Captain John Carter of Virginia. Even though nearly a century has passed since Captain Carter was first overcome by a strange gas in a cave, awakening to find himself upon the Red Planet, the tales do not seem to me dated in any way, though some of the current generation might have some problem understanding the concept of honor, it being so rare these days. Krenkel, through his his delicate lines and subtle colors was able to capture the romantic nature of these tales.

When Roy Krenkel turned his attention to Burroughs' Pellucidar, that land hidden at the center of the Earth, where surface dweller David Innes won for himself a kingdom, he was faced with a different sort of venue. Here we had jungles, and people who could have been from the stone age, and of course dinosaurs and other fantastic fauna. 

Krenkel's solution for capturing the spirit of Pellucidar had less to do with highly detailed human figures than it did with colors, contrasts and the forced perspective of distance. Being on the interior of the Earth, Pellucidar had no real horizon, merely a line of sight that faded upward into the distance. Also, the light in Pellucidar was provided not by the sun, but by a luminescence that remained stationary at the central point of the sky. In other words, Krenkel's paintings of Pellucidar always had to show a skyless realm ever at high noon. The lack of a sky did work to Krenkel's advantage in one way, however, and that was in leaving the upper third of the illustration empty for the title and author.  

Krenkel also drew and painted covers for other Ace editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs series titles, each one capturing the essence, the spirit of the story. Though other artists have illustrated other editions of Burroughs' work, I think of Roy Krenkel as being the artist best suited for Burroughs' prose. In addition to the covers, Krenkel also drew pen-and-ink frontispieces for the books.

In a way, the power of Krenkel's artistry is best illustrated when there are no colors, when all he has to speak for him is the cleanness and sweep of a line. Form is laid bare, and we see his mastery of both man and beast, his ability to conjure depth from the flatness of paper. Even here, though, where the vision is by necessity stark, Krenkel still manages to capture the vigorous spirit of Amtor, the savage mystery of Barsoom.

If you want to collect the works of ERB, you have many choices, but I think it would be a good idea to start with the Ace editions of his work, while they are still readily available in used bookstores and on-line, either through sellers or on auction sites, and still at very reasonable prices. For those o you also interested in the art of Roy Krenkel, his work has been published in book form by Vanguard Publications and is available from the Vanguard website or, like everything else these days, it seems, from While collecting a series of books or the complete works of a writer can be very satisfying, complementing that collection with the work of a specific artists can be even more rewarding, for in pursuing the artist, you will discover other collectible books and magazine about which you would not otherwise have known. Good hunting!

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