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!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Diagnosis: A Gentle Madness

Books. Have to have them. Have to hold them, open them, smell them; have to put them on shelf after shelf, sometimes double deep; have to stack them on every flat surface; have to put them in boxes, then label the boxes and stack them; have to continually load ISBN's and LCCN's into my BookCat software so I know what I have, so I won't buy the same book twice...well, not too often, unless it's a hardback of something I just have in paperback, or maybe a first edition, or an illustrated edition, or a limited edition from a small press bound in acid-free paper; or maybe the one with the Krenkle cover rather than the one painted by Frazetta. And they don't really take up too much room...I mean, as long as you can thread your way through the shelves and stacks, as long as they are structurally sound, for the most part, able to withstand all but the worst quakes. And there is always the refrigerator and oven when I start to run out of room; if the house begins to list on its foundation, I can always shift boxes around.

What I've described is a bad case of bibliomania, an extreme passion for collecting, or accumulating, books. I do not have "the gentle madness" as badly as I have described above, nor is the example cited the worse case on record. If you read some of the anecdotal tales related in books about bibliomania, you'll find the story of a man who starved to death because he had no money to buy food, while surrounded by priceless books; you'll also read about the Englishman who, when he filled a house with books, would start construction on another house. These cases are extreme, and collecting books need not develop into something resembling OCD. There are always limits to consider, not the least of which is money.

I like to think that collecting books is a way of bringing order into one's life, a way of preserving something out of the past that, if we let it slip away, civilization will suffer for lack of it. When I see a Kindle commercial, claiming "the book is reborn", I just want to throw something at the screen. A book is a book, and, believe me, a flat screen is not a book. They are the equivalent of the readers we first saw in "Star Trek," but let us not forget that some of Captain Jon Luc Piccard's most prized possessions were bound copies of Homer and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. When the crew of the Enterprise encountered Mark Twain in "Time's Arrow," he told them, quite accurately, "If you want to know who I am, read my books." Of course, these days that also means finding an edition of Mark Twain that has not been censored by some well-meaning liberal academic. When we save books from oblivion or destruction, we also rescue a writer's voice. Those who would otherwise be silenced by time and decay get a chance to live again through us; and we gain a wisdom greater than our own. 

What should you collect? I like to think it unnecessary to advise that you only collect that which interests you, but there are plenty of people who get into book collecting for all the wrong reasons -- they want to become rich, they want to leave something for their children and grand children, or they just want something around that will make people think they are really smart. All these are wrong-headed reasons. You should collect what you want to read. Although it's nearly impossible to read every single book you own, you should not own a book that you would never read.

Me, I have several areas of interest in which I collect books, some fairly generalized, others extremely narrow. I collect anything about Sherlock Holmes; old paperback mysteries; books about Oman; anything about the Byzantine Empire; books about espionage, cryptography, spies and terrorism; anything relating to HP Lovecraft and the fantasy writers of his circle; books about different facets of woodworking and classic hand tools; anything about Doc Savage; Bibles and books of scriptural scholarship; westerns; pulp magazines and reprints of pulp fiction; guidebooks to London; books about Victorian times and books from Victorian times; "Man From UNCLE" books and other tie-in books to 1960's TV shows; art books; criminology and forensic sciences; and biographies; and a few others.

Once you've decided your area(s) of interest, the next thing to do is your homework. You need to learn all the technical terms, the language of book collecting. And you need to learn what pricing trends for books are these days, who is paying what for what in what venue. You'll find out that where you buy a book has more influence on what you'll pay than almost any other factor. For example, what you pay $10,000 for at auction or a high-end bookstore, might be had for $10 at an antique shop where books are only a sideline, or a dollar or less at an estate sale. Just as the intent of collecting should never be to become rich, buying a book or a set should never take the shirt off your back or food off the table.

An interesting area of collection, and one which is still financially manageable, is in the realm of paperback books. Though many book dealers have sought to popularize paperbacks, and thus drive up the prices, they remain poor cousins of the hardback. You can still find very collectible editions of paperbacks without breaking the bank, often in lots on services like EBay; when you buy in bulk you not only save money, but can quickly fill in complete sets of books. For example, on EBay a few years ago, I was able to buy a box full of Margery Allingham books, gaining an almost complete collection of the Albert Campion mysteries in one fell swoop. The same thing happened with a set of Patricia Wentworth's Maude Silver mysteries. One valuable book for paperback collectors is Gary Lovisi's Collectible Paperback Price Guide from Antique Trader. In the world of paperback collecting, there are few as knowledgeable as Gary Lovisi, who is also an expert on Sherlock Holmes.

In book collecting, there is no such thing as an interest too narrow. One woman with whom I used to work collected cookbooks, both old and new. I helped her obtain a few books for her collection when I visited book sales because I knew of her interest. If you have a specific interest area, do let your book collecting friends know so they can keep an eye out for additions.

I have a few Big Little Books. Though I don't collect them per se, many people do and there is a guide book for them. There are even guides for those who collect nothing but the books of a single author, such as L. Frank Baum, the creator of the fabulous literary landscape of Oz. Because there are so many editions of Baum's works, as well all sorts of Oz ephemera, it is an area of interest that is richer than you might believe.

Aside from all the technical and trade guides available (check your local library or look at what's available on Amazon,com) one thing you should do is read memoirs of book sellers, book collectors and those who have documented the "gentle madness" of book collecting. My favorite book in this regard is "The Memoirs of a Book Snake." It is full of humor, insight, and lots of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moments. You might even feel a little less weird after reading all the author went through in search of books. Maybe. Or not.