I’ve known the name of American publisher Essex House for many years but the books they published, all of which appeared in a frenzy of activity from 1968 to 1969, have never been easy to find in the UK. The company is chiefly of note today for having three original Philip José Farmer novels on their list, all works of fantasy with the erotic side more dominant than in Farmer’s previous work. Erotic fiction with a generic slant was the Essex House speciality, and while the Farmer covers have appeared here before, I’d not seen any other Essex House covers until the discovery of this page which collects 38 of the 42 published titles.
It’s immediately evident looking down the list that the (uncredited) designer managed to forge a distinctive identity for the books at a time when any cover would suffice if the written material was sufficiently pornographic. Many of the covers borrow (or mutate) pre-existing artworks, while others emulate the watered-down psychedelic style that by the late 60s was visible everywhere in the US and much of Europe. These aren’t all great pieces of design but the graphics on erotic titles in the 60s either played safe by favouring text-only covers or sported technically crude emulations of paperback illustration. (For an example of just how technically crude, see this post about some of the many gay pulps on sale in the US.)
Essex House may not have been around for long but they seemed to be attempting something different, at least where the covers were concerned. I’ve only read the Farmer books so I can’t vouch for the other titles but the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction writes that
…about half the 42 titles published by Essex House were sf/fantasy; they included novels by Philip José Farmer, Richard E Geis, David Meltzer (perhaps the most distinguished), Michael Perkins and Hank Stine…of which a number were ambitious, some literary, and most somewhat joyless—even emetic—and redolent of 1960s radicalism.
Pornography as a tool of radical politics had a brief vogue in the late 60s and early 70s, something that’s particularly evident in the underground magazines of the period. The results may be “joyless” to some but then I find a lot of the alleged classics of science fiction joyless so it’s all a matter of taste. There was no equivalent of Essex House in the UK but in the 1970s France had the Chute Libre imprint which not only published all of the Essex House Farmer titles but did so with a collection of equally striking (or “joyless”) cover designs.
Artwork is a solarised version of Le Bout du monde (1949) by Leonor Fini.
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Work by the elusive French artist Raymond Bertrand has appeared here before although the art continues to be more visible (if obscure) than the man himself. Bertrand’s most famous drawings are the naked women that appeared on the cover of issue 28 of Oz magazine, the notorious School Kids Issue, but I don’t think he was credited for the usage and his name is never mentioned when the magazine is discussed. Looking for information about the Chute Libre books at French SF site Noosfere led me to an entry for Bertrand’s work. The list doesn’t include any of the book collections of his drawings but does have these magazine covers which feature some pieces I hadn’t seen before.
Fiction was the leading French SF magazine, and sported a fascinating range of cover art especially from the mid-60s on. Artists at that time included Philippe Druillet and Philippe Caza, both of whom would become big names in the comics world a few years later. Galaxie was the French edition of American magazine Galaxy, and featured unique material among its translations of Anglophone works. Being French, there’s a greater amount of flesh on display than you’d find on magazine covers in the US and UK; some of this is as salacious as anything else from the period although at least one of the artists drawing naked females was a woman, Sophie Busson. Naked females emerging from—or being absorbed by—strange vegetation, polyps or aquatic organisms were Bertrand’s métier so that’s mostly what one finds here. Few of the covers seem to relate to the magazine’s contents, the artists appear to have been free to draw what they liked; in the case of Druillet that means his usual Lovecraftian architecture. An exception is issue 198 of Fiction which has an article about Bertrand’s work by Jacques Chambon: Raymond Bertrand ou de l’amour de l’art à l’art de l’amour. I’m hoping now that someone might be good enough to translate that piece for us lazy Anglophones.
And speaking of former Oz artists, Renaud Leon left a message recently with news that YouTube now has a channel featuring many examples of Jim Leon’s remarkable paintings.
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La Jungle Nue (A Feast Unknown, 1974). Illustration de Alain Le Saux.
Chute libre means “free fall” in French, and here refers to an imprint of French publisher Champ Libre that from 1974 to 1978 reprinted a series of science fiction titles under that name. The imprint is notable for a number of reasons, not least the striking covers which impress with their uniform design and bold imagery. The combination of black cover with vivid artwork is very similar to the covers Penguin were producing for their SF titles a few years earlier but since there’s little written anywhere about the French books I can’t say whether this was an influence or merely coincidence. I’ve not been able to find a complete list of all the illustrators either. At least two of the covers are the work of Moebius, rare examples of him being commissioned outside the comics medium.
The other notable aspect of the imprint is the books themselves which are an odd mix of the outrageous and sexually provocative end of SF spectrum, together with more usual fare. Some of the covers play to the provocation more than is necessary: Michael Moorcock has always been pleased by the attention his work receives in France but I’ll bet he hates that cover. Several of these titles appeared as SF in the 1970s because of other work by their authors despite there being nothing overtly science fictional about The Atrocity Exhibition or Breakfast in the Ruins. Farmer’s A Feast Unknown and The Image of the Beast/Blown are violent and sexually excessive, and feature little genre material, but managed to slide onto the SF shelves for the same reason. Every so often I wonder whether any of these books (or books like them) would be offered to, or accepted by, genre publishers today.
As usual, if anyone can supply information about the missing illustrators then please leave a comment.
Comme une Bête (Image of the Beast, 1974). Illustration by Moebius.
Les Culbuteurs de l’Enfer (Damnation Alley, 1974). Illustration by Jean-Claude Castelli.
Le Chaos Final (The Men in the Jungle, 1974).
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