An Amazing history in Cards!
By Kurt Kuersteiner ©2006 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards for The Wrapper Magazine
It was 80 years ago this month that something amazing happened in American pop culture. Although unnoticed by many, it was an immediate commercial success and soon propelled science into the mainstream consciousness where it has remained ever since. In April of 1926, Hugo Gernsback printed 100,000 copies of a new magazine devoted to science fantasy and futuristic tales. It was the very first science fiction magazine and he called it "Amazing Stories." The first issue nearly sold out.
"Amazing Stories" was filled with stories previously published by writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Soon, other writers stepped forward, and Gernsback began to include stories by newer names like "Doc" Smith, Jack Williamson, and Philip Francis Nowlan. Nowlan's first story, "Armageddon: 2419" introduced a character named Anthony Rogers. He would eventually star in a comic strip, then a radio series, a twelve chapter Saturday serial--and by the 1970s--a major motion picture and his very own television show (not to mention, a card set by Topps). Anthony generated so much money, it's little wonder he was better known as "Buck" Rogers.
But many in the magazine business believe it wasn't the amazing stories that kept the magazine flying off of newsstands, but the fantastic covers. For the entire time Gernsback was editor, the covers were painted by Frank Paul. He was an immigrant from Austria, as was Gernsback, so they spoke the same language, both figuratively and literally. Paul was trained as an architect and artist, and his paintings show a great appreciation of both subjects. Although his human faces are somewhat plain, his cover paintings were usually dramatic compositions of futuristic civilizations, enormous machines, elaborate robots, streamlined spaceships, bizarre creatures, and/or strange alien worlds. He is credited with the first color painting of a space station in 1929, and later that same year, the earliest depiction of a flying saucer... nearly two decades before the national epidemic of UFO sightings.
When Gernsback was forced out of Editorship of "Amazing Stories" in 1929, Paul went with him and did the covers for Gernsback's newest magazine, "Wonder Stories." It was the first competing sci-fi magazine to challenge "Amazing." Paul also went on to do covers for "Planet Stories," "Science Fiction Magazine," and the first issue of a 1939 comic book entitled "Marvel Comics." That issue featured the first appearance of the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, and copies currently sell for twenty to thirty thousand dollars. By the time he retired in the 1950s, Paul had painted over 220 magazine covers, and countless interior black and white illustrations.
Paul said this about his work in a 1938 "Family Circle" interview:
"I get a tremendous kick out of my work. When I run into a story so bizarre that it seems [too impossible], I remind myself that our great, great grandfathers would have pooh-poohed prophecies of radio, television, and aviation... One of the things I enjoy about the yarns I illustrate is the ingenious way in which they go from fact to frightfulness without a struggle... The beauty of the fantasy is that there is no place that the characters can't go... Far be it from me to say that anything is impossible... Illustrating that sort of thing may not be art, but believe me, I never get bored. And sometimes when I'm absorbed in working out some author's idea, I catch myself thinking that maybe it could happen."
Many readers thought the same thing when gazing at Paul's covers. It seemed so incredible and yet, realistic, maybe it could happen. Certainly it was worth the 25 cent admission price to find out! The "Amazing" covers were the first science fiction images seen by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Forrest J. Ackerman (the future publisher of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine). Ackerman recalls his first encounter with Paul's work vividly in an essay published in "Pulp Art," a delightful book by Robert Lesser.
"The first magazine I remember noticing was the October 1926 issue of 'Amazing Stories.' I was nine years old and amazed by the cover... I had seen a circus shortly before I saw that pulp-art cover and had been astonished by the life forms one did not ordinarily see on the streets of Los Angeles: lions, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, zebras and other jungle beasts. On the cover of that 'Amazing' was a creature I hadn't seen in the circus, some sort of incredible crustacean about three times the size of the human being who was looking at it in awe. I too stood looking at it in awe, when suddenly the magazine jumped off the newsstand, grabbed hold of me, and shouted... 'Take me home, little boy, you will love me!'"
Every month, a similar ritual was repeated across the country by an army of eager readers. "Amazing" continued to publish more or less continuously from 1926 until the 1990s! For over 2/3rds of a century of publishing, it changed many editors, formats, artists, and owners, but its impact on science fiction is felt to this day. Steven Spielberg honored it by licensing the name to label his big budget television series that ran from 1985 to 1987. Even the very term "Science Fiction" is derived from Gernsback's word for the stories he published, which he originally called "scientifiction." So it is both appropriate and timely that this magazine and its wonderful covers are featured in its very own card series issued during the 80th anniversary of "Amazing."
Digital Masterpieces (who issued the "Classics NOT Illustrated" card set last year) is the company doing the honors. The new fifty card set is oversized (6 x 4") and laminated. It showcases all of Paul's covers during his nearly four year run with the magazine, as well as some other artists who followed in his steps. The backs contain the table of contents from each issue. The fronts are very colorful and detailed. Best of all, the series is limited to just 400 numbered sets. They retail for $29.95 per set and can be found at the company website, www.morbidmonster.com.
"'Amazing' was the first science fiction genre magazine," wrote David Vaughn of Digital Masterpieces, "so it had no competition until late 1929. In the 1920's, reading was popular since there were no TVs yet and Radios were expensive (and usually limited to only one to a family). In 1926, The Great Depression had not yet begun and with everyday a new device or advancement was being made public. It was an Age of Wonders and mankind was looking to the future.
"Over the years, I've researched how a single advancement led to yet another, and still yet, another ten more. In the Science Fiction realm, it all traces back to 'Amazing Stories,' a single magazine that led to books, paperbacks, comics, films, radio and TV shows, a TV network (the SciFi channel), and a world of technological wonders. It sparked man's imagination at just the right time to bring creative people out of the woodwork. In some alternate universe were Hugo Gernsback was never born, the world there exists in a less imaginative and technologically deprived state."
These cards look great in two pocket sleeves, and go well with another series of regular cards issued a decade before, "Classic Pulps" by Sherry Mini-Mags. That series featured the covers of several sci-fi pulps including "Amazing" and "Science Wonder Stories," but also included an excerpt from each story, which added context to the front image and was a neat touch.
As to the final fate of "Amazing" magazine, it was actually relaunched in 2004, but went on "hiatus" in 2005. So there is always a chance it will return. Hugo Gernsback continued promoting science fiction with his magazines and various business interests. He was a pioneer in radio and television and held 80 patents when he died in 1967. Gernsback was honored with his namesake, the prestigious "Hugo" science fiction achievement award, which is given to great sci-fi writers. Frank Paul died in 1963, but his art has lived on and become some of the most sought after pulp cover art ever made, epitomizing the genre and a bygone era for legions of dedicated fans.
Although many of us were raised on "Star Trek" and the "Star Wars," we all owe a great deal of appreciation to this pioneering magazine for making science fiction commercially viable. Without it, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas would probably be little more than two funky sounding names to the average Joe. So happy birthday to "Amazing" and many happy returns!
Pulp Art, Original Cover Paintings for the American Pulps (by Robert Lesser)
Art of Imagination, 20th Century Vison of Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy (by Frank Robinson)
The Pulp Zone
NNDB (Hugo Grensback bio)
The Non-Sports Trading Card Article Index