We seem to have an almost inexhaustible appetite for graphic ephemera. Material that has effectively disappeared, unless you are a collector, constantly returns to us carefully itemised and annotated and beautifully reproduced in books published by the likes of Chronicle and Princeton Architectural Press. Opening one of these volumes offers a particularly intense kind of pleasure. The range and contours of a whole genre of image production are suddenly revealed with a density, clarity and detachment that its original consumers, encountering it on a daily basis, could never have experienced.
So it was with It’s a Man’s World, which I happened to see for the first time in a design book shop. It was immediately obvious that this collection of American men’s magazine covers from the 1950s to the 1970s was more than just the usual exercise in graphic nostalgia. The book is published by Feral House, the Los Angeles imprint founded by Adam Parfrey, a devotee of the dark underside of contemporary life, who first came to attention with the notorious anthology Apocalypse Culture (1987).
Parfrey’s latest project shows hundreds of covers painted by artists who specialised in rugged depictions of torn-shirted tough guys stoically battling with danger. The titles themselves tell a story: Male, Stag, All Man, Man to Man, American Manhood, Man’s Adventure, For Men Only, True Men, Bold Men, Real Men, Rage for Men. These magazines were read by men of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations – guys who are still with us – and one thing they seem to show is that in these years some men felt an almost hysterical degree of uncertainty about their sexual identities. “How masculine are you?” a questionnaire reprinted in the book demands to know. The cover lines dwell obsessively on nymphomania, the perils of homosexuality, how wives sap their husbands’ virility, passion-crazed divorcees, and ways to master the sexually aggressive woman.
In the 1950s these fears were often sublimated. Every available member of the animal kingdom seems out to harm our square-jawed heroes: bears, eagles, big cats, moose, rats, crabs, snakes, leeches, giant otters, and a gang of demented, flesh-ripping weasels (good to discover the origin of the Zappa album title, after all these years). By the 1960s, with women gaining in social and economic confidence and feminism on the rise, masculinity’s desire for redress was expressed with a sadistic relish that now seems incredible in publications freely available on the newsstands. Cover artists such as Norm Eastman depicted glamorous women clad only in their underwear about to be whipped, drowned, burned, electrocuted, branded, impaled and dismembered. The women look mildly alarmed rather than terrified by their persecutors, who are usually Nazis, though occasionally Cubans bearing a resemblance to Fidel Castro. In a few cautionary cases, Nazi she-devils and killer queens gain the upper hand and stick it to the men.
It’s suggested in the book that, from the artists’ point of view, these illustrations were tongue-in-cheek, but we can only guess at the raging psychopathology they fueled. Of all the covers, the images of torture are apparently the most appealing to collectors today. Postmodern ironists to a man, no doubt. So have we outgrown this kind of thing? Heck no. These days we have an even better way of delivering it. You’re using it right now.