Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Closing the Book on Nappi

I was very sorry to hear this morning, via Facebook, that Rudy Nappi--an American artist-illustrator whose work graced the covers of so many paperback novels published in the mid- to late-20th century--passed away this last March 13 in his most recent hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Nappi was in his early 90s.

From what I’ve been able to dig up from the Web, he was born Joseph Rudolph Nappi in New York City in 1923, studied at the Art Students League, served with the U.S. Air Force during World War II, and wed a nurse, Margarete “Peggy” Schubert, in 1951. Nappi went on to become a commercial artist as well as “one of the most prolific of all the great pulp artists,” to quote from a blog called The Red Pill Room, written by Ian Ironwood. In addition to creating the immediately recognizable fronts of such paperbacks as Queer Patterns (1952), Reefer Girl (1953), French Alley (1954), and The Bedroom Bolero (1960)--not to mention the covers embedded at the top and bottom of this post--Nappi was responsible for updating the look of two popular mystery series for younger readers. As this site explains,
Over a period from the 1950s through to the late 1970s, Rudy Nappi was the principal cover artist for the U.S. Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, developing in the process what is generally regarded to be the definitive and most recognizable portrayals of all three characters. As one would expect, a healthy selection of artwork from Nappi‘s portfolio was employed by the British publishers, starting with Sampson Low, who used 14 of his cover illustrations.

When [publisher] MacDonald [& Company] took over the reigns in 1968, six out of the eight titles that they published featured Nappi’s handiwork on their dust-jackets. Subsequently, Collins used Nappi covers for six original series titles in 1980 (volumes 50, 51, 53-56), in addition to the softcover
Hardy Boys Adventure Activity Book and the revised edition of The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook.
Nappi’s cover for The Secret of the Forgotten City (Grosset & Dunlap, 1975), the 52nd Nancy Drew adventure, is displayed on the right.

Ironwood, concentrating on the work this painter did for more adult fiction releases, declared Nappi to be his blog’s “Prefeminist Artist of the Month” back in January 2013. He wrote in an obituary just last month that Nappi “always managed to capture a sense of erotic urgency and arousal that other ‘pin-up’ artists rarely did. …
From a marketer’s perspective the kind of work Nappi did is an increasingly lost art; once illustration ruled the advertising marketplace, and Chicago, New York, and other metropolitan areas bristled with commercial artists doing their work the old-fashioned way, with pencil, ink, and paper.

When commercial photography became sophisticated enough to be used in marketing, the periodicals of the mid-20th century began to move away from illustration and toward illustrative photos; while that, too, is an art, the work that Nappi and his colleagues cut their teeth on dried up over time. Only on novel covers and the occasional bit of nostalgia did you see a hint of this again.

What is ironic is that the “sleazy” work that these artists did, and Nappi in particular, was brilliant illustration that conveys some very primal and powerful emotion. In the way that master artists do, Nappi’s technique became refined over time, and according to the dictates of the market. But for me his best work continues to be the mid-century pulp illustrations he did so masterfully.
I showcased one of those pulpish fronts (from 1959’s Blonde Bait, by Ed Lacy) in a 2010 post on this page, but hadn’t yet devoted any further attention to his talents. Fortunately, others have more than made up for Killer Covers’ lack of Nappi façades. Try any or all of the following links to enjoy more of his memorable artistry:

Pulp Covers: The Best of the Worst
American Gallery
Vintage Romance Covers
Vintage Paperbacks & Digests

Finally, blogger Ironwood notes that Rudy Nappi died only three days after his wife, who went on March 10 of this year. This must indeed be a hard time for their family, but they can rest assured that although the artist is gone, his work lives on and will continue to be appreciated by so many of us.

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