Flying Saucers Over the Art Department!


On Design

How the book designers of the fifties and sixties tackled alien invasions. 

A still from Forbidden Planet, 1956.

It’s impossible to know what sort of cover design will make a book fly off the shelves. Through timidity, this often leads to a certain monotony in covers, especially when they’re genre specific—“If it worked before, it’ll have to work again, eventually.” At times the uniformity is comical: it’s hard for book people of a certain age not to remember, say, the gothic romance subgenre without bringing to mind the same cover that was on every one by the end of the sixties—a woman, at night, dashing (often in a white nightgown) from a darkened mansion in sinister woods. Familiarity bred contentment; every reader knew what to expect when they saw the lady running.

Flying saucers as a phrase entered the modern English vocabulary at the end of June 1947, immediately after the initial sightings by Kenneth Arnold in Washington State—which, as it happened, turned out to be the first of thousands of such sightings. The subject was becoming more popular by the week, and publishing houses such as Henry Holt, Fawcett, and Citadel were quick to recognize the need for books on it. But what kind of a cover should go on a book about flying saucers? At the outset, there was no consensus as to what the saucers even actually looked like: they were described as blinking lights, purple blobs, flying wings, boomerangs, shiny metal balls, floating kerosene lamps, pie plates, hubcaps from an old Terraplane; in photos, during the first ten years, the most popular model resembled either the top of a chicken incubator, or part of the casing of a 1937 Electrolux vacuum cleaner. 

If no preconceived image of flying saucers existed, imagine the confusion surrounding whoever flew these saucers. They were Russians, possibly, or U.S. airmen, some believed. Satan, said fundamentalist ministers. Atomic fear, said Jung. The early days of any new genre inevitably see the blossoming of unhindered imagination, and our notions of saucer pilots were especially random in those first years: onboard we might’ve found intelligent insects, sky amoebas, animated tree stumps, or female space commanders straight out of a prewar serial. Only later did the genre’s parameters in respect to aliens harden into, first, an image of benevolent if astonishingly boring blond, blue-eyed Space Brothers, indistinguishable from Perfect Tommy save for their longer hair; and then into what’s today the far more inescapable image of malevolent little Grays, staring blankly, offering no wisdom, wielding Cronenbergian probes with alacrity.


For books that were, at least nominally, nonfiction, the flying-saucer subgenre had cover art that was wildly imaginative. But hardcover publishers generally played it safe. Early books on flying saucers tended to come in one of four designs: typeface alone, either on a plain dust jacket or embossed onto the book (The Coming of the Saucers, Amherst, 1952); random photos of unrelated astronomical phenomena (Flying Saucers and Common Sense, Citadel, 1956); grainy photos of “saucers” taken directly from the book (The White Sands Incident, Best Books, 1966); or spooky, ethereal illustrations based loosely on photos (Flying Saucers Have Landed, Werner Laurie, 1953).





Even so, the most revealing example of how seriously publishers (and audiences) took flying saucers is the UK edition of H. T. Wilkins’s Flying Saucers on the Moon (Peter Owen, 1954), whose cover—with zipping missiles and wide, uneven script—appears to have been designed overnight, at the last minute, by the editor’s most talented child. Once seen, its genuine naïveté is not easily forgotten.


The paperback publishers of the classic pulp era (roughly 1935 to 1960) gained renown for their stylized, often lurid covers, and for the talented illustrators behind them: artists such as Robert Bonfils, Robert McGinnis, Michele Avanti, and Paul Rader left a distinctive mark on the form, and you might expect to find their contributions to the flying-saucer subgenre. But no: nearly all of the early saucer paperbacks had publishers who seem to have budgeted more for takeout than they did for cover art. An especially choice example is the hardcover of The Truth About Flying Saucers, which uses a stock photo featuring three would-be spectators gazing up at a supposed saucer overhead—but all three are clearly looking in the opposite direction. But, no matter, that’ll do. (Around this time, Hollywood stepped in to bring us the canonical image of the flying saucer—a wide disc with an orb at its center, its bottom sometimes shooting a geyser of light—through the 1956 films Forbidden Planet and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.)

The paucity of great flying-saucer cover art ended in the sixties with the publication of such genuine hardcover best sellers as Flying Saucers—Serious Business (Lyle Stuart, 1966), but independent publishers continued to retain the same kind of cover design: ad hoc, often inadvertently comical, sometimes charming, and sometimes baffling.


The majority of the art on early flying-saucer books is uncredited, but we do know a few of the illustrators. The Canadian Gene Duplantier was known for his artwork in science-fiction zines of the 1960s, and for books (some of which he wrote himself) on cattle mutilation. Most of Duplantier’s flying-saucer work was for Gray Barker, the noted and notorious head of Saucerian Press, which published the most outré, baffling, oft-exaggerated tales of saucer escapades, several of which proved to be complete hoaxes. Among a few of the many titles he did for that imprint are Flying Saucers and the Three Men (1962), UFO Warning (1963), The Strange Case of Morris K. Jessup, and The Silver Bridge (1970). His interior illustrations for UFO Warning are far and away among the most memorable in the field—there’s really not enough you can say about his depiction of a web-footed alien.

Elizabeth Fort appears to have been a local West Virginia freelancer for Saucerian. Her cover for My Contact with Flying Saucers nicely captures the vague sense of half-dreamed unreality that seems inherent to any saucer sighting—perhaps the most real feature of the phenomenon at all.

Another of the multitalented individuals in Saucerdom was Calvin C. Girvin, whose artwork for Howard Menger’s From Outer Space to You (Saucerian, 1959) is a touching rendition of a historic moment in Menger’s life, and one of the finest examples of thrift-store art in the last century: it depicts a little boy (Howard), a blonde lady in white (the Space Sister who in time proves to be the original manifestation of his wife, Connie), and the traditional 1937 Electrolux lid in the sky overhead. Girvin was also the author of The Night Has a Thousand Saucers (Understanding Publishers, 1958), which tells of encounters with his own space brothers, starting with his occasional hookups in the military and continuing until the day his body was taken over by a spaceman. (It was evidently relinquished after a spell.)


Then there’s Ed Smith, about whom nothing is known save that his name is possibly a pseudonym. He was one of the regular illustrators for Earl Kemp’s reliably pornographic Greenleaf Press, although Those Sexy Saucer People (1967) is a surprisingly straightforward recounting of the experiences of those who got a little closer than expected to the Space Brothers, or who were seduced by lady aliens with distinct élan. Greenleaf Press went out of business—and Kemp went, for a time, to prison—after the Nixon administration prosecuted them for having published a large-size reprint of the Presidential Commission’s Report on Pornography, with hundreds of pornographic illustrations.

Last but not least, let us salute Frank Tinsley, a magazine illustrator who specialized in machines and worked most often for Mechanix Illustrated. It was Tinsley who contributed the cover art for the first book on flying saucers—Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1950). Confronted with the task of more or less inventing a visual shorthand for a new genre, Tinsley did the smartest thing possible: he painted a science-fiction cover for a (theoretically) nonfiction book.

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Jack Womack’s book Flying Saucers Are Real! is out this month. He’s the author of Ambient (1987), Terraplane (1988), Heathern (1990), Elvissey (1993), Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1994), Let’s Put the Future Behind Us (1996), and Going, Going, Gone (2001). He has taught writing at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle and was the cowinner of the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994.