About Our Cover
A Black Mask Exclusive!
Keith Alan Deutsch interviews Rafael DeSoto, one of the great pulp cover artists
of all time.
Rafael DeSoto was born in 1906 in Barta Rolta, a small
town in Spain on the border of Portugal. He came to the United States to study architecture
at Columbia University in New York. The depression forced him to quit school and support
himself by drawing. He studied anatomy under George Bridgeman at the Arts Students
League and eventually went to Pratt Institute and higher degrees.
But Mr. DeSoto will tell you that he picked up his real training in his
first two years as a dry brush illustrator for Street and Smith's western, mystery
and adventure pulps. By 1934 he had done his first magazine cover for one of their "less
advanced" pulps, Top notch. He was soon Street and Smith's most versatile
cover illustrator, doing covers for Western Stories, Doc Savage, The
Shadow - in time over two hundred other titles.
Because he could work more than twice as fast as anyone else in the business
(he could knock out two to three covers a week) and because he was an innovative illustrator
in demand by every publisher, Mr. DeSoto holds the record for doing covers in the 30's
In time, Popular Publications, one of the great pulp publishing houses
and the publishers of Black Mask in the 40's, dominated his time. But no one
He did covers for Argosy, Adventure, Cosmopolitan, Redbook,
and The Saturday Evening Post. In the fifties he worked for the paperback houses. "All
of 'em," he tells us, including Dell, Ace, Signet.
Rafael DeSoto also did some notable advertising work. He did a series
of illustrations for the first Frigidaire campaign. He also did White Owl and Canadian
Mr. DeSoto, who now teaches anatomy and composition at Farmingdale College
on Long Island, feels that the magazine illustration of the pulp era is as close as
commercial work has ever come to a fine art in America.
"In the old days everything was done for impact," he said. "Nowadays
it's all design. The old drawings that jump off the page at you, the illustrated initials,
the fine line work-that is an art that is almost lost and I wish that they would revive
We here at Black Mask are reviving it. This is the first interview
Mr. DeSoto has granted to the press. Usually he lets his covers speak for themselves.
Deutsch: Were you reading the pulps? What made you try out for
them? For westerns?
DeSoto: I used to see them on the stands. Constantly. There seemed
to be hundreds of them. And naturally I used to buy them. They were fascinating. I
read them. And soon enough I pursued them. It was the depression. I had never done
any work. Somehow I prepared a quick western for a sample and went to good old Street
and Smith. The Art Director was Mr. James. The assistant Art Director was Harry Laury.
When I was in the waiting room and looked at all the beautiful paintings
hanging around I got cold feet. When my time for an interview came I left my painting
outside, I wouldn't show it be cause I knew how bad it was.
So the inevitable happens and the Art Director says, 'I can't give you
any work until I see something you've done ' So I went back out and brought my painting
in to him. He looked at it awhile and said; "You know, this is the most Spanish
cowboy I ever saw.'
So I went to the library and I studied about Western life. About heels
and boots and chaps and ten gallon hats and six gun holsters and so forth. I will say
the second drawing I made was a little better. He hired me to do dry brush Illustrations.
Dry brush is when you get your brush filled up with ink, but you dry it up a little
and work with it. You can get very fine lines and sometimes double lines as you go
along. You get very nice effects. It's not used too much nowadays.
So he started me on dry brush drawings and I learned more doing those
things than at any point in my career. I learned about composing a story. I learned
about composition. After a while they became easy. It was those two years that prepared
me for my later illustration. After those first years I got so busy doing covers I
had much more work than I could do."
Deutsch: When did you start doing Black Mask covers?
DeSoto: Well I wasn't doing them at first. That was the top magazine.
First I did mostly Street and Smith titles. I did The Shadow. After I started
on the important magazines, I always thought that I should do something different with Black
Mask. To make it stand out. So I decided to work with very dark backgrounds. So
I decided to put jet black backgrounds around the shadows right into the black. Only
the light part would show.
When I brought the first one into Mr. Steeger, the publisher of Popular
Publications, he hit the top. 'Golly, that's good.' he said. That's what I want.'
Naturally I had reduced the whole scene into a close up because it is
hard to work, to get too many things into the backgrounds. I think they were very effective.
Harry Steeger knew what he wanted. If he liked something, he bought it.
If not you couldn't sell it to him.
It really brings back memories. I had a lot of fun doing those things.
Now Terrell, who was the editor of Black Mask at that time, always
thought that I was a little meek about drawing the gun. He'd tell me, 'The gun is very
important. Make it look big. Make it look like a cannon, And give it some flesh contact
between the villain and the girl. Not exactly hurting her. Maybe his hand across her
mouth. Some physical contact to show that the girl is in danger. Without being hurt.
She's not screaming because she's hurt, but because she's scared.' And I played on
Deutsch: How did you meet Mr. Steeger?
DeSoto: I just went there. He was the publisher. He either liked
it or he didn't. I approached the Art Director and he brought me to the editors and
the publisher. The very first example I brought to Popular Publications they bought.
Left me without a sample. Before I went to Popular I was working for Dell doing western
and detective covers.
Street and Smith bought my first cover for $60. I remember I would get
up early in the morning to go out and see if my cover was on the stands yet. In a short
time my price was up to $150 and then $250. I could do two or more a week. Pulps were
very much in demand, very much in style. With no TV you had to read then. Every month
Mr. Steeger called me in and told me I shouldn't do anybody else's covers. Four years
after Street and Smith had started me I was straight Popular, I worked for them for
10 years. But he couldn't stop me from doing whatever titles I wanted to do outside."
Deutsch: What about horror covers? I noticed among the many cover
paintings you showed me one with a Mummy in it. Popular Publications had quite a few
horror titles. Did you work any of them?
DeSoto: Yes, of course. I have one in my studio of a man that
was half metal and half flesh. And nobody could shoot him down. I still have the cover.
His arm and one of his eyes and part of his face is metal."
Deutsch: Did they tell you to use girls with most of their clothing
missing for the horror titles?
DeSoto: Ah, yes. Even in detective covers they would tell me to
reveal as much as
possible. I don't know how they published some of them. I used to rip them up, you know. Show half
the breast. The legs. Just enough to cover what you couldn't show. Yes, I was told.
One time I did this spicy detective cover, I was told to show a lot of
leg, so I decided to show a woman sitting down and putting her stockings on. I did
a rough sketch and thought I really had it. I ended up showing it to Mr. Steeger and
he wouldn't have it. It is not what you've exposed,' he said to me. 'You could even
reveal more thigh. You've drawn it wrong. That's all. Looks like she's taking her stockings
off. Can't have that. Study someone putting 'em on. It is ok if the lady is almost
naked if she's putting her
clothes on. But it's no good, even if she's hardly removed anything, to show a woman getting undressed
on a cover. Sure enough, I had my wife practice taking her stockings off and there was a difference.
I redid the painting and Mr. Steeger loved it.
There was a lot of censorship in those days, but there were rules like
that and an awful lot of pretty raw stuff went through. And when pocketbooks first
started in the early 40's, well most of that stuff was even stronger. I didn't even
read the books after I did a few. All you had to do was show a half-naked woman and
a bed. That was a whole other era."
Deutsch: What about the demise of the pulps?
DeSoto: I saw the writing on the wall in the early 40's. There
was the war, a paper shortage, but most of all it was the pocketbooks. So I went into
pocketbooks, I did a slew of them in the 40's and 50's. Until 10 years ago I was still
doing 'em. And I also did a lot of work for Magazine Management after the pulps died.
After the war most pulp artists went to the men's adventure books like STAG and MENS.
Adventure and war stories. I used to do both the covers and the inside illustrations.
Duotones, mostly blues. The men's books never used straight line drawings,"
Deutsch: This is the age of pocketbooks. The most exciting area
of publishing today.
DeSoto: Yes. I agree. They try everything now.
Deutsch: You don't see many line drawings nowadays though, do
DeSoto: Well pocketbooks didn't have them to begin with.
Deutsch: Do you think that's a mistake?
DeSoto: Yes. Very much.
Deutsch: Some pocketbooks do have illustrations, notably Ace's
science fiction and Tarzan books. But not too many or too much. The appeal of the pulps
depended quite a bit on their covers and line drawings. Dramatic, vivid illustrations.
Sort of a cross between comic books and fiction.
DeSoto: Yes, that's right. That is an art that has almost died
and I wish that they would revive it. You see, many readers love the stories, but they
haven't the imagination to visualize the scenes. To picture it. We learned how to approach
a situation so that it was not confusing. And so it has impact. Just like the stories.
Deutsch: What procedures were used in planning a cover?
DeSoto: Well, this is what happened. As a rule they had the stories
written. I used to read them to pick up a scene for the cover. Not every story was
suitable so I asked the editor to give me a little leeway to change things around.
So I used to give my own version of what the story was to be. Then I gave them pencil
sketches; maybe one or two, and I'd do the covers from them. In time they were asking
their authors to do their stories from my covers! Reversed the procedure.
Deutsch: How did you make the paintings from the sketches?
DeSoto: Well I proceeded to take photographs, I built my own studio
and took my own photographs. I posed the models. These things have to be done fast.
I took many many photos and then I laid 'em out on the table and chose the best for
the best parts of a few and made a composite. Always had to distort something. For
effect or to make room for the titles. I used to arrange for those in my sketch but
they didn't always fit. Everything was planned out from the beginning. Once the photo
was drawn I used to sketch in my dark tones and from the dark tones work out to the
light. I never presented color sketches or let anyone see my photos.
All my early works was oils. Then I went to casein. An awful lot of my
work was casein. Later work was acrylic. Everything was done for impact."
Deutsch: Who were some other illustrators you admired?
DeSoto: Nick Eggenhoffer was a great dry brush illustrator at
Street and Smith when I was just starting. His best work was westerns. I remember a
great cover man. Scott. W. Scott. Also Walter Baumhoffer. He did an awful lot of Doc
Savage covers. Harries. Bok Harries. Arther Bowker, I remember he did fine work.
Deutsch: What about Virgil Finlay?
DeSoto: Ah, yes. He was a great genius in line work. We used to
call him the Salvador Dali of pulp. Fantastic illustrator, but his cover work wasn't
very good. He was a poor colorist.
Deutsch: Black Mask was something special?
DeSoto: "Ah yes. Of all of them it was the best. I worked
very hard to make it distinctive. After awhile I got the dark backgrounds and I worked
all close up as I explained to you. Look at the gun on your cover. It looks like a
cannon. I went to a place where they made props for the theater and I had them build
me a .45, exactly authentic to the last detail, out of wood. And he painted it so you
couldn't tell the difference.
"Due to the shape of the handle, the grip of the hand was different from any other revolver with
a .45. And I did sketches of hands holding it in all positions.
And one thing I hated to see was a gun not being held right. It looks
like an amateur shooting. If an amateur is going to shoot, he's not a gangster. He's
not a criminal. One thing you've got to say about my Black Mask covers. My villains