‘Rayguns and Rocketships’ Creator Rian Hughes: The Conskipper Interview

The importance of the cover to dime store science fiction novels can not be underestimated. The covers to these classic pulp novels from the mid-twentieth century were filled with robots, helmeted space jockeys, tentacled aliens, and people in need of rescue, all designed to get the book into the hands of intrigued fans.

The images didn’t often match up well with the stories that were being told, but they certainly made an impression on generations of readers, filmmakers, and artists. One of those artists, Rian Hughes, took it upon himself to highlight the great art from this era in his new book from Korero Press (currently available to back on Kickstarter), Rayguns and Rocketships. Hughes edited, designed, and wrote the introduction to Rayguns and Rocketships and he took some time out of his schedule to discuss the genesis of the project and all of the great art inside.

What are the origins of Rayguns and Rocket Ships

Rian Hughes: I’ve been accumulating vintage paperbacks for a couple of decades, at least. I pick them up in second-hand bookshops, market stalls, jumble sales, and more recently, eBay. Rayguns and Rocketships began life as a personal cataloguing project more than anything else. I scanned in some of the best examples and produced a small book for my own amusement via print-to-order service Blurb.

Yak at Korero Press, who had previously published my “Logo a Gogo” logo collection saw this, and here we are – our first Kickstarter. I hope if this proves successful we’ll be able to do more pop-culture and design books – a follow-up to Custom Lettering of the 60s and 70s, for example. The original is fetching silly money second-hand, and I have a fantastic selection of type examples for an all-new collection.

How did you go about tracking down all of the classic paperback covers for the project?

Hughes: I’m by no means a completist – I tend to pick up books with seductive cover art and ignore others, so I called on friends and other collectors to fill in the gaps from their own collections. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive catalogue, more a “best of” – so we concentrate on luminaries such as Ron Turner, especially his incomparable covers for Scion and TitBits, John Richards, Gerard Quinn and Josh Kirby. We tried to focus on the most seductive material.

In terms of your artwork in the book, did you recreate the covers in your own distinct style and also do some originals, or was the focus on the reimaging?

Hughes: I didn’t redraw or recreate anything – this is a collection of vintage material. I served as designer and editor, and wrote the introduction. We do include some examples of original art, where they have survived. Turner would sometimes recreate lost covers in later life, so we’ve included some of those – his recreation of the cover of the first issue of Vargo Statten’s Science Fiction Magazine is used on the cover, for example. 

Which cover was the most bizarre and which one was most impressive to you?

Hughes: One of the first vintage sf books I came across, years ago, was Rodent Mutation. This sparked my early interest in collecting overlooked and under-appreciated paperbacks. Published by Badger Books in 1961, Henry Fox’s cover shows a couple cowering as massive beavers threaten to attack. How can that not appeal? It’s written by the prolific Robert Lionel Fanthorpe, who under a number of anagrammatical pseudonyms wrote over two hundred novels and short stories for these fly-by-night ‘mushroom’ publishers.

Another prolific author, John Glasby, wrote over 300. As to most impressive – it has to be the original artwork for Tremor, by Ron Turner. In the 50s and 60s Illustrators would often paint the book’s title and other text directly on the art, and Turner was a master of this. You can also see him testing colors around the margins, a fascinating insight into his working practices. 

The covers really sold the pulp paperbacks of the 1940s and 1950s.  After examining so many covers, which elements do you recognize as the key components to grabbing a potential reader’s eye?

Hughes: There are many repeated motifs – the dramatic spaceship, the damsel in distress, the threatening alien or robot, the ray-gun wielding space-suited hero. The future of the 50s and 60s promised many technological advances, but changes in the traditional roles of men and women weren’t one of them!

Upcoming projects?

Hughes: I’m working on a third novel, after the (unexpected) enthusiastic reception for XX and The Black Locomotive. This again will be a hybrid design/text piece, further exploring the storytelling potential of typography and layout.  If this kickstarter is a success, I’d like to use the platform do more books on design and typographic ephemera. I also have a sequel to Soho Dives, Soho Divas, my burlesque art book, that is ready to go. And, as I say, new ‘Custom Lettering’ collections…

The Rayguns and Rocketships Kickstarter is available to back until February 11.

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