Interview with J. David Spurlock

"Margaret Brundage deserved a serious biography"

J. David Spurlock is an award-winning author, editor, illustrator, artist advocate, and pop-culture historian, who taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he also founded multiple scholarship funds. His many books include Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos, The Frazetta Sketchbook, Jeffrey Jones: The Definitive Reference, and How to Draw Chiller Monsters, Werewolves, Vampires & Zombies.

The-Alluring-Art-of-Margaret-Brundage1Along with collaborator Stephen D. Korshak, Spurlock has compiled the soon to be released, first-ever monograph on legendary Weird Tales illustrator Margaret Brundage. Entitled, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage — Queen of Pulp Pin-Up Art, the book is scheduled for release in May, 2013 in trade hardcover, softcover, and a limited, Deluxe edition available from The book includes Spurlock’s own investigative report on Brundage’s heretofore-unknown personal life entitled, “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage.”

I interviewed Spurlock by email earlier this month to talk about the life and art of Margaret Brundage, as well as what readers could expect to find in this upcoming book. So, what drew you to the work of Margaret Brundage in the first place? And what ultimately led you to become involved with this book?

J. David Spurlock: Via the paperback cover art by Frazetta, I became fascinated with Conan, when I was just a kid, in the 1960s. By 1970, I found out that the first artist to ever paint Conan was Margaret Brundage, for covers of 1930s Weird Tales pulp magazines. Like both Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and the Weird Tales stories themselves, Brundage was always a very mysterious figure. A few years ago I collaborated with Stephen D. Korshak on our book, The Paintings of J. Allen St. John. Korshak is a major pulp art collector, and his father Melvin Korshak published science fiction as Shasta in the 1950s and was involved with “First Fandom” along with Bradbury, Schwartz and Ackerman as early as the late 1930s. Stephen and I were very pleased with our St. John book. One day Stephen was naming other top pulp illustrators we should do books on. When he mentioned Brundage, it really intrigued me. I had no idea how many copies it might sell but, in a way, I didn’t care. Brundage was a worthy subject that was mysterious, had all sorts of interesting connections and had never been previously explored with a monograph. What do you think makes Brundage’s art so noteworthy in the ongoing history of pulp art and the history of Weird Tales and weird fiction and art? Why is it necessary for people to know more about her and her work?

Spurlock: She is “The Queen of The Pulps,” the first female pulp cover illustrator; she had a historically long, successful run on possibly the most important weird fiction publication of all time, in their golden era. She also brought sex to the pulps in a very new, bizarre and exotic way. Additionally, our research has proven her private life to be as mesmerizing as her art. What kind of controversy did her art generate back in its original historical and cultural period?

Spurlock: At the very peak of the notorious pulp’s classic run, the magazine’s appeal was due as much to Brundage’s covers as to the stories inside by famous authors H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch and Conan creator, Robert E. Howard. Her work featuring nude or semi-nude women with overtones of bondage, lesbianism, and possibly flagellation was very popular but very controversial. The level of controversy shot through the roof when it was revealed that the M. in the signature “M. Brundage” was for Margaret — a woman. In that day, it was unfathomable that a woman would paint such material. In the new book I wrote, “While seeming to fulfill (the editor’s) request for titillation, she, in keeping with Fine Art traditions, and her own politics, persevered to insert both her personality and her point of view into her sensuous women-in-peril pieces. Critics of the risqué covers complained that they were subversive to public decency, but Margaret was actually incorporating an alternative, inconspicuous level of subversion to enact a different level of decency. She took what was an illustration job and raised the bar: presenting women in stronger roles — something far from the norm for the times.” Except for the “Spicy” pulps, which were contemporary to Brundage, women were seldom the focus of pulp covers prior to Brundage’s work. When they were, the women tended to be helpless, hysterical or cowering. If Brundage was assigned to paint a woman in bondage with some terrible act about to befall her, she would show the ingénue as either not giving up or totally indifferent to the situation — but not hysterical or cowering. If she were assigned something with a whip, she would portray a woman brandishing the cat of nine tails. The book mentions at several points Brundage’s affection for Robert Howard and his stories of Conan the Barbarian, among other work of his. What other writers did she share a similar kind of mutual affection with, if any? And what in their stories inspired her art, more often than not?

Black Colossus - June 1933

Black Colossus — June 1933

Spurlock: Margaret’s preferred art subject was always the feminine form. Some, including H. P. Lovecraft, complained that Mrs. Brundage was just selling the magazine with sex and should have more accurately portrayed the stories. There is a “sex sells” element involved but the editor, Farnsworth Wright, dictated she continue the sexy, sensationalism that first won the readers over to her work. Unlike later illustrators including Frazetta, Brundage fully read every story she illustrated, but she kept her eye out for the most sensationalistic scenes, knowing that was what Wright was looking for. For an author, being featured on the cover was a career boost and like winning an award. Noting Brundage and Wright’s penchant for alluring women on the covers, some writers including Seabury Quinn and Robert E. Howard started making a point to include at least one scene in their stories, specifically to catch Mrs. Brundage’s attention. Only two people are known to have published interviews with Brundage. Robert Weinberg delved into discussing Howard with her and Mrs. Brundage made it clear that Howard was her favorite pulp writer and that she was very much affected by his death. So much of your own essay in the book, like the other essays included, is devoted to recounting biographical details of Brundage’s life that fans may not even think to analyze in the first place: her marriage to her husband, Slim Brundage, and her involvement in the International Workers of the World. What do you personally want people to learn about Brundage, in terms of reading your own research? Why is it important for people to learn about Slim Brundage and the IWW, among other things?

Spurlock: Margaret Brundage deserved a serious biography. Our new book, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage, including my supplement, “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage,” doubles as an art book and a biography. In prior coverage of Margaret, there has never been any mention of her lifestyle, politics, The Dil Pickle Club, Bronzeville, or the IWW. In prior reports on Margaret, her husband of 12 years, Slim, has always been dismissed as nothing more than a worthless drunk. Our new “Secret Life” research has revealed Slim to be a multi-faceted character that is a very highly regarded radical and a dedicated, life-long, battle-worn champion of free speech. The subtitle of my thesis, “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage” is, “Slim & Margaret: A Bohemian Romance of the Chicago Renaissance.” It affirms them to be an important, revolutionary couple in the birth of the American counterculture. Margaret painted alluring, edgy covers for Weird Tales for ten years. The rest of her life has never before been revealed and I find it just as captivating as her pulp paintings. It would be disrespectful to who she really was to keep this information concealed. In the long run, do you think Brundage was a product of her times, or an artist ahead of her times? Or some combination of the two?

Spurlock: Both! Absolutely. Being the historic first at anything is very important. The times creates the opportunity for an historic first but it takes someone on the cutting edge — like Margaret Brundage — to make it happen. Lastly, what are some of your personal favorite Brundage covers, and why?

Spurlock: There are so many but, 10 of my favorites would include:

Weird Tales Sept 1932: Stephen Korshak owns this original. It was Margaret’s first for Weird Tales. She was out to prove herself and really did. It is seductive, dark, intriguing and mystical.

Weird Tales March 1933: a luscious, totally nude woman leading a pack of wolves to illustrate Seabury Quinn’s “Werewolf Story.”

Weird Tales July of 1933: They may be getting ready to sacrifice this lovely ingénue in some Satanic orgy of death but Brundage makes it all even more fascinating by rendering everything to look like a succulent feast.

Weird Tales Sept 1933: This issue totally sold out thanks to this notorious cover art that conjured lesbian flagellation in the minds of viewers.

Weird Tales Oct 1933: Brundage’s bat-girl cover painting illustrating Hugh Davidson’s “The Vampire Master” is one of the most enigmatic images in the history of weird fiction illustration. It is sublime, inspired, and rises above anyone’s expectation of illustration to create a timeless work of fine art that bridges the epochs from ancient Egypt to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Weird Tales May 1934: Robert E. Howard’s classic tale of Conan and his love, Bêlit, in “Queen of the Black Coast.” Many of Margaret’s Conan covers, like “Red Nails” and others, didn’t actually show Conan. Of those that do, this might be the best. In the new book by Stephen D. Korshak and myself, I explore a discussion on who the models were for this piece.

Weird Tales Jan 1935: I absolutely adore this piece illustrating “Black Bagheela” by Bassett Morgan. This is a good example of why Margaret Brundage has been called “The Frazetta of the 1930s.”

Weird Tales Aug 1935: Other than Conan, another reoccurring character for Mrs. Brundage was Doctor Satan. This is my favorite of Margaret’s Doctor Satan covers.

Weird Tales Jan 1937: This is a very imaginative composition that perfectly represents the innovative hybrid Margaret Brundage created between horror, mystery and pin-up art — the perfect introduction of weird fiction to an unsuspecting world at large.

Weird Tales May 1937: Brundage takes the beauty-and-the-beast theme to twisted perfection in this illustration for Jack Williamson’s “The Mark of The Monster.”

2 replies to “Interview with J. David Spurlock

  1. Pingback: The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage | Weird Fiction Review

  2. A period work by Brundage has just been listed on ebay. While it is certainly not an illustration for a Weird Tales cover, I am curious what story it might illustrate, and what other magazines her illustrations may have appeared in.