Anyone who glanced at a rack of paperback books in the mid 60's to early 70's was bound to see at least one or two covers painted by the gifted artist James Bama. The most memorable of these covers were those for the "Doc Savage" series published by Bantam Books. These illustrations were always striking and dramatic and served to make the book stand out from the other titles next to them. When I saw a second-hand copy of "The Living Fire Menace" at a thrift store in 1973, it was the dramatic cover painting of Doc, in all his ripped-shirt glory against a background of orange flames and some kind of electric-blue sphere, that made me shell out my hard-earned 50 cents. From that day on I was hooked, and collecting the adventures of Doc became one of my hobbies. It became second nature to scan the shelves for those distinctive Bama covers, and when he stopped painting them in the mid-70's the series lost some of its appeal.
At the time, it was hard to learn much about James Bama, much less the significant role he played in making these repackaged 30's pulp stories bestsellers for a contemporary audience. Indeed, any artist who worked for the paperback market in those days had to confront the reality that the publishing world considered them hired guns at best, and getting a credit line of tiny-font text on the back of the title page was about all the acknowledgement they could expect to receive.
James Bama: American Realist is therefore a timely, and handsomely produced, overview of Bama's art. Over the course of 7 sections, it covers his work in commercial art in the 60s and early 70s, and his subsequent career in studio art since that time. I'm sure many Baby Boomers will be nostalgic at seeing the illustrations Bama did for pop culture artifacts from their childhood reproduced here. Such as the boxes for the Aurora plastic model kits for the Universal monsters (Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc.), and the covers for bestsellers, such as "The Harrad Experiment" and the first of the "Star Trek" paperbacks by James Blish, as well as a seemingly unending series of potboilers churned out by William Goldman and Howard Fast. All 62 of the covers Bama did for the Doc Savage books are presented here as well, six to a page, with some getting full-page treatment.
The reproductions are of good quality and the layout pleasing to the eye, with the text placed to minimize encroaching on the illustrations. The introductory chapters offer an interesting account of the commercial art scene back in the era when magazines were starting to lose ground to the burgeoning paperback book as the principal format for print media. Once paperbacks became the dominant media and on-shelf competition tightened, having the right cover became increasingly important in boosting sales. Indeed, during his busiest period, Bama was producing a paperback cover painting a week, but he and his fellow freelance artists were stuck in a 'work for hire' system that rarely provided any royalties or other compensation for illustrating top-selling books. This fact of life as a commercial artist, and burn-out, may have been what led Bama to go into semi-retirement in Wyoming in the early 70's. Since then he has focused on Western art, and his paintings of cowboys and Indians are featured in the book's last section.
If the book has a weakness, it is the lack of any exposition on Bama's technique. Whether the author felt it would be out place in this particular book format, or if the artist himself was reluctant to reveal too many of his 'secrets', is unclear. Unfortunately, this means that those hoping to learn how to paint Bama-style, will have to look elsewhere.