Although science fiction and horror were literature’s unwanted stepchildren in the 1930s and ’40s, the genre flourished anyway, captivating the imaginations of thousands of readers through a plethora of cheap pulp fiction magazines and a network of fanzines produced by amateurs. The covers of the pulps were meant to leap at the eye from their perches in dime store magazine racks.
The covers were designed to grab attention, but few of the artists working in this field have hung on to the attention of aficionados as much as Hannes Bok (1914-1965).
Born Francis Wayne Woodard in Kansas City, Bok adapted his pseudonym as a young man by playing with the phonics of Johann Sebastian Bach. The alien sound of his chosen name perhaps echoed the alienation of a childhood spent in many places, bouncing between divorced parents and unsupportive stepparents. While the adults from his formative life discouraged his artistic inclination, he found companionship and encouragement in the growing subculture of science-fiction fans, many of them bright kids dissatisfied with the world as they found it.
Much of the writing and many of the illustrations of pulp sci-fi were hackwork, but this undercurrent in American culture fed the creativity of such now-admired writers as Robert Heinlein, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch. One aspiring young scribe, Ray Bradbury, proved instrumental in Bok’s transition from amateur to professional. Meeting him in a 1938 science fiction fan convention in Los Angeles, Bradbury was impressed with Bok’s love of fantasy literature, the subtle whimsy of his style and the fact that he was one of the few artists mentored by Maxfield Parrish. Bok’s tempura sketches inspired some of Bradbury’s early stories, and the author returned the favor by introducing Bok’s work to the New York-based editors of Weird Tales, the most prominent among the fantasy pulps. From 1939-1954, Bok executed more than 50 pen and ink drawings. As a result of Bradbury’s support, Bok was able to move to New York City, where he eked out a living as a commercial artist until his death at 49.
Bok’s palette included acrylic, crayon, gouache, ink and oil paint applied mostly on paper or board. Often employing a mixed-media method, he painted more than 100 color illustrations for covers of science fiction, fantasy and detective magazines.
His hundreds of black-and-white illustrations were published in popular pulp magazines including Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Other Worlds, Super Science Stories, Imagination, Fantasy Fiction, Planet Stories, If and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Arkam House and Ballentine were among the specialty book publishers who also featured his work. His representational style was detailed and tight with an almost romanticized quality about it; his aliens may have been mischievous and sometimes playful, but rarely threatening or deadly.
“Earth Goddess” (1962) borrows heavily from Maxfield Parrish with its stylized impression of the goddess archetype resplendent in nature. Bok’s alien goddess stands merrily in the bright sun, pudgy, naked, with long wavy hair, a wide smile and a moon-face, surrounded by the strikingly familiar, signature Parrish landscape of golden sunlight, puffy clouds and the contrasting violet and golden yellow color tones of the lush trees and rocks. The 13-by-16-inch illustration, done late in his career, sold at auction at Illustration House last June for $4,600 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium).
Many of Bok’s color work took inspiration from Parrish’s “a perfect day” goddess-in-the-landscape pictorials, with similar compositions and distinct coloration, but his body of work also seemed to follow the stylistic approaches of the day in the many decades he worked. A distinctive WPA feel is present in his work from the 1930s and ’40s.
An ink on board, dated 1948, with the lingering WPA influence still in use, features muscular strokes of the medium used to outline three figures crouched down, the father’s arms wrapped around mother and child, protecting them from a threatening presence from above. We don’t see the threat directly, but the facial expressions and the shadow play suggest impending danger. The ever-so-slightly exaggerated curves of the figure detail, as well as the strength and pride of the character’s expressions, serve as the focal point, harkening the WPA message of the dignity and might of America recovering during the Depression of the 1930s. Titled “Science Fiction Pulp Artwork,” the 7 1/2- by-11-inch illustration sold at Mastro Auctions (now Legendary Auctions) in 2006 for $617.
The influence of film noir is apparent in Bok’s illustrations for detective stories. Or maybe, it’s the other way around, as black and white with lots of looming shadows precedes the film noir genre on paper. An undated Weird Tales illustration, published in a 1941 issue of the same, accompanied the Seabury Quinn story Birthmark, about a gruesome-looking alien seeking revenge. Bok’s interpretation, rendered in ink and crayon, features a simian-like figure in black silhouette, looming with vengeance toward a frightened female backed against a wall. The perspective is at an off-angle leaving the viewer unsure of solid ground. The odd camera angle became a very effective technique in the film noir genre and works as well on paper. The tiny 6-by-6-inch illustration sold at Heritage Auctions in 2006 for $657 (buyer’s premium).
An Art Deco-styled influence is seen in “Woman Dancing” (1949), a black and white story illustration of a café society type woman suspended, her heavily-draped gown swirling, and the black sky and moon in the background. A feeling of festive motion abounds within the very stylized work. The 9 1/2- by 6-inch ink and pencil with conte crayon sold at Heritage in 2011 for $3,884 (with buyer’s premium).
Although his life was relatively short, Bok found his inspiration early and achieved recognition and a measure of success through his depictions of other worlds and fantastic creatures.
Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.
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