BOOK REPORT: Cover Me: The Vintage Art of Pan Books: 1950–1965

I can tell you almost the exact moment when I fell in love with the British paperback publisher, Pan Books. It was on my 2014 trip to London, my first time back in the UK in eight years. I was in Notting Hill, at the world famous Portobello Road market, standing in front of a vendor’s stall. At that point in time, the paperback collector bug had not yet bitten me, but I was a lifelong James Bond fan and there on the table was a copy of Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming, with a haughty Tiffany Case in black bra and panties, looking back over her left shoulder at the reader. There was a lot of yellow on the cover, but the artwork itself was dark and moody and evocative, and once again, an art director had made the wise decision of not showing James Bond, leaving that particular detail to the minds’ eye of the reader. Whether it be Connery, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig, or someone else, that image should always be left to the imagination.

There was something about that yellow, though. I had never heard of Pan Books (or Great Pan), but I immediately knew it was a British publisher; the price of 2’6 revealed that. I asked the vendor if he had any more and he said he wished he did. And even though this copy was pretty beat up, I bought it for the princely sum (aren’t all sums in Britain princely?) of 4 pounds.

And there my obsession began.

Fast forward to Fall 2020, and I’m reading my weekly email from Bud’s Art Books. I’ve been buying books from California-based retailer Bud Plant since the early 1970s when he was a mainstay at Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Art conventions. I also bought numerous books from him at my former employer, San Diego Comic-Con, where for many years, Bud had a giant store in the Exhibit Hall. These days, Bud does most of his commerce online and I always enjoy his weekly emails, which arrive like clockwork every Thursday afternoon. And in this particular email was something I thought I would never see: a whole book devoted to the covers of Pan Books titled Cover Me—The Vintage Art of Pan Books: 1950–1965, An Appraisal by Colin Larkin. This beautiful, full-color, 264-page, large-format hardback is based on a collection of over 620 original cover paintings that author Larkin was able to purchase when the publisher was moving offices in the early 1990s. The art in the book is reproduced from these originals, and that is both the book’s greatest strength and a minor weakness from my point of view, because while that round-cornered box is present on the originals, it isn’t yellow, it’s white. And those Pan Books minus that comfortably familiar yellow box just looks foreign to me. Don’t get me wrong, the paintings themselves are absolutely beautiful. It’s a very minor point to quibble about, to be honest, but nowhere in the book does Larkin explain how the white box became yellow on the final printed versions. I’m assuming it was something the printer dropped in behind the title (most of the titles were hand-lettered by still a different artist directly on the art boards).

Larkin tells his own tortured story about the paintings and how it took him almost 30 years to write and compile this book, along with a great history of Pan/Great Pan and biographies of almost all the cover artists. Like me, he disdains the redesign of the books post-1965. The book is an absolute godsend and a must-read to anyone even remotely interested in paperback cover art. (It’s published by Telos Press, and pretty much the only place you’ll find it in the U.S. is through Bud’s Art Books; it’ll set you back $45.00 + tax and shipping, but it’s worth every penny.)

Before I discovered this book, I learned a bit more about Pan over the years. I learned they published the very first paperback editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books; that they had a devoted collector following due to their incredible painted covers from their inception through the mid-60s (when they moved into different formats for their covers, including photography); and that that rounded-corner yellow box wasn’t a one-off: it was their trade dress, a way of combating the dominant paperback publisher in England, Penguin Books (arguably the dominant publisher in the world right now). Penguin’s type-only, tri-band, color-coded design gave them their own familiar look, but Pan’s yellow box and evocative cover paintings set them apart from their fellow publishers.

I had started collecting the Bond books after that first Diamonds Are Forever, and had gathered a nice little collection (see above and below). While the Bond books were big sellers for any publisher around the world in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Pan regularly reissued them with new covers. Some of the them were great (the DAF one is by artist Pat Owen), some of them … well, not so great. Those Casino Royale ones with the foppish-looking tuxedoed Bond (above top left) and the thug-like gunslinger (below top left) are not great depictions. (After For Your Eyes Only, Pan switched to a more “arty” and photographic look for the Bond books in the mid-60s, covers which I have no interest in. That’s why my collection stops where it does.)

But the Bond books opened up the whole Pan Books world to me and I started looking for more and more of them. When I visited Wales booktown Hay-on-Wye in 2018, I came across a stack of Pan’s The Saint books (see below), which had beautifully illustrated covers. Pan had published The Saint for many years, but there’s only a few of the covers, a kind of subset in the late 1950s by Hans Helwig, that I really like. They also published a lot of mystery/thriller books by the likes of Agatha Christie, Peter Cheyney, Edgar Wallace, and American authors such as Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason) and Ellery Queen. There are so many Christie, Gardner, and Queen books, I don’t even want to start down those respective paths, no matter how beautiful the covers are. In the meantime, the Cover Me book and a series of YouTube videos by British collector Jules Burt have started me on a new want list featuring only Pan and Great Pan books.

Paperbacks are a part of popular culture, and like comics, they were designed to be throwaway objects, read once and disposed of. Thank God people kept them—consciously or unconsciously collecting them—and didn’t throw them out. They’re such an incredible mile-marker of our times, a time capsule of an era, showcasing how things looked at any particular time, through fashion and art styles. Cover Me salutes the artists behind these incredible original covers, and focuses on those that worked in relative obscurity decades ago. They deserve their moment in the spotlight.

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