"No analysing influences, no talking composition. The more lurid, the better." Ed Jaster is explaining how collectors at a recent art sale picked their purchases. The senior vice-president of Heritage Auctions, last month he presided over one of the biggest sales of its kind. The prize haul fetched a cool $143,400, the others not far behind.
It wasn't, however, Heritage's usual money-spinners – rare books or fine art – that were on sale. It wasn't even the retro-kitsch pin-up art that has been enjoying a moment in the spotlight. No, the lurid, analysis-proof pieces of which Jaster speaks were pulp. Pulp art: original versions of the garish, sexy, flashy pictures more often seen on the covers of 20-cent fictions.
It's a peculiar discipline, pulp. The purpose – back in the smoky, inter-war days when the cheaply produced magazines would line the news-stands – was always practical. Pulp covers, like the airbrushed supermodels who replaced them, were designed to sell. There was no whimsical expression of artistic impulse; no desire to appeal to a higher plane. Illustrations had to catch the eye of the passing customer, and that was all. Competition was fierce and covers had to be striking. They featured grotesque creatures of the night, outlandish specimens from outer space, and – almost always – a scantily clad damsel in distress.
"The appeal lies in the lack of subtlety," Jaster explains. "It is the art of the masses. It exists outside the conventional artistic boundaries, yet it elicits this visceral reaction. The women are beautiful, the men are handsome. There's sex appeal, danger, good and evil."
Alongside the Heritage's record-breaking headline sale – The Evil Flame by Hugh Joseph Ward, from the cover of the monthly pulp Spicy Mystery Stories – the event saw pieces by Norman Saunders, Margaret Brundage and Robert Fuqua fetch well into the tens of thousands of dollars. All oil on canvas, they were drawn large – 20in x 30in– to ensure that any artistic short-cuts wouldn't translate on to the much smaller magazines. Still, for all the pieces' latter-day gentrification, buyers look for much the same thing as the news-stand browsers of yesteryear. They look, Jaster says, "to be hit right in the gut".
The gut was the region the stories aimed for, too. Frequently written by esteemed, if pseudonymed, authors (Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac among them), they read rather like film scripts on speed, delivering cheap thrills as fast as readers could swallow them.
And the biographies behind the cover artists were not much less dramatic. Saunders, for instance, claimed to have fallen into pulp after a hitch-hiking trip went wrong. Climbing into a car-load of criminals, he was abandoned midway through North Dakota. Broke and exhausted, he rode a freight train to the end of the line, where, in Minneapolis, he was confronted with a sign advertising Fawcett Publications. He promptly joined the trade.
Brundage, meanwhile, was imprisoned by her gender. Never signing her full name, she posted her work to New York from her home in Chicago. Raised by her widowed mother, and married to the erratic Myron "Slim" Brundage, a heavy-drinking former vagrant, she specialised in producing the raunchiest of raunchy covers. Women, nudity barely concealed, embrace; sinister-looking men prepare to drag the object of their affection into their room. When her femininity was eventually revealed, it caused outrage.
The pulp industry wasn't, of course, limited to the United States. Having ridden a wave of "French-style" paperbacks in the 1920s (Gallic obscenity laws being notoriously lax, the French-style paperbacks offered punters a rather more risqué read than their run-of-the mill novel), publishers rapidly cottoned on to the growth of the pulp market across the Atlantic. By the outbreak of the Second World War, a collection of so-called "mushroom publishers" had sprung up, churning Westerns and gangster tales in a heavily mock-American style.
"The whole scene was terribly exciting," explains Maurice Flanagan of Zardoz Books, who has bought and sold pulps for years. "Frequently the authors would have to pretend to be American so the stories could be passed off as authentic. During the war, paper was heavily rationed, so it would be a case of printing as much as you could." Artists, too, would be working under heavily trying conditions: illustrations would have to be transferable to the lowest-quality paper and churned out en masse. The most famous of the British illustrators, says Flanagan, was Reginald Heade, whose association with the author Hank Janson saw him forced into anonymity after their publishing house became the centre of an obscenity trial.
At Zardoz Books, original paperbacks trade for under a fiver – though their American equivalents can, says Jaster, fetch upwards of $1,000. It is considerably less than the artists' canvas but, still, hardly a snip. And it is for the cover art, not the stories inside, that customers are buying them. Demand has been consistently high for the past decade, but today's prices are unprecedented.
Perhaps, though, it's no wonder that pulp art is having a moment in the spotlight. So steeped in romance are its origins – the fakery, the freight trains, the fast-and-loose nature of the stories it decorated – that it is surprising it hasn't happened sooner. And the artists aren't without their claim to history; Frank R Paul, for instance, is frequently credited with the first illustrated depiction of both a space station and flying saucer, a seminal pop-cultural symbol if ever there was one.
The pulp craze looks set to last some time. Last month's sale was just a tiny part of what Jaster anticipates will be an ongoing haul. Although each piece in question came from the estate of one John McLaughlin, the death of the major collector Charles Martignette in 2008 will ensure similar sales continue for well over a year. In the meantime, British buyers will have the chance to trade valuable editions at the end of October, when the 21st Paperback and Pulp Bookfair takes over the Vauxhall Park Plaza Hotel. Pulp may be out of print, but it is far from out of fashion.
21st Paperback and Pulp Bookfair, Park Plaza Victoria Hotel, 31 October (020-7769 9999)