Norman Saunders was an artist for hire during the pulp magazine boom, and he managed to develop a distinct style that garnered many imitators. In the monograph ‘Norman Saunders’, David Saunders, his son, offers a relatively short biographical account of his father’s life, featuring a wide selection of Norman’s work (it would be nearly impossible to offer a comprehensive presentation of Norman’s work).
The story of his birth sounds like it came out of a pulp novel itself. His father, after being shot in the leg by a Muslim sniper in the Philippines, worked for a railway station. Following being black-listed after a strike, he was driven to work in Mexico. In Mexico, he killed a Mexican in a bar room brawl, then escaped a Monterrey jail and worked in the circus for some time as a boxer, where he killed another fighter in a match. Afterword, he met a woman named Elva. The unwed couple had a child named Norman. It seems that a book based on the life of Clarence Saunders might have been more interesting reading than one based on the life of a graphic illustrator.
As a child, Norman, like his father, managed to get into a fight. He had a much earlier start than his father as his first fight took place at age three. A hot poker caught Norman in the eye, causing an infection that nearly blinded him. His parents, believing that he was near death and unable to afford health care, sent him away to a hospital where he slowly recovered. Whilst in hospital, a nurse read to him from Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, a work that would influence him. Norman regained his eyesight and was eventually returned to his parents. Seeking solitude, he opted to live in a cabin on the family farm during his adolescence. He took a correspondence course in art and performed well enough to earn a scholarship to the Chicago Art institute. To earn some money before school started, Norman showed up at Fawcett Publications, where he was mistaken for a staff member and handed work. The work kept coming and it wasn’t until the end of the week that his new employer realized that Norman, who had quickly made himself an indispensable member of the staff, wasn’t even on the payroll. Needless to say, they hired him on the spot.
After a time he moved to New York, where the pulp magazine boom was expanding and where he hoped to get work on slick magazines. When the war came he was drafted and spent most of his time in China. Before leaving for war Norman married his girlfriend, Marion McLean, so that she could receive his pay and be taken care of should he die during the course of the war. Ironically, and tragically, it was Marion who wouldn’t survive the war. She had taken a lover during Norman’s absence and had allowed him to move in with her. The shame of her actions led to her suicide.
Norman returned to the pulp books and slick magazines after the war, but soon found the atmosphere had changed. He eventually started working for comic book companies like EC. However, during McCarthy’s infamous witch hunt, such comic books were deemed as ‘un-American’ and eventually banned. Norman found work in paperback novels and men’s magazines geared toward WWII vets, where he produced some of his most hypersexual work. We see many Nazi men taking women hostage, as well as many scantily clad Nazi women taking male, American hostages.
Eventually, Norman took up work for Topps, the popular card company. He painted cards for baseball players who had been traded, and then got jobs painting scenes from the Civil War, and later the images for the classic ‘Mars Attacks’ series which inspired the film of the same name directed by Tim Burton.
Norman also painted images for the Batman card series based on the popular television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
Later, he painted images for the Topps’ Wacky Packages series, which would go on to be one of their best-selling card collections. Originally released in the late 60’s, the cards remained immensely popular through the 80’s and have recently been reinvented with new works based stylistically on the work that Norman had done. Though the book does not mention this, Norman’s daughter, Zina, has taken up her father’s work and painted some of the of the new Wacky Packages cards, though David Saunders, son to Norman and author of the book, fails to mention this in the monograph. Perhaps a little sibling rivalry is at play in this exclusion.
The book breezes through some very interesting biographical information and for the most part allows the Normans’ work to speak for itself. It does discuss how Norman tried to explore other artistic avenues, but the art world didn’t embrace Norman (though Norman took much pride in his own artistic experiments). Late in his life Norman traveled with his wife and painted works based on the romanticized American west. Though Saunders never reached the kind of celebrity that Norman Rockwell did, he did find a fan base late in his life when the work he did on the pulps was recognized by collectors years later. It seems that having been written by Norman’s own son, the book could have offered a much more detailed account of Norman’s life, though it is a very interesting narrative that is at once tragic and uplifting. It would have also been interesting to see some of the iconic works of Norman’s contemporaries. I came away wanting a little more, but the book is definitely worth a look.