Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: The Best of Alex Schomburg’s 50s Novel Covers

(Alex Schomburg’s cover for the 1955 edition of Secret of the Martian Moons (1955), Donald A. Wollheim)

Spontaneously conjure with but a meer glance — Excitement! Wonder! Adventure!

The best of the covers of old 50s/60s juveniles (sci-fi for younger readers) always stirs the recumbent inklings of adolescent wonder…  Intrepid boy/men (sadly, rarely women) trek across the “expanses” of the space — rarely expansive, more like puddle jumping from planet to planet with the phrase, “and the hyperdrive shook the ship but John wasn’t afraid because he had once ridden a farm cart with one of them spooked horses back home in Smalltown, US of A” — discovering planets, setting up colonies, angering some weird looking locals…

And the inevitable…

“Son, reach out, get an education, learn some math, I’ve done all I can, get in that little tin can with those funky fins and see the world.  I’ll always love you.”

The worst covers often suggest a serious case of gastrointestinal disorder, collies, and little boys doing the chainsaw — see for yourself (the last image of this post).

Alex Schomburg’s sci-fi art ranks among the greats.  I’ve selected from his small group of 50s science fiction covers.  I thought it might be illuminative since the majority of his work graced magazines (Starling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Galaxy Science Fiction, etc).

I’ve not read a majority of these novels besides Clarke’s wonderful (albeit, lacking a central conflict) Islands in the Sky (1952) so I’d love to know if any are worth finding/reading.

(Alex Schomburg’s cover for the 1952 edition of Son of the Stars (1952), Raymond F. Jones)

(Alex Schomburg’s cover for the 1952 edition of Islands in the Sky (1952), Arthur C. Clarke)

(Alex Schomburg’s cover for the 1953 edition of Rocket to Luna (1953), Richard Marsten i.e. Evan Hunter)

(Alex Schomburg’s cover for the 1954 edition of Trouble on Titan (1954), Alan E. Nourse)

(Alex Schomburg’s cover for the 1956 edition of Mission to the Moon (1956), Lester del Rey)

And the horrible cover I promised (thankfully, NOT one of Schomburg’s)…  I can’t find mention of the artist of this piece of drivel.

(Cover for the 1967 edition of The Space Olympics (1967), A. M. Lightner)

Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art Index

119 thoughts on “Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: The Best of Alex Schomburg’s 50s Novel Covers

  1. This artwork is incredible. Even though I’m not an avid reader of the science fiction of the era, when I think of it its these sort of images I conjure up. Definitely defining works of the era and the genre.

  2. Pingback: This week’s culture round-up « Flaming Culture

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      Yes and no, remember these covers are from the 50s — we now have space stations, spaceships (well, space shuttles — well, sort of, they’re discontinued but you get my point), moon buggies, etc. And, the space program brought tons of technology which was only postulated in sci-fi books which we now consider part of our everyday lives. But yes, a lot of the more fanciful stuff…. no aliens, yet (HAHAHA)

  3. This reminds me of that scene in “Back to the Future” where the farmer’s young son thinks the DeLorean is a spaceship because it exactly matches the picture on his comic book. Does anyone know if that was a real comic book or if it was specially made for the movie?

  4. I’m a big fan of this stuff — nice collection you’ve put together. Have you ever been to Kayo Bookstore in San Francisco? (814 Post Street) — an amazing collection of this and other pulp genre at very reasonable prices. I always stop by when I am in the city.

    • I’ve not been to that particular bookstore — I’ve been to a few others in San Francisco…. One of the best bookstores I’ve EVER been to for science fiction is Dawn Treader Books in Ann Arbor. Sadly, where I live there’s only one average used book store — amazon or abebooks is my main source of 50s/60s/70s titles.

      Thanks for visiting!

  5. I’ve always loved the older artwork. I’m only 20, and haven’t read any of those so I can’t offer opinions on them, but there’s something about the art that’s just cool. I’ve always gravitated toward interesting covers, breaking the rule of not judging a book by its cover.

    Anyway, thanks for the cool post!

  6. It must’ve been interesting to read sci-fi in the 1950s. Anyways, the cover situation was definitely very different from how things are now. On one hand, computer graphics have made interesting images very easy to produce, but on the other hand, we’re missing out on a very specific aesthetic.

    Then again, most of the books I’ve read in the genre that come from this period received reprints with relatively modern artwork.

  7. Ah ha much needed evidence towards my case from these retro images my friend. Congrats for the compilation. Case suspended. Signing Out. // Identity Detective

  8. I’ve always been a fantasy reader more than a sci-fi enthusiast, but all the sci-fi art from the 60s is captivating. It reminds me of the original J.R.R. Tolkien covers… I can still see them sitting on my grandma’s bookshelf, stylized silhouettes on a backdrop of reds and purples. Somehow, they call to me more adventurously than the modern covers with real photos.

    • Some of the Tolkein covers are beautiful…. Mine were rather hideous as a child — some egregious 80s schlock with fluffy looking pony/horses.

      I’m not really a reader of fantasy (I love Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, etc) — the only new work I’ve read recently was Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword — darn good novel.

  9. A little blast of nostalgia there. As a kid I always used to gaze into the vastness of space (or rather, into the covers of old novels like these). But I never thought about who did the art. Thanks for bringing a human element to these covers.

  10. So fun to look through! It’s interesting to see how deeply space travel was embedded in pop culture… every farm boy could be an astronaut. A bit sad to think that we won’t have any national space travel programs for some time.

    • That’s one of the joys of these juveniles…. A farm boy grows up/fights against all odds and succeeds — there’s something delightful in that simplicity. Yeah, I wish a shuttle launch (well, not anymore) provoked the same outpouring of positivism and optimism that it used to….

    • My dad had old books but only a few science fiction novels. When I started reading ones I picked out at the used bookstores we frequented he was the one who got nostalgic!!

      Thanks for the kind words!

    • Under $10 (with shipping on abebooks) — pick up a copy! I want to read it as well… alas… I have 60+ unread sci-fi books near my bed.

      I agree with you — some of these covers scream out for you to pick up a copy and read!

  11. Funny how your post came up after I had just looked at a blog which talked about “bad sci fi bookcovers from the past”. The artist Alex Schomburg that you mentioned wasn’t there but it was mostly really bad cover art from the 60’s, 70’s and 80s. The ones where the artist really didn’t read the book but just got bad information from a source then drew it.
    Amazing how cover art is now compared to the past. Back then there were artists like Alex Schomburg but now we have artists like Michael Whelan who create some really amazing Sci Fi art.

    • Thanks! I agree — so much of the new sci-fi cover art is really off-putting — one of the reasons I buy all the old editions of works even if they’re still in print. I prefer the 50s, 60s, 70s, art above anything post-1980.

  12. I love these old book covers. Except the last one of course, that one is just plain lazy. Put a spaceship in the background and some Jetsons-style wardrobe on the spectators and voila!
    I loved reading old scifi when I was young but can’t remember any of the titles. One I have read recently is The Planet Strappers. The small town youth in that story get to scrape together parts for their own craft and be blasted into orbit by the government, who seems to be quite happy to send groups of adventurous and inexperienced people off into an uncertain future….
    Great post and congrats on being FP.

    • Hehe, the last one is crud — not all 50s/60s sci-fi art is good! 😉

      I haven’t read any of Gallun’s novels. Was The Planet Strapper’s readable (or any other work by him)? I do remember the The Planet Strapper’s gorgeous John Schoenherr cover!

      I read primarily 50s/60s/70s sci-fi so stay in touch! I have around 80 book reviews (here’s my review list Science Fiction Book Review Index)! I love talking about them…

      • Planet Strappers was quite readable, I have the ebook on my ipod and every time I read old scifi on my kindle or ipod I wonder what the author would have thought of their work being produced in that format if you could have explained it to them all those years ago.
        The space craft on that lovely cover are similar to the one on ‘Islands in the Sky’ above, and I admit did have a quick look at your reviews to see if you had done one on the Planet Strappers before I posted my comment, just in case you hated it!

      • I’ll have pick up a copy if I see it at my local used bookstore. I dunno, I don’t think I’ll ever get a eReader of any sort (and I’m only 24) — I really enjoy the smell of old paperbacks, the feel, the art, the color of the pages, having rows and rows on bookshelves…

      • I love the feel and smell of books too, an eReader just doesn’t have that. What it does have, however is the ability to enable me to take hundreds of books on our regular camping trips. In the past my book bag was often the heaviest thing in the car!

  13. Someone needs to do a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” equivalent for old sci-fi and fantasy books. They could have quite a bit of fun with some of these imaginative covers and titles alone!

  14. These are so cool! Fantastic images from the days when anything seemed possible – ‘Rocketpunk’, I think we call it today. I’ve still got the Puffin edition of Clarke’s “Islands in the Sky”, which to me worked largely for the ‘gee whizz’ factor. As you say, it didn’t have much plot. All good stuff, and thanks for posting.

    Matthew Wright

    • The naiveté of the 50s! When science would solve everything…. When the American Dream was more of a reality? And then the 60s hit… And machines/technology were bad and the sci-fi got better… Oversimplification of course!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  15. LOVE Sci Fi and LOVE the artwork. It was a happier time I think. I’s fun to see where they think we would have been by now. The Olympics one was pretty darn wonderful. Thanks for sharing

    • You’re welcome — thanks for stopping by.

      A happier time? I’m not so sure… not for women, the LGBT communities, and minorities (they are no where to be seen in the majority of the sci-fi from that day and age).

      But the art was happier! And the sci-fi uplifting and happy proclaiming “technology and brains will solve everything” !

  16. I wonder… whatever happened to these old science fantasy artworks when their publishers finally finished with them? Only now have they become really appreciated as decorative art in themselves, but unfortunately many have now disappeared into landfill sites throughout America.

  17. The nostalgia generated by such artwork never fails to hit me when I see it. Modern day SF covers are so different in comparison – the sensations they evoke are frequently less intense. I’m not sure why. It’s easy to identify the old-style though. You know it the second you see it.

    I find myself thinking of a couple different video games I’ve enjoyed that rely on this type of nostalgia and art. Fallout and Bioshock are both games that use art and culture from the 1940s – 1960s as the inspiration for the culture and feel of their environments. Fallout looks at the future as it had been envisioned by the people in those eras and then creates it allowing you to walk through a post-holocaust nuclear warfare environment with a Buck Rogers flavor. Bioshock does something similar, but in underwater cities. Both of them are beautiful, and playing them is like being stuck in some kind of bizarre time bubble.

    • I’m not a video game player (only the occasional computer game) — but yes, I’ve seen Bioshock’s graphics and it’s quite stunning.

      I’m not a fan of computer generated sci-fi cover art — I find all the new for the old classics completely empty of heart. The nostalgia generated from the old covers is overpowering (I also find the smell nostalgic!)…

  18. Alex Schomburg sci fi covers are wonderful. Thanks for sharing them. I had to scroll back to the top of the post so I could “get over” the frightening, mind numbing drivel you posted for Space Olympics. It actually hurt to see that lack of drive, especially when covering the Olympics story. Well, I guess the “artist” thinks the Olympics of the future are for the artistically unispired.

    But to end on a high note… thanks again for the Alex Schomburg sci fi covers.

    • Haha, I wanted to show that not all 50s/60s cover are is worthwhile! Schomburg being one of the beacons and The Space Olympics cover one of the truly mind numbing pieces of trash….

      Thanks for visiting!

    • I still spend evenings/days with these books in my hands! So I can write about them…. And I need a break from my normal fare — medieval history PhD comp exam reading…

      Thanks for commenting!

  19. Do you know what? I’m going to be completely honest and say you’ve really opened my eyes with this post.

    I’m a (occasional) collector of old books and whenever I see books from the fifties with illustrated covers I almost always dismiss them without looking (although not without good reason – I once found an illustrated fifties edition of Frankenstein with what looked like the Green Giant dressed like an Alabama farm boy in a plaid shirt painted on the front…), but I have to agree that some of this artwork is seriously impressive.

    With my modern tastes (and tacky leanings – I do like modern fantasy, I’m afraid) I always find myself loving books with ironic and stylised covers, but seeing this makes me want to go back and take a closer look at the books I’ve dismissed before.

    • Hehe, yeah, I’m not a fan of any of the new sci-fi/fantasy art — I try to stay away from computer generated material….

      I’m glad these covers had such a great effect on you! That makes me happy…

      Thanks for visiting!

  20. I’ve read a number of these novels 45 year…er a number of years ago as a boy and loved them. The only plot I remember was for the “Son of the Stars” about an alien stranded on a earth who spent time with an Earthing family. These and the Tom Switft and Danny Dunn books inspired my own writing and my own children’s books (John Fastramp and the Mystery of the Ghost Speedway).

    • Cool — I’ll probably read one of Jones’ novels before too long… Although I can only read so many juveniles (most of the way through Heinlein and Blish’s catalogues of juveniles).

      Thanks for visiting!

  21. I always thought the Winston juveniles looked pretty cool for their retro simplicity. Very evocative; I can imagine a lot of kids in the ’50s dreaming about building their own rocketships and going off to have space adventures.

    Also: boy did they love their alliteration.

    • Yeah, the Winston catalogue is top-notch in its simple art — there are a few really boring ones and I forgot to put up one of my all time favorite Schomburg covers… Perhaps I’ll post it later.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  22. This reminds me of my brother’s collection in the 50s and 60s, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and how I was intrigued by all the titles “____ of Mars”, so much more than Tarzan. Sadly, he would not let me touch any of his books, let alone read them. Thanks for posting this review of Schomburg’s work. As an illustrator myself, I think that last cover was probably not only the result of a weak artist, but also “creativity by committee”, where everyone on the editorial staff wants their own idea included.

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