Capturing the Apache

I started thinking about how Edgar R. Burroughs needed a better dust-jacket for The War Chief quite a while ago.

I have rules for doing alternate dust-jackets. First, there must be a definite need for one. It can’t just be a redesign for the heck of it. I want to correct a wrong, something that went down the wrong road in the past and caused a design blot on the ERB Library of published books.

Second, the alternate has to use art and typography from the same period in which the book was published. I have to show there was a better way to design for one of ERB’s jackets using the contemporary materials. There’s no point in using a Frazetta on a 1927 edition of a book. If a certain typeface wasn’t designed by the edition’s publish date there’s no possibility of it being used then. it would be mis-timed and inappropriate.

ERB hated the jacket for The War Chief and I wanted to design one he would have liked, a design demonstrating that the book was being taken seriously and was meant as an honest statement. Ed was hoping that McClurg would use J. Allen St. John, but there were no Native American St. John illustrations I could find other than the two he had done for the Fred Harvey First Families of the Southwest (1913, reprinted to 1929). They weren’t Apaches.

I started looking at pulp cover art of the 1920s. I looked though the Adventure House Auction catalog of the Frank M. Robinson Collection. I scoured every one of those postage-stamp-sized photos, almost 10,000 of them — nary an Apache in sight.

I searched through the Heritage Auction site, fruitlessly. Harold von Schmidt had a nice couple of pieces but they were done in the 1950s. There were Edward S. Curtis’ wonderful photos, but though beautiful they were monotone and I wanted a color, painted, illustration.

I dogged the internet. The internet is world-wide, right? Lots of black-and-white period photos of Apaches standing rigid in front of the camera, but no paintings.

This went on for several years. I looked though many a western artist’s work online, tried to find only those who would have been painting around 1925 or ’27. No Apaches.

Then in 2014, while searching for Maynard Dixon art I came across the only piece that I felt would really work. I’d been told by Robert Horvath, board president at the Norman Rockwell Museum, that Dixon had been active in the 1920s and had done a number of covers for Sunset magazine. I found those with Apaches but they were moody and didn’t have enough color for what I had in mind. A further search on Dixon led me to a piece that had been up for auction. It was a horizontal painting which included lettering, presumably by the artist, and showed an Apache on horseback in the foreground above a colorful scene of buttes and canyons with wonderful orange and blue hues. 

Maynard Dixon billboard comp for Southern Pacific Railroad (1917)

It was a billboard design advertising The Apache Trail, a road the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPR) was using to promote their transcontinental line. The 120 mile road was advertised as a side trip automobile tour from the Bowie/Globe station to Phoenix. It had been named “The Apache Trail” in 1914 as a campaign for the 1915 San Francisco Exposition.

This poster art was later used as a brochure cover through the 1930s.

Maynard Dixon created the art while working for Foster and Kleiser, a large commercial art company in San Francisco. Besides SPR, his clients included The Oakland, Antioch and Eastern Railroad; Coca-Cola; Pierce Arrow and the Savage Tire company. During this period he also mentored illustrator Harold von Schmidt, then a young man, painted covers for Sunset magazine, and Standard Oil Bulletin, and went through a devastating divorce. His more famous brochure cover for The Apache Trail was done in 1926 and was reprinted well into the 1930s. He illustrated several westerns for A.C. McClurg & Co. in his early years and ultimately became one of the well-loved painters of the Southwest.

Though the billboard design was dated 1917, it was close enough to work within my rules — besides, it was the best thing I’d seen. It was colorful, not often reproduced, and most importantly showed an Apache in a serious pose, with a touch of emotion. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t work without some major revisions. The primary character of the Apache and his pony were facing the wrong direction, to the left, and were in shadow too dark to draw the eye to a cover. I had to use my “art director” head to approach how to make changes that wouldn’t deface the art but still make it work for a book jacket. The other problem was that the scan had been broken down into several sections in order to show the artwork closeup on the web. And, of course, they were all low-resolution images of 72ppi. I needed at least 300ppi to print with any fidelity and sharpness.

This all meant that I would have to essentially re-create the painting in certain areas to get a usable image.

I organized the six sections of the painting into one and enlarged it to the resolution I needed. That took several tries to get right. Pixels have a way of enlarging right along with the image and that causes the image to retain a low-res fuzziness when seen larger. Once I managed that, I had to adjust the brightness, contrast and tonal range of the rider and pony, which brought up the color without having to do anything drastic. It was not over-saturated and still worked with the background.

To use as much of the background landscape as possible I had to increase the height of the image to account for the proportions of the binding. That was simple enough by simply extending the sky. That left a large blank space on the back cover, but I let that alone—I’d come up with a solution for it later.

I flopped the figures of the pony and rider to make them face to the right, otherwise they’d be looking at the spine of the book instead of the front. Because the figures needed more sharpening, I painted along Dixon’s dark  outline work. That helped enhance the contrast against the flat areas of the background. It’s fairly easy to see minute detail at 300% enlargement on the monitor so re-creating those lines just took time. Then I flopped the background as well to make sure the light on the buttes and hills were illuminated from the right.

To create a stronger sense of light coming from the right, I added color to those edges of the figures to bring out some of the planes. That was a challenge around the Apache’s face. When it had been in shadow little detail was needed, but as it was now going to be more illuminated, I wanted to make it more strongly lit without emphasizing too much.

It was important to create a strong amount of shadow on the back sides of the figures without actually painting over what was there to a great degree. Fortunately, Dixon’s use of the Poster Style of the period utilized heavy outlines and his dark blue shadowing was easy to thicken up. I was able to pick up colors he used on other parts of the figures to increase shadowing along the back of the horse as well as behind the rider’s leg. I did all this on a separate layer so if it didn’t work I could easily repair it.

I had to change the color of the headband. The red headband was associated with Apache scouts working with the Army. The free Apaches wore headbands on the war trail but they were of all colors and designs. I decided for a sort of orange color — no one knows what color Geronimo’s head band was. The second thing I struggled with was Maynard Dixon’s signature thunderbird logo. The painting shows the logo entwined in the pony’s tail. Should I leave it there? After doing so much to the artwork, I decided to move it to one side with an “After Maynard Dixon” inscription.

Dixon had done a great job with the lettering on the billboard rough and I was able to set most of the titling using his headline letters. I flipped the letter E and took out the lower bar to make a nice letter F in CHIEF. I copied the A, flipped it and duplicated it to get a good W, the only other missing letter. I worked with several versions of the titling, trying “The” in cap and lower case, with an underline, but decided against it. Finally, I just used all the capital letters and stretched them vertically to take up more room on the top third of the page. The same titling was reduced and stacked for the spine. The original black letters looked too stark, so I picked up the bright turquoise blue from the background and added it as an outline around dark red letters matching the horse blanket.

For the rest of the cover lettering I used Lanston Type Company’s Powell, designed by Frederic Goudy in 1903 and a matching italic designed in 1908. It has a nice hand-drawn look which matches the Dixon lettering. The type for the flaps and the back cover blurb is Linotype Caslon (c.1903) with Goudy Old Style (1915) for the front flap title and price. The publisher’s slug at the bottom of the spine is Pabst Roman (1920), another Goudy face that McClurg used many times for that purpose.

I set this jacket aside for months, returning to it to retouch the light effect or shadows until I thought it would finally pass muster. Dixon’s gouache is vigorous on the figures and flat on the brightly lit background. I tried to emulate those strokes and the flatness of larger paint areas, using the blending brush no more than I absolutely had to.

The back cover’s empty sky still bothered me. It seemed to call for something to fill it. I took copy from the front flap and duplicated it as a blurb on the back. I’d already switched the front and back flap blurbs, placing the synopsis in the front where a book purchaser would naturally look to see what the book was about. I used some of the opening paragraph text, a bit of the closing paragraph, and then promoted Burroughs himself in the last sentence. Eventually, I had to write a bit of new copy for that spot, keeping it in the same style but making it more honest about the book.

All in all , over the last five years I’ve tried to create a dust-jacket that might have actually been made for The War Chief, to give it the tone ERB felt it should have had. The result is more honest, more colorful and striking than the clichéd indian that Paul Stahr provided for Argosy All-Story Weekly. The art which A.C. McClurg bought for a lot less than they would have had to pay J. Allen St. John for a superior and more authentic cover.

I hope that Ed Burroughs would have felt that I helped to capture his Apache.

The Alternate Timeline dust-jacket for The War Chief can be found here.

8 thoughts on “Capturing the Apache”

  1. I have enjoyed each episode of your Eight-year Novel, and then saw the wonderful dust jacket.
    Phil, you do amazing and wonderful work with an authenticity that no one else could match.
    Thank you for your creativity and your dedication.

    1. Thanks very much Bob. (Bob is the author and compiler of Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Bibliography. An indispensable guide for any ERB collector, or anyone who just likes books and the details about them.)

  2. Phil, thanks for detailing this fascinating story of your work with The War Chief, including so much of ERB’s own words as he struggled to get it to be the book he wanted it to be. Your efforts certainly bring to light this important aspect of our love for ERB’s works—the artists, including yourself–who gave us the book covers and dust jackets that first drew us into his worlds.

    1. Thanks for your nice comment, Thomas. After doing the research, I decided that THE WAR CHIEF was, one of ERB’s most important books. It really needs context to present it to a modern audience however. I’ve always been fascinated by the dust-jackets of many a book, but those for the Burroughs books are special to me. No other author of imaginative fiction has had such a cohesively presented run of titles as those produced by St. John for A.C. McClurg.

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