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Steve Books Holiday Book Roundup (1): Classics Saluting Playboy and Vogue

Monday, December 22, 2014

Tis the season…for looking backwards. Nostalgia is core to the holiday experience. In the magazine world that tug of history takes the shape of books that celebrate a golden age of print, fueled now with the accelerent of digital media’s relentless march. The torrent of books recalling the great decades of newspapers and magazines has eased this year, replaced largely by tomes that tease out illustrators and comic artists. Nevertheless, as we have in years past, we review here books that will recall, enshrine and even occasionally illuminate a preceding century where periodicals ruled, editors set cultural agendas and newsstand covers helped define and clarify moments in American life.

Hugh Hefner's Playboy, by Hugh M. Hefner (Taschen, $150)


This more modestly priced and physically scaled down version of Taschen’s $1,300, six-volume boxed illustrated autobiography by Hef is a magnificent production. It is presented more as a series of illustrations captioned by Hef’s memories, taking us through decades of the magazine’s history. The books are meant to be browsed more than read, since most of the volumes feature captioned splash pages rather than full articles to read. The first volume is far and away the most revealing. Hef fills it with rarely seen art from his own pen as well as details about the magazine’s formation we can’t recall hearing before. The first volume alone should be printed as standalone, as its recollection of Hef‘s early life are truly compelling.

Vogue: The Covers, by Dodie Kazanjian (Harry Abrams, $50)

Self-explanatory. Some of the world’s greatest photographers, driven by the defining fashion sense of the century combine to make an irresistible retrospective. The evolution is marred somewhat by instance of jumping around the timetable of covers. We also wish there had been more emphasis on the illustrative roots of the earliest covers, which tend to be bunched into sets of smaller images. Some finely detailed and gorgeous line work gets lost in postcard size rendering. Richer captioning and more background on the conception of the individual covers would have made this book stronger. But the progression of both photographic art and fashion, not always in harmony, over the last century makes for a delicious browsing experience.

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller (Harper, $35)

Although not strictly about magazine history, this compendium of corny humor from the 20th century draws principally from magazine and newspaper sources. The book catalogs tropes, from wives pursuing husbands with rolling pins to outhouses, hats, penises, henpecked husbands and many more. Miller is exhaustive in his historical rigor, usually tracing many of these themes to their origins and charting out their many riffs across print and film. Ultimately it is a book about how a culture teases itself about its own everyday vanities, excesses and social types. The going can get tedious, but thankfully Miller has organized the book in encyclopedic fashion so the browser can dip in and out of subjects.

VIP: The Mad World of Virgil Partch, edited by Virgil Partch and Jonathan Barli (Fantagraphics, $49.99)

Virgil Partch, known for his signature VIP, was one of the defining stylists of the post-WWII era in print. He chronicled the suburbanization of America with sardonic wit that anticipated Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and scores of artists in later decades. Curiously, he started at the Disney Studios. VIP was a gag writer for The New Yorker, whose own sharp art style was rejected by Harold Ross. In other magazines such as Playboy, True and Collier's, however, VIP honed a vision of manic, often drunken and comically depressed and besieged modern manhood. Oh, but it was funny along the way.

(more Holiday Books selections from Steve Smith to come)

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