“We had one issue that sold out! It was the story of a very vicious female getting a hold of the heroine, tying her up and beating her. Well, the public apparently thought it was flagellation. It sold out!” – Margaret Brundage
There is nothing prim and proper about Margaret Brundage’s work. Her risqué pastel drawings of alluring female characters made her a bright star in 1930s pulp magazine illustration, a field dominated by men for most of the 20th century. During the height of Weird Tales magazine’s popularity, Brundage was the main cover artist. She brought sex to the covers of science fiction and fantasy that before had been focused on men and monsters.
After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, getting married and having a son, she began her career as an agency artist and fashion designer. This was cut short by the effects of the Great Depression; so, she turned to magazine illustration. Weird Tales was the only publication in her hometown of Chicago and despite her lack of knowledge of fantasy or science fiction, Brundage showed her portfolio to the editor, Farnsworth Wright. She quickly learned what the industry wanted and her work would dominate the covers of Weird Tales from 1932 to 1938.
Brundage’s use of pastels gave her work a distinctive, soft, velvety look compared to other hard edged, painted covers of the period. At the time, fixative sprays had not been invented; so, her works were extremely vulnerable to the touch. Brundage describes her method of transporting her delicate works on paper: “I had a little box-like affair for them with cardboard backing to take them to his office… The rate of pay was always ninety dollars a cover.”
Images of sultry female characters would be the predominant subject of her work, which early on showed her fashion designing ability in the character’s clothing. As time went on, however, her women wore less and less, much to the delight of readers. When readers, however, realized the illustrations were created by a woman, outrage poured into the magazine in the form of complaints to the letter column. Ironically, nudes were acceptable on the cover but not if they were rendered by a female artist. Despite these complaints and to capitalize on the controversy, Brundage’s editor continued giving her assignments knowing her enticing covers would sell the magazine, even during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
The success of Brundage’s covers influenced Weird Tales’ authors to write scenes in their stories with partially nude women in danger to improve their chances of having their stories featured on the covers. When Weird Tales sold and moved its offices from Chicago to New York in 1938, Brundage soon found herself unemployed. She sold a few more freelance paintings to Weird Tales but not enough to support herself after her divorce. She took on low-paying art jobs and sadly was eventually forgotten by science fiction and fantasy fans. After a prolonged illness, she died in poverty in 1976.