By Ray Young
Known today as a fine artist working primarily in American Western art, James Bama was once part of a group of anonymous but fiercely talented illustrators who helped to shape the look and direction of 20th century pop culture. There was a creative advance in poster, book and magazine cover illustration after World War II, an evolution from a relatively staid and simplistic commercial approach in the 1950s to something far more energetic and striking. Working on assignment for agencies and studios, the people inadvertently perpetrating this movement—Mort Drucker, Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis, Robert McGinnis, Frank McCarthy, Bob Peak—were faceless, unknown names to the millions out there buying the products they were promoting through brushstroke.
In the handsome new hardcover book, James Bama: American Realist
, biographer Brian M. Kane removes his subject’s anonymity while making an affectionate and inviting case for his aesthetic and historic significance. Acknowledging the influence that both Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth once had on Bama’s approach, Kane recognizes the deeper affinity existing between the artist and the public: “Bama’s art generates a powerful remembrance of time and place that is both emotionally invigorating and vibrantly clear…[his name] evokes nostalgic feelings of wonder and awe.”
Profiling his private life and the advances in his work through brief biographical notes and a flurry of quotes from Bama’s family, friends, associates and fans, Kane gives an evenhanded presentation of an extensive and multifaceted talent. In his early pre-Western art, the similarity to Rockwell initially seems a given, but the eye slowly ingests a subtlety in shadow and light and a candor toward larger-than-life subject matter placing Bama in a different realm altogether. And his later and current work, with its directness and commitment to the canvas coupled with a delicate balance of realism and nostalgia, makes the comparison to Wyeth superficial at best.
James Bama’s wonderfully expressive cover painting for Bantam Books’ Tomboy
(above left) “secured a long-term business relationship between the artist and the publisher,” writes Brian M. Kane. “The cute, sexy, Lolita-ish Tomboy
leaning against a wall of rotting wood spawned a whole series of copycat covers.” Arriving in the midst of a monster boom in the 1960s, Bama’s cover for Bantam’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
(above right) was loosely patterned after the makeup worn by Fredric March in the 1932 film version. These copyrighted images are shown here with the permission of the publisher.
Working for adventure magazines, pulps, Bantam paperbacks, NBC television promotions, paintings for Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and a line of model kits manufactured by the Aurora Plastics Corporation, Bama caught the attention of baby boomers throughout the 1960s. Kane’s vast selection of reproductions evokes that era’s heady idealism: portraits of baseball stars Rogers Hornsby and Bob Feller recall the purity and good sportsmanship of a mannered, bygone culture; the cover for Edison Marshall’s novel, Yankee Pasha is simultaneously risqué and innocent, done in inventive degrees of pinks, reds and whites; and a curiously humane likeness of Adolf Hitler for Louis Snyder’s Hitler and Nazism offers a puffy and fatigued fuehrer quietly collapsing under the weight of his convictions.
It was Bama’s efforts for the Aurora Corporation that caught my eye in the ‘60s, and made him something of a cult figure, a position later confirmed by his covers for Bantam’s series of Doc Savage
novels published later in the decade. Anyone interested in these phases of his career will not be disappointed with Kane’s history and presentation. The Aurora assignments were illustrations used on the boxes for their monster model kits, and quickly became icons of a monster boom sweeping the country. Bama successfully captured the spirit, not only of his characters—Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.—but of the movement as a whole.
His Doc Savage
work became a genre unto itself. “Possessing a clarity, a meticulous attention to detail and a larger-than-life bravura, these paintings stand as perhaps the best examples of cover art ever done for a science fiction books series,” claims Vincent Di Fate, one of the many indebted artists quoted throughout the book. “There is a level of craft and a spiritual essence to the finite body of work which reaches beyond the realism of photography, beyond the static limitations of frozen images on canvas, into the very heart and soul of its subject matter to give it a unique semblance of life…and of things larger than life.”
This is a diversified career with many lesser-known assignments worthy of attention. Bama’s art for Hal Ellson’s Tomboy
, Sam Ross’s Hang-Up
, Jack W. Thomas’s Turn Me On!
and Edmund Schiddel’s Scandal’s Child
are wonderfully erotic contributions to the dawn of the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s. His provocative illustration for Robert Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment
was a milestone in its time and immediately worked its way into the public conscience. Of his political portraits, the cover for Jack Newfield’s Robert Kennedy: A Memoir
may be the finest ever painted of the Senator.
There is a maturity and innocence coexisting within Bama’s work that Kane lets speak for itself. It has to do with a sensibility and sensitivity generally foreign to commercial art. James Bama: American Realist
may be about the selling of dreams through products, but from an artist with humility to spare. Going through the text and the quotes, admiring the quality of the reproductions, Kane’s book leads up to its final image, a portrait of the artist’s wife, Lynne. She’s both near and distant, both beautiful and plain, delicate and strong, tenderness in the rough. It’s a moving work so outwardly basic, that manages, with no apparent exertion, to capture the conflicting nature of the human spirit while revealing one person’s love and admiration for another.