An Unintentional Defense of Squiggly Lines and Poorly Set Type: Notes on Designing a Dime Novel

Buffalo Bill_FINAL_Facebook CoverCOVER:

Though the heyday of Buffalo Bill Stories was some time around 1910-1920 when there were a number of Buffalo Bill dime novels hitting the stands–with the Buffalo Bill Weekly reigning supreme and which considered all others imitators–I went with a lesser known Dutch design that was put out in 1946.  My main reasons for choosing this design were that

A. It looked cool.

B. I can’t draw so I needed something I could vectorize cleanly so I could work with it (basically, this means few colors with high contrast).

C. it’s under a fairly open creative common licensing, allowing me to manipulate it.

PANTONEThe colors I chose were from a palette more typical to the glory days of Buffalo Bill Stories, but not typical to the colors found on Buffalo Bill Stories themselves or any of the other Street & Smith story papers, the publisher who helped define what American PULP works would be before they were known as PULP.  Rather, I chose a scheme inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement of the first decade of the twentieth century because much of this project felt both “arty” and “crafty.”  This movement was known for earthy tones and rich neutrals. So, you’re looking at Cream Tan, an adaptation of Brittany Blue, and a touch of Leather Brown.  I’m color blind to all hell so the only reason I knew what these colors were was because contrary to my disability (yeah, I called it that) I’m still fascinated by that which I cannot see … or not that well.  So I bought PANTONE: The 20th Century in Color.  It’s a great book–lots of pictures with, well, colors that defined the decades.

You’ll notice there’s a little boxed image on the cover as well. This illustration is, presumably, a tale being spun by Buffalo Bill himself as he sits with his pals around the fire. Typically in this little box image you would see Buffalo doing something heroic, or a Dutch interpretation of what American heroism in the west would look like. I didn’t go too deep in these stories since I couldn’t read them (dunno Flemish), but I presumed that these were translated works from the original Buffalo Bill stories popularized in the US a few decades prior–(Being a fiction writer, I can make facts like this up cause I ain’t going for accuracy, just a historical narrative that makes sense.)

For a collection of digitized dime novels, Villanova University has one of the best.
For a collection of digitized dime novels, Villanova University has one of the best.

What surprised me was how mundane Buffalo’s heroic poses were in some of these images. Actually, on many of these covers Buffalo is just talking to a fella or he’s reared back on his horse, but there’s no clear threat. There’s one issue where there’s a bear the size of a badger that’s spooking his horse and Buffalo looks terrified. Made me wonder if the Dutch illustrators were subtly poking fun at this American Myth, contrasting and maybe even criticizing US dominance so shortly after WWII, especially in that region of the world. Or, heck, maybe they’d never seen pictures of a grizzly bear. They were putting out and celebrating a Western hero no less while being ridiculously far away from that. Either way, I was unclear if there was a deeper message in the images … but then I remembered these works were for eight year olds, so maybe they didn’t want to scare kids.

On the cover for Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines you will not even see the most mundane of Buffalo poses. You will see a building. It’s the storied (“storied” in my Buffalo story) Gallery of the Machines from the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, France, better known to us ‘Mercan speakers as the World’s Fair.


Continuing the hodge-podge nature of this project–both in story and design–the picture is an illustration from 1889. If you look close you’ll see this is one of the early attempts at “photoshopping” an image. Many of the figures standing in this “futuristic cityscape” have been added using whatever scissor-paper techniques they used back then. There’s a boy standing under the “mechanized people mover” near the front who’s in Chinese clothing, while up on the elevated walkway is a woman of African descent. Both look to be pasted into the image somehow and I wondered if this wasn’t an attempt to diversify the fairgoers to better publicize the multiculturalism of the time.

Regardless of intent, my main attraction to the image was the Gallery and the renderer’s expert snipping and clipping. Just look at the perspective of those horses & buggies. Not all (or any?) are from the original image, yet they still work–sized and place appropriately to be passable at first glance. They even have shadows. But, still, their appearance and placement comes off as slightly strange, making the entire composition somewhat alien. And it’s just this territory that makes me love the design of the work, and it’s just this twist of familiarity that inspired the story between the pages of this 21st century attempt to make a late 19th century/early 20th century publication.



Buffalo Bill_FINAL_3

This is the first two pages of Buffalo Bill, the inside the cover and page 1.

Two things to note;

Buffalo Bill Portrait1. The great image of a younger Buffalo in a typical regal backcountry pose on the left-hand page is from an 1877 issue of the German magazine, Die Gartenlaube. Which goes to show that even back then, the mystique if the American West was already taking shape and gaining a worldwide audience. I mean, cowboys had barely just arrived on the scene shortly after the close of the Civil War and already guys like Buffalo were creating the myth that we know so well today. The only figures to capture the world audience on such defining levels, where myth and truth are being created simultaneously, are the astronauts and cosmonauts of the 50s, I’d say … but that’s all just armchair speculation. I think that excitement is healthy though. We need more paradigmatic examples where fiction and historical truth get blurred and lost in the buzz of pushing new boundaries. Where would we be if Star Trek didn’t first imagine handheld communication devices and warp drives? Fiction–and more easily found in genre fiction–is like this challenge to the movers and shakers of the day to get their sh** together and turn their awesome up a few notches. We need another defining modern myth to reinvigorate that sense. It makes the world a better and infinitely more interesting place.

2. The banner on the right-hand page comes directly from the famous Buffalo Bill Weekly, as does the warning on top of the left-hand page.



Buffalo Bill_FINAL_4

Here’s another two-page spread for the BUFFALO BILL REISSUE.

What you’ll see is something pretty unremarkable: four columns of prose fully justified, two pages, a dividing line down the gutter, and a basic header.

What you won’t see, and what I found surprising, is that these pages (and 24 others that look a lot like them) don’t have any pictures. The strange thing is that these DIME NOVELS were precursors to the modern comic, which, you know, are filled with multi-paneled awesomeness.

But in DIME NOVELS, nothing. Unremarkable, plain, boring prose (unless you read it). There were a few issues that did include images, which I found in the Villanova Libraries digital collection of PENNY DREADFULS and DIME NOVELS, but there weren’t enough examples to show that having illustrations accompany the story was the practice of the day. The opposite, in fact, was more often the case.

Then I got to thinkin’ and speculatin’ and I decided–oh, yes, it’s been DECIDED–that there could’ve been a number of reasons for this.

1. Illustrations took time and money. These works needed to be cheap and they needed to be produced weekly. Finding an illustrator and paying this illustrator would add unnecessary costs to what’s supposed to be a ridiculously cheap publication. Also, the illustrations had to be a particular style otherwise they couldn’t run them on their presses.

2. It might’ve been a pain in the ass to layout the publication with pictures. I can’t imagine typesetting even one of these issues, let alone figuring out how to physically put an oddly shaped illustration into the mix. These were dudes who had to physically rearrange the letters to print something, so when you see an illustration where the words are beautifully cascading around Buffalo Bill socking some bad guy, that took extra, painstaking work. Yuck. This might be why we don’t see tons of images in a lot of the cheaper-run, tight-deadline publications of the day, like the dailies and the newspapers.

3. Illustrations might’ve been used as needed. Most of the DIME NOVELS were 32 pages long, which means physical constraints. But what do you, as a typesetter and layout dude do when, say, an author turns in a 20,000 words story that needs to be 25,000 to fill pages? Well, a lot of times they filled those extra pages with ads or wacky marginalia or the first chapter of a serialized story. Or, you could fill the space with pictures. From a design standpoint, it’s a practice still done today.

Peau_de_chagrin_squiggleI had a bunch of other stuff to say about the gutter line, but I think the only thing cool about that is that they used to hand draw that baby. When lines were typeset a little off, the line guy would sorta squiggle around it, so it was rarely straight. Also, only some DIME NOVELS used a gutter line. Some just went straight gutter. If I could, I would make all my gutter lines a little off. I thought they looked great being so unique from one another, and I figure the more imperfection that happens to chance itself into a work, the more beautiful it ultimately is.

I, of course, used a computer program which makes chanced imperfections nearly impossible. So you gotta do all this fancy design work to make it look broken, which in a way completely defeats the purpose because it distorts the natural process of creation and the amazing things that can happen when your wrist slips. The accidental gets contaminated with intention, and that’s entirely backwards when it comes to making something with any lasting aesthetic or creative quality.

Chrome should have rust. A hinge should squeak.

Lines should, at times, squiggle away from poorly set type.