Back to the Future with J. Frank Dobie

Three giants of Western folklore history and fiction (left to right) Fred Gipson, J. Frank Dobie and True West founder Joe Austen Small were at the forefront of popularizing Old West history in the 1950s. – True West Archives –
Three giants of Western folklore history and fiction (left to right) Fred Gipson, J. Frank Dobie and True West founder Joe Austen Small were at the forefront of popularizing Old West history in the 1950s.
– True West Archives –

When the directors of the University of Texas Press decided to reissue eight J. Frank Dobie classics from its catalog two years ago, a discussion between departments at the press  began about how to repackage the legendary Lone Star State author’s masterworks for a 21st-century audience.  This was to be the third reissue of the Dobie classics since the university had received an endowment in 1975 to keep the famed volumes in print.

The press’s book designer, Derek George, was given the challenge of the redesign. When a colleague suggested to him that he might find inspiration from the covers of vintage Western pulp paperbacks, George went to work studying the cover styles, colors, design elements and use of typefaces and fonts on those provocative pulps. Digging into the archives at the UT Press and at the University’s Harry Ransom Center archives, George realized that Dobie’s friend and equally legendary Texas artist-author, Tom Lea, had done the cover and interior illustrations for the early releases by Boston publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

The first Dobie book on the reissue list for George to redesign was The Ben Lilly Legend: The Greatest Bear Hunter in History. When he discovered it originally had a highly stylized Lea cover in color, he knew he had the signature image that would inspire the redesign of the entire Dobie catalog—an homage to the pulp era.

George also knew he had to walk a fine line with classic works: too much redesign, and he might be accused of lampooning the Hall of Fame author; too little, and the reissue might flop. As George says, “There’s always the risk of going too much into pastiche when borrowing from an old aesthetic like this one. I feel that I’ve kept these fairly restrained in order not to lampoon either the pulp style or the Dobie books themselves. The pulp look is very much part of the design vernacular now, so I think that most people will get what we’ve done with them.”

With the seventh volume, Tales of Old Texas, just released (with a cover illustration by Barbara Latham), and the eighth book, Cow People, in the chute, George’s redesign of Dobie’s classics will be complete, a task he thoroughly enjoyed. “I must admit I’m not a native-born Texan, but Texas is my home now, so I’m proud to be able to do something to honor this state and this great author,” says George. “Plus, it was just a tremendously fun project to work on.”

Stuart Rosebrook, senior editor at True West, is a great admirer of J. Frank Dobie and a collector of pulp fiction.

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