Good. Girl. Art.
Web article for Sideshow Collectibles
“She’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.”
At least that’s how the saying goes. However, Jessica Rabbit and the archetypes she was meant to epitomize weren’t drawn bad at all. In fact, the girls on the pin-up calendars, pulp magazine covers and in comic books have long been skillfully crafted illustrations and the basis of an entire art movement. Spanning over a century long and crossing into a variety of media, it is the art movement known as Good Girl Art.
From the breathtaking modern day Wonder Woman covers by Adam Hughes, or the gorgeous Betty Page illustrations by the late, great Dave Stevens to it’s turn of the century roots in Art Nouveau, Good Girl Art has managed to rise above mere titillation and garner respect as a fine art.
By some accounts the art form owes it’s earliest influence to the work of Alphons Mucha over a hundred years ago. His distinctive style:
- Thick lines to define the outer shape of the figure.
- Thin, delicate, sparse lines to define the features within.
- Lavishly ornate borders and backgrounds.
- Intricate details juxtaposed with large empty spaces.
- And at the heart of the illustration. The girl. Her hair, rounded and spiraling. And most importantly- she is curvy and attractive.
She adorns a poster, Gismona, featuring Paris’ most famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt in January of 1894. Or perhaps an advertisement for the perfume spray, “Lance-Parfum Rodo”. It is a complimentary balance between fine art and graphic design. It marks the birth of the Art Nouveau movement. And in it’s own way; it is a precursor to the pin-up. An inspiration to generations of artists. Over a hundred years later, artists still take cues from Mucha, but it was the generations immediately following him that took those tools to create a bold and exciting new art style.
Rolf Armstrong was one of those illustrators. After studying at the Académie Julian in Paris (also the former school of Alphons Mucha) Rolf began illustrating calendar art for Brown & Bigelow in 1921. His artwork of beautiful women was drawn with such magnificent skill and craftsmanship that it became enormously popular. His cover art for “Pictorial Review” would be responsible for raising the magazine’s circulation to more than two million copies, and his Brown & Bigelow calendars were prominent best sellers. So much so, that he caught the eye of RCA execs, who hire him to paint pin-ups advertising their products. Many stars posed for his portraits, including Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Marlena Dietrich and Katherin Hepburn. It is because of this that he is considered by many as the father of “Good Girl Art” and praised for his ideals of American femininity.
In the autumn of 1933 the “Petty Girl” became the next great torchbearer of the movement. With her long legs and playful smile, she appeared in Esquire magazine and took the world by storm. The artist, George Petty, and his airbrushed paintings of beautiful women inspired yet another new generation of illustrators. Whether in an ad for bathing suits or cigarettes, the “Petty Girl” was the centerpiece of the painting. Like Mucha’s perfume ads and Armstrong’s magazine covers, the product was just a means to showcase the girl. She was the feminine ideal of all red-blooded American boys. So much so, that they’d remove the ads and pin them up on the walls of their bedrooms, barracks and lockers. Truly living up to the term “pin-up”. The “Petty Girl” came alive right off of the page and in December of 1939 the gatefold pullout was invented because the single page just wasn’t enough for her. As famed designer George Lois proclaimed, “I’m going on the record to swear that George Brown Petty IV consistently created better-designed women than God.” Eventually, Petty had a falling out with the publisher of Esquire magazine over money issues. Esquire replaced him with Alberto Varga and in attempt to protect their pin-up dream girls, the magazine copyrighted the name, “Varga girl”. In fact, later when Varga himself left the magazine (again regarding money issues with the publisher) he was forbidden from using his own signature. The pin-up was officially big business and had become a dominant force in pop culture.
In 1941, she found her way onto to the comic book page. Realizing that more than just children were reading comic books, publishers tried to appeal to teenage boys and young men by putting in images of sexy women. It was much easier to sell pictures of a girl in a bikini than it was to sell pictures of superheroes. One of the earliest appearances is the Phantom Lady, making her debut in “Police Comics #1”, by Quality Comics. But it is in the Fox Comics era during the late 1940’s through the artwork of Matt Baker, the first known African-American comic book artist, that the comic book sirens really began to catch up to their pin-up counterparts. Baker’s girls were buxom, provocative, and adorned with clothing that seemed almost to be an afterthought. Possessing, at times, the twisting and swirling hair of the Alphons Mucha illustrations and the alluring poses of the “Petty Girl”. It was artists like Matt Baker and Bill Ward (whose “Torchy” character also made her first appearance in a Quality Comics publication) that truly bridged the gap between “pin-up girl” and comic books. Today, their original art is highly valuable and much sought after by collectors.
It was such collectors, namely Comic Book Price Guide advisor David T. Alexander who in the 1970s began describing such art as, “Good Girl Art”. Often mistaken to be referring to the girl in the picture as being a “good girl” the term actually indicates that the artwork itself is good. Well-crafted, beautifully rendered artwork of female characters. Good “Girl art”.
As Ron Goulart explains in the first chapter of his book “Good Girl Art”: “the term Good Girl Art has long been in use among comic book fans, collectors, dealers and historians. It refers not to magazines that contain drawings of virtuous girls but rather to those featuring good drawings of attractive women. These pretty girls are often scantily, sparsely or provocatively clothed.”
This tradition is alive and well today. Gracing the covers of comic books, posters and statuettes. Sometimes, she is still the playful girl caught in a compromising situation.Though more and more these days, rather than being presented in a voyeuristic manner, or as the damsel in distress, she is the strong and beautiful heroine or a woman of power. Still other times, she’s the gun-toting femme fatale or a wicked temptress hell-bent on doing bad. But again, she can’t help it. She’s just drawn that way.