Spies, Nazis, Beautiful Women, Mobs, Daredevil Explorers, Heroes & Traitors In Incredible Adventure Artworks Of Mort Künstler
Mort Künstler is best known today for his vivid paintings of scenes from American history, specifically the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. These works have been featured in books and calendars, and spotlighted in exhibitions around the country.
Less known is Künstler’s early work in men’s adventure magazines, a unique genre that populated newsstands from the 1950s through the late ‘70s. Also known as “men’s sweats,” because most covers featured a sweaty, shirtless guy facing some type of peril, scores of adventure titles vied for a reader’s attention with eye-popping headlines such as “Death Orgy of the Leopard Women” and “Weasels Ripped My Flesh!”
Men’s adventure magazines were the bastard child of the popular pulp magazines of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and many of the artists who worked for the pulps also put paint to canvas for this next evolution, most famous among them being Norm Saunders. Numerous publishers saw an easy buck in the men’s adventure magazines, but none more so than Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management, whose titles included Male, Stag, Action For Men, Battlefield, Complete Man, For Men Only, Man’s World, and many others.
Künstler started working for the men’s adventure magazines shortly after graduating from Pratt Institute in the early 1950s.
“I was a hungry guy, and I was persistent,” he says. “I clicked with several [men’s adventure magazine] publishers, and it almost became a competition for my services. I ended up with Magazine Management mostly because they paid better and offered me as much work as I could handle.”
Künstler also did a lot of work for other publishers, whose titles included True, Argosy, Adventure, American Weekly, and The Saturday Evening Post. The men’s adventure magazines specialized in lurid headlines and even more lurid covers, often depicting over-the-top war stories, daring tales of escape, deadly encounters with dangerous animals, and sex. Most of the stories were pure fiction but presented as fact – an easy way to lure gullible readers. Künstler illustrated them all with a straight face.
“I always tried to make my covers and interior illustrations as believable as possible,” he says. “That was my knack, and instrumental in why the magazines sold so well. And I was rewarded as a result. It worked out very well and I had a lot of fun with it.”
The stories with a sexual component sometimes made Künstler a little uncomfortable, and he admits to turning down a couple of assignments because of that. When he did say yes, however, the results were stunning – sexy in a clean, classical style.
“By today’s standards, none of them are offensive,” Künstler says, “but they were slightly risque. I never painted an illustration in which a woman’s breasts were seen; they were always covered by long hair or a torn blouse.”