Belarski’s professional career started with a simple illustration on a whitewashed wall at a Dupont, Pennsylvania coal processing plant. Once the artwork was discovered his bosses set him to painting safety posters while still in his teens. At the age of 21 he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York to fine tune his enormous talents. The management at Pratt Institute was so impressed with his talents, in 1929, several years after he had graduated, Belarski was invited back to teach commercial art.
It was in the late 20’s that pulp magazines beckoned while he was still instructing at the Pratt. Pulpwood magazines had a voracious appetite for artwork, as newsstands were filled monthly with their provocative four-color covers. His first covers were destined for the air pulps being published by Dell. Aviation covers dominated Belarski’s easel with only a few exceptions until the mid-30’s when he started doing covers for Ned Pines and the Thrilling Group of titles. The number of titles being produced by Thrilling far exceeded those being produced by Dell, and Rudolph Belarski was one of the main illustrators for the publisher.
Early in 1937 Frank A. Munsey Company, publisher of Argosy and several detective titles, commissioned Belarski for their magazines, while still hard at work on covers for Thrilling. It was during busy times that Belarski would split his time between New York and cabins in Maine or Canada. Painting covers in the light of day while camping. Sometimes polishing off a canvas and shipping it out in a cardboard box overnight.
During World War II, Belarski continued to send work in to Ned Pines, and also entertained troops overseas in British hospitals. Between paper shortages during the war and a shrinking market for pulps, Belarski made the partial jump to paperback covers for Popular Library, also owned by Pines. It was late in 1951 that Belarski made the jump to strictly paperbacks, forever leaving the ragged edged pulpwood magazines behind. It’s a testament to Belarski’s talent that avid collectors of both paperbacks and pulps value his work highly.
Living skeletons. Walking boneyards. Specters of dread and doom. Fantastic images designed to evoke an emotional response to shock and titillate the reader. Rudolph Belarski’s use of these skeletal remnants span from aviation pulps through hero and detective magazines as well as where you’d imagine they’d be, a weird menace cover.
Belarski’s beady-eyed hooded allegory of death jumps off the printed page like a thunderbolt. It commands our attention and was a favorite cover scheme of not only Rudolph Belarski but used by a number of the great pulp artists. George Rozen used the same theme for The Shadow covers and other magazines. Norman Saunders had a dancing skeleton on Complete Detective. Frederick Blakeslee had animated corpses flying World War I airplanes against G-8 in G-8 and his Battle Aces.
For Belarski, the constant theme he stressed was involving the reader in his action. The covers for pulp magazines were designed to appeal to the reader before they even knew what they were getting inside. Fantastic images, bold color, outrageous action, all crammed on the newsstands of Depression Era America. The American pulp publisher knew that their audience was looking for escape. The pulpwood editor knew that action and adventure counted more than intricate plot. The art director and publisher knew which artist would sell more magazines. It was a cold hard fact that some publishers couldn’t pay their authors for stories, but the artist’s fee was paid for up front because it would be the cover that sold the magazine not the half-cent per word starving unknown author. Rudolph Belarski’s career lasted through a depression, and the eventual death of the pulps. He continued on in paperbacks, but the best work of his career was with those 128 page untrimmed wonders known as the pulps.