BESIDES THE BIBLE AND A DICTIONARY, the bookshelves in my relatives’ houses were sure to contain a few paperback westerns. And unlike the Scriptures and Webster’s, they had colorful cover art—hard-eyed heroes, cowering cowgirls, leering desperadoes—that was sure to attract my attention. For a kid, the Old Testament had its lively moments, to be sure, and certain dictionary entries were extremely eye-opening, but for reliable good-guy-bad-guy action, cheapo westerns were the way to go.

I read scores of them, starting with Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey, the most famous western writer ever— which is to say, for the 120 or so years that westerns have been around. I also devoured a lot of adventures by Max Brand, the best-known pen name of Frederick Faust, who wrote more than three hundred westerns (notably Destry Rides Again, which was filmed twice). Sometimes shoot-’em-up illustrations fooled me into finishing some fine work, such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian and several J. Frank Dobie books, which were occasionally issued in quickie editions costing a quarter or two. But most pulpy paperbacks, which favored words like “blood,” “death,” and “hell” in their titles, were dashed off by lesser mortals. Their writing, I realized years later, left much to be desired (eyes narrowed, jaws clenched, bosoms swelled). A typical sentence might read, “His face blue, his tongue protruding grotesquely, the sheriff stared at the man he’d hanged.” (Okay, I made that up.) But no matter how awful the author, he got a byline, even if it was only the publisher’s house name; one of Texas’s finest modern writers, Elmer Kelton, took a turn as the Paperback Library’s “Alex Hawk.”

Compared with the writers, the illustrators stood out from the herd, but they never received credit for their work; they were hired hands who made fifty or a hundred bucks per canvas. They favored bright reds and yellows (manly hues!), whether they were painting a machete-wielding señorita or a fatally “ventilated” outlaw, and gaud was in the details: bloody welts, golden coins, neon-green cacti. Today we know the names of some of the men—Norman Saunders, Gerald Gregg, and Robert McGinnis, to list a few—who, from the thirties through the sixties, produced hundreds of amazing covers, such as the 42 shown here from my collection of vintage paperbacks. Many of these artists have already joined the last roundup. Lots of authors too are now ghost writers in the sky. So, although it may not be the cowboy way, I say go ahead and judge these books by their covers. And when you do that, smile.