Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Honoring the Artistry of McGinnis

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the subject of artist-illustrator Robert Edward McGinnis. During a career that has already spanned more than six and a half decades, he’s painted fronts for paperback books by some of 20th-century crime fiction’s biggest sellers (Carter Brown, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, M.E. Chaber, John D. MacDonald, and Brett Halliday among them), in addition to covers for espionage, historical, and romance novels. His success in the once-derided paperback-art field as well as in slick-magazine graphics led to his being commissioned to create posters for such Hollywood flicks as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Barbarella, The Odd Couple, Cotton Comes to Harlem, James Bond thrillers starring both Sean Connery and Roger Moore, and even soft-core sex films.

Among American illustrators, writes Art Scott in his introduction to the forthcoming work, The Art of Robert E. McGinnis (Titan), McGinnis is “one of the most widely seen and admired … His colleagues at the Society of Illustrators recognized that fact when he was elected to the Illustrators’ Hall of Fame in 1993.” McGinnis’ name may not immediately ring a bell for you, but there’s little doubt that you’ve spotted his artwork at one time or another during your life.

Born on February 3, 1926 (yes, that makes him 88 years old!), and reared in the southwestern Ohio town of Wyoming, McGinnis demonstrated an early aptitude for artistic expression. Encouraged by his mother, he took classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and after high school became an apprentice animator for Walt Disney Studios. He went on to study and play football at Ohio State University, and in 1953 he and his wife, the former Ferne Mitchell (whom he married in 1948), moved to the New York City area, where he engaged in commercial artistry and began illustrating magazine fronts. Through his contact with another young up-and-comer, Mitchell Hooks (who would go on to have his own long and acclaimed impact on this field), McGinnis won his earliest assignments painting covers for crime novels. The 1958 Dell Books release So Young, So Cold, So Fair, by John Creasey, marked his premiere as a paperback artist; within two months more, his work was again spotted in bookstores and on spinner racks, this time introducing Built for Trouble, by Al Fray.

Fifty-six years later, long after most publishers abandoned artist-illustrated covers in favor of photographic ones, McGinnis--who now lives in Old Greenwich, Connecticut--is still decorating new books with his signature breed of lean, lovely, and flirtatious/commanding women. Only now he’s doing it for Hard Case Crime, the decade-old imprint specializing in high-quality, hard-boiled new and classic mysteries and thrillers. “No, we don’t have an exclusive [on his work],” explains Hard Case editor Charlies Ardai, “it’s just that other publishers don’t embrace the old style the way we do. Every one of our books is meant to look the way books did when McGinnis was in his prime. That makes Bob the perfect person to illustrate them for us. Other publishers do pulp art covers only occasionally, and when they do they usually go for the more stylized, ironic look of an Owen Smith or a Richie Fahey. Not to take anything away from either of those gentlemen, they’re both very talented artists--but they’re no McGinnis.”

Ardai reports that McGinnis’ next cover art will appear on Quarry's Choice, by Max Allan Collins, due out in January 2015. But he adds that the artist has also “just painted a cover for a decades-out-of-print novel by Ed McBain that we’re resurrecting in 2016, called Cut Me In [originally published in 1954], and I think it’s the best painting he’s done for us in five years. Maybe ever. It’s just gorgeous.”

So there’s nothing unexpected in the fact that The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, for which Scott wrote the text, is abundant with the illustrator’s paperback efforts. However, it also contains beautiful, large-format examples of McGinnis’ magazine art, his Western and landscape paintings, his numerous film projects and his quite remarkable nudes. Oh, and there’s an interview with the artist that, while it could certainly have been longer, at least gives you a sense of how he works, who his chief influences have been, and the demands he places upon himself for achieving excellence. As Scott remarked recently, “This is certainly the biggest and most comprehensive survey of his work.” (Scott and McGinnis had previously worked together on 2001’s The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis.)

Over the last month, in anticipation of this new volume rolling into bookstores--its debut had been scheduled for release today, but that’s now been bumped back to November--I spent time e-mailing Art Scott, asking him questions about The Art of Robert E. McGinnis and collecting from him various scans of the illustrator’s choicest book covers. Part of my intent was to showcase McGinnis’ paperback work in a series of posts, which can be found in my Killer Covers blog. But I planned all along to divide the results of our discussion between my latest Kirkus Reviews column--which you can enjoy here--and a longer post for The Rap Sheet. Below you’ll find that Part II, in which we discuss the evolution of Scott’s interest in illustrations, the scale of McGinnis’ fame, the artist’s underappreciated comic talents, and much more. Click on any of the images to open enlargements.

J. Kingston Pierce: Since I start out knowing a good bit about Robert McGinnis, but very little about you, let’s start by getting better acquainted. Where do you live?

Art Scott: I live in Livermore, California, about 45 miles east and south of downtown San Francisco; have been here since 1982. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but came out to the San Francisco Bay area to do graduate work at Stanford in 1968 and have been here ever since.

(Right) Artist Robert McGinnis

JKP: Is it true you’re a former chemist? For how many years did you labor in that field?

AS: Yes, chemist in the American sense, rather than the British. After Stanford I worked at SRI International for 11 years, and for Kaiser Aluminum for 19 years. In 2000 Kaiser was looking to move its research people to Spokane [Washington]; I decided to stay here, so retired early at age 54, though I did some consulting work for a few years. Here’s a fun fact: I think I can confidently state that I am the only person on the planet to have co-authored publications with a Nobel Laureate (Henry Taube, Chemistry, 1983) and a Hall of Fame Illustrator (Robert McGinnis, 1993)!

JKP: How did you become interested in artwork and illustrations?

AS: I’ve always been a compulsive collector, and reader. There were a couple of wonderful used bookstores in Cleveland; I’d go downtown most Saturdays and spend my lawn-mowing or snow-shoveling money on comic books and paperbacks. Later, after coming out here and visiting the San Francisco Comic Book Company (the first such store I’d ever seen or heard of) I discovered the world of comics fandom, fanzines, and apazines and became active in comics fandom.

I have zero art talent, but somehow have a good eye for identifying artists--a talent honed under the tutelage of my friend Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr., legendary comics researcher and collector of classic illustration. In the same time frame, early ’70s, a friend discovered a hoard of vintage paperbacks (and pulps!) in a rundown store in Stockton, California, and we made several trips there to clean it out, boxes at a time, at absurdly cheap prices--so cheap that I started to buy books I had no intention of reading just because they had cool covers. That was the tipping point, I think, that made me an illustration buff as well as a reader.

I was also buying and reading mystery fiction, both classic and hard-boiled, off the racks, and I already recognized and admired McGinnis’ work from his Carter Brown, Shell Scott, John D. MacDonald, and Milo March covers. With the Stockton finds, I connected his then-current work up with the work he had been doing earlier, in the 25 cent-35 cent era (and somewhere came across the nudes he’d done for Cavalier magazine--unsigned, but unmistakably McGinnis). At that point the nucleus of a collection was forming, and my interest in illustration shifted from comic books to paperback covers, and my fannish activities likewise shifted from comic art to mystery fiction and vintage paperbacks.

JKP: So when did you first meet McGinnis?

AS: Back in the early 1970s I started writing a limited-circulation fanzine for DAPA-EM, an apa for mystery fans (APA=Amateur Press Association, a precursor to Internet discussion groups, except that the conversations were conducted via print and the postal service). In 1976, in my ’zine, Shot Scott’s Rap Sheet, I published an appreciation of McGinnis, and a copy found its way to Bob, probably through Al Fick, a friend from the apa and another McGinnis fan, who was in touch with Bob.

(Left) Art Scott portrait by McGinnis

One day I came home from work and there was a big flat package propped up on my door, with a Connecticut return address. I opened it up and nearly fainted--it was the original to Slab Happy--a [1973] Shell Scott cover, the redhead with a machine gun perched on a coffin, which I had listed as a favorite in my “McGinnis Golden Dozen” feature! It came with a short note of thanks from Bob, which I now have framed with the painting. I of course called to thank him, but can’t recall much of what I said, I was so gobsmacked and tongue-tied by his generosity. The only other time I’d been that inarticulate was some years earlier when I met Carl Barks, the storyteller I most love and admire.

From that point, McGinnis and I carried on a sporadic correspondence with occasional phone calls. We didn’t meet in person until early 2001, when I flew out to Greenwich to get together with Bob and Paul Langmuir, the designer and publisher of The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis, and go over the proofs of the book before it went to the printer. I met [McGinnis] again in Manhattan later that year, after the book had come out, and he took me to lunch at the Society of Illustrators--you can imagine what a thrill that was for me! That was the last occasion when we were together.

JKP: So how did the two of you become collaborators on these books?

AS: Paul Langmuir was the key ingredient in the Paperback Covers book. He and Al Fick had been shopping proposals for a McGinnis book for some time. Paul became aware of the checklist of McGinnis paperback titles that Wally Maynard (Bob’s friend and neighbor) and I had been working on for years, and decided that could be the basis for a unique and handsome book. He decided to design, publish, and finance the project himself. He was an incredibly talented and energetic man, and his sudden death in 2000 was a real blow. I had the list computerized (Wally did everything in longhand) and could write, so Paul came out to see me in California, we talked about the project, and he handed me the job of generating the list for print, writing the introductory material, and scanning covers that Paul didn’t have. Paul, in Providence [Rhode Island], was relatively close to McGinnis’ home in Connecticut, so he was able to visit the studio and work with Bob in acquiring original artwork, model photos, sketches, and so forth to supplement the paperback cover images in the book. I had met and corresponded a bit with Richard S. Prather [author of the Shell Scott detective novels], and he was a perfect choice to do the introduction for the book.

This new book from Titan started, for me, with a phone call out of the blue from Steve Saffel, Titan’s acquisitions editor in New York. Titan had been wanting to do a McGinnis art book, one covering all aspects of his career. I think Steve pitched it to Bob as a “bigger and better Tapestry” (Tapestry: The Paintings of Robert E. McGinnis being the first McGinnis art book, from Underwood Books in 2000, edited by Arnie and Kathy Fenner. It showcased all facets of his work, and the graphics were first-rate). Tapestry, like the Paperback Covers book, had been out of print for a decade, but both were commanding high prices on the Internet, and Titan saw an opportunity. At any rate, McGinnis signed off on the project and indicated to Saffel that I was the guy he wanted to organize the book and provide the text. I think Paul [Langmuir] would have been Bob’s first choice (and mine, if asked) had he still been alive, and that Paul would have then handed me the writing assignment. As it was, Bob’s son Kyle became the man on the ground in Greenwich, doing an inventory of the available artwork, scanning the paintings, and providing a conduit to Bob, who doesn’t have a computer, doesn’t do e-mail or smartphoning, or any of that. Kyle has done a huge amount of work on this book and I don’t see how it could have been done without him.

JKP: Have you penned books other than these two about McGinnis?

AS: I have written critical essays for Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers [edited by John M. Reilly, 1980], and for the wonderful collection of mystery “retro reviews,” 1001 Midnights [1986], edited by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller. I’ve done pieces for Inside Comics, Graphic Story Magazine, and Paperback Parade.

In 2000, just as work on the Paperback Covers book was wrapping up, I got a call from my friend Richard Lupoff, in Berkeley, who had a contract to do a coffee-table book on the history of paperback books. That was The Great American Paperback from Collectors Press in Oregon. Dick did the research and the writing, but I was the local guy with the large vintage paperback collection, and contacts with other collectors whose holdings shamed mine. So I was brought on board to locate, select, and scan candidate book covers for inclusion in the book. We had great fun playing with the piles of books and deciding which were in and which were out. Unfortunately, the project had a couple of fatal flaws. The publisher had cash-flow problems and dumped the books on the remainder market almost before the ink was dry. Worse (at least the books were printed), the book’s designer decided to overdo the “bright colors” motif of the paperback covers by using full-bleed color pages, so that much of the text was virtually unreadable (black text on dark red, yellow on tan, and other absurd combinations). Dick and I never saw color proofs, just Xeroxes, so we had no idea what a disaster was coming off the press. It’s regrettable, as Dick produced an outstanding history of the paperback business, and it’s well worth reading if you’re willing to put up with the (literal) headaches induced by reading it.

One more project to mention, and that’s Visions, a book of McGinnis paintings of women being put together by Robert Wiener of Donald M. Grant Books. I wrote several essays for the book on McGinnis’ paperback and magazine work and turned them in years ago. That book has been cursed; Paul Langmuir was the designer, and his death midstream wrecked the schedule, and other problems followed. When we started work on the Titan book we expected Visions to precede us to the bookstores and were concerned about duplication of images, splitting the potential market, and so forth. As it stands now, [Visions] is still hung up, with, as far as I know, no clear finish date. I’ve seen the preliminary design, it should be a beautiful book that every McGinnis fan will want. Have patience, is all I can suggest.

JKP: I know the two volumes are significantly different. But were there things you learned from putting together The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis that have made your latest book better than it might otherwise have turned out?

AS: Not so much lessons learned as a sense of having a new mission to tackle. Paperbacks were only one aspect of McGinnis’ work, and when Paperback Covers was published “my job was done” as a book collector, so I started working on gathering material and organizing my information on his movie, magazine, and gallery work. With this new book I have had an opportunity to expose readers to images that many McGinnis fans had never seen (and that I had never seen, as Kyle turned up incredible painting after painting). The paperbacks section is still the biggest piece of the book, as it should be, but it’s in the other sections, especially the magazine and gallery chapters, where I made a special effort to present quality, variety, and novelty. I want even the most devoted McGinnis enthusiast to turn pages and exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before!”

The other thing I learned is that writing is easy, assembling an art book is hard work! Paul did all the hard work on the first book; with The Art of Robert E. McGinnis a lot of the organizing and decision-making devolved upon me. I think I did a good job, enjoyed the hell out of it, but it was a much bigger job--in stretches almost all-consuming--than I’d anticipated.

JKP: You say in your introduction to The Art of Robert E. McGinnis that your subject belongs in the same artistic pantheon as Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and others. What goes into your having formed that opinion?

AS: He was at the top of his profession in his era, had a distinctive, signature style, was enormously influential and widely admired by his peers. Unlike those mentioned, though, he was not a “celebrity illustrator”; those days, apart from the comics world, are past. Of McGinnis’ generation I suppose Frank Frazetta is the last example.

JKP: Is it a fact that McGinnis works out of a studio above a row of shops in Old Greenwich? Is that far from his home?

AS: That’s correct. Nothing fancy, very utilitarian, though the paintings on the walls are certainly something special. I’m vague on the local geography, but think the studio is a quick drive or half-hour walk from his home.

JKP: McGinnis is famous for painting women he describes as “long and fluid, rhythmic and graceful and very feminine.” Those signature lovelies have appeared on his paperback covers as well as in his magazine illustrations. Did he have favorite female models with whom he preferred to work?

AS: Shere Hite was his favorite (she’s also mine; I have this thing about redheads). Shere, of course, left modeling and went on to fame and fortune as author of The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, and follow-up books on “sexology.” Lisa Karan was another favorite. In the interview in the book, McGinnis also singles out Olga Nicholas, model for the amazing “Kitten on a Trampoline” piece he did for The Saturday Evening Post, and talks about her energy and creativity in generating a series of great poses.

JKP: Why do you think he does so well painting women? Is it because he has a special affinity for the opposite sex?

AS: Oh, there’s certainly some special affinity and chemistry at play with McGinnis and women. Admiration and respect are certainly fundamental ingredients.

JKP: McGinnis’ serious, sophisticated covers are so prominent, it’s sometimes startling to come across a deliberately comic work of his. Do you find him to be equally talented in both styles?

AS: There’s less of it certainly, but his comic talent is substantial, and delightful. One of the real treasures in the new book is also the oldest piece in the book, “Mr Jex,” a cartoon tribute to his art teacher from 1947. The central panel of Jex trying to find inspiration while surrounded by nude models brings to mind the famous harem cartoons of E. Simms Campbell.

JKP: A lot of his comic talents seemed to have been poured into his more than 60 movie posters. I’m sure the Hollywood assignments paid well, but was his work on those posters as satisfying as what he’d produced for book publishers? And has he shared any funny stories with you about dealing with film companies?

AS: As for satisfaction, I can’t answer that. I’m sure he enjoyed the opportunity he had to visit the James Bond set in London, and I know he speaks highly of his experiences working with Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles. He surely had fun creating comic expressions for Walter Matthau, clearly one of his favorite “models.” I’m sure he has lots of Hollywood stories; there are a couple of them in the book. One concerns his posters for [1977’s] Semi-Tough. The agents for Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson complained about the great one he did with the grinning duo at the bottom of a pile of cheerleaders--they were The Stars, they are supposed to be on top!

Examples of McGinnis’ Hollywood work. Top: Walter Matthau from a poster for the 1968 film The Odd Couple. Bottom: (left) one of his posters promoting the 1965 James Bond picture, Thunderball; (right) his “controversial” art for Semi-Tough.

JKP: My understanding is that during the mid-20th-century heyday of paperback publishing, artists frequently created paintings they thought would appeal to readers … and then publishers later associated those paintings with whatever books were coming down the pipeline; paintings were not necessarily created for specific novels. Was that how McGinnis worked, and is it still?

AS: There were a few [McGinnis] paintings that wound up on titles they weren’t intended for (Popular Library liked to get two, or three, book covers out of one painting). But he has always done his cover paintings to order for a specific book. He would get a reader’s report with a summary of the plot, descriptions of the key characters, and important scenes. He would discuss the assignment with the art director, he’d go away and work up some pencil sketches, then meet with the A.D. again to pick one, maybe modify it a bit, then he’d go to the studio and paint. When he was doing the “McGinnis Woman” portraits on the long-running detective series, he had instructions to make sure the hair color was correct for the femme fatale in the book, and perhaps there was some signature outfit that they’d suggest they wear, but beyond that McGinnis’ imagination supplied the rest.

I don’t know whether Hard Case operates with the same system, but suspect they do something similar. [Editor’s note: HCC’s Ardai confirms that, when he’s commissioning McGinnis to create the cover imagery for one of his titles, “I prepare a ‘reader’s report’ summarizing the plot of the book, describing the main characters, and highlighting scenes that might be especially suitable for illustration, and Bob works from that.”]

Foreign publishers, however, who had access to transparencies of the artwork (via some translation licensee arrangement, the workings of which are a mystery to me), had free rein to use artwork on any book they fancied. Thus Carter Brown girls show up on Brett Halliday or Mickey Spillane titles (or vice versa), MacDonald covers on Prather titles, Western covers on mysteries; it’s a chaotic mishmash … just so there’s a pretty girl on the cover.

JKP: McGinnis has now painted more than a dozen covers for Hard Case Crime. Do you think his style today differs at all from what he was doing during his heyday in the paperback field?

AS: The style’s still all there, though the HCC covers, some at least, perhaps look more worked-over, less free and spontaneous than in past days, when he had such a killing workload, had to work fast and not worry over details. Still hits some out of the park, like The Consummata and Joyland.

JKP: Has McGinnis always painted to sell, or are there many works he’s put together over the years just for himself or his friends--and that most people will never see?

AS: Painting was his profession and livelihood. I know he’s done some cartooning and caricatures for events and friends in Greenwich. His studio and home have many of his works framed on the walls. These may have been commissioned by publishers, but I think the ones he keeps and displays are images that have special personal meaning.

JKP: How many McGinnis-fronted paperbacks do you own?

AS: The collection to date is 1,088 titles, and I believe it’s complete. Then there are as many as 200 reprint editions, and maybe 100 foreign editions. Call it 1,400+. However, I’ve had nearly that many more copies pass through my hands over the years, upgrading for condition, some books upgraded four or five times.

JKP: And how many of those have you actually read?

AS: Let’s see, I’ve read all the Gardners, all the Prathers, about half of the Hallidays and Carter Browns, ditto for John D. MacDonald; all the Richard Starks and Ed McBains. Various and sundry others, but still it only comes to something like 15 percent, tops, give or take--there are just so many books!

JKP: I keep hearing about a framed, personal letter from American painter Andrew Wyeth to McGinnis that he has hanging in his studio--“his most prized possession.” But I don’t find the story of how McGinnis received that letter anywhere. Can you enlighten me?

AS: I believe that he wrote Wyeth a fan letter; Wyeth replied and praised McGinnis’ landscape paintings.

JKP: How is Robert McGinnis’ health these days?

AS: From what I hear his health is excellent. I can personally attest at least to his mental health, having talked with him for several hours on the phone preparing this book. Put it this way: If I make it to 88 and am half as sharp, articulate, and all-there as Robert McGinnis is, I’ll consider myself incredibly fortunate. And this is a man who played guard for Ohio State during the leather-helmet era! Incredible!

JKP: As you said early on, The Art of Robert E. McGinnis is “the biggest and most comprehensive survey of his work.” Titan’s even issuing a $75 “deluxe limited edition” in addition to the regular hardcover edition. But is this the last time you’ll be writing at such length about McGinnis? Or do you the two of you already have something else cooked up for the near future?

AS: Whether that happens ... will of course depend on this new book’s reception and sales. I think the text I did for The Art of Robert E. McGinnis covers the life-and-works narrative pretty well, and I don’t expect to be rehashing that in any future books. Such will, I imagine, be organized differently, and have a different angle to the copy, whether by me or by someone else who can provide fresh perspective. At any rate, I’ve got ideas, and would be delighted to have a hand in future projects should the opportunity arise. For now, I’m just pleased with what we’ve accomplished, and am looking forward to the reaction from the customers once the book ships.

READ MORE:Master in Our Midst,” by Timothy Dumas (Greenwich Magazine); “Art Scott Strikes Again: The Art of Robert E. McGinnis,” by Evan Lewis (Davy Crockett’s Almanack of Mystery, Adventure, and the Wild West).


Cap'n Bob said...

Excellent. Only one nit--APA stands for either Amateur Press Alliance or Amateur Press Association.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Bob. That correction has now been made.


George said...

Art Scott's Robert McGinnis paperback collection is astonishing! I can't wait to read his essay in THE ART OF ROBERT E. MCGINNIS. Great interview!

teeritz said...

Always loved McGinnis' work, even before I knew who he was. Gotta get that book. The cover art looks like the essence of every private detective story ever written. Thanks for the heads-up! And a great site, too, by the way. I added it to my blog months ago.

Evan Lewis said...

Outstanding interview. I'm in awe.