Opus 65:

Opus 65: The Ladies on the Cover and a Dose of News and Reviews (July 4, 2001) Here’s a treat. After lingering long only in the fondest overheated reaches of admirers’ memories, the pictures that Robert McGinnis painted on the covers of paperback books are at last emerging into the palpable world. The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis (144 8x10" page paperback; $29.95 from Bud Plant) is a collector’s checklist but is so luxuriously designed and printed as to be a worthy anthology of McGinnis’ work nearly equal to the earlier Tapsestry: The Paintings of Robert E. McGinnis ($30; ISBN 1-887424-56-3 from Underwood Books).

Paperback Covers comes with a deservedly, appropriately, effusive Foreword by mystery writer Richard S. Prather, who recalls with great affection the eighteen covers McGinnis did for his Shell Scott private eye books. He tries to tell us which one is his favorite:

"... maybe, just maybe, the lady transforming The Wailing Frail into a hot collector’s item should be Number One; how could she not be, with her long flowing blonde hair and long flowing blonde body, her wise face and wiser form, her magnetic and charismatic and hoo-boy! impact upon a man’s eyes and aorta and etc.?"

But in the last analysis—after conjuring up memories of another cover or three—Prather gives up: "The honest and final answer to this question is, perhaps not entirely grammatically but I swear entirely truthfully: all eighteen is my favorite."

Mine, too. All 1,432 editions of the 1,068 titles McGinnis illustrated. Only about a quarter of them are pictured in this book, which is, after all, a checklist of his work not an exhibition of it. And most of the cover reproductions are heart-breakingly small: 1.5x2.5 inches. (The editors say the small size permitted them to include more pictures.)

Small but large enough to coax out of memory the larger, truer images of womankind that McGinnis made his memorable speciality—these lithe and long-legged voluptuaries who pout with Sophia Loren lips and sultry eyes. The McGinnis Woman, who, typically, stares out at us unblinkingly, defiantly unabashed in her undies.

Beginning with the cover for John Creasey’s So Young, So Cold, So Fair in 1958, McGinnis started the trend of using pin-up femmes as covers for private eye paperbacks, and his best work distilled his approach: a single seductive figure of a beautiful slim woman accompanied (sometimes) by an antique prop or (with M.E. Chaber’s titles) a portrait of the detective himself (as portrayed by the hard-bitten James Coburn). It was McGinnis’ wife, an antique collector, who stimulated his use of vintage furniture (notably in the Chaber series).

Quite apart from the appeal of his art, McGinnis is of interest here because of his cartooning origins. His first artistic enterprises as a small boy at the family’s kitchen table involved copying comic strip characters from the daily newspaper. And after graduating from high school in 1943, he hitchhiked to California and served a brief apprenticeship in the animation department of Disney Studios.

Moreover, in describing the function of the illustrator, McGinnis says he is "a one-man theater": he "conceives the plot, writes the script, stages, directs and acts out the roles." Which is precisely what many cartoonists say about what they do in producing comic strips and comic books. Hank Ketcham, for instance: "You become the stage director, lighting director, furniture designer—and the actor for each character you draw."

"I’m not a Western artist," McGinnis goes on, "but ... I’ve been in brawls beside Buck Jones, ridden for justice with the Lone Ranger, walked Dodge City’s main street at night with Jim Arness and sung ‘Back in the Saddle’ with Gene Autrey." He’s also painted his share of Western pictures (on display in Tapestry—along with several large-sized pictures of the McGinnis Woman).

In captions, the compilers of this checklist (Art Scott and Wallace Maynard) supply all sorts of similarly tantalyzing information. One of McGinnis’ frequent models was Shere Hite, for instance—who is perhaps more noted for The Hite Report, a study of American sexual mores, than for her orange mane and unadorned derriere as depicted on the cover of Carter Brown’s The Unorthodox Corpse.

The listing of titles is by author, alphabetically, not chronologically. Carter Brown’s Signet books seems the longest list, and I’m delighted to discover that I own 27 of the 100 or so books with McGinnis’ pictures on their covers. These, I think, are the best of McGinnis (with the Prather books a close second and Brett Halliday next); and now I know I have over 70 more pictures to seek out in used-book stores everywhere.

A quarter of the total Carter Brown ouevre is reprinted here; and the Hite cover appears twice —reproduced as the paperback cover and as a free-standing painting. (Another reproduced as stand-alone art is the cover for John D. MacDonald’s On the Run, which the caption tells us is McGinnis’ homage to the notorious "September Morn," a scandalously nude 1913 picture that threatened to go unnoticed as a print of Paul Chabas’ oil painting until a young gallery assistant named Harry Reichenbach went to work. He displayed the print in the window of the Manhattan gallery and hired some young boys to crowd around and gawk. Then Reichenbach protested to Anthony Comstock, who, as head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, launched a protest against the moral outrage of the lady’s nudity. The ensuing publicity sold prints of the painting like hot cakes, and the picture was soon available on postcards and calendars, becoming, perforce, the prototype for a century’s pin-up calendars.)

McGinnis did some covers for "gothics," too, and a few for "romance" novels (one of which, reproduced herein, presents the customary steamy clench in which, famously this time, the man is naked below the waist as well as above).

Several of the cover paintings are given full-page reproduction. And the book also includes a modest sampling of McGinnis’ preliminary pencil sketches and a few of the photographs he sketched from.

A memorable, delicious book. A visual feast. A delight to eye and a prompt to the imagination.

And a prompt to the procrastinator. With the book’s checklist in hand, I was able, at long last, to survey my own holdings of McGinnis-illustrated paperbacks, and I discovered, to my horror, that I have, over the years, acquired duplicates of books already on my shelves. And so, in an effort to purge my collection of these doubles, I am, herewith, offering for sale the following titles: by Carter BrownThe Sex Clinic, Catch Me a Phoenix, *Murder Is a Package Deal, and W.H.O.R.E.; by Brett HallidayCall for Michael Shayne, Death Has Three Lives, The Violent World of Michael Shayne, Murder Takes No Holiday.

In the usual collector market, these’d fetch maybe $2.50-3.50 or more each. I’m gonna let ’em go for $2.50 each (except for the one with the asterisk, which I’ll let go for a buck). The condition of all is entirely presentable—that is, the McGinnis picture is clean and clear (except for Package Deal, the cover of which is somewhat discolored and distressed although not creased at all, hence the low price). Add 50 cents postage and handling for individual titles; or, if you order more than one, 30 cents each. To order, e-mail me via the mechanisms of this website, and I’ll e-mail back with my address and other details.

More Rancid Raves. Daredevil Yellow is a limited series re-telling the origins of the Marvel character, and on the opening spread in No. 1, we see multiple images of DD tumbling through the air from building to building, a clear demonstration, one more time, of the fundamental appeal of superhero comics to artists: the longjohn legions offer endless opportunities for figure drawing.... In Savage Dragon No. 85, Eric Larsen returns to storytelling: after numerous issues in which he divided the pages into grids of panels jammed with fisticuffs and movement in the manner of Marvel of yore, he resorts here to demonstrating what he was (and is) so good at—plumbing the medium’s capacity for pacing events for dramatic impact; and it’s about time.... Mike Kunkel took a year to produce the second issue of his Herobear and the Kid comic book; No. 3 is now out, just a month short of another year (and still delightfully rendered and produced in a manner that preserves the liveliness of the pencilled action), and this time out, we learn something of Herobear’s powers (he flies) as well as what being a hero means—and Kunkel expertly introduces a suspenseful glimpse into the next issue’s probable predicament when a mysterious and monocled menace murmurs, "I thought that I was the only secret to survive".... Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother is as whimsically rendered with her spidery line as the tales are whimsically told, and both picture and story reward lingering over them to discover and savor (in No. 1 of the current series) such nearly subliminal hilarities as the wolf in sheep’s clothing (Harry the Werewolf is wearing a shirt with images of sheep on it) and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth’s Rat Fink at the helm of one of those fanciful three-wheeled hogs; ahhh, but Scary in full color is even more delightful....

In 10th Muse No. 4, we discover (at last) that this supernumerary muse (one above the classical nine, all of which serve the arts) is "justice." Gregory Parkin at Diginks illuminates this tale with a deliciously flowing line, waxing and waning with pleasing effect on Emma Sonnet’s flowing locks and flowing anatomy and visage; but the feathering and modeling on clothing is sometimes awkwardly done. And the colors by Marvin Marino are still too dark: in combination with Parkin’s often black-drenched renderings, the dark palette obscures pictures where they ought to be clarified. And I still have a deuce of a time discerning who’s talking in the disconnected fragmentary captions. Emma? And when is she talking? Now? Or in a dream? Or in a previous but forgotten life?

But if you really want to know all the low-down on the history of the comic book, you must (you really must) consult a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book, about which, you can learn more by clicking here.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Union-Tribune, contrary to the dim prognostications indulged here in Opus 62, acted swiftly to replace Steve Kelley, the editorial cartoonist who was fired on May 25. Steve Breen of New Jersey’s Ashbury Park Press (another in the Copley chain, like the Union-Tribune) was hired in mid-June to take the editoon position in San Diego. Breen, who won the Pulitzer in 1998, joins his new paper on July 9. He also produces a syndicated comic strip, Grand Avenue. Breen grew up in Southern California and attended the University of California at Riverside as a political science major. Normally, replacing an editorial cartoonist is a prolonged process, so hiring Kelley’s successor within a month seemed precipitous to observing editorial cartoonists. But Breen was already in the Copley family, so to speak; and, according to the scuttlebutt among other cartoonists, the Union-Tribune wanted to act quickly in the hopes that news of a new cartoonist would overshadow news of Kelley’s departure. Kelley, as a moonlighting standup comedian and because of a paternity suit in which he was involved a year ago, was something of a celebrity in San Diego, and his firing was much noisier than the paper could have predicted. (They offered him a big severance check if he’d keep quiet about it all; but Kelley, to his credit, would not be bribed into silence.) As one cartoonist wrote on the Internet: "My own impression is that it’s a case of a paper embarrassing itself through its shoddy firing of a fine cartoonist—and then acting quickly to repair their very public, bleeding ulcer."

Meanwhile, just to demonstrate how crusading and considerate it is, Copley News Service, the chain’s syndicate that has been distributing Kelley’s cartoons, dropped him. But not without the gracefulness that, now, we’ve come to expect from Copley. According to Kelley: "Glenda Winders, who runs Copley News Service, notified me by phone on Wednesday, May 30 that Copley stands behind and supports its cartoonists, and that she wanted me to remain with CNS despite my having been terminated at the Union-Tribune. Saturday, three days later, a letter in my mailbox at home notified me that Copley News Service would no longer be syndicating my cartoons. Glenda had signed the letter. I have a contract offer from another syndicate that I am reviewing."

To which Steve Greenberg reposited (with great justification, I think—and with a metaphorical turn of phrase that we expect from editorial cartoonists): "Copley stands behind its cartoonists, but the cartoonists had better not bend over."

And before we sign off, lemme mention a delightful little book I just ran across. A newly-minted version of John Mitchell’s My Ears Are Bent, a collection of his 1930s newspaper pieces, long out of print. Shortly after the book was first published in 1938, Mitchell joined the staff of The New Yorker, for which he wrote for the rest of his life, almost sixty years. The book is delightful partly because it is little—about the size of the old Modern Library standbys. Just right for holding in your hand or lap. Unobtrusive, perfectly gainly (as opposed to ungainly). And Mitchell’s prose is likewise gainly and unobtrusive.

But the reason I mention the book is that it contains three interviews Mitchell did with New Yorker cartoonists before he was on the magazine’s staff: Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, and William Steig. About each, we discover a little something.

The turning point in Hokinson’s artistic career, she said, was her discovery of ‘dynamic symmetry’ during a night class taught by Howard Giles at the Parsons School. Giles’ theory of dynamic symmetry was that geometry is inherent in all forms, so the artist should "organize on his drawing surface a series of similar shapes based in symmetrical triangulation, and the picture will grow in conformity with nature’s plan."

Giles’ theory is not generally accepted, but such artists as George Bellows believed in it. And Helen Hokinson: "It changed me entirely," she told Mitchell. "When I am drawing now, sketching a person unawares even, I start with little rough triangular shapes and work out from that. It is wonderful for catching the gestures of people or the way they wear their hats or coats."

One day, cartoonist Garrett Price saw some of Hokinson’s sketches and urged her to take them to The New Yorker. And thus was a legend gently prodded into being.

As for the inventor of Shrek (yes, that was William Steig), Steig said he had to break away from all the training he received in art classes. "I imagine most cartoonists who went to formal art schools had the same experience. I am satisfied to do humorous drawings. I think the cartoon is a worthy art."

But the laughter provoked by a cartoon has something vicious about it, Steig said. "Laughter over a cartoon is pretty well explained by a man named A.M. Ludovici [who calls] his idea ‘the theory of superior adaptation.’ The idea is that a thing is funny if it creates in the spectator a feeling of superior adaptation, that for the moment he is a superior person, certainly superior to the man who has been hit over the head with a rolling pin."

Steig first achieved publication in The New Yorker with drawings of kids, "Small Fry." Kids are easy to laugh at, he explained, "because we are certainly better adapted than they are." But kids also laugh at adults who are doing foolish things, and they laugh at other kids to whom they feel superior.

Eventually, as we know, Steig, at the age of sixty, concentrated on writing and drawing almost exclusively for a young audience. Such an audience, he believes, can best appreciate his gallows humor, his love of language, and his sometimes disconcerting forthrightness.

"I guess it’s my respect for kids that makes me talk sensibly to them," he said. "You have to write for children," he went on, explaining the importance of talking to kids on their level —not, I assume, talking down to them. "If you don’t write for children," he finished, "you’ll end up writing Moby Dick."

I didn’t find out much about Peter Arno —except that he was disappointingly fatuous. And that realization is altogether missing from a piece I did last winter that is being published in Hogan’s Alley No. 9, out sometime in July, they say.

Until then, stay ’tooned.

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