Charles Ardai, the editor at publishing imprint Hard Case Crime, doesn’t hesitate to heap accolades upon Robert McGinnis for helping to popularize soft-cover crime and mystery fiction during the mid-20th century. “There were hundreds of artists who turned out a cover or two during the paperback boom that began in the 1940s,” Ardai says, “but only one who turned out more than a thousand, and that was Robert McGinnis. By sheer volume, then, he had a disproportionate impact on the field. But it was a matter of quality, too—his skill and artistry were the equal of Rockwell and Parrish, and his breathtaking women were the stuff of fantasy for a generation of readers. (Two generations, actually, since I fell in love with them when I discovered my dad’s collection.) The Mike Shayne novels, the Carter Brown novels, the Shell Scott novels, the Modesty Blaise novels—what would these have been without McGinnis? It’s not for nothing that when writer/director Shane Black wanted to replicate the iconic look of paperback crime novels for his  movie, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, he went to McGinnis.”
Even if you don’t recognize McGinnis’ name, you may still be familiar with examples of his creative expression. His first effort for the paperback market decorated 1958’s So Young, So Cold, So Fair, by John Creasey. Within two years after that, explains Art Scott in a handsomely illustrated volume titled The Art of Robert E. McGinnis—due out in early November from Titan Books—“he was doing upwards of fifty covers a year, thus launching an unparalleled career in book illustration.” Many of the most familiar paperback crime, mystery and thriller novels of the last six decades showcase McGinnis’ imagery, including series entries by Erle Stanley Gardner, Ed McBain, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, M.E. Chaber, Richard Stark, Edward S. Aarons and John D. MacDonald. (I’ve been posting selections from McGinnis’ diverse portfolio all month in my book art-oriented blog, Killer Covers.) “He was at the top of his profession in his era,” Scott told me recently, “had a distinctive, signature style, was enormously influential and widely admired by his peers.” McGinnis was elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1993.
Scott, a former chemist living in the San Francisco Bay Area, became acquainted with McGinnis during the 1970s. He has since become a “compulsive collector” of that painter’s work, amassing what he calculates are 1,088 paperbacks bearing McGinnis-drawn façades, along with hundreds of reprints and foreign editions. And he’s not done yet, because McGinnis’ attempt to retire was foiled back in 2004, when Ardai asked him to bring his “old-school, retro look” to Hard Case Crime. At age 88, McGinnis continues to create fronts for Hard Case paperbacks by Max Allan Collins, Stephen King, Lawrence Block and others.
Anticipating the publication of The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, I contacted Scott with questions about this illustrator’s renown and his impact on crime fiction. I also asked for a list of Scott’s favorites from among McGinnis’ book fronts; you’ll find his picks here.
There’s some confusion over whether your new volume is an expansion of 2001’s The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis, the first book on which you collaborated with the artist, or a wholly new product. Could you clear that up for us?
This is all new. The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis was an “illustrated bibliography” of his paperback work only: introductory material, a detailed bibliographic listing of over 1,000 books, with reproductions of many of the book covers and some pieces of original art.
The Art of Robert E. McGinnis is a more conventional life-and-works large-format art book about an illustrator’s career. Everett Raymond Kinstler: The Artist’s Journey Through Popular Culture, 1942-1962, by Jim Vadeboncour Jr. and Everett Raymond Kinstler, Piet Schreuders and Kenneth Fulton’s The Paperback Art of James Avati, and Brian M. Kane’s James Bama: American Realist are quality examples of the type of book this is. As you’ll see, while McGinnis’ work as a paperback cover artist gets a large piece of the book, as it should, the book also has extensive coverage of his work on movie posters, illustration for magazines, and finally his late-career works for gallery sale.
It is in some respects a “bigger and better” redo of Tapestry: The Paintings of Robert E. McGinnis (2000), edited by Arnie and Cathy Fenner, published about the same time as my paperbacks book and likewise long out of print and commanding high prices on the collectors’ market. Unlike Tapestry, the new book has a lot more textual material, by me, tracing his career, putting his work in the context of the times and the differing markets he worked for, and commenting on his talent, style, and stature in the illustration profession. There is also a lot more artwork, from the originals, not in either [previous] book. The interview [with McGinnis] is another new wrinkle, not in either earlier book (and I wish we’d had space for a lot more interesting stories and comments from the 2.5 hours I spent with Bob on the phone!).
McGinnis came up through the paperback-illustrating ranks together with such talented artists as Mitchell Hooks, Ron Lesser, Ernest “Darcy” Chiriacka, and Robert Maguire. What makes McGinnis’ work stand out from that of his rivals?
First, Bob would want to smack me upside the head if I called those colleagues of his “rivals,” or suggested that he somehow outranks them! I admire all their work. What differentiates McGinnis, I think, is in the impact he had on the paperback business in his time. His covers for several private-eye series essentially invented a new way of selling that genre; and his work on romance covers in the 1980s (especially from Avon, under Barbara Bertoli’s direction) defined the look of a huge new market.
A word about Robert Maguire. Among paperback cover buffs it’s a sort of “boxers or briefs?” question: “McGinnis or Maguire?” I don’t see why you can’t love them both; I do. Their tastes in models are different, their styles are different, but both are superb craftsmen whose work you know at a glance.
Most people recognize McGinnis’ skill at painting long-limbed and seductive women. But are there other, subtler characteristics of his work that deserve equal acclaim?
I’ve always thought that the key to the appeal of his women was not anatomical, but intellectual. They look smart; wicked smart; a lot smarter than you, buddy.…I don’t know how in the world he does it with a few brushstrokes around the eyes, but his women invariably look not just beautiful, not just desirable, not just hot, but intelligent. There’s light and life behind those eyes. It’s paradoxical, too. Most of the Shell Scott books are populated with airhead “tomatoes”; ditto for the Carter Brown books. One of the Carter Brown series characters, Mavis Seidlitz, is a classic ditzy blonde straight out of sketch comedy. Yet look at the women on the covers of those books. Do any of them look dumb? Certainly not! I’m loathe to suggest there’s something Robert McGinnis can’t do, but if you told him to paint a stupid woman I think he’d have a devil of a time doing it.
People who know him often comment on McGinnis’ surprising lack of ego, his humbleness. Would you also use words like those to describe him?
He is as straightforward and down-to-earth as anyone you’ll meet; a genuine Midwestern son of the soil. [McGinnis was born in Ohio but now resides in Connecticut.] He takes pride in doing superb paintings, not in being acclaimed for having done them. I’ve described him as “pathologically modest.” A quote in the book from Don Smolen (Bob’s art director at [the film company] United Artists) sums it up best: “The only person who doesn’t believe Bob is a genius is Bob.”
As an example, months ago I got a wonderful complimentary letter from him after he had read my manuscript for [this new book’s] text…It is so like him. He praises my work as “a splendid overview of the art of illustration” and offers similar comments in that vein. Well, yes, I talk some about the history of American illustration and its noted practitioners, but that’s just background. What my words are mostly about is Robert McGinnis—his artistry, his achievements, his influence, his extraordinary talent. Yet he shied completely away from even saying something like, “You sure did me proud.”
Do you think paperback crime fiction would have become as popular as it did during the late 20th century, were it not for McGinnis?
I don’t know whether paperback crime fiction in general became more popular thanks to McGinnis. I do know that Alan G. Yates (“Carter Brown”) and Ken Crossen (“M.E. Chaber”), to name just two writers, cashed some fine fat royalty checks that they’d never have seen were it not for McGinnis’ covers! Bigger picture, he played an important role in transforming the look of crime fiction on the racks from the old raffish, pulpish look, to something more sophisticated and contemporary.
For a guy who’s so known for painting people, I’m a little surprised that much of McGinnis’ recent work—showcased in The Art of Robert E. McGinnis—has been of landscapes, with no people whatsoever. Is that what interests him now, or is that what’s always interested him, and he just painted people for money?
He’s a painter. Painters paint landscapes and portraits (and still-lifes, too; he’s done some of those). He feels a special affinity for the Midwestern rural land where he grew up, and for the spectacular vistas of the American West. But his book covers aren’t always mere portraits. Look at the romances and historical novels he was painting in the ’80s; they have people on the covers, but often against backdrops of spectacular landscapes, especially the Western historicals. The trouble is they’re shrunk too damn small to appreciate the detail, so you can understand his pleasure in doing big pieces for gallery sale.
Titan seems to be going all-out with this new book. In addition to the regular hardcover edition, there’s going to be a $75 “deluxe limited edition” made available. Do you think McGinnis is finally getting the kind of book-length recognition his talent has always deserved?
This is certainly the biggest and most comprehensive survey of his work. We worked very hard to get the images as sharp and the colors as true as possible. But still, you look at some of the panoramic landscapes shrunk to one-third of a page, and you wish you had bigger pages, and more pages. Every time I look through the inventory now, an image jumps out at me and I mutter, “Damn, that should have been in the book.” I don’t know how we could have made a much better book within the constraints of budget and format and so on; I’m proud of it and imagine everyone at Titan is as well. But there is still a wealth of McGinnis art that hasn’t been given a proper showcase, and I hope there will be more opportunities to do so. People who know his work only from book covers are invariably stunned when they see the original art reproduced large.
Cover images: The Art of Robert E. McGinnis with an illustration that appeared originally on Kill Now, Pay Later, by Robert Kyle (Dell, 1960); Killer’s Payoff, by Ed McBain (Permabooks, 1962); Wanted: Danny Fontaine, by William Ard (Dell, 1960); and Stranger in Town, by Brett Halliday (Dell, 1961).