Horror and science fiction are visual genres, and artwork, fonts, and illustrations are critical in connecting fans to the content they desire. For many of us, a great horror poster or movie still is at once a nostalgia trip and a reminder of why we love the genre. I’d bet that most serious genre fans share the same childhood experience of having stared at and been inspired by a particular image, which could be anything from Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera to Doug Bradley as Pinhead to the doll from Annabelle.
For me, as a lifelong horror and monster movie fanatic, it’s the covers of classic Famous Monsters of Filmland issues that hold the most magic. Though the content between the covers hasn’t held up that well over the years, I still get a rush from a good Basil Gogos or Ken Kelly painting gracing the front of a given issue.
Now I’m going to put my college minor in Art History to use and review the great and not so great cover art of the original Famous Monsters run from 1958 to 1983, starting with issues 1 to 5.
Famous Monsters of Filmland #1
Can we start with what is surely one of the most iconic mastheads ever? It is simply brilliant in lettering and layout and is the equivalent of hitting a grand slam the first time at bat. For a magazine that, honestly, was produced on the cheap, this nameplate is spectacular.
However, the venerable magazine’s debut cover art does nothing to indicate Famous Monsters of Filmland would be anything more than a one-off to be quickly forgotten. It’s not a painting or even a movie still. It’s a dude in a mask next to a model. The sidebar lettering isn’t very inviting either. It’s a drab font and unspecific about the content inside.
On the plus side, the layout is uncluttered and the red pops behind the white logo. The right-triangle geometry of the composition is passable (the Frankenstein’s monster forming the vertical side and the hypotenuse laying across the model’s head) and activates the image ever so slightly.
Famous Monsters of Filmland #2
Hrmm. The orange and black color scheme lends a Halloween vibe (I’m assuming orange and black were associated with Halloween in 1958). Again, the lack of clutter is generally a good thing, but this cover borders on bland. It’s another guy in a suit wearing a cheap rubber mask, perhaps signaling to shoppers they are about to pick up a Halloween supply catalog rather than a film magazine.
While we’re on a geometry kick, the figure is pyramidal, which is a form used popularly in the Italian Renaissance (the Mona Lisa being a classic example). It has the psychological effect of suggesting calmness and stability to the viewer. Which is great if you are painting Jesus but not if you are trying to scare people. Would you go see a monster movie that promised a safe, gentle, reassuring viewing experience?
The heavy black background at the top squashes the image a bit as well, though it probably does help the cover to be more noticeable from a distance.
Famous Monsters of Filmland #3
Now we’re getting somewhere. While the layout may be simplistic, we see our first painted cover. I don’t have this issue on hand to identify the artist, but it’s a nicely gruesome rendition of Lon Chaney as The Phantom, extrapolating from the black-and-white film the discolorations of his damaged flesh and even mimicking the harsh lighting. A setting for the figure would have taken the artwork to a higher level.
This time the sidebar plugs are offset by a torn-paper graphic, which abstractly echoes the haggard appearance of the phantom. This effect would probably work better of they were closer to the sickly yellow seen in the phantom’s face, though.
A return to the red background helps the whole thing pop off rather vividly.
Famous Monsters of Filmland #4
The painting by Albert Nuetzell (about whom there is scant information available online) depicts what I assume to be a Martian from George Pal‘s 1953 film version of H.G. Wells‘ War of the Worlds, rendered in a painterly style that imbues the character with pathos and places it in an appropriately vague and shadowy setting. Kudos to the graphic artist who pulled from Nuetzell’s palette for the lettering, though that yellow box at the bottom is too big and blocky, thus making it a distraction. The yellow is otherwise an excellent choice for the masthead, which pops out from the somber background.
Famous Monsters of Filmland #5
Nuetzell returns for issue 5 with a painting of Bela Lugosi‘s test make-up for Island of Lost Souls, a pretty unusual choice for a magazine cover. I do appreciate his painterly brushstrokes and fanciful color palette, but the figure seems more like an eccentric artist than a horror character. The black masthead goes unnoticed, further obscuring the fact that this is supposed to be a magazine about horror and science fiction movies.
The vaguely hourglass composition and the head tilt juice the image a little bit, but not enough to make the cover particularly memorable. A painted cover is still classier and more substantive than a photo of a guy in a rubber mask, but this artwork, layout, and subject matter, while skillfully rendered, misses the target.