Unless you’re a rank newcomer to Killer Covers, you’ll notice something quite different here this morning. That’s right: the bland, brown, type-only banner at the top of the page has been replaced by a most handsome illustration, created by New Jersey freelance illustrator Rob Kelly. I’m hoping this new flag will lend Killer Covers just a bit more sass and class.
I first discovered Kelly through his Web site back in 2008, and wrote a post for The Rap Sheet that introduced readers both to his clever faux covers for vintage crime-fiction paperbacks and his work on monster-movie posters. I’ve since highlighted another of his mock-up fronts--a super-sexy redo of the 1952 Steve Harragan private-eye novel, Dope Doll (check it out here)--and longed to see several others make that big leap from computer concept to bookstore shelves, including his designs for Sin Street and The Sunburnt Mistress (left). Kelly, a graduate of New Jersey’s Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, has talent that could go a long way toward spicing up today’s crime-fiction catalogues, which are too full of boring covers dominated by shadowy figures and overused stock photography.
Last fall, when I was feeling particularly busy, and was neglecting Killer Covers something terrible, I asked Kelly if he could create a new banner for the top of the blog. He quickly accept the assignment, but then we went back and forth for weeks afterward, trying to figure out the right look as well as the proper dimensions. Finally, he e-mailed the illustration you see at the top of this page, saying, “Let me know what you think.” What I thought was that I couldn’t be happier. The curvaceous brunette, the numerous old-fashioned paperbacks scattered about, the subtle incorporation of this blog’s title into the logo--it all adds up to what I believe is a splendid, playful whole.
In preparation for launching Killer Covers’ new banner, I conducted a short interview with Rob Kelly. As you’ll read below, we talked a little about his history as an artist, his interest in classic paperback illustrations, and his slow but promising steps toward adding regular book cover design to his résumé.
J. Kingston Pierce: Let me start out by asking you to tell something about your life before you went into illustration and graphic design.
Rob Kelly: Not much of one! I always wanted to be an artist, ever since I was a kid. I never even considered anything else, and even though it took a long time to get any work (read: my 20s, pretty much), I never really considered giving up, for better or worse.
JKP: When did you realize that being an illustrator was your calling?
RK: I used to draw superheroes on notebook paper as I watched TV (Channel 48 out of Philadelphia ran something like Super Friends, Speed Racer, Lost in Space, Batman, The Monkees, Scooby-Doo, and more all in a row, every afternoon!), and I’ve basically just kept doing that to this day.
JKP: Who are your principal current clients?
RK: I do work mostly for magazines and ad agencies. I’m just starting to get into doing book covers for people looking to self-publish their novels, which is kinda fun. I do regular work for a lot of industry trade magazines that most people never get to see. Not exciting work, but it pays the bills (I get $20 a day, plus expenses).
JKP: Why did you start creating the faux-vintage paperback covers for your blog? And how long have you been developing those mock-ups?
RK: I did my first one around 2002 or so. I was goofing around and working on a “glamour” portrait, then for whatever reason I decided to use it as the subject of an old-timey paperback cover, complete with title, tag line, and price [The Girl from Midnight, right]. I really liked how it came out (at the time) and it was a lot of fun working with type again--I’ve always thought of myself more as a graphic designer than an illustrator, anyway--so I sort of kept that whole concept in the back of my mind, that it was something I could always create that was a little unusual.
JKP: Can I assume you’re a fan of old paperback illustrations?
RK: Oh yeah, absolutely. My whole life I’ve been inspired by commercial illustrators much more than fine artists. I appreciate that stuff, of course, but over the years I’ve found myself creatively inspired by movie posters, paperback covers, and the like: work I wanted to see if I could replicate in terms of its quality and visual panache. I grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s, and newsstands were still very much around. Not that there aren’t newsstands now, but when I was a kid you could find a giant, full-service newsstand on almost every other block--they carried candy, comics, books, drinks, you name it. I remember some of the newsstands I would go to still had paperback books on little spinner racks, and even though I never bought any of them, I remember seeing the covers.
JKP: Since this is a blog mostly about vintage crime novel fronts, can you list for me some of your favorite examples of that breed, and say what you like most about the covers you choose?
RK: Wow, there are so many: I have a ton of books on my shelf just about paperback book covers, and I leaf through them constantly. A super-short list (click on the images for enlargements):
• Recoil (Lion Books, 1953), by Jim Thompson. I love the design of this one, with the hard red-and-white background, and how the figure almost disappears into it.
• No Hands on the Clock (Bantam, 1946), by Geoffrey Homes. I liked this design so much, I basically stole it when I did my own 12 Minutes to Murder cover.
• The Case of the Buried Clock (Pocket, 1962), by Erle Stanley Gardner. Again with the clocks! I love the colors, the off-center spotlight, and that slight twist of the foot on the woman. Although picking just one of Robert McGinnis’ covers is kind of a fool’s errand.
• Seven Footprints to Satan (Avon, 1950), by A. Merritt. I’ve never read the book, but this spooky cover makes it look so crazy and exciting!
• I Dive for Treasure (Popular Library, 1942), by Lt. Harry E. Rieseberg. I’m a sucker for any type of undersea-type iconography, and this looks like a fun book. The type of cover that would have made me buy it without even reading a word first.
• The Hard Sell Girls (Brandon House, 1964), by Del Britt. I find the women on this cover so sexy, and I love the use of the negative space. It gives what is probably just a cheap “sex book” a bit of class, since the women are so alluring.
JKP: In addition to your faux-vintage covers, I understand that you’ve begun working on some real ones lately. How’s that going, and which have you done already?
RK: I did my first actual crime novel cover for an author named Mike Gerrard, for his e-book, Strip Till Dead. That was a lot of fun going back and forth with Mike, and I was pretty pleased with the result. He sent me the book early on in the process, and not too long after I started reading it I got an idea for the cover. But I was enjoying the book so much, I kept reading for pure pleasure. Mike liked the idea, and for the most part that’s what ended up on the book. Mike’s been really resourceful in terms of getting his name and book out there, and it seems like every other day he’s writing me, sending me a link to another interview he’s done, which almost always feature the cover. So it’s getting a lot of attention for a book that doesn’t have a big publishing company’s marketing department behind it.
Not too long ago I was contacted by another self-publishing author for a cover to a sci-fi book, which I’m working on now.
JKP: Are you soliciting other book-cover assignments? Is that more of what you want to be doing in the future?
RK: I've always wanted to do book covers, and I did do one for HarperCollins--a young-adult novel called The Alison Rules [by Catherine Clark]. I thought that would be my “in” to doing more book-cover work, but for whatever reason it wasn’t. I would absolutely love to do more book covers.
JKP: In general, what do you think of the work being done on book covers these days? Is there enough novelty and excitement evident? Or do you find them pretty lackluster and repetitive?
(Left) Former M*A*S*H star Loretta Swit and artist Rob Kelly at the New York Comic Con in October 2009.
RK: I generally don’t like to be too critical of others’ work, because you never know how much editorial meddling went on during any given project that marred the final result. It’s so easy to sit back and say, “I would have done better” when you weren’t the one dealing with 12 levels of bureaucracy picking apart every little piece of your art. That said, I find very few covers visually compelling--whether it be the use of type or color, there’s a general blandness, and when a really sharp cover is out there it jumps out at me. Sometimes if I see one that’s really good I pick it up and look for the cover credits just to see who did it. Maybe someday someone will do that for one of mine ...
JKP: Finally, we have to talk about Killer Covers’ spiffy new flag. Tell me, what were your goals with the design of that header? Was there a mood you were endeavoring to establish with the work?
RK: The goal was to make you happy, pure and simple! The late, great [comic-strip artist] Tex Blaisdell once laid this piece of wisdom on us back at The Joe Kubert School: “Commercial artists are whores: you ask the guy when he wants it, how he likes it, and how much you get paid!” Which is, come to think of it, a very pulp-noir thing to say.
In terms of mood, [I was looking for] sex and fun (redundant?) pretty much. Had there been room for a gun to give it that extra slice of crime angle, I would have added that. But I thought it was better to feature more of the covers.
JKP: Did the banner turn out exactly as you’d imagined it? And how long did it take to get everything right?
RK: My work never turns out completely what I see in my head: 99 percent of my stuff is not as good as what I see in my head. Overall, I think it took a few months--way longer than normal--because there was more back-and-forth between you and I, and in between each stage I got bogged down with other work. Sorry for that, by the way.
JKP: No worries, Rob. The result is terrific!
(To learn more about Rob Kelly and his work, click here.)