True Romance


These covers were painted by Robert McGinnis, the dean of American paperback illustration. McGinnis’ reputation rests on the more 1000 pulps that literally define the genre, as well as the iconic movie posters he did for Barbarella, James Bond, and the Odd Couple. So, off the bat, they are sexy, torrid – simply killer – illustrations.

What’s more interesting is that they are the result of a fascinating development in paperback book illustration. In the early 70’s photography supplanted illustration as pulp’s preferred mode. Pressed out of the genre that made their careers, and in some cases fortunes, some illustrators retired to fine art, some to advertising. Others, in the case of McGinnis and Robert Maguire – two of the absolute best – migrated to romance covers.

What distinguished their efforts are the the noirish touches that they brought over from the pulps. Their penchant for eggshell hues, alabaster skin tones, muted colors and gestural brushstrokes gave the paintings a real allure. Also, they conjured powerful atmospherics – an epic historical sweep, a genuine sexiness, more than a touch of danger, and a sense of swashbuckling adventure.

Oh, and design-wise, these are seriously great. The typesetting is perfect in its own way and the compositions unusually dynamic and well ordered. As a exercise in serial design this Johanna Lindsay series in particular is a knockout – issuing forth in double barrelled salvos of modes – color blocked, on-white, and full lurid bleeds.

Together the design and the painting lift the covers from from usual ham handed, frosted glop to the status of real melodramatic art – which requires, along with an overheated imagination, more than a fair share of skill and technique.