I was doing the usual double-play with the morning e-mail, inbox to desktop to trash, when I saw her note. She had a story, a novel. It was her first and she needed help. I didn’t believe her, but I kept reading.
She said her name was Kim Cooper, and she runs a nice little outfit called Esotouric that gives bus tours around the city to tourists who are interested in true-life crimes, celebrity deaths, and literary hot spots. I read about her in the papers and bookmarked the company in case I ever had visitors in town and needed something to do that didn’t involve a theme park.
Her mystery novel used Raymond Chandler as one of the main characters. The familiar name Chandler made it seem like she had written about a friend of mine. When someone writes a book about a friend, you’re supposed to do something about it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.
The words “first novel” worried me, but what worried me more were the words “self publishing.” Two words that usually mean trouble, the kind of trouble that starts with multiple sketches and ends in a kill fee and tears. I didn’t have an appetite for any of it. What I had was a drawing table, an airbrush and a bottle of pretty good rye in the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. I wrote her back, it was too early in the day to crack the office bottle.
I told her that I’d take a look at her manuscript and if I thought I could do something about, I’d do it. I warned her that I got a hundred dollars a day, plus expenses. She offered me a thousand, and a seat on her tour bus anytime I liked.
A couple of days later a yellow envelope that was too big for the mailman to shove through the slot was leaning against the studio door. It contained a few hundred typewritten pages, Ms. Cooper’s dreams all wrapped up with a thick rubber band. I took the envelope home, and started reading. Maybe it was the smell of the night-blooming jasmine from the open window or maybe it was the Old Forester, but after about forty pages I knew I was in. Yeah, I’ll design a cover for your book, I’ll even handle all the typography and the spine.
Her story was titled “The Kept Girl” and it mixed up fact and fiction, and was filled with crooked cops, con-men, oil wells, a crazy religious cult, dead bodies, and a lot of ice. It was set in the young but already tarnished city of Los Angeles in 1929.
She could write, and it was my job to give her a cover that did the story justice. I remembered a guy who went by the double-barrelled name E. McKnight-Kauffer. A while back, he designed some handsome covers for paperbacks and I figured he wasn’t going to care if I borrowed his style for this job. He wasn’t using it, he had been dead for fifty years.
A case like this requires a certain amount of finesse. A bunch of sketches could lead to an awful mess that neither Ms. Cooper or I could clean up, so I thought my best bet was to design the whole damn cover and show it to her finished, and see what she thought. In a couple of days, it was done, I sent it over and waited.
I got a reply in a few hours, a short e-mail, the kind of e-mail that makes an illustrator think of a Sunday school picnic. It read “I love it. It’s really everything I hoped you might do, and more. Thank you so much.”
I told you that woman can write.
You can order “The Kept Girl” here.
Sketch, L.A City Hall was completed just before this story takes place, the daily paper was The Evening Express, that's a 1928 Hupmobile, the pipe and glasses are for Chandler.
If you don’t already know about Herb Lester, you should. The company was started by Ben Olins and Jane Smillie in 2010. They started out designing and printing beautifully illustrated and curated city guides to London that are filled with information on spots you wish a wise friend would tell you about, the best pubs, coffee shops, book stores, or places to take a kid if you have one on your hands for a day. Recently they’ve expanded the travel guides to include other cities, stationery, and traveler’s accessories.
A3 folds to A6
I spotted their work in London a few years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since, so it was great to get an e-mail from Jane asking if I’d like to work on a map with them. They had the idea to make a map of the solar system, one that would include must-see spots from popular science fiction books and films combined with hard facts about the environments the intrepid traveler will encounter. The novelist Matthew De Abaitua wrote the text and my job was to fit everything into the map, in the correct spots.
One side is the map to the Solar System
The other side Michael's informative and amusing text.
One of my favorite projects of the year was this illustration for a CD issue of music from the movies of Grace Kelly for Milan Records in France. This is about the sixth or seventh cover I’ve done for them and they always seem to call for subjects that I’m already interested in.
For this one Milan sent me a list of pictures that would be included in the collection and I decided to put Grace in the apartment from “Rear Window” with added elements from the other movies on the list. That’s a framed photo of Tex Ritter who sings the theme song from “High Noon” on the desk with a clock, Bing Crosby’s hat and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet from “High Society” are on the chair, the Cote’ D’ Azur poster and the cat drawing are from “To Catch a Thief.” That’s Alec Guiness as Prince Albert from “The Swan,” and the scissors and phone are from “Dial M for Murder.” The lucky guy in the wheelchair is L.B. Jefferies and Lisa Carol Fremont is about to play some records for him. Grace is wearing a dress by Edith Head and that’s a Hermes Kelly bag on the desk, but you all already knew that.
The biggest challenge for me on this one was to make a good likeness of Grace Kelly in a style that fit the period and also worked for a contemporary audience.
Illustrator outline, those rectangles are placed texture files made from scans of air-brushed ink on paper.
Milan always does a nice job with the design of the booklet and disc, and they always send me a box of CDs. A great client.
The Sunday New York Times Book Review is the section of the paper that hangs around our house the longest, it’s usually still on the dining table when the next week’s edition arrives on the front porch. Nicholas Blechman calls the best illustrators and if they are like me, they always say yes to his assignments. So when he called last week to ask if I had time for a cover illustration I was in.
This was for a review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Bill Keller. Nicholas’ only request was to avoid a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt and focus on the turn-of-the-century journalism aspect of the story, and that maybe the image should include some headlines. I made a list of things that appeared in Keller's review and designed a collage that carried some of the pounding-typewriter-vitality of the era. Blechman recently sent out a Twitter communication that said “Illustrators: you don't need to add texture to your images, there is already enough dirt in the newsprint itself,” so I kept to flat colors on this one. I was surprised the reporter’s cigarette and office bottle survived.
I got a call from Christopher Smith at Desert Companion Magazine to do 16 spot drawings for a timeline of Las Vegas. The list of events to be illustrated was a lot of fun to research and I tried to bring a Vegas-mid-century vibe to the drawings.
Christopher sent me a rough layout to show where the drawings would fit, and designed a beautiful five-page spread.
I got a call from Chris Curry at The New Yorker to see if I'd do an illustration to accompany a piece by Ryan Lizza regarding the Keystone Pipeline and the challenges facing Obama as he makes decisions in the coming weeks. The article wasn't written yet but the outline described a long and complicated story of politics, environmentalists, and Big Oil.
For some reason I started thinking about those great Fortune Magazines of the 1930s and the depiction of big industry from posters and other magazines of that era. The article was going to state all sides of the argument over Keystone and I used the image of a small figure facing gigantic industrial forces. Sketch 2 was approved and the final went through without any alterations.
Sometimes with The New Yorker, a full-page illustration gets changed at the last minute to something smaller, so it's a relief to see the full-size printed piece with that distinctive New Yorker typography.
Last week I get an email from Shanti Marlar, Creative Director at The Hollywood Reporter that says they have a cover that she thinks I’d be perfect for, it’s about Hitler, would I be interested? That’s the kind of e-mail you read twice.
Turns out the cover story is a book excerpt from the forthcoming ‘The Collaboration, Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler’ by Ben Urwand. It’s a shocking story about how Hitler actually affected the movies in America. Before World War II the US studios were very concerned about losing the German export market for their films and worked closely with the Nazis to gain approval on finished films and scripts. Shanti had seen a piece I did for The New York Times that was in the style of the Stenberg Bros. Russian film posters and thought a combination of Hitler’s face and Hollywood imagery in that avant-garde style would make a good cover.
Round 1 sketches
OK, so a cover illustration that features the worst human being in the history of the planet. I start by getting myself on a few NSA Hate-Group-Watch-Lists by Googling photos of Hitler and Nazi propaganda and begin working on sketches. I had my doubts about the Stenberg Bros. concept since they were busy in Russia in the late 1920s and we were talking Nazis and late 1930s, but the overall propaganda vibe seemed to work, and only Steven Heller would think I didn’t know my poster history. Shamelessly lifting one of Vladamir and Georgii’s most famous images that has a camera lens replacing the eye of a man, I worked up six designs and sent the sketches to Shanti, but I was thinking ‘This will never fly, Hitler’s not appearing on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.
Round 2 sketches
Cool heads prevailed at The Reporter offices. Maybe it was actually seeing sketches of Hitler right next to their famous masthead, or maybe it was the recent dust-up over the Boston Bomber’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone, or maybe it was something else all together, Shanti and her editor decided we should try some other approaches. So the next day, I send over five ideas that utilized a combination of Nazi propaganda and 1930s Hollywood imagery with a fairly wide range of emotional impact. Nazis are tricky, even when you’re dealing with a scholarly piece of history an illustrator has to be careful.
The backlot water tower with a swastika replacing a studio logo was chosen. This idea seemed to strike the delicate balancing act required for the cover, Nazi imagery hasn’t lost it’s power to shock or offend, but it’s a tough book about some tough decisions made by studio heads in the turbulent years just before the war. Anyway, it’s online now and soon to be cluttering up the newsstand outside Book Soup.