Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Best Cover Ever: A Will Eisner and Ken Kelley pulp duet

Issue No. 10 of the Warren Spirit – cover drawn by Will Eisner and painted by Ken Kelley. Scan by Rip Jagger.

This post was first written for the Forbidden Planet International blog last year as part of their Best Cover Ever series.

Around the time Warren magazines stopped publishing in the early 1980s, a whole batch of their back issues appeared in a tiny sweet shop on Dominick Street, Galway, where they were watched over by a crotchety shopkeeper who insisted on no reading, or even peeking, before payment was made. I can’t imagine what strange accident brought this fantastically illustrated helping of sex and violence to my home town, but it was a lucky accident for me.

The real oddity in this already unusual presentation was The Spirit.

Nearly all of Warren’s output was horror, fantasy, or science fiction. The Spirit was, I think, Warren’s only non-horror title, only detective title, only humour title, only reprint title. It followed the same physical format as their other magazines, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella: full colour cover, mostly black and white interior, with one colour story on better paper in the centre of the magazine.

Issue No. 1 had a fully painted cover by Basil Gogos, but issues 2 to 9 used ink drawings by Eisner combined with painted colours by others. Of the issues I have to hand, editor Bill DuBay coloured the cover for No. 2 in this way, and Ken Kelley painted colours for No. 4 and No. 7. This effect gives an interesting tension between parts of the picture delineated in black ink and other parts rendered only in colour paint.

A complete collection of the Warren Spirit covers here.

And a comparison between some of the finished covers and Will Eisner’s initial drawings here.

Complete scans of issue No. 1 (including ads) here.

Issues 10 and 11 returned to fully painted covers, but were to my eye greatly improved compared to the painting for issue No. 1. Both were painted by Ken Kelley and based on Will Eisner’s drawings. A student of Frazetta, Ken Kelley is best known for his fantasy art. His first professional art was for Warren’s Vampirella magazine. The Spirit covers were unusual subjects for him, but I think benefitted greatly from his technique.

Ken Kelley’s website: www.kenkellyfantasyart.com

The Spirit No. 10’s cover is particularly intense, not just in the death-defying stunts both hero and villain are engaged in, and the distressed state of their female audience, but also in the way Kelley has painted the scene. There is little or no consistency in lighting; instead he has painted each element in the most dramatic way he can. The tension between drawn black line and painted colour seen in earlier covers is still present; most obviously in the interaction between the title lettering and the painted villain hanging onto it, but also in the use of black to pick out certain details in the painting: pistol, eyes, wall cracks. The black lines used to bring forward the Spirit’s right shoe are in extreme contrast to the aerial perspective effect used to make his left shoe recede. This achieves a kind of super-exaggerated 3D effect with no need for glasses.

Other points in the painting also seem tonally and chromatically illogical in terms of any attempt at realism, but make perfect dramatic sense. This is cartoony pulp expressionism, and therefore completely in keeping with the artistic history of The Spirit, continuing Eisner’s initial aims in a paint technique that hadn’t been available to the original newsprint version. And I love it.

Compare the finished cover to Will Eisner’s earlier drawing here.

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