I'm afraid. I'm afraid I may owe my entire career in graphic design to Harry Chester. That's a real name—Harry Chester. It's not a joke, I'm afraid. Very afraid.
For the last 40 or more years I’ve been trying to think like Harry Chester. Truth is, I didn’t even know it. I didn’t know who he was. I would see his name listed in a staff box somewhere and assume it was a pseudonym, an inside joke among hipsters. Over time, I began to realize he was a real person and he was the designer primarily responsible for the introduction of cheezy monster type into our shared collective design cultural subconscious. Very scary stuff.
I’ve collected many strange things, but few of my collections have been stranger than my “strange” book cover collection. These “strange” books were all published between about 1957 and 1961 by several different paperback companies. Some of them are collections of articles reprinted from FATE magazine. Some of them are stories collected by the same author. But, the only single identifying common denominator of these paperbacks is that they have the word “strange” in the title—that, and the fact they all look the same. There is too much typography, too much color, a vague abstract expressionist/surrealist background and, most importantly, big monster type.
Is there some unwritten graphic standards manual somewhere out there that describes exactly what a “strange” book cover is supposed to look like? Were these all designed by the same designer? Was that possible? Why did they exist for just a short few years? These covers were used to sell a strange subject to a small group of people over a small period of time.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that there seems to have even been an entire font family, a commercially available typeface, that was used on several of these covers. I’ve collected and studied vintage type for decades, yet I’ve never found any typefaces that look remotely like this. The closest I’ve found was a family of typefaces called Interlock marketed by Typositor. The most well-known offspring was called Ad-Lib.
Other variations could be seen in hip Southern California clubs and rock bands (The Ventures, The Challengers) and eventually the book covers of Richard M. Powers and hot rod/monster model kits of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. That particular style was inspired by the typography of David Stone Martin and was popularized in the Southern California hot rod/surfer/rock ’n’ roll culture through Rick Griffin, Ron Cobb, Stanley “Mouse” Miller and (especially) the lettering work of Earl Newman. Eventually, much of this work morphed into the Art Nouveau revivalist stylings of psychedelia.
But, this school of pop typography really doesn't explain these “strange” covers. The typework on these book covers looks more like The Flintstones signage in Dante's Inferno than the poppy, energetic, interlocking typography of the Earl Newman school.
Other possible sources are (obviously) horror movie posters of the past. That poster lettering owes its origins to American sign painting, particularly the pen-lettering styles of Seattle's Ross F. George, widely popularized through the Speedball Pen Company's “how-to” series of Speedball text books. The posters and the typography on them were created primarily in studio art departments staffed with sign painters doing freeform hand-lettering. They were controlled, exacting and professional and the work they produced looked that way. Classic horror movie poster lettering may have been one inspiration for these book covers, but they were not its primary source.
This same problem goes for other pop culture sources as well. Record covers? They were starting to look like these book covers during the same time, but older record covers were nothing like them. Old paperback covers were similar, maybe the closest similarity, but they weren’t exact. The lettering work showing up on detective mysteries and horror paperbacks was another obvious source of inspiration, but the “strange” covers were not echoes of that work anymore than they were echoes of the Interlock school. Even the work of Richard M. Powers, as similar as it often seemed, did not belong in the same style category.
Monster model kit boxes were a fad during this same period. Model kits with monsters riding hot rods, monsters riding surfboards, monsters riding “Rat Fink” could be cited as inspiration for these “strange” covers, but, it’s not so. The work of Ed Roth, “Mouse” Miller and Ray Campbell showed more of an affinity for the Earl Newman style of lettering than anything related to the “strange” covers.
The only typography that begins to feel like the “strange” covers at all appears on a series of monster model kits created by the Aurora Plastics Corporation. The box covers (all by illustrator James Bama) sported a sloppy, hatchy-looking typography that began to look closer in style to the “strange” covers. Again, very close, but no cigar.
The “strange” covers haunted me. I knew this look. I was familiar with it, yet I couldn't pinpoint its origins. Then it hit me. When I was about eight years old, I got my hands on my first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. It scared me. I was so enthralled and terrified by what I saw, I had nightmares. The only way I could sleep was to give the magazine to my parents to hide from me.
That copy (Issue #9) was a few years old by the time I found it. At twelve, I had a subscription. Editor Forrest J Ackerman (The Ackermonster, Dr. Ackula) filled the issues with images from his vast collection of movie paraphernalia and text filled with horrible puns. It was all held together by an intense black-and-white, grid layout with the most amazing dry brush and hand-rendered monster lettering of all time. Looking through pages of Famous Monsters is like examining a primer of lowbrow subculture iconography and style. It captured the childhood imaginations of a generation of creative thinkers.
Famous Monsters of Filmland actually began life as a “girlie” magazine called After Hours, much influenced by the success of Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine. Publisher James Warren devoted an issue of the magazine to movie monsters and the success of that single issue convinced him to relaunch the publication—strictly devoting it to movie monsters. He hired collector/fan/writer Forrest J Ackerman to edit the magazine. Warren's magazines were pasted together at Harry Chester Studios.
The pages were printed on the cheapest newsprint possible and the full-color, glossy covers had illustrations by Basil Gogos, Ron Cobb, Reed Crandall and a veritable host of illustrators cut adrift after the EC Comics empire collapsed. The Kefauver “comic-book menace” controversies forced EC Comics publisher William Gaines to discontinue his horror titles like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Many of the artists involved found themselves looking for work and found it at Famous Monsters and its sister publications Monster World (with masthead typography identical to the Aurora monster model kit boxes), Screen Thrills Illustrated and Wildest Westerns.
When publisher James Warren started black-and-white, comic-tabloid publications Creepy, Eerie, Blazing Combat and (eventually) Vampirella, it launched a virtual renaissance of comic art. Illustrators like Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Jack Davis, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, John Severin, Alex Toth and even Spider-Man originator Steve Ditko found a new avenue for their work and their careers reached a zenith with adventurous, quality experimental work. Under the tutelage of editor Archie Goodwin, those magazines helped to re-pioneer the horror genre and became the grandparents of the fantasy/horror revival that swept the country in the mid-1960s and continues to this day.
Best of all, these magazines were simply and crudely designed around a coarse grid pattern, and contained the best monster type ever created. Exactly who actually executed the lettering has remained a bit of a mystery. Some researchers claim it was Ben Oda’s lettering. Others say it was the work of a series of different artists. But, whoever penned the work, it was always through Harry Chester’s art direction.
Those “strange” covers are cut from this style. Were they designed at Chester’s studios? I have no idea, but I would bet money on it.
Just who was Harry Chester? Information about his career is scarce and what I’ve uncovered is sketchy. After 35 years of casual research, I’ve yet to find much about him. He was close friends with Harvey Kurtzman, the genius behind MAD magazine. When Kurtzman was ill-fatedly negotiating with EC publisher William Gaines (the same man who employed all those illustrators), it was Harry Chester who acted as go-between for the two warring parties. All evidence points to Chester being the hand that created the basic layout and design of MAD. Stylistically, it’s identical to his later publication work. When Harvey Kurtzman left EC, he took Harry with him, as well as most of the staff talent.
Harvey and Harry and James Warren were all cohorts in a small circle of hipsters. When Warren began his “girlie” magazine After Hours, he turned to Harry to design it. When Kurtzman began Help! magazine, again it was Harry who did the design. His studio became the clearing house for all of the talent that passed through those circles.
Help! is a fine example of the Harry Chester look. It was an adult humor magazine where they attempted to pioneer a style of photo-comics they called “fumetti.” Essentially, they would take some actors out and photograph them sequentially, posing and enacting the scenes to a script they provided, and then add word balloons to the characters as if they were a live comic book. Some of the actors they employed to do this were the hippest, biggest names in comedy, as well as up-and-comers making their marks. Woody Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Tom Poston, Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Sid Caesar and even a young John Cleese participated.
They also ran comic strips and gag-panel cartoons. Help! was the first to publish Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, among many others.
The other names working on the magazine are also worth noting. The assistant editor was a young Terry Gilliam. This was before he relocated to England to team up with a fledgling comedy troupe called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Indeed, he may have made the connection with them through John Cleese’s involvement with Help! Gilliam also contributed much of the incidental cartooning and peculiar design motifs in the magazine.
Even more surprising is the young woman who was another assistant editor of the publication—Gloria Steinem. She apparently got her career start working with Kurtzman and Chester on Help!
The magazine became a clearing house for the youthful, pre-hippie, misfit talents of that era. It lasted a few years and then collapsed. Kurtzman moved on to Hefner's growing Playboy empire, and Steinem and Gilliam moved on to their careers as writers, filmmakers and social philosophers-but, they all passed through the studios of Harry Chester.
The work of Harry Chester Studios and the people who passed through it became a prime catalyst for the future of American subculture—underground cartoonists (Cobb, Crumb, Shelton), illustration (Frazetta, Gogos, Wood, Crandall), comics (Kurtzman, Crumb, Ditko), the environmental movement (Cobb designed the “environmental” logo), feminism (Steinem), filmmaking (Gilliam, Cobb) comedy (a legion of talents), an exhaustive list would fill an entire page. Harry Chester Studios must have been an amazing place to just hang out-a lowbrow “factory” à la Warhol.
The typography of the flagship Warren publication, Famous Monsters, influenced generations of creative people. It's informative to read their “Letters” section with fan mail from the likes of a young George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Designers and illustrators and cartoonists studied the work. You can see the influence on sports cultures, music cultures, punk cultures, surfer cultures, skateboard cultures and comic books. The stylings of Harry Chester typography are everywhere. He is probably the most influential and least-known lettering artist in American history.
My entire design career is an echo of what I learned from Harry Chester. I think that might be true for many of you reading this. How many of us can deny that we didn't look at “monster” type somewhere along the way? How many can say that we owe nothing to the layout of MAD magazine? How many of us can draw hand-rendered typography (so popular at the moment) and not make an unconscious homage to Harry Chester's type? Is it even possible? ca