Publishers have taken a beating ever since the internet opened up free content access to consumers. As a young illustrator, getting a chance to paint a cover for a well-read magazine was rare and coveted. Through the 80s, publishing was king as news stands grew to occupy huge sections of pharmacies and five & dime stores across the country. Whatever your interest, there was a magazine or two just for you. It was a boon market for writers, photographers and illustrators who helped to fill each issue with content.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to get into several top magazines including Time, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Esquire, and other special interest publications. For the off-beat crowd, MAD Magazine invited me to join their “gang of idiots” to spoof new movies and mock celebrity foibles over two decades. Even with these great opportunities, there is only one cover for each issue which would encapsulate a featured story or focus.
Tragically, MAD Magazine announced it will no longer publish it’s once monthly and more recently bimonthly issue. The brand with the iconic Alfred E. Newman will continue but the red-headed, tooth-deprived spokesperson can hardly get away with his trademark expression, “What me worry?” MAD hung on long after it’s prime while many others faded away, making those rare covers even more illusive. But for those magazines that have adapted to today’s market, they carry the torch for an important part of American culture.
When I got a call from the art director at Variety to do an upcoming issue cover, I was both surprised and thrilled. This vanishing breed of work had resurfaced, and for a publication with which I had never worked. Many publications have moved to almost exclusively photographic covers which in many ways is probably driven by market demand. Illustrated, narrative covers take time to create and fast-paced schedules don’t always allow for all the pieces of written content and visual interpretation to coincide.
On a quick Google search, I found most of Variety’s covers feature a photo with a modern, edgy feel so my assignment was going to be a departure from the norm. In the back of my mind, I suspected a photo of John Stankey was in the cue, just in case there was a last minute change of heart by the editor. But low and behold, the illustration made it to the news stands, intact. A little humor nods to a corporate merger by showing painters rebranding the Warner Bros. water tower while a traditional portrait of Stankey taking his place as a stately presence.
This may have been a unique situation that only an illustration could address but whatever the reason, it felt good to be making art for a magazine cover again. The pendulum swings and all things return in some form or another. Perhaps this single assignment is a foretelling of what’s to come. I’m ready if that’s the case.