The Mask of Fu Manchu - I had wanted to continue working on my Universal 50's Sci-Fi movie posters, and have been playing around with a couple different ideas, but nothing had completely clicked. Sometime around Halloween though, I bought a boxed set of MGM 30's-era horror films, called The Hollywood Legends of Horror collection. It featured the films Mad Love, Doctor X, The Return of Doctor X, Devil Doll, Mark of the Vampire...and The Mask of Fu Manchu.

I had seen Fu Manchu once, about 10 years ago, and didn't remember much from it. But watching it anew, the movie really came alive for me--it's totally insane. Depravity of all kinds, torture, rioting mobs, severed limbs...this film has everything, and was made before the Hayes Code really cracked down on movie content, so they threw in everything but the kitchen sink here. And presiding over it all is Boris Karloff, an old hand at this stuff, and Myrna Loy, for pete's sake, who had a legendary career in much more respectable films ahead of her.

Anyway, the dang movie got me inspired, and I started messing around with the Karloff potrait--I had had an idea in my head of what he should look like, and how he'd frame the rest of the poster. So I started on it, and old Boris came together quite well. Then I came back to it a day later, and the ideas just kept comin', where to lay in the type, what colors to use, all of it.

One of my biggest issues when I try these retro-type posters is, try as I might, they always end up looking too modern to me. I find that my design--what looks "right" to me--tend to lean toward a more modern look. This time, though, I found the right color combos that looked cool to me (lighter, more subtle instead of the in-your-face tones I normally use), but also genuinely old-fashioned (I was also looking at actual Fu Manchu posters also to know what to try differently). When all was said and done, I felt that this design could actually pass for vintage, maybe. I even spaced the type of the co-stars in a manner that looks weird to my eye, but I know is also time-period-accurate.

  The Time Machine - Sometimes, ideas for posters just come to me, unannounced, and if I think the idea is sufficiently worth pursuing I sit down and design a poster around it. Other times, I want to do a poster of a particular movie, with no set idea in mind.

These two posters, based on the 1960 classic The Time Machine and the 1951 movie serial Blackhawk, fall into the former catagory--in fact, they use basically the same format, at least up top--a separate image and part of the poster, leaving the rest to be the main selling points of the movie.

I knew I wanted The Time Machine to look different than all my others--there was a very definite change in poster aesthetics from the 1940s to the early 1960s, and I wanted to reflect that in the colors and overall "busyness" of the piece.

I didn't have room for it here, but I thought a great viral marketing idea for a new Time Machine movie would be to put up "Missing" posters all around major cities, with the picture of the time traveler and asking people if they've seen him, leaving those little pull-off phone numbers at the bottom. Anyone who bothers to check up on it gets fed further clues to the story, etc. I'm an idea guy.



Double Feature: Laura/Gilda- This is a custom-made poster for a double feature that never existed, but should have.

I was asked by my pal Eddie Muller, writer and film historian, to work up a poster for a Laura/Gilda double feature, to accompany an article currently appearing on his Film Noir Foundation website, called "Single Word Double Bills" by Don Malcolm, all about great, single-word-titled film noir movies paired together.

I got so excited about the prospect of putting this piece together that I literally couldn't wait to work on it, and ended up putting other work aside so I could get to this. I spent one wonderful, sunny Sunday putting most of this together, then finished it off the next day.

As soon as Eddie asked me about doing the piece, I came up with main visual motif in my mind--having both title women be (of course) the focus, and having their male co-stars match each other as monochromatic background elements. From beginning to end, it was a pure joy to work on, and I'm proud that its up on the Film Noir Foundation site, and I'm so glad Eddie asked me to do it!


Joel Martin - "The Man Behind the Music" - This was a piece I was commissioned to do for a magazine article on Joel Martin, a music producer and entrepreneur, who has worked with people as diverse as Eminem, George Clinton, and The Romantics.

They wanted some sort of rock poster type feel for the cover, but that was the extent of their ideas. I had planned to just put together a rough for them to look at, but when I sat down on a Saturday afternoon(with Johnny under my chair, snoring contentedly, and Sports Night: The Complete Series on the DVD player) something came over me--in an instant,

I had an idea in my head what the poster should look like. I had originally thought of a late 60s, psychedelic poster, like for The Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. But then I thought a better idea was a riff on those classic, fun, dynamic Motown Records concert posters--that way I could work in pictures of some of the famous people he's worked with, instead of just being stuck with a picture of a guy nobody recognizes. As I kept working, the damn thing kept getting better and better, and each little piece fell into place like clockwork.

By around dinnertime, I had produced this--the rare piece that actually looks better on the screen than it did in my head(that never happens). I had forgotten to eat lunch and other than to take Johnny for a walk, I never stopped working for about five and a half hours.

Unfortunately, soon after this the whole project fell through(d'oh!)--the article, now finished, focused more about his past than the people he worked with, and the magazine decided to run photos from his life rather than use any illustrations at all.

So while I'm of course disappointed the piece never ran, I am so glad I saw this through to the end, because it's instantly become one of my all-time favorite pieces, and it was a total joy putting it together.


The American Eskimo - Tracy had been bugging me for a while to a portrait of our pup Johnny, since I had done pieces on pretty much every other pet in our extended family. It's not like I didn't want to, I just could never find the right angle on it.

But then I came up with the idea for poster promoting the hearty breed of which Johnny is a part(half of her, at least), and I immediately pictured her as I'm sure she sees herself--brave and indefatigable, immune to the bitter winter weather. I originally just had her and the mountains, and then I kept adding the little details--the wind, the snow, and it all just came toegther so perfectly.

Trace loved it so much, we had it made into a t-shirt. Yes, we're those kind of pet owners.


The Clothes Off Our Back - This idea was a real burst of imagination, since its entirely made up and not based on anything I had going on at the time.

I love doing the fashion-y glamour stuff, so Iillustrated this woman looking very smart and began building a poster around it. Fashion for fashion's sake doesn't appeal to me, but I liked the idea a fund-raiser for some charity, so in my head I imagined a selling of expensive fashions, with all the proceeds going to an organization whose goal it was was to find homes for homeless people.

I added the sketchy pencil-ish lines to the figure to give it that sketchy feel, and the original shocking red dress was replaced with a more fanciful and more visually-compelling pattern.


Batman - This was an instance of having a vague image in my mind, and building a poster around it.

I had a still from the 1943 Batman movie serial, where Bats looks, er, let's say less than imposing. In fact, he looks downright stupid. But--in this particular still, Batman is leaning over, looking off-frame, and his cape is covering up most of him. When I saw this still, I saw a basic shape that just screamed "Batman" to me.

So I played with it for a while, and kept removing all the details until I ended up with this, which in some ways reminds me of the almost abstract approach artist David Mazzucchelli took on Batman: Year One.

Once I had that, it didn't take long to come up with a justification for such a painterly approach to a superhero, and the bright yellow just made the whole thing *pop* to me.

I'm particularly proud that nowhere on this poster do you see a bat.


The Adventures of Captain Marvel - I did this poster the same day as the Batman one(it was a good day), and of course the approach to this is about as far from the Batman one as possible.

Where Batman is stripped down to the bone, design-wise, this one throws in all the necessary details for a genuine movie serial poster. And also like Batman, I had wanted to do a poster for this movie serial for a while.

I wanted a sort of two-pronged approach, one where we sort of introduce the character by giving a super-short version of his origin, and then we get to the adventure contained in the serial itself.


Mercury Theatre - Another poster just for something I like, in this case Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre.

I imagined a poster advertising his old shows, being rebroadcast somewhere out there in Radio Land. I had seen an old-time poster for cigarettes starring Spencer Tracy, and it featured a color portrait of him in front of a monochromatic collage background, and that visual appealed to me tremendously.

It took a while to put all the elements in the right spots, but eventually I settled on something that looked classy and sophisticated, but hopefully not too stuffy.

The American Prospect -Boy, was this fun.

In August 2004, I was contacted by American Prospect, a political magazine about doing several illustrations to accompany a series of articles called "A New Progressive Era?", all concerning what a Kerry Presidency might be like, how to achieve it, etc. The art director there wanted a series of WPA-styled "posters" to illustrate some of the themes of the articles, as well as a one full-page piece to kick off the whole thing.

I was given several of the articles and other topics and asked to choose which inspired me the most. I settled on the above six, ones dealing with building the labor unions, equal rights for gays and lesbians, investing in infrastructure, leadership, getting young people to vote, and how to take on the curiously-named The Right. One thing I definitely wanted to do was approximate some of the various styles of WPA art--the abstract silhouettes of Building a Better Tomorrow, the fun, loose The Time is Now, the more cartoony A Good Investment, the serious, propaganda-ish Equal Rights. I wanted lots of different colors and ways of using them, and with the text, a somewhat-serious-yet-cheerily-optimistic tone, which the WPAs had (no doubt reflecting the tone of the man whose administration created the program, Franklin Delano Roosevelt). I wrote the text myself, mostly just to show themagazine where I thought their text would go.

To my delight, when I submitted the pieces, the magazine was so happy with what I had come up with that the art AND the text remained unchanged--I had managed to strike the exact tone AP was looking for. There's only been a handful of times when a piece I submitted went from my first "draft" to printed page, and it felt like that, for this assignment, I could do no wrong.

The final touch to all of them was just to entertain myself. Most of the WPA posters had a small credit line on each, listing where they were made--"Chicago Works Progress Administration", etc. So I added the line "Works Progress Administration Marlton, NJ" to each one, just to give them each a little more verisimilitude--my new favorite word, and one I finally stopped using incorrectly!


Carnac the Magnificent - I loved--love--Johnny Carson. Always did, even when I was a little kid, and didn't understand half of the jokes. When the Carson Tonight Show began it's last-couple-of-months-wrap-up, each show filled with the hugest names in showbiz, I watched it every night. Most of show biz is phony, of course, but watching giants like Clint Eastwood or Steve Martin stop in one last time made me feel that this emotion was real. Looking back on the shows now, I'm struck by the gentleness of Johnny--he got laughs at other people's expense of course, but it never seemed as callous as a lot of the comedy nowadays.

Right after Johnny died, I wanted to do some kind of piece, some sort of tribute. I caught a pic of Johnny as one of my favorite characters of his, Carnac the Magnificent (Answer: "106 in Los Angeles." Question: "Under the Reagan plan, how old will you have to be to collect Social Security?"). Knowing that Johnny started out as a magician, and that it was a favorite pasttime of his, I thought, why not do a Carnac concert poster?

Once I had that idea, it was enormous fun putting this together. I know I wanted a mid-60s ultra-show-bizy look, with all those weird squiggles and star shapes. The opening line "Silence, please" was, of course, what Carnac would always ask for before attempting to divine the answer in the envelope held to his forehead. The show had to be at 11:30pm, the time that the world got to see Johnny, every night for 30 years. I fiddled with it for a long while, moving eah little piece back and forth--I designed the living hell out of this thing. It had a white background for the longest time, and then when I sort-of accidentally dropped black in the background, it pulled together for me, giving me that late-night, night-clubby feel that I knew I wanted.

Maybe this is a show you could go see, in some nightclub in the sky...


Eat Food - This poster was based on my just having finished author Michael Pollan's newest book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. I had read his previous book, An Omnivore's Dilemma, and enjoyed them both immensely--entertaining and informative examinations of an all-important subject: how, why, and what we eat.

In Defense, right on the cover, Pollan boils the entire book down to a simple seven word mantra--"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Aside from the staggering amount of wisdom contained in just those seven words, it reminded me a bit of the very simple language used on the WPA posters, which of course are never far from my mind.

So this is what I imagined a WPA-era poster would look like if some artist was enlisted to communicate to a large number of people the best and simplest way to eat right. I knew I wanted to stay away from any black on the poster at all, to give it a lighter feel. After finding the right font, I kept trying add more little bits of design to it to spruce it up a bit, but after several tries I realized I liked it exactly how it was--just the text and the food. Simple.

Update: I emailed Mr. Pollan, and sent him a link to the poster. He actually wrote back (how cool is that?) and told he really liked the poster, and thanked me for alerting him to its creation. Wow!


WPA: Fashion Exhibition - Another faux-WPA poster, inspired partially by my association with the Design For Social Impact and all their WPA-related projects in the Fall. I admit up front, this design is partly ripped off from one of my all-time favorite movie posters, the Bette Davis film Bordertown.

I've never seen the movie, nor do I have any great desire to, but the poster is so exquisitely beautiful that I've always wanted to incorporate the basic design scheme into something of my own (maybe someday I'll do a post here of my top 10 favorite movie posters, based on design criteria only).

I had the toughest time leaving that big white space there, and I think the time I took trying different things in there (different colors, wiggly lines, arrows, etc.) was equal to the time it took me to do the whole rest of the poster. Finally, I realized I'm just afraid of the Big White Space, and since I'm a grown man, I told myself I shouldn't be and called it a day.


WPA: Macbeth - As I've talked about ad nauseum lately, I've been really into the WPA-style recently.

After being involved with the 75th Anniversary celebration the Design For Social Impact put together, I started working on faux-WPA posters, like the one you see above. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater did a bunch of productions under the auspices of the WPA, including some Shakespeare.

Welles did a production of Macbeth, a legendary one set in Haiti with an entirely black cast, but I've never seen any promotional art for it, so this was all my own creation.


Sisterhood of Sin - I hadn't done one of my fake movie posters in a while, and was itching to put another one together. Each time I do one, I think they come out just a little bit better than the last one. The last one I had done, Cat O'Nine Lives, was a 50's pastiche, so I knew I wanted to try and mimic another era of moviemaking this time around. I sat down with my lapboard and just did some rough sketches and then tried to write some taglines to match.

I liked the idea of multi-panel look, and that immediately read to me as late 60s/early 70s-era movies. So I created my own exploitation film, The Sisterhood of Sin. It would have sex, violence, crazy dialogue, maybe some car chases...and no time for subtlety (as the poster suggests). It would feature actresses from some of the more notorious women's revenge films and in my fantasy world would be the ne plus ultra of this kind of film. It would star the late (*sniff*) Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, who, in her title role in the soft-adult version of Cinderella, was instrumental in nudging me down the path of Becoming A Man. Thanks, Rainbeaux.

I put this together over a few days, piece by piece, and really enjoyed myself. I think this has a nice, open, fun look, and totally devoid of subtlety. I wish they still made movie posters like this today, and I wish I was the one doing them.


Adopt A Pet - Ever since I discovered the WPA posters of the 30s and 40s, I have made a concious effort to try and infuse some of my poster work with the same level of beauty, skill, and aesthetic grace that the best of those posters had.

My whole family is very animal-centric, and that only got amplified by a factor of a million once I met Trace. No one cares for animals more (she'll pick up an ant-infested chicken bone laying in the street, just to ensure some random dog doesn't come by and choke on it), no one walks the walk like she does when trying to care for them. I'm not quite so selfless (though I too love animals), and one of the best things I think Trace has done for me is make me a better, less self-centered person in that regard.

Anyway, I thought what would a WPA-style poster look like if the idea was to promote animal adoption? Of course, I would find the cutest puppy and kitten I could (the kitten, purely accidentally?, looks remarkably like a very young Berry T. Goll) and have them stare doe-eyed out into the viewer, hopefully tugging your heartstrings with their itty-bitty wittle paws.

The bigger dilemma was what else could go on there--I had the animals, but now what? I messed with this thing for a few days, racking my brain for some other things to add. I think I was scared of the open space.

But soon I realized that, with this piece, the way it was, I probably came closer to the actual look of a WPA poster, with its main central image and big tag line. I decided to leave it alone after that and now I see it as one of my most successful of the WPA imitations.


This American Life - This is a piece I've wanted to get to for a long time!

A year or so ago, I did a portrait of This American Life host Ira Glass when he was interviewed for Time Out New York's "Hot Seat" feature. I was really happy how it came out, and I knew I wanted to use it as the basis for a full-on TAL poster.

When I finally sat down to work on it, it was a huge amount of fun, finding the right balance of old-timey and modern design elements.

I think my favorite element is the last thing I put on there--the scratchy Chicago postmark, which I thought gave the whole thing a feeling like the show is a big postcard, sent from Chicago--via the radio--to the rest of the world.


Visit Orion - Having seen (and loved!) the new Star Trek movie, I've been in a real Star Trek-y mood of late.

I've been renting DVDs of the original series, and watching episode after episode while working. As a kid, one of my favorite little parts of the series was, over the end credits, how they would show stills from previous episodes. Having not seen all the Treks, I marveled at seeing these little glimpses of adventures, and it made the show's universe seem so big. One of the stills was of the Orion Slave Girl, which ended up becoming one of the more iconic images from Star Trek.

So I got this idea, what if the planet Orion was a Vegas-type vacation spot, and the Orion Slave Girls were used as a selling point? Once I had that idea, I was off to the races, and the result was this very silly poster.

I had, like, a thousand different Funny Drink Name jokes ("The Mutara Nebula", "The Kobiashi Maru", "The Cloud Minder"), but finally settled on "The Genesis Torpedo", probably because I was watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the time. All the elements make for a very busy image, but that's partly what I was going for. It was a lot of fun putting this together.

Rob Out!


Statue of Liberty - I have one wall here at NamtabCave covered in repros of those old WPA posters. There's nothing I like more than producing an illustration(s) and then having to work them in a grander design with type and such.

Awhile back I sat down to create a series of them, on all different topics--tourism, advertising, etc. Originall the poster at far left started out as a "Visit NYC" type of thing, but when I couldn't marry the tag lines I had in my head with image of Lady Liberty, it morphed into a political-action, activist type of thing. This was one of the rare times when what I saw in my head actually made it to the paper (or screen). I ended up being so in love with this thing that I had at least three, to me, perfectly usable versions, until I pulled the trigger and decided on this one. I've found that I'm a lot more interested in politics these days, much more aware than I used to be, so this won't be the last of its kind.


Radio - Another in my series of WPA-inspired retro-modern posters, this time promoting your local radio. For whatever reason, I find myself listening to a lot more talk radio (NPR, thank you very much) than music CDs while working, and I love getting caught up on the days events without having to sit through ten minutes of news anchor chatter and footage of car accidents. I also really enjoy old-time radio programs, as well as audio books--I really do find I use my imagination more when it's up to me to provide the visuals.

I really do think that radio could make a comeback; and when I let my mind wander I tell myself I'll actually sit down, write my own radio show, get some friends to perform it, then broadcast the thing on the web just to see if anyone enjoys it. It's kind of a crazy idea; but it's one I've had that just won't go away, so I know there must be something to it.

Anyway, I wanted to make radio seem exciting and fun. The mike illustration had a lot of heavy blacks, but it seemed too dark and grim, tinting it all in blues made it look less so, and I found it popped right off the orange background. Once I found the right fonts it came together pretty quickly.


The Body Snatcher - Since I previously I had done custom posters for two of Val Lewton's films (Curse of the Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie) I thought why not tackle one of the films he did with Boris?

By most people's reckoning, The Body Snatcher is the best of the Karloff/Lewton collaborations. Directed by Robert Wise, it feels like a hybrid between Lewton's more intellectual approach to horror, but with a little more of the gothic touches you'd see in the Universal films of the time (undoubtedly helped by the appearance of Bela Lugosi, the last time he and Karloff would appear in a film together).

Once I had finished the portrait of Boris carting off yet another victim, it was just a matter of finding the right design to put in around it. I originally had a more design-y white box cutting across the bottom, but when I dropped in the grass effect, I liked how that worked a lot better. I added some text from the original posters and voila!


Closed For The Season - This is the poster for Closed For The Season, a horror movie from ShadowCast pictures that had its world premiere at the Monster-Mania Con in Cherry Hill in 2010.

My friend--and co-star of the movie--Damian Maffei asked me a while back if I would consider putting together a more old-timey poster for it, and since that's exactly the kind of project I enjoy the most, I readily agreed.

I originally had an even more old-timey look to it, but over the course of a couple of weeks, suggestions from Damian, the director, and the producers nudged me towards a darker, slightly more modern look. Overall, it still had that look I was going for, so the end result satisfied everybody.


Re-Elect Krogh - While working on a Lionel Atwill Monster PSA poster, I was messing around with different color combos, and at one point I accidentally ended up with this.

It wasn't what I needed for the PSA poster, but I really liked how it looked. So after I was done with the PSA, I decided to re-use the Atwill-as-Krogh image, this time as part of a campaign poster.

I knew I wanted a very Soviet "constructivist" style to go along with the portrait, and the campaign promise pretty much wrote itself.

e:namtab29@comcast.netp: 856.261.2265 • all material © 2012 Rob Kelly