In it’s late ‘50 to early ‘70s heyday, Famous Monsters of Filmland became legendary. Though it thoroughly covered the horror film scene, it did its job with a surfeit of cheek that made it accessible to younger readers, making it a semi-serious film rag that appealed to the MAD magazine demographic. (Its publisher, Warren Publishing, was also home to MAD visionary Harvey Kurtzman’s Help!.) It spawned imitations, and soldiered on for over a decade past its useful life, to fold in 1983. The mag was revived in 1993, and after some legal contention, it continues today as a web site and a bimonthly print publication.
Between MAD magazine and Playboy, there was Famous Monsters of Filmland. For kids growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was one of the landmarks of adolescence; something that was frowned upon or simply beyond the comprehension of their parents; something that was uniquely their own. It was Forrest J. Ackerman’s genius to recognize that kids would love exploring the worlds of horror and science fiction and it was Jim Warren’s genius to grasp that by making the magazine scholarly but humorous, it would diffuse the subject matter’s dark side and make that younger readership feel welcome. In fact one of the striking elements of FM’s early years is how much interaction there was with its readership, through its lengthy letter column (which regularly printed reader photos) to the “You Axed for It” request pages and the fan club/“Graveyard Examiner” sections. The magazine had a curious innocence (engineered by Ackerman’s persona of a friendly, endlessly punning uncle), mixed with a sense of transgrescence. For all the jokes an light-heartedness, this was still a publication filled with images of monsters, the undead, vampires, and corpses which carried with it a frisson of danger and the forbidden.
One of the factors that distinguished Famous Monsters in its prime was stunning cover art, most notably the expressionistic character portraits of Basil Gogos. Gogos was a Greek national born in Egypt, whose family moved to the US when he was in his teens. He studied illustration under the Art Student’s League’s Frank J. Reilly, and began illustrating pulp westerns at the end of the ‘50s. His leap to the horror genre came quickly—his first FM cover was a 1960 portrait of Vincent Price, and he went on to do more than 50 utterly distinctive works for the publication.
Think about typical early ‘60s magazine covers, and tell me something like that wouldn’t leap out of the newsstand at you. Gogos did similarly vivid covers for the similarly vivid Monsterscene, and his works have been collected in the book Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos.
Gogos and Famous Monsters made fans among budding underground musicians, as well. The Misfits cribbed their logo from the magazine’s, and that band’s crummy later incarnation actually hired Gogos to illustrate the covers for the albums American Psycho and, ahem, Famous Monsters. White Zombie were clearly fans, too: singer Rob Zombie not only contributed an introduction to the Gogos book, he commissioned Gogos illustrations for his solo albums Hellbilly Deluxe and Past, Present & Future, and the band’s bassist Sean Yseult played incognito in a side project called “Famous Monsters.” Though the single best cover art Gogos did was for a much more obscure band, garage rockers Electric Frankenstein. He’s still working and accepting commissions, so your band’s album could be the next one to sport his work.
Enjoy this wonderful documentary on Gogos, hosted and narrated by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, from her Monsterama series.