Posted by Richard Harland Smith on September 25, 2009
I first became aware of the work of New Jersey-based artist Rob Kelly last October via Pierre Fournier’s Frankensteinia- The Frankenstein Blog, which I recommend with all my parts, both original and after-market. By way of introducing Rob to the horror blogger community, Pierre showed off some incredible, eye-popping movie posters for classic horror movies. Right away I got from Rob a passion for the classics, combined with a sensibility seeking to celebrate the classic monsters in unexpected ways.
A graduate of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Rob originally intended to draw comic books but quickly tired of the tedium of having to fill panel after panel with the same characters. Switching his focus to graphic art and collage, he established himself in the work-a-day world as a freelance designer whose roster of clients now includes the NBA, Pitney Bowes, Exhumed Films, the Alamo Draft House, Time Out New York and The Grammy Awards.
Last year Pierre described Rob’s art as “timeless. His graphics recall the bold, call-to-arms symbolism of WPA posters and the Deco geometry of Soviet Constructivism, yet they are resolutely fresh and modern. Explosive colors and dynamic typography make his digital editorial and advertising illustrations pop off the page.” I don’t have much to add to that beyond isolated adjectives like “wicked” and “cool-ass,” so I’ll let Rob speak for himself, as he did in a recent Q&A to which he kindly consented even though he had much more important things to do… such as creating an exclusive monster PSA for The Movie Morlocks!
RHS: How did you get started with monsters?
RK: Like most monster fans, I discovered them as a kid and was totally enthralled. The stories and the characters are so primal that they register immediately and you never forget them, even if you don’t become an obsessive monster movie fan/collector.
RHS: Primal is the perfect word.
RK: I’ve always been struck how visually simple most of the original monsters are — you could draw them with just a few broad strokes and most people would know who it is you’re talking about. As a kid, I drew Frankenstein and Dracula all the time, because no matter how bad the drawings were – and they were bad! – I at least could look at it when I was done and tell myself “That’s Frankenstein.”
RHS: I draw the Frankenstein monster for my kids all the time, usually in crayon or chalk. Once you make that flat top, you’re golden. Neck bolts are optional but always welcome.
RK: The work I do for clients is fun in its own way but it ain’t like drawing The Wolf Man, you know? So in my free time I started doing a series of my own movie posters for the classic Universal Monsters and as soon as I put them up on my site I got a huge response. People from all over the world would write to tell me how much they loved the monsters and thought my posters were a fitting tribute.
RK: Those posters are gorgeous.
RK: After that series ran its course the whole monster thing laid dormant. Then one day a few months ago an image popped fully formed into my head — one of Bela Lugosi as Dracula with the message “Bela Lugosi is Worried About Your Credit Card Debt” underneath in Day-glo colors. I had no idea where it came from or what it even meant but the next day I tried to get it down as close as I could to the image I saw in my head. I love the idea of these characters, who were considered blood-soaked, adult-only nightmare fuel in the 1930s, now being suitable for kids. Heck, I have a pair of Mummy boxer shorts!
RHS: Mummy pajama bottoms here.
RK: That’s amazing to me that these characters that are so associated with blood, death, horror, etc., are now beloved family icons. I remember thinking, what if someone used these globally-recognized icons to convey some sort of public message? I’m a huge fan of WPA art from the 30s and 40s and love the idea of using commercial art to convey a message. Knowing what I know of Bela Lugosi’s private life, that he was always bedeviled by finances, I thought Lugosi would be concerned with the average American’s staggering level of credit card debt. It all seemed to make sense.
RHS: It makes perfect sense.
RK: I also wanted the whole piece to have a slightly cheap, cruddy look, as monster stuff did before style guides enforced that everything had to look perfect and official. I wanted this poster to look like it could’ve been screen-printed and sold in the back of an issue of Famous Monsters.
RHS: Although I’m against colorizing classic movies – those computer generated hues always look so sickly and pale, when the original black-and-white is so vital and alive –I love seeing the monsters presented in such bold colors.
RK: Thank you. Part of what appeals to me in doing these posters is seeing familiar characters in a slightly different way. I’ve always been intrigued by the whole concept of merchandising, taking beloved characters and putting them in a different, if not totally incongruous, context. Like Batman fuzzy slippers.
RHS: Or Mummy boxer shorts.
RK: While a lot of people would look at collecting stuff like that as silly, that it’s all garbage, there are others like us who might find, say, a CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON glow-in-the-dark action figure and treat it like it’s a Picasso painting. It’s that whole mentality that inspired me to start my Aquaman Shrine blog –
RK: It’s funny, for so many years I ran away from being called a nerd, now I embrace it whole-heartedly. If I could go back in time, I’d tell my younger self not to worry so much about it: which of course only underscores how much of a nerd I am, that i would use such amazing technology for such a penny ante mission. I’ve made a bunch of good friends through the Aquaman Shrine, all of us having the same weird passion for junky stuff with our hero on it.
RHS: So did this kind of revisionist art start with monsters or just old movies?
RK: One night I was looking through a book on the films of Orson Welles and saw a still of him from THE THIRD MAN. I was really captivated by the heavy lights and darks in the picture, and how much information could be conveyed with just some basic shapes. I decided to redraw the photo and convert the darks in the picture to black paper, the white to white and a middle grey tone. I cut all the pieces out and glued them down on a board like a puzzle. I was just completely taken with how cool it looked, having a likeness but doing it in this very abstract, simple way. Another night I thought to try a portrait of the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in this style. Since I enjoy the application of typography so much, I thought why not make a custom BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN? I put it together in just one night and I loved that so much that of course I moved down the line to the other Universal monster movies. In a short time, they became by far the most popular pieces I’ve ever done.
RHS: Do you remember the first monster movie you ever saw?
RK: The first horror movie I ever saw was when my parents took me to see THE OMEN when I was five. Well, they didn’t take me to see it so much as I tagged along, age 5, when they saw it at a drive-in. Despite this fact, they were great parents. But the first monster movie was probably ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. My local UHF channel, Channel 48, ran A&C movies on Sundays and I watched them religiously. I remember seeing A&CMF and loving it. I must have seen it dozens of times. I also loved their other monster comedies, which I saw on those same Sunday afternoons. At that age, I saw no real difference between the Frankenstein in those movies and the one in FRANKENSTEIN or BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
RHS: Channel 48 from Pennsylvania?
RK: I grew up first in Philadelphia, and then in 1979 we moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Channel 48 came from Philly, so we picked it up in both locations. During the weekdays, they ran an entire day of awesome programming: something like SPEED RACER, THE SUPER FRIENDS, BATMAN, LOST IN SPACE, THE MONKEES, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and THE MUNSTERS (and more) all in a row. I used to spend all day watching those shows and drawing superheroes and monsters on notebook paper … instead of, you know, going outside like a normal child. At the end of that day’s creativity, I would then lay out all the drawings on the floor and I would survey my work. Not much has changed.
RHS: Were you a MonsterKid?
RK: I wasn’t really a MonsterKid. I also loved superheroes and STAR WARS, and since those characters were so much more available in toy form, I tended to go for that stuff ahead of any monster toys. But I do remember loving Mego’s “Mad Monster” dolls. Those ruled.
RHS: There really was a Golden Age for monster memorabilia, which lasted from 1957 and the debut of Shock Theater to the sea change in genre entertainment with STAR WARS shifting enthusiasm away from monsters. But for a good twenty years you had it all: toys, records, 8mm movies, Halloween costumes, magazines, books, you name it.
RK: In between comics I would occasionally buy an issue of Creepy or Eerie (I could never dare trying to get Vampirella into the house). As much as I loved the stories themselves, I was equally entranced by all the mouth-watering goodies sold in the back, via Captain Company. Oh, man, it looked like heaven! I never had enough money to order that stuff, so it all remained out of reach. But just knowing there was so much cool stuff with the monsters out there really helped keep the interest in me alive until I got old enough to buy some of this stuff for myself.
RHS: All that stuff is so cheap by today’s standards but those things were out of reach for most kids back then.
RK: A few years ago, I made an effort to hunt down a complete set of those “High Camp Adventure” LPs that were sold in the back of the Warrens–audio recordings of classic sci-fi novels, with sleeve art by Wally Wood and Dan Adkins.
RHS: I had a bunch of those, too.
RK: It took a while, but I found all of them–20,000 Leagues, Invisible Man, Journey to the Center of the Earth, First Man on the Moon, War of the Worlds, and Around the World in 80 Days.
RHS: I had Around the World. I remember the business of the Thugee assassins being really creepy to me as a little kid.
RK: Every so often I’ll put one on while I’m working, and oh man its like I’m ten again, listening to my old Power Records on my parents’ turntable. Thank you, Jim Warren!
RHS: Do you own a lot of monster memorabilia?
RK: I don’t have a lot of room for decorations in my studio, so, no, I don’t have a lot of monster stuff around. I do have a framed print of my custom Universal CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON poster that I got signed by Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman, which was an awesome experience. They were such nice guys! I also have that set of Sideshow mini-monster figurines of Dracula, Frankenstein (of course), but also the Metaluna Mutant, The Invisible Man, the Hunchback, etc.
RHS: I have all those, too. They’re really beautiful. I like the Silver Screen editions they did of the full-sized figures, where they made the monsters look black and white.
RK: I also have a super-cool Creature statue where he’s rising out of the clear base, made to look like a pool of water – love it. I also have my Universal Monster movie DVDs on a separate shelf alongside Tom Weaver’s Universal Horrors, Greg Mank’s It’s Alive, and some other monster-related books.
RHS: It’s great how many of the titles that Tom Weaver and the Brunas brothers wrote about in Universal Horrors are now easily obtainable on DVD.
RK: One of my favorite things about those DVDs are the audio commentaries. As someone who loves the story behind the story, I cannot get enough of commentaries where they have a bunch of film historians gush about the movie they’re watching. The Universal Monster DVDs are great. They’ve released some of them on DVD several times, each with a new commentary track, and I buy them every single time! It’s like how people are for Beatles CDs. Universal could release FRANKENSTEIN every year, and as long as it has a new commentary track, I’m going to buy it. My dream would be for Universal to do re-releases of some of their classic Bs that didn’t get the deluxe treatment the first time around and give them the same extras. I think if I ever got asked to do a commentary track for one of those movies, I would die a happy man.
Rob Kelly’s monster PSAs are available as stickers you can buy and stick!
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