EDITOR’S NOTE: Last fall, shortly before my life got blown sideways for several months by Hurricane Irma, I saw a brief article in an issue Gary Lovisi’s great magazine PAPERBACK PARADE saying that artist Gil Cohen was selling some of the original paintings he created for the covers of the novels about Mack Bolan, “The Executioner.”
Gil was one of the top men’s adventure magazine artists in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He did hundreds of cover and interior paintings for MAMs. He also did hundreds of paperback covers and movie posters. Then he became one of one of the world’s premier aviation artists, creating fine art paintings of planes and their crews that sell for thousands of dollars and are used for high end lithographic prints.
I’m a huge fan of Gil Cohen’s artwork. I’m also a huge fan of Mack Bolan books.
The original Executioner series was created by Don Pendleton in 1969. It went on to become one of the most popular action/adventure franchises in history, selling hundreds of millions of copies worldwide and spawning the Phoenix Force and Able Team spinoff series, which have also sold millions.
I first interviewed Gil Cohen for this blog seven years ago, but in that interview we focused on the artwork he did for men’s adventure magazines.
When I heard Gil was selling some of his Executioner/Mack Bolan cover paintings, I asked him if he’d do a new interview with me focusing that equally classic artwork and let me post photos of the paintings he’s offering for sale. He graciously agreed.
Between my hurricane-related issues and Gil’s busy schedule, it took months to put all the pieces together. At age 86, he is still doing aviation art paintings that are highly sought after by collectors of that genre.
Now, finally, I’m thrilled to be able to post the new interview I did with Gil and show the photographs of the Executioner/Mack Bolan cover paintings he sent me. The photos of the paintings in this post, next to the covers they were used, are all currently available to buy. I’ll show more in following posts.
If you see a painting here that you’re interested in purchasing, contact Gil’s representative Rich Greene via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 856-278-4140. Gil has more than 60 Executioner/Mack Bolan cover paintings for sale, at prices ranging from $1,000 to $2,500. He’s also willing to offers lay-away payments over time as an option.
In addition to sending me her thoughts about Gil’s Mack Bolan cover art, she was also kind enough to send me some great photos of Gil and Don at the 1985 Mack Bolan Convention in San Francisco.
Linda is an excellent and prolific author in her own right. She also has an in-depth knowledge of the seminal Executioner novels her late husband wrote (37 of the 38 original books in the series) and the amazingly long-lasting series of Mack Bolan, Phoenix Force and Able Team novels Don’s original Executioners led to.
Here are some of things Linda told me…
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LINDA PENDLETON: When I visualize Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan, I see Bolan as Gil Cohen portrayed him, first on the covers of the Executioner novels Don wrote that were published by Pinnacle, then on the numerous covers Gil did for the series and its spinoffs published by Harlequin/Gold Eagle.
Don loved Gil’s cover art and was so pleased that we were able to meet Gil and Alice-Smith Cohen at the Mack Bolan Convention in San Francisco in 1985. Seeing the beautiful cover paintings Gil Brought there was thrilling for us. Over all these years, I still receive comments from Executioner fans who mention how much they like Gil Cohen cover illustrations.
Gil began doing the Executioner covers when Pinnacle Books had him redo the covers on the first ten books, which was most welcome.
In 1980, when Harlequin took over the series and published it under its Gold Eagle imprint, Gil was asked to continue doing Bolan covers, leading to seventeen years of wonderful Mack Bolan cover illustrations by a very talented artist.
My personal favorites would be the art on DEATH SQUAD [Executioner #2]; the original THE EXECUTIONER’S WAR BOOK [an overview of the series through #28]; Bolan on book 100, BLOOD TESTAMENT with the red background; TERMINAL VELOCITY; [“Super Bolan” #2] and too many others to name.
I’m sure the scenes on the covers helped to sell books. In many instances, the cover illustrations tell the story of what is waiting inside the books for the reader. The Executioner series would not be the same without Gil Cohen’s illustrations.
Thanks to Gil, I now have a signed copy of GIL COHEN: AVIATION ARTIST, which covers Gil’s impressive and inspirational art career, and includes many pictures of his early illustrations and his striking aviation and military art.
The man is seated on a bed surrounded with bundles of paper currency and a beautiful, scantily-clad woman stands in front of a gun rack that holds several weapons. [MALE magazine, June 1970.]
Gil Cohen is very much a part of the Don Pendleton-Mack Bolan tradition of nearly half a century.
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MY INTERVIEW WITH GIL COHEN…
BOB DEIS: Hi, Gil. I can’t believe it has been years since I did my interview with you about your men’s adventure magazine artwork. Thanks for being willing to talk with me about your Executioner/Mack Bolan artwork and letting me show photos of the cover paintings you’re offering for sale.
GIL COHEN: I did my homework also anticipating your call. I went through my old ledger books going back quite a number of years and one thing I saw that you might be interested in with regard to the Executioner books is that the first one I did was number 11, CALIFORNIA HIT. I actually got the assignment — the commission — in December of ‘71. I delivered it in January ‘72. Obviously, some other artist or artists had done the first ten.
I didn’t know who or anything, but the art director of Pinnacle Book who first contacted me about doing covers for the series — I wish I could remember his name, but I can’t — he asked me, “Can you also redo the first ten?” So, I did CALIFORNIA HIT. I also did the portrait of Mack Bolan for The Executioner series – just a portrait of Mack alone for their logo that would be at the top of the books. Then, I redid the first ten covers starting with Executioner number one, called WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA, which I delivered to Pinnacle in April of 1972.
As you may know now, artist George Gross, who also did a lot of work for men’s adventure magazines, as well as earlier pulp mags, did the original cover paintings for most of the first 10 Executioners. He also did the original head-and-shoulders portrait of Mack Bolan holding his trusty .44 AutoMag pistol that was originally shown at the top of the covers.
Yes, he died in 2003.
GIL: When Pinnacle asked me to redo the head study logo, I more or less followed the portrait George had previously done. However, I felt that his Mack persona was too thug-like.
In doing my research for this interview, I discovered that the first edition of CALIFORNIA HIT printed in 1972 used your cover painting but still had the George Gross portrait of Mack at the top. Subsequent printings of that novel used your portrait of Mack, but your cover painting was cropped, which is too bad. Your portrait of Mack with his AutoMag was then shown at the top of the 38 Executioner covers published by Pinnacle, which you also did the covers for. Number 39, THE NEW WAR, the first Gold Eagle Executioner you did the cover for in 1981, has the Gold Eagle logo at the top instead of Mack’s head. So do the Gold Eagle Executioners that came after it. That novel is also the point at which Don Pendleton turned over the writing of the books to other writers and his name became the house name for the series. By the way, do you recall who you used as the model for your Mack head-and-shoulders portrait?
GIL: When I did the portrait of Bolan I got a good-looking friend of mine to pose for me. Now, he wasn’t dark like Bolan. He was blond as a matter of fact and he didn’t look a whole lot like Bolan. I did what I could to make him look like previous images of Bolan, but he’s not the quintessential Bolan as far as I’m concerned. The quintessential Bolan was done when I did the full figure of Bolan in black with all of his accoutrements, used for the first “Stony Man” novel published by Harlequin in 1982. [STONY MAN DOCTRINE]
That is classic indeed. I love your full figure image of Mack, which became even more iconic than your head-and-shoulders portrait. It was also used in the classic poster-style promotional image of Mack with your portraits of the Able Team and Phoenix Force members, and as a silhouette on the back of the Bolan books, essentially becoming a logo in itself.
GIL: If you want to know what Gil Cohen’s idea of Mack Bolan really is, it is that guy. In fact, the Bolan I depicted in the cover scenes themselves all along basically looked like that guy before I even did the Stony Man image. In other words, even when I was still doing work for Pinnacle I was portraying somebody I thought about — actor Clint Eastwood. He more clearly personified Mack Bolan to me. I’m not saying fully. I didn’t just try to do portraits of Clint Eastwood. That would be silly. But I tried to get a feeling of Clint Eastwood, so you’ll see some physicality of Clint. But my Mack has dark hair and reflects the what I had in my imagination. That’s my Mack Bolan. I did change his eye color sometimes. He had brown eyes originally, but sometimes he’s had blue.
Very interesting. What’s the name of your friend who you used as a model for your earlier head-and-shoulders portrait of Mack?
GIL: Greg Roos. He’s still around. He’s still one of my best friends.
And I’m guessing few people know he’s the famous Mack Bolan.
GIL: Well, as I said before, he really isn’t, since he doesn’t look exactly like my Mack in the cover scenes and I used other models for those. I even took reference photos of myself for some of the early Executioner cover paintings I did. But I got Greg to pose for the head-and-shoulders portrait because it was a quick deadline, I needed to get somebody, and Greg said he’d be happy to pose. So, my Mack portrait is part Greg Roos and a little bit Clint Eastwood. Anyway, the portrait was part of the first work I did for the Executioner books in the beginning of 1972. After that, I did the Mack Bolan Executioner covers for Pinnacle and then for Harlequin’s Gold Eagle books until 1987. It ended with Mack Bolan number 109 HONG KONG HIT LIST in 1987.
And in addition to doing 109 Executioner covers you also did covers for the spinoffs, the Phoenix Force series and Able Team books.
GIL: Right. I started doing the Mack Bolan books for Gold Eagle in 1981. The first one I did for them was THE NEW WAR. About a year later in ‘82 they asked me to do covers for the Phoenix Force and Able Team spinoffs. So, I did them, too. On Able Team I did covers for a couple years and then they gave it to another artist. They probably thought I had enough to do because I was also doing the Mack Bolan Executioner covers and The Phoenix Force covers. I continued to do The Phoenix Force even after I was no longer doing the Executioner. I did Phoenix Force covers up until the early ‘90s.
How long did you do the Executioner covers for Gold Eagle?
GIL: Until around ‘87. At that point they had another artist start doing them because the editors noticed that I was aging Bolan: he was getting more creases on his face, more wrinkles – and they were after a young audience. They didn’t think the way I depicted Bolan was good for that audience because young guys might not be attracted to reading about this old guy. But I was literal about Bolan.
According to Pendleton’s early books Mack was born in 1939 and was a Vietnam War veteran, so by 1987 he would have been pushing 50.
GIL: When they got another artist or artists — I’m not sure how many — to start to do them and you look at their Mack Bolan he’s very different from mine. Maybe my style was copied a little bit and maybe the look of Mack Bolan was copied a little bit. But this new guy was a pretty boy compared to my Mack.
He looked like a model – which he probably really was. My Macks were never professional models. When I did photo shoots in New York as references for my Mack Bolan covers, I took along people I knew who were not professional models. I took various people to New York with me who posed as Mack. The early head-and-shoulders portrait I used my friend Greg Roos for, that was only a one-shot thing.
Your many fans are happy that you were able to keep doing the Bolan books after Harlequin bought the rights and put it out under the Gold Eagle imprint.
GIL: My last one for Pinnacle was number 38, SATAN’S SABBATH. I wasn’t sure whether it would be my last ever. I didn’t know what was going on in the publishing world. I got wind from the Pinnacle Art Director that they were no longer going to be doing Mack Bolans and it was sold to Harlequin, so I assumed it would be another artist doing it. And, then I got a telephone call from the Senior Art Director of Harlequin, a chap named Charles Kadin, a Canadian.
He called me and he said, “Would you be interested in continuing doing Mack Bolan? We changed the name. It’s no longer called The Executioner series. We’re going to call it the Mack Bolan series now. Would you be interested?” I said, “Yeah, I might be.” So, he said, “Look, I’m flying into the states and I’m going to fly into Philly airport but I’m not staying in Philly I have to go somewhere else. But how about if I meet you at the airport at a pre-designated room?” I said, “Yeah, fine.” And so, there was some kind of an office building at the airport — some kind of room, I don’t remember what it was — and he said, “Okay, we’ll meet.”
GIL: Well, there was a huge thunderstorm. I mean it was an enormous thunderstorm. And, and I thought, “Geez, maybe his flight won’t come in and this is not the kind of weather to go out in,” — flooding and thunder and lightning. I had about an hour’s drive down to Philadelphia Airport plus a little bit more but decided what the hell. I got in the car and I drove down there, I figured he’s probably not even going to show. So, drenching wet I went into airport and into that room that we had decided we would meet in. And, the door opens and it’s torrential rain outside. The door opens and in comes Charles Kadin. Tall, lean guy about 6 feet, 3 inches tall and very narrow and thin.
He comes in and I was shocked as well as he. He was surprised even I would be there. But I had my portfolio case. He wanted to see the range of work I did and I showed him. Fortunately, it was in a good, zippered leather case that the rain didn’t get into. And, he looked at the work and we chatted for a bit and then that was it. It was weird. Then it was goodbye and the rest, as they say, is action/adventure history.
GIL: Yes. I did one Bolan cover a month. Then, for quite a while, I think also I did one Phoenix Force and one Able Team a month, in addition to other illustration work I was doing. I could never do all that today if I tried. I mean no way.
Is that when you also started doing romance novel covers for Harlequin?
GIL: No. That came later. But I was also still doing other work for Pinnacle, like the Malko series.
The spy novel series written by French author Gérard de Villiers.
GIL: Yes. I did a few of those Malko covers and it was kind of weird because they said they want Malko to look like the Austrian-born Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, a good actor who was in quite a few movies. They wanted me to have the character Malko look like him and I tried. But, you know, you are either really doing Maximilian Schell or you’re not doing Maximilian Schell. I didn’t do that many of them.
I want to ask you something I noticed about the characters you created for the Phoenix Force and Able Team novels. They are very recognizable in your cover art, like Mack Bolan is. Did you base them on certain friends or models?
GIL: Oh, yeah. They were different people. Again, not professionals. If I’m doing a romance book cover you bet I want to use professionals because it’s not easy to pose in the kind of romantic kinds of scenes with embraces. They are not easy. I mean you if you ask some guy, he’d say “Could I pose with some good-looking babe? I can do that, yeah.” But that’s baloney! They can’t. It takes a professional model and not just a fashion model either. It has to be somebody, whether it’s a man or a woman, who is also an actor. They’re the best models for things like that.
But when it came to the Mack Bolan Phoenix Force and Able Team characters, I put together my own tribe of people and none of them were professional models. Okay, now starting with Mack himself when I started the series for Gold Eagle — now we’re talking about 1981 — I started with, believe it or not, my wife’s younger brother. His name is Robert Smith – Bob Smith. And his day job was as a linesman for the Philadelphia Electric Company. We called him Robby and he was movie star handsome.
I mean he looked like a cross between Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster. He was that good looking. He made a great Mack Bolan. Maybe a little on the slim side. I tried to beef him out a little bit, but he was a great Mack Bolan for a long, long time.
So, he became Mack Bolan in my cover paintings — combined, of course with the Clint Eastwood aspect I had in mind in the beginning.
GIL: The reference photos? Probably somewhere. I’d have to dig them up. They’re somewhere in this house.
Speaking of reference photos, I don’t know whether I told you this story during our first interview years ago. Did I tell you about the Mack Bolan convention?
No, but I’ve seen some photos of that 1985 convention in Facebook posts by Linda Pendleton in the Mack Bolan Facebook Group, and Linda sent me a photo of you with Don when I told her I was interviewing you about your Bolan covers.
GIL: Yeah, that’s when I first met Don Pendleton. And the only time I met him. But I’ve been in touch with Linda. The Mack Bolan Convention was in San Francisco at this old hotel. It was a panic!
So, there are hundreds of fans, hundreds, lined up to get in. What Gold Eagle did, they took the ballroom of the hotel and they converted that huge ballroom into sort of a jungle war zone, with camouflage netting, fake foliage, military gear — you get the idea. They created this atmosphere and it was great. I was impressed when I walked in there. Man, it looked terrific!
GIL: I brought some original paintings and I also thought, “You know, some of the fans might be really interested to see reference photos. I think they might be interested in seeing this and seeing how I put a Mack Bolan painting together.” So, I brought some of the photos and mounted them on board — 8 by 10 photos — mounted them on board to show my basic working procedures and the models I used.
Now there was one Mack Bolan cover — I forgot what the number was — it’s kind of a sort of darkish scene and he’s got a girl dressed in Middle Eastern costume holding onto his arm. She’s got a ravishing outfit and all of that, and Mack is holding a kind of special machine gun that actually existed. It looks like something that I made up, but it existed.
It’s this machine gun which had a huge barrel where you had an array of different bullets and missiles and stuff that could come out of the different barrels.
I know that one, yep. It’s Executioner number 60, SOLD FOR SLAUGHTER.
GIL: That’s it. And, Mack is holding onto that gun and here’s this comely girl in Middle Eastern dress hanging onto Mack. Now you can’t just get that kind of weapon anywhere legally. Even if you had a class 3 license – I tried to get one for my reference photo and couldn’t.
So, I figured, “You know, in order to get Mack, played by my brother-in-law Robby, to hold it properly, I’ve got to kind of make a mockup of that gun.” So, I did. I got tubes, I got a pistol grip from a model of a .45 handgun and it took a lot of work. But I did it and I was really proud of it.
I posed Robby holding it and I thought it would impress the fans. Well, I brought reference photos of Robby holding the model of the gun to the Mack Bolan Convention and some guys came in — biker types — they came in, they’re looking at it and one says, “What the hell is this? I expected you to have the real thing.” They were disappointed. I was proud of the model I had done, but these guys were disappointed. They expected the real gun and thought Robby had been holding the real deal for the painting.
I looked it up. It’s a Hawk MM-1 MGL Automatic Grenade Launcher. I was going to ask you about how much homework you did about the guns and military equipment you show in the Bolan cover paintings. I know you know military aircraft very well and have specialized in doing military aviation art in recent years. Did you do a lot of homework on guns to do your Bolan artwork? Did you have to read the novels themselves to know which ones were in the story?
So, they sent you a synopsis of the book and an idea of what they wanted the scene to on the cover to show?
GIL: Exactly. And, when it came to exotic weaponry, such as the special gun I just described, they would either send me some reference photos or I had to find some, so I knew what on Earth on they were talking about.
They would tell you what kind of gun, what kind of plane, what kind of tank, that kind of a thing?
GIL: Yeah. Okay, now we’re on a subject that reminds me of the Mack Bolan convention again. I’m there and I’m answering questions and all of that. There was a line, by the way, going around whole the block in San Francisco, people — mostly guys — wanting to get in. I was amazed. Absolutely amazed. I couldn’t get over it. There were all kinds of people coming in. One was this nerdy-looking guy. He’s got a tweed sport coat and his hair is neatly combed and he’s wearing eyeglasses and he goes up to one of the paintings that I brought. It’s one of the Mack Bolan covers where I show Mack in a World War I aircraft.
I know that one. It’s number 78, DEATH GAMES. Bolan is in the back seat of a biplane shooting down a Russian MiG jet with a missile launcher. I love it!
GIL: Yeah, he’d just shot down a MiG-21. Now, when the art director, Charles Kadin, contacted me about that one he said, “Gil, this is what we want. He’s flying this old Australian-Hungarian patrol plane.” It’s not even a fighter plane. It’s an obscure biplane called a Lloyd C something.
I just Googled it. It looks like it’s a Lloyd C.II Austro-Hungarian two-seat, reconnaissance biplane.
GIL: That’s it. Anyway, Kadin said, “Bolan is sitting in the back seat. It’s a tandem thing — a pilot in the front seat, Bolan is sitting or standing up in the back of the plane. He’s holding a surface-to-air missile in his arms and he’s just shot down a modern MiG-21.”
I said, “That just can’t happen. Not possible. First of all, the heat seeking missiles of the MiG-21 would find that biplane and blast it out of the sky like swatting a fly. It would be nothing to knock that plane down. And here you want him shooting down the MiG-21 and the MiG’s going down in flames? That’s ridiculous.” He said, “Gil, just go along with it. Do it.”
So, I said OK and did it. And I figured, you know, “Forget about it Cohen, just have fun. Do it and have fun doing it.” So, I did. I looked up reference photos for the Lloyd C-II, and I did the painting. I had that painting at the Mack Bolan Convention. And this nerdy young guy, maybe in his 30s, he walks in with his tweed sport coat and his glasses and his neatly-combed straight hair and he’s staring at the painting. His nose is almost touching it. I’m looking at Alice, my wife, who is sitting next to me. I kind of nodded to her and I whispered, “Here it comes.”
So, he’s looking at the painting and says, “Are you Gil Cohen?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, my name is” – whatever – and he said, “I work in aerospace in nearby Silicon Valley.” And I’m thinking, “Oh god, here it comes. He’s going to tear this painting apart.” And he said, “You know, that’s very astute of you. This could happen.” I’m not saying anything, I’m just letting him talk. Then he said “Well, you know…” and starts spouting jargon, aviation/technical jargon, vectors and this and that.
Then he said, “And the reason why this could happen is that the engine of the Lloyd aircraft is too tiny to generate enough heat for the heat-seeking missiles on the MiG-21 to pick up. Thus, it probably wouldn’t be able to shoot down that biplane.” So, the scene I painted was actually very valid, though I didn’t know it. And he said, “That was very astute of you to think about that.” And, I said with a straight face, “Well, you know, I kind of figured it out.”
GIL: I don’t know. But I had two more years to go with the Bolan series and then it was over for me on that, though I did do more covers for Phoenix Force that have Bolan in them. If you look at the Mack Bolan series covers that came after my Mack, he is definitely younger, smooth-faced, obviously handsome and with a hot-combed look and all of that. You know, my Mack was different. And I made sure he was holding the weapons right. I know how most weapons need to be held. It’s not only the two years that I had in the military but my lifetime of interest in a lot of that stuff. But, you know, there you go. They wanted a younger Mack Bolan, and the series is obviously it’s still successful after all these years.
They’re up to more than 600 novels and still going. That is amazing, isn’t it?
GIL: It is. I did 15 years of Mack Bolan with Harlequin and Gold Eagle.
And in total you did something over 200 covers between the Executioner/Mack Bolan novels, the Phoenix Force series and the Able Team series, right?
GIL: Yeah, I guess I haven’t done the exact counting of all of them. It would be 109 Mack Bolan’s alone and many Phoenix Forces. And, I think if you look at them and have any idea of my style, you’ll see that it changed over time. Even up until today my style has changed in the military aviation paintings I do. I think I paint a hell of a lot better now. But I also have a lot more time and take a lot more time to do a painting than when I was doing men’s adventure magazine and paperback cover art. And I get a lot more money for the paintings that I do – a whole lot more. But if you look at my Bolan, Phoenix Force and Able Team covers you can tell my style. There’s a certain style that you have your whole life, you know, in a sense.
GIL: Sure. If you look at the Able Team paintings you can tell most were not done by me. As I said, I think I might have done maybe a couple years of them and that was it. Phoenix Force I did for a much longer time. Now my Phoenix Force characters, as I told you, they were not professional models, no more than Mack was. There’s one Phoenix guy, the older Israeli with one arm, do you remember him?
Yeah. His name is Yakov “Katz” Katzenelenbogen.
GIL: Okay. Well, an art school buddy of mine, Sam Dion — a terrific artist in his own right — posed as that guy, the older Israeli with the one arm. And another guy — see, I don’t remember the characters’ names and I don’t remember the guy’s name who posed for this character, but he had sort of a sandy-colored hair, very full hair…
Hmmm. That sounds like the character David McCarter, a former British SAS soldier.
GIL: Yeah, maybe, and he had rather full lips. My model for him was the manager of a local video store. Videos were big then, you know, VHS and all that were big then and I asked him if he would pose and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure. Why not?” And so, he was that character. There was also a black character — again, I forgot his name…
GIL: Right. I forgot the character’s name and I forgot the name of the guy who posed for him, too. But I remember he worked with his hands. He lived in the same neighbor as Sam Dion. Sam suggested him and he was great. Anyway, I talked him and other regular guys into going to New York with me to pose for reference photos done by a professional photographer who specialized in reference photos for illustrators.
I looked at the list of Phoenix Force novels published during the years you were doing them, from 1982 to 1992. There were 58 of them.
GIL: That’s about it, yeah. I would have done all of those.
They’re terrific covers. It seems like it must have taken you more time to do them, with the multiple characters and complex scenes.
GIL: Yeah, because you had five guys. And, they were wraparound covers. The Pinnacle Executioners, I don’t think any of them were wraparounds. Yeah, they took more time. They would have to because there’s more involved, so they would take more time. Of course, then I started doing aviation art for galleries and commissions around 1990, and I take a lot more time with those. It can take me months to do an aviation painting. Of course, you can see the result. I think they’re even better. And I think I’m a better artist now, if I might say so, than I was when I was doing men’s adventure magazine and paperback artwork. But that was the training ground for all of it, you know.
Well, the men’s adventure magazines and paperback cover art were good for a lot of illustrators in the early part of their careers back then.
GIL: I would say that’s the most basic thing of all. I mean that’s what put food on the table and allowed mortgages to be paid. And I think I told you the first time you interviewed me about the very first magazine illustration I did for a national magazine and that was a men’s adventure magazine, just before I was drafted into the army. I had just graduated art school – and I did that before Uncle Sam took me. I think I told you the story about that first one.
You did. It was your illustration for a story about Mountain Men and Indians in REAL, February 1954. I included a scan of it in Part II of my first interview with you. You told me that after you showed the initial painting to the Art Director, he asked you to change the dresses on the Indian women in the picture so they would show more cleavage. I love that story. It’s a classic men’s adventure magazine thing.
GIL: Yeah. I hated doing it, but the story about it is pretty good.
Did you have a preference between doing men’s adventure magazine artwork and the men’s action/adventure paperback cover art?
GIL: I don’t know that I favored either one over the other. I think it depended on the individual assignment. Some of them were just more interesting than others. You know, I was what might be called a journeyman artist or a journeyman illustrator and it was good to have the work.
Were there differences in the media you used for men’s adventure magazine and paperback artwork?
GIL: I did different methods at different times for both. When I first started doing the men’s adventure magazine artwork in the ‘50s, they were pretty much opaque watercolor — what they call gouache. A lot of them were that. And they were the tighter ones. Then I found that I could do them faster and somewhat looser if I had more of a pencil or charcoal linear scaffolding and then lay the colors or tones on top of that. And it would go faster.
I was doing a lot of them, including some of the Mack Bolans, that way. They were initially done that way to expedite getting the job finished, but also because I thought it was actually a pretty good technique. I did a lot of them that way, and on them the paint is rather thin. They are not heavily built up with paint, like gouache. But every once in a while I would use gouache again. You will note if you look at a bunch of my Executioner covers that my early Executioners have thicker paint than the later ones.
The first time I interviewed you also told me the sad story of how you threw away most of your original men’s adventure magazine paintings or sold them at bargain prices in a bin at your brother’s hardware store back in the mid-‘70s. Do you still have any of your men’s adventure mag originals?
GIL: I’ve got one that I haven’t sold yet. I don’t know if I’m ever going to sell that one. It’s not because of the subject matter, it’s because I thought I did a pretty good job for the time. It was I did a painting for Male or Stag or one of them, an interior illustration. It shows a fight on top of what looks like a mountainous area in World War II between what looks like American Rangers – Special-Ops in other words – but uniformed, and Germans who apparently occupy the top of that plateau on this mountain.
It’s a two-page spread and taking up the bottom of that whole space is a German soldier lying on the ground face up. Right on top of him, strangling him, is an American Ranger. The German has his hands trying to get the American’s face and right in front I decided as a compositional thing I would put a German MG-42 machine gun on a tripod, right in front of the whole scene. And you know I still have that.
GIL: Yes, it’s a red and black duotone. I still have that. I might sell it one day but I haven’t yet.
If I could take a tangent here, going back to models, I can’t remember if we talked about this before. Did you use Steve Holland as a model or my friend Eva Lynd? Other artists used them a lot for men’s adventure magazine artwork.
GIL: No, I didn’t. I didn’t use the regular male and female models other men’s adventure magazine artists were using at the time. First of all, I lived near Philadelphia, not New York. Most of the other artists lived in or around New York. Today, Philly doesn’t seem like it’s far away from New York City. But in those days it was a long trip. In the Gold Eagle period, I did use some professional models for female characters in the Mack Bolan cover scenes, but the models for my male characters were mostly non-professionals.
You’re in Bucks County. Isn’t that kind of known as an artists’ haven?
GIL: More so now, but not in those days. There were writers who discovered Bucks County and had places there. Dorothy Parker, the columnist had a home in Bucks County. George S. Kaufman, the playwright and producer lived here near Doylestown. The screenwriter Budd Schulberg who wrote ON THE WATERFRONT lived in nearby New Hope. He had a gentleman’s farm.
And, Oscar Hammerstein II the lyricist and musical director lived about a half-mile from where I live now. He had a gentleman’s farm and wrote his most famous musicals with his collaborator who wrote the music, Richard Rodgers, at that farm. But most of the professional illustrators lived in New York.
So, were you mostly using your neighbors and friends as models for your magazine and paperback artwork all along instead of professional models?
GIL: Right. I didn’t use professional models until I did romance book covers for Harlequin.
Did you use the famous romance novel model Fabio?
GIL: I didn’t do the kind of romance novels that Fabio would pose for. You know, a guy with some kind of a gold band around his biceps. I didn’t do that. Those are more period costume things. I did more contemporary, up-to-date cover scenes.
Let’s go back to the Executioner/Mack Bolan cover paintings you’ve decided to sell with Rich Greene as your representative. Can you send me high resolution photos of them to show?
GIL: Well, that’s a two-edge sword these days Bob. If you have too good of resolution in online images people can copy them and they can make their own prints or books with them. An artist has to be careful that when he puts an image online, so it isn’t too high of rez — unless it’s a private thing that he’s sending to somebody.
Understood. I’ll reduce them to 150dpi and put watermarks on them to reduce the likelihood of piracy.
GIL: Okay, I don’t have a professional scanner here.
You don’t need to scan them. Most smart phones take pretty good photos nowadays that you could email me. What do you use for a cell phone? An iPhone?
Ha! Are you laughing because you don’t use a cell phone?
GIL: I use an old flip top. I proudly take out when I need it, which is rare. I don’t even use the sucker unless I have to. I do not own a so-called smartphone. I have found that they have changed so much the way people communicate when they’re together. They often don’t communicate. They’re too into their damned smart phones. But I do have a good digital camera and I can shoot pictures of all of them, so you’ll have your images.
I greatly appreciate it, Gil! Thank you very much. It’s an honor and a pleasure to talk with you again.
[Here’s a link to Part 2 of the interview.]
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EDITOR’S POSTSCRIPT: As you can tell from the images in this post, Gil Cohen’s Executioner/Mack Bolan cover paintings look great even at 150dpi. At full resolution, they are even more mind-blowingly cool. If you’ve ever wanted to own one of Gil’s classic Bolan cover paintings, now’s your chance.
As I noted, he is offering more than 60 of them for sale. He’s not putting them in online auctions. He’s only selling them directly, via his representative Rich Greene. I’ve shown some of the paintings in this post and will show more in a following post.
If you see any you’re interested in, email Rich Greene at email@example.com or call him at 856-278-4140.
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