The name might not seem immediately recognizable, but thanks to a body of work that includes posters for movies including Night of the Howling Beast and House of Psychotic Women, covers for magazines like Man’s Action, Creepy and Spacemen, and — perhaps most importantly — a run as cover artist for the iconic magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, it’s almost guaranteed that genre fans of almost any stripe will be familiar with the beautiful paintings of illustrator Basil Gogos, a man who almost single handedly changed the way horror fans think about the way the genre looks.
Gogos’ professional career started in 1959 with the release of Pursuit, a Western pulp he’d painted the cover for; it was the culmination of what had been a lifetime of preparation for the life, with Gogos having attended a number of art schools in the New York area since his family immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt. He’d been a student at the National School of Design, the School of Visual Arts, and the Art Students League of New York, amongst many others, before winning the Pursuit cover gig as part of a competition sponsored by Pocket Books.
Much of the early work that followed that first job — predominantly magazine covers, with a hefty dose of melodrama and cheesecake on offer on almost every single one — was consistently strong work that existed firmly inside the pulp tradition each magazine breathlessly hewed to. Far more eye-catching were the paintings Gogos was creating during the same period for Warren Publishing’s Famous Monsters series, which seemed to come from a less staid, more colorful place altogether.
It was a tone he set with his very first cover for the magazine, for the ninth issue. A portrait of Vincent Price from the movie House of Usher, the actor is portrayed in something more expressionistic, less natural than what Gogos had been creating for other outlets: using contrasting reds and greens to create drama, the cover manages to make Price look otherworldly, and particularly creepy, in ways that felt more alive — or should that be more undead? — and more vibrant than everything surrounding it on the stands. It was a sign of what was to come.
Over the next couple of decades, Gogos continued to paint covers for Famous Monsters, many of which featured some of the most famous creatures to be committed to celluloid: Godzilla, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and many more. He also painted portraits featuring the greats of early horror cinema, whether it was Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney, as well as then-contemporary actors such as Hammer’s Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee.
Each of his covers were studies in how to create drama on the page, with bold colors that rejected the black and white camerawork of the past, and instead transformed each subject into something daring, garish and overpowering to the viewer; with each successive illustration, Gogos pushed further towards creating an aesthetic that spoke to the past — his brushwork was as bold as his colors, and directly connected his covers to the portrait painting traditions of yore — but pointed towards something new and different, whether it was the color stories of the 1960s and ‘70s, or a framing that was years ahead of its time.
Interestingly enough, at least part of Gogos’ approach might have come from Famous Monsters editor, Forrest J. Ackerman; in interviews, the artist has said that, while he was given little art direction across his time with the magazine, his initial hiring came with the note from his agent that the job should be done “in a psychedelic way” — an instruction that wasn’t entirely clear, but which led to the colorful style that, ultimately, made his reputation.
By the late ‘70s, Gogos had all but retired from professional illustration, with the exception of the occasional movie poster. Instead, he paid his bills by working as a photo retoucher for United Artists’ ad department, while spending free time creating art for himself. It didn’t last; first, he returned to professional illustration with specific ad work — including storyboards and concept artwork for a number of campaigns — and, by the 1990s, the fandom surrounding his earlier work meant that he was headhunted to paint album covers for the likes of Rob Zombie and the Misfits, while also creating work for trading cards and limited edition prints. Decades after he’d started in the business, he had become famous enough to be a brand name in his own right.
Gogos died in 2017, years after his official retirement. By the time of his passing, his talents had been recognized not only by fans and collectors, but also by his peers, having been awarded the Inkpot Award from Comic-Con International in 2006, as well as the Monster Kid Hall of Fame that same year. Both awards were well-deserved, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t deserve even more. In the wake of his death, Gogos’ work continues to appeal to fans old and new — but, really, what would be more fitting for a master of horror than to enjoy such a successful afterlife from beyond the grave?