Wednesday 18 August 2010

Richard Stark, Robert McGinnis Book Covers, and the Search for the Perfect Parker

Inspired by Book Glutton's comment here, I thought I'd post something akin to my musings on the changing face of James Bond from a few months back, but instead examine how Richard Stark/Donald Westlake's character Parker has been portrayed by artists – mostly on book covers – over the years. A kind of Search for the Perfect Parker, if you will. Except, as it turned out, it was rather a short search...

The point of that Bond post was to look at how the various Bond cover artists' visual representations of 007 developed over the course of the early paperback editions of the books – how Bond was depicted in the years prior to the arrival of the first movie Bond, Sean Connery. Because of course once Connery became fixed as Bond in the public's mind – and then Roger Moore and the rest – there was less room for manoeuvre for cover artists. Indeed, after the 1962 movie of Dr. No, Bond book covers tended to either feature film stills or be slightly more abstract.

In the end, the pre-movie Bond that seemed nearest the mark to me was the one drawn by Yaroslav Horak for the Daily Express newspaper strip, although Sam Peffer also did a creditable job on the original Pan paperbacks of the novels. And if you chart the progress of Parker through the various iterations of the Richard Stark novels, you could easily reach a similar conclusion. The original Pocket Books paperbacks of the first eight Parker novels sported covers by artist Harry Bennett, but Parker himself doesn't feature on all of them, and when he does he's extremely changeable. For example, the Parker on the cover of The Hunter (1962) isn't particularly recognisable as (presumably) the Parker on the cover of The Mourner (1964). And while the Parker on The Hunter does have the big hands Westlake describes in the book, none of Bennett's Parkers feel quite right to me.

Skipping over the Gold Medal editions of the next few Parkers for the moment – for reasons alluded to at the start of this post – we encounter some decent line drawings of Parker on the initial Coronet UK paperback editions of the novels from the late 1960s. Thereafter, however, it's a case of steadily diminishing returns. In the 1970s we get the US Berkley paperbacks, but these tend to show Parker at a small size, making it hard to pass judgment on his depiction. The less said about the 1980s Avon US photo cover editions the better, and probably the same goes for the UK Robert Hale editions from the 2000s too (although I do have a soft spot for some of Derek Colligan's covers).

Foreign editions aside, it's not until we get to Darwyn Cooke's interpretation of the character from his graphic novels of The Hunter and The Outfit that things look up again. As with Horak's Bond, Cooke's Parker is pretty much on the money – at least for my money. He's suitably craggy, lived in, mean... and no one draws Parker's hands as well as Darwyn Cooke.

Unlike the Bond books, one thing we don't really have to contend with here are any movie Parkers, mostly because there's never actually been a movie Parker. There's been a Walker (Point Blank, 1967), a Georges (Pillaged, 1967), a McClain (The Split, 1969), a Macklin (The Outfit, 1973), a Stone (Slayground, 1983), a Porter (Payback, 1999)... there's even been a Paula (Made in U.S.A., 1966). But a Parker? Not a one. So while variations of Parker have been seen on screen – some good (Lee Marvin), some bad (I don't think Peter Coyote's take is terribly well regarded) – there's never been a defining film Parker in the way that Connery, Moore, etc. have come to define Bond in most people's minds. Various editions of the Parker books have occasionally used film stills on their covers, but the artists who've depicted Parker post-the movies have never taken any visual cues from the actors who've portrayed him – or rather versions of him.

Funnily enough, Westlake himself thought that Parker perhaps looked like a younger Jack Palance, which isn't a bad fit. But then, weirdly, authors aren't always the best judge of what their characters look like. In the Bond novels Ian Fleming has characters likening 007 to composer Hoagy Carmichael, which never seemed right to me; Bond strikes me as being more chiselled, more angled.

Anyway, there may be no movie Parker to muddy the waters, but when I started trawling through the original Parker paperbacks for the perfect Parker (it's always best to start at the beginning), I pretty quickly realised my search would be somewhat truncated. Because once Gold Medal picked up the rights from Pocket Books with the ninth novel in the series, The Rare Coin Score (1967), and brought The Hunter back into print that same year under the title Point Blank! (often mistakenly credited as being published in '62), Parker found his ultimate artist: Robert E. McGinnis.

One of the most prolific – if not the most prolific – paperback cover artists ever, McGinnis painted covers for well over a thousand books, as well as dozens of movie posters, including posters for Bond movies like Thunderball and The Man with the Golden Gun. He started off creating detective covers for Dell in the 1950s, before branching out into westerns, romances and other mass market titles. More recently he's been providing covers for Hard Case Crime, his artwork as rich and evocative as it's ever been.

When McGinnis met Parker in 1967, it was a match made in heaven. Two of the three Parker novels published by Gold Medal that year – The Rare Coin Score and The Green Eagle Score – boast, for me, the best depictions of the character we've yet seen, Darwyn Cooke's version included. McGinnis went on to paint another three covers for Gold Medal's Parkers from 1968 to 1969: The Black Ice Score (1968, the eleventh book in the series), The Sour Lemon Score (1969, Parker #12), and the 1968 reissue of The Seventh as The Split. Great though these three are, none of them quite hit the heights of his 1967 portrayals. The Parker on McGinnis' cover for The Split doesn't quite feel like Parker to me – maybe it's that roll-neck sweater – while on The Black Ice Score Parker has, strangely enough given Westlake's own view on Parker's appearance, assumed something of the look of Jack Palance. On The Sour Lemon Score, McGinnis' final cover for the series (thereafter the novels were picked up by Random House), Parker has receded to the background, his features indistinct.

Rewind to those 1967 McGinnis covers, however, and we really hit paydirt. Of the three, McGinnis' cover for the '67 Gold Medal reissue of The Hunter as Point Blank! probably takes the bronze medal. It's a damn fine effort at nailing Parker: the hands are big, the look is thuggish, and the way Parker casually disarms Lynn, not even glancing at her as he does so, sums up the focused, no-nonsense side of his persona. Good as Point Blank! is, though, the other two covers from the class of '67 are even better.

McGinnis's cover for the 1967 Gold Medal edition of The Rare Coin Score features a Parker depiction par excellence. Standing in profile, looking towards us but with his eyes ever-so-slightly averted, and with a sultry woman draped over him, the Parker on this cover is just so right. That woman (whoever she is – could she be Claire?) isn't distracting him in the slightest; instead he's fixed on something else – although not us, not quite. He's thinking about the score in hand – because as we all know, when Parker's working, working is all he cares about.

The next Gold Medal Parker novel, The Green Eagle Score (1967, Parker #10), pulls a similar trick. Here Parker's female companion is virtually naked, yet again Parker doesn't seem to notice her. He's fully dressed, gun in one hand, cigarette in the other, folded into a swivel chair as if waiting for something to happen. In the novels there are countless scenes of Parker waiting around for one reason or another; he's like an automaton on standby in these scenes, not thinking about anything, often sitting or lying in a darkened room. Waiting Parker can do in spades. And waiting is what McGinnis' Parker is clearly doing here.

That McGinnis' subsequent Parker covers don't quite match up to these two doesn't really matter. When I read one of Richard Stark's Parker novels, the Parker I see in my head is exactly the same one as on McGinnis' covers for The Rare Coin Score and The Green Eagle Score. With those two 1967 book covers, Robert E. McGinnis provided us with a Parker that will be difficult, if not impossible, to better – the perfect Parker.


  1. I believe you have found the perfect Parker. Well done.

    The only thing that bothers me about the McGinnis Parker is that it kind of looks like Parker wears cuff links. The Parker in my head would never wear cuff links. Surely they would have popped off his cuff after administering a beating in one of the books by now. I suppose all men's shirts had cuff links up to a certain point in time so this shouldn't be an issue. Nowadays they are an affectation.

  2. Great analysis, but I'm not ready to give the "perfect" award, even to those great McGinnis covers (and I appreciate the research you did on the artists). Parker is just a bit too small and a bit too good-looking in those images for him to really feel like Parker to me. In The Green Eagle Score, he even appears to be smiling slightly. I think you probably needed those things on the covers to sell the book and they are great images, so I'm not really complaining. They just don't hit the exact Parker look for me.

    But hold on there, let's get to the real issue here: Pillaged! This is the first I've ever heard of it and it looks quite promising. What's the word?

  3. That's the English translation of "Mise a sac". Trent has some info on it over at Violent World of Parker, and I've seen a review or two of it online that suggest it's rather good. It's an adaptation of The Score.

    I know what you both mean about the cufflinks and that slight smile on the Green Eagle cover, but I can forgive those. The guy on those two covers is still the closest to the Parker I have in my head. Still, as ever with these things, the search goes on...

  4. Belatedly chiming in here--what strikes me about some of these early paperback covers is how they're clearly patterned after actors who never played any version of Parker onscreen, but who were prominent in the public mind when the book in question came out.

    The blonde Parker with the monstrous hands on the Pocket Books edition of The Hunter--Lloyd Bridges. He'd made a splash with the series Sea Hunt, just a short time before that came out.

    But by the time the Fawcett edition of that same book came out in 1967, the Bond films were huge, and that Parker is a skinny Sean Connery.

    The Parker on the cover of The Rare Coin Score is clearly an idealized Charlton Heston. Heston was at the peak of his career then.

    I'm sure some of the other covers where Parker's features are clearly delineated are based on actors I don't recognize. I just can't place the guy on the cover of the Green Eagle Score.

    I'm sure glad it's still possible to get these paperbacks at a decent price online, with a bit of searching around. They simply don't make 'em like that anymore. The book itself is the most important thing, but today's publishers need to think harder about the art they wrap them up in. Of course, with e-books taking over--oh well. Read 'em while you got 'em.

    1. James Garner is on The Rare Coin Score cover. I've never envisioned Parker looking like Garner, and still don't.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Chris! You may well be onto something with your theory – it's certainly not unusual for illustrators to use images of actors as the models for their cover portraits. And I completely agree that they don't make 'em like that anymore, whether it be McGinnis, Harry Bennett, or any of the other cover illustrators I bang on about!

  6. After I posted, it occurred to me--McGinniss probably wouldn't want to use the same actor as a model for Parker repeatedly, even if he was careful not to make his version a dead ringer--might be legal problems, with movie studios, or the actors themselves.

    Actually, I wonder if there were some minor issues raised by his early specific portrayals--might explain why his later versions of Parker were more in the background, their features less distinct, and based on less famous actors (or maybe on people he knew, or someone hired as a model).

    Actually, wonder why McGinniss didn't use Lee Marvin as a model in his cover for Point Blank. Maybe because they only had the rights to the title, and it wasn't a direct tie-in to the movie. Maybe McGinniss thought Marvin didn't match the character described in the book well enough. Or maybe he just felt like drawing a skinny Sean Connery. It's a great cover, no matter the reason.

  7. You know what?

    I looked up some photos of Robert E. McGinniss online--they're of him as an older man, but extrapolating backwards, I'm now thinking the Parker on the cover of The Black Ice Score might be none other than--Robert E. McGinniss! Probably not an exact depiction, but it sure looks like a younger version of the man in the photos I've seen, and it doesn't look like any film star I can think of.

    I mean, he's certainly a big beefy Irish American--I'm one myself, so I oughta know. :)

    As to his using Connery as a model for his Point Blank cover, I am embarrassed to state I was not aware until just now of the artwork he did for the Bond movies. I'm not clear on whether he was doing that cover around the same time he was working on some art for Thunderball, or just before, or just after, but obviously Connery was on his mind.

  8. Illustrators using themselves as their own model again isn't uncommon, Chris; f'rinstance the cover of Westlake's Killy in this post features a portrait of the artist who drew it, Denis McLoughlin. When you're a commercial illustrator with deadlines to meet, you have to use whatever resources you have to hand!

  9. Makes sense--and sly self-portraits of the artist were old news in the Renaissance.

    And btw, sorry I misspelled McGinnis' name. :)

  10. No worries, Chris. I have to go back and fix misspellings on my own posts sometimes!

  11. The Parker on the cover of "The Green Eagle Score" reminds me of William Holden. A little.

  12. I'm very late to this discussion, but pleased to have stumbled on it. McGinnis rarely used himself as a model, though physically he fits for Parker (McGinnis was a guard on the Ohio State football team); but facially, not so much (there's a self portrait on pg 134 of the book I did with Bob, THE ART OF ROBERT E. MCGINNIS). As to Chris' concern about using a movie star likeness, McGinnis absolutely flouted that with the series of M.E. Chaber paperbacks he did in the early '70s using a dead-ringer James Coburn for the series hero Milo March (McGinnis was doing posters for Coburn movies at the time). He got away with it back then, but nowadays, the lawyers would pounce.