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Rolf Gohs: Master of Cover Art

On this day 62 years ago, Fantomen issue 7/1957 was released. Who cares? Well, what makes this issue significant is that it was the first Phantom cover that the legendary cover artist Rolf Gohs had published.

His career has spanned across seven decades, with an astonishing 911 covers (you read that correctly - nine hundred and eleven covers!!) and countless other Phantom images that have been published across more than ten countries and several continents!

Today we are lucky enough to be reading not one but two joint interviews conducted by friend of the ChronicleChamber and longtime Fantomen editor Ulf Granberg. Ulf is a close friend of Rolf's, and interviewed him for the 2017 published book Rolf Gohs : A Cartoon Life (Rolf Gohs - ett tecknarliv).

Ulf has also generously facilitated a brief interview with follow up questions asked by the ChronicleChamber team.

It was a huge pleasure to be able to communicate with both Ulf and Rolf and we thank both of them for their time.

Below, we have included a video review of the book. If it sparks your interest, you can still buy a copy. It will set you back SEK200 + postage (SEK200 regular mail or SEK275 registered mail). Under current exchange rates, SEK475 equals about $70AUD and $50US. Please contact Team ChronicleChamber for Ulf's email address.


This first interview is an excerpt from the book Rolf Gohs : A Cartoon Life (Rolf Gohs - ett tecknarliv) and has been translated into English and published here with permission given by both Ulf Granberg and Rolf Gohs.

Enjoy as we learn about this legendary man.

Ulf Granberg: Rolf, you stopped school in the spring of 1951 because you wanted to draw comics. It was a pretty bold decision to take for a 17-year-old?

Rolf Gohs: Yes, that was it, in a way... two years earlier I had sent in some work samples to the Seriemagasinet and received an answer that I had a predisposition for drawing, even though they thought I needed to practice and draw diligently.

In the spring of 1951 I drew some work that I showed to Armas Morb. He owned Press & Publicity which released Seriemagasinet . He looked at my pages and said, "Yes, this looks good. We can imagine hiring you when you leave school." I got so excited that I quit school immediately and went back to Press & Publicity a week later saying, "Well, I've now finished school!" Armas Morby was quite taken aback when I turned up so soon, but he kept his promise to hire me.

I started on a trial for a month or two, but then I got a permanent job and had a good salary from the beginning.

There was already another artist at Press & Publicity called Nils Egerbrandt and the two of us shared rooms in an old 19th century building. In the winter it was very cold in the room and the one who came first in the morning had to put on the fire.

UG: You became a studio artist for the first time. What work did you do for them?

RG: I had to add text in the speech bubbles, make simple retouching of the art and vignettes to the Kilroy comic.

There was no copier at work so I got to draw action scenes for the opening panels free hand. If you wanted to enlarge a picture, we had a device that we called "snabel" - a technical drawing tool. There were interconnected rods with a fixed and a sliding pin. You followed the outline of the original with the fixed pin, and then the movement was transferred via the bars to the sliding pin and an enlarged copy was then obtained which was then tipped. It was good training and eventually I also got to draw covers.

UG: Draw covers? You mean painting covers?

RG: Yes and no. For example, Seriemagasinet, there was usually no cover image so then we got either Brownie or I, together with Per Gillberg or Arne Linderholm, to select a good picture from any of the panels and sketch it on paper. Then you dote the cover, turn over the page, put it on a light table and paint on the back… so the painted picture is a middle piece or colour guide, This technique has been used in other newspapers and magazines as well such as Superman, Leather Patch, Cowboy and Tomahawk.

UG: And then you started work on Kilroy (or Amok as it was called in Italy)?

RG: Yes, the Kilroy series stopped in Italy in 1951, but it was popular and the editors wanted the series to continue. I would draw and Arne Linderholm would write script . The first job was to finish the Italian section of No. 6/1952. There was nothing further. Looking back, we were probably bad at finishing this story.

I worked regularly with Kilroy until 1952, but it became difficult to keep up to date and on budget with several pages a week and at the end of the year 1952 the ongoing publication ceased. But Kilroy has returned a few times in short adventures since then.

I still had a lot to do… more and more covers for Seriemagasinet, short stories and advertisements for upcoming issues, covers for Cowboy and studio jobs at the Tomahawk magazine.

UG: From 1954 the cover for Seriemagasinet changed technology and now included painted covers in watercolor. Was it the editors who wanted it that way - or you?

RG: Both. You can say in the period 1952-53 it was a failed experiment with very bad paper to save money. After that we wanted the magazine to look more beautiful. It turned out to be better wrapping paper that the color came into its own, in addition we at the editorial office considered that painted covers would make Seriemagasinet look more like a "real" newspaper, such as Living Life or Lecture.

It also felt a little more artistic to paint in watercolor than to sit and put paint on the back of a felted image. It was more fun to paint the covers in this way, but it also took more time (one to two days for a cover) and seeing Seriemagasinet was a weekly magazine, others on the editorial staff had to fill in and do simpler retouching jobs to help me out.

UG: You must have painted over two hundred covers between the years off 1952 and 1958, however they varied a lot - for example from a western series to head hunters. Who decided what the cover would be? And what support did you have to work with?

RG: Oh! Did I really do that many?

The cover picture usually began as a discussion between the editor and myself. Sometimes I concluded that the head hunters sounded exciting and that it would be fun to paint such a cover. Other times, the editor decided what I would do.

During this period every piece I drew was 100% my own and not copies or drawings from the magazine's content. It was my own in that case. Seeing there was no main comic character with Kilroy being cancelled, the covers became more varied with Western covers, sometimes detective and sometimes something else.

UG: Okay. During this period you also did four own stories for the magazine and I thought we would talk about them now. The first published was titled Nations in the Serie julnummer magazine in 1955 and was about the World Space conquerors. How did it come about?

RG: The series was based on a movie with the same name. I wanted to draw something by myself and something that was so far from Kilroy as possible. The Sci Fi genre with space elements like aliens, advance technology etc have always fascinated me. I watched many Sci Fi movies when I designed this story.

UG: And the next story was?

RG: The Bomb in the Serial Magazine's Summer edition in 1956. The story was about Nico, a guy in a city in Mexico who had to deliver a package to an address before a certain time. The package contained a bomb, but Nico did not know about it and when he was close to delivering the package, the bomb exploded.

The plot is based on a film by Alfred Hitchcock from 1936 called Sabotage. I hadn't seen this movie, but I had read an article about Hitchcock and this movie, and his storytelling technique made a strong impression on me. I tried to apply it when drawing for example, heavily cropped faces in close-up, dramatic back-lit background elements like a black cat running across the road.

UG: One year later, you created Death's Bird published in the Series Magazine 24/1958. It must have been one of your last jobs for the Center Publisher. Also, were you freelancing by then, and did you start painting covers for Åhlén & Åkerlunds Fantomen then in 1957?

RG: I did not like it since Center Publisher had moved to Bondegatan at Söder from Mäster Samuelsgatan inside the town, so I stopped working on contract for them and became a freelancer instead. It may have been in early 1957 but I'm not 100% sure. It gave me the opportunity to work for other publishers such as Åhlén & Åkerlund and produce covers for Fantomen.

I also did freelance some work for Lemeco, a company that made board games, I painted the packaging for Perry Mason, for the Cartwright Brothers and for Lusen too. I also painted some covers for Series Magazine after Death Bird.

UG: Dödens Fågel the editor wrote a message inviting readers to write in and tell them what they thought about the series. Did you get any reactions? I can't find any comment at all in the magazine's reader column.

RG: No, I have no memory of getting any response and if there were any reader letters, then the editor did not tell me.

UG: Do you remember your first cover for the Phantom, Rolf?

RG: I don't remember... but it was probably the Phantom in a normal hero's position. That was usually what the publisher wanted.

UG: No, it wasn't the Phantom, but three young boys exploring a shipwreck. It had Weird Summer on the cover of no. 13/1957.

[CC editors note: According to Phantomwiki, Rolf's first published cover for Fantomen was 7/1957. We understand 13/1957 was the first image Rolf actually drew for Fantomen magazine, but that the image drawn for 7/1957 was used and published first.]

RG: Ah yes! Now I remember- it was a summer sequel short story by Karl-Aage Schwartzkopf, and I also drew the illustrations to go with the story in the magazine. There was quite a lot of work with the pictures; this was my first job for the Phantom and I made an extra effort. I thought that to regularly drew and paint the covers of the magazine would hold a great status for me. At the same time I was also working on Death Bird. Today I do not understand how I managed my time with everything I was working on.

UG: The following year, the covers for the Center Publisher ended and you mainly worked on the Phantom and Living Life for Åhlén & Åkerlund. Were there any differences working on the different publications?

RG: Not really when it comes to the Phantom, the editors were based on Sveavägen [Ed: A major street in Stockholm, Sweden] and when they wanted a cover I went to them and we talked about it. Back then Ebbe Zetterstad was the editor of the Phantom magazine (1958-1961). I also did other work based there for the magazine, including spot illustrations and adverts, and even had a desk to work from.

Living Life was different and more controlled. I would receive a sketch, not on the subject, but a layout sketch where the logo and headings were marked so that I could see what space I had for the image.

I did not get sketches for my Phantom covers until you [Ulf] started as an editor in the seventies. At first I was not so fond of them, but soon I saw why and I enjoyed it towards the end.

Both Phantom and Living Life were weekly newspaper like the Seriemagasinet and I got a contract with a guaranteed monthly income equivalent to the covers and a few short stories illustrations, but often it became more and then I got more money. However a year later, the Phantom magazine went to a monthly release so I did more covers for Living Life to supplement my income. It ended in 1961.

By this time the Phantom magazine changed to Semic Press and I did other covers for them including TV Series, Western Series, Flipper, James Bond, Saint, Flash Gordon, Mandrake, Buffalo etc. I do not remember every cover I did however.

UG: You have many artistic strings on your lyre Rolf. You have also worked on Daily Strip stories and also photography?

RG: Yes. I kept on photographing whenever I could. I bought a narrow motion camera in 1957 and made a movie called Statyette which won first prize in a Nordic narrow film competition in 1959.

I took care of Pelle Svanslös for the Expressen newspaper. Pelle Svanslös started in the mid-sixties as a comic book by Semic and as a weekly series in the Annuals. Börje Nilsson drew the weekly strip, but when Expressen wanted a Daily series as well, I assisted Börje. I did this very often and it was hard but fun. This was in the late 1960's from memory.

UG: Even though you have painted over 1500 covers including The Phantom, Seriemagasinet, Living Life and many other comic books, many would say you're mainly known for your stories of Sacho and Stefan.

Others have written and analyzed much about Mystiska 2:an in different contexts, so I thought we'd just talk about how Mystiska 2:an came about. Where did you get the inspiration, and did you have any explicit purpose with the series?

RG: Hmm inspiration... It comes from many different places. For example I once saw a movie called The Window in the late 40s. It was about a guy who witnessed a murder from a window but no one believed him ... I saw and recognised myself in him. The film was dark, filled with mystery and it left a deep impression on me.

UG: I remember the first comic of your Mystiska 2:an comic series. Soon after, I had started working at Semic and quickly collected the rest. One of my favorite adventures was Stenhästens Eye, which is included in this book. Can you please tell me how it came about?

RG: I used to go to Italy in the summers during the 1950s, and often to Naples, In a local park there was this horse's head and there were always kids who would climb over it and the horse's eye were holes. I imagined that if you put a long stick in one of the holes it could point to a treasure. The story plot grow around that initial idea.

UG: Cool! It sounds like that story almost wrote itself. If you think back on all of your Mystiska 2:an adventures, which story or stories are you most satisfied with?

RG: Hmm... Enigmatic Letter (in Fantomen 23/1979) had a plot I am still proud of...

The Doll Who Could Not Sleep in 1974 was my first published comic story, While I was still looking for my style during this story I am still proud of it.

In the Glass Pyramids from 1975 was an adventure with Science Fiction elements, which sticks with me today.