Benicio’s Girls With Guns

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It’s a peculiar American conceit: We think we dominate everything. No question, sometimes we do. In the vintage art and illustration arenas for comics, pulp magazines and book covers, titans like McGinnis, Maguire, Steranko, Kirby, Adams and so many others created a remarkable legacy of mid-twentieth century pop-cultural visuals. A person could spend a lifetime studying these artists and their work. But, I also like to snoop around Euro-Sleaze magazines, Giallo digests, and pop illustration in other markets from the UK to Australia and Mexico to South America. There’s a lot to be appreciated.

Centro Commercial

For example, commercial art studios in Spain reached out across Europe — and across the Atlantic as well – to become a powerful force in 1960’s – 70’s comic art art and illustration, most evident in the American market among the many magazine-sized monthlies from Warren Publishing like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, along with competing titles from Marvel and Skywald. Meanwhile, the work of talented young artists from Brazil and Venezuela made it into the regular U.S. comic book scene and the paperback cover market, though the latter was contracting so fast at the time, many U.S. artists had already migrated into more lucrative advertising and movie studio work.

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Consider Brazilian artist Jose Luis Benicio, apparently regarded as the ‘King Of The Pinups’ in his own country, though his work actually dealt more with Brazilian film studio posters and regular advertising assignments. Perhaps he really ought to be known as the painter of ‘Girls With Guns’, for his extensive work on period-sexy action/espionage paperback series.

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Born in 1936 near Rio Prado, Benicio originally planned on a career in music, but abandoned the piano for a paint brush, initially starting out as an apprentice in Porto Alegre at only 16, then hitting the big time in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1950’s. There he worked for various studios and small agencies, eventually forging a lucrative long-term relationship with the Brazilian office of McCann-Erickson advertising by 1961, which led to work for Coca Cola, Esso and others. Tireless in his prime, Benicio also produced, by his own reckoning, over 300 movie posters for the government-backed Embrafilme Studios.

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At the same time, Benicio worked for various publishers on popular Modesty Blaise-style knock-off series like Giselle and Bridgette In Action, nearly all featuring the series’ provocatively posed heroines brandishing a gun. Tame by both U.S. and European standards, these ubiquitous ‘Girl-With-A-Gun’ covers actually brought him some unwelcome attention from the conservative military government. Eventually political changes in Brazil brought an end to the government backed film studio system, and portions of Benicio’s lucrative movie marketing work dried up. He began working with some American publishers, but by this time, digital graphics were already sounding the death knell for traditional illustration.

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Benicio normally worked in gouache, today considered by many to be a dying art. Gouache, which is more or less ‘fine-arts’ tempera paint, combines the brilliance of the purest oils but with unparalleled opacity. Due to its quick drying time, it’s the perfect medium for commercial illustrators. I worked with it a little back in school days, and was impressed with its bright, intense colors and buttery viscosity, but found it pretty tricky to handle. (Which is probably among the many reasons why I’m not a successful commercial illustrator!) More of the well-known vintage U.S. paperback and pulp magazine covers than you’d think were actually done in gouache, not oils.

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To be clear, ‘girls with guns’ aren’t the only thing Benicio painted. But they are among the familiar pop culture images the artist is widely known for, particularly in the South American market. Do dig around a bit on your own if you’d like to see more of the Brazilian illustrator’s work. There are two books on Jose Luis Benicio, though neither is likely to be on a shelf at your local bookstore: Sex & Crime: The Book Cover Art Of Benicio by Reference Press, 2011 and Benicio Created The Woman by Goncalo Junior, originally published in 2006 and re-released in 2012.

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