into the crypt of the subculture

monsters.a rich american subculture. do we really need another book about paul rand? …

by Art Chantry (

My friend dave crider (estrus records) actually has this thing hanging on his office wall. dave is a mad collector and aficionado of crap. in fact his office walls are a prime study in crapola. for a guy who began his studies in archeology only to end up running and indie rocknroll record label (and musician playing in various bands) it’s what you might expect, only more so.

His walls are covered with rare exotic rock posters, movie posters for giant man-eating sasquatch movies, rock swag, cheezy monster mementos, rat finks, mini mexican wrestler figurines and god knows what all. and this box.

AC:this is the standard airplane or 'ship' box. aurora made many "figurine" models prior to the monster series. used the standard long shaped box, i assume, because you could easily put a figure image on it. but, the idea of placing it vertical seems to be innovation that they pioneered. not much of an innovation, but seems to be theirs. "necessity (and low budget) is the mother of invention." all those hawk and revell and AMTkits that followed were copying the success of the aurora series. these monster kits actually opened the door for the roth and mouse and weird-ohs, etc., 'cartoony' monster kits....

This aurora model kit was about the very last monster model kit that aurora manufactured before they collapsed (or the monster fad did). when i was a little kid, i had all of these models (except the hunchback of notre dame. my mom said that was too mean. he was chained to a whipping post.) i built them out and painted them carefully. but i also kept the boxes laying conspicuously around my room. i love them. they scared me.

These original boxes are now worth a small fortune to collectors. it’s nice to see dave has it. all the aurora monster model kits have been re-issued many times by other companies over the years. each time, the repro on the box gets crummier with each generation of reproduction. the original seems so clear and sharp.

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The original models are re-mastered from clean samples found. the legend has it that most of the aurora monster model molds were destroyed in a train wreck. so, the subsequent manufactured models themselves have suffered through each generation as well. finding an original shrink-wrapped aurora monster model kit is like hitting an ebay jackpot. in fact, you have to watch for bootlegging of the kits. there area manuals written on how to spot them (apparently the counterfeits are so good that you have to inspect the actual shrink-wrap material to spot the fakes.) nowadays, even a “built-out” aurora monster model is worth many hundreds of dollars, even in terrible condition.

That’s all fine and dandy for those obsessive collector types and their completist fetishes. the thing i’ve always been fascinated by are those boxes! the design is magnificent. i remember going into hobby shops back when their first few kits hit the market. (it started with frankenstein and the sales we so good that they immediately pumped out the wolf man and dracula, then the creature from the black lagoon.) i used to stare at those model boxes hanging on the hobb

op wall with awe. they totally captivated my imagination.

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The illustrations were all done by noted western artist/illustrator james bama. even though it’s a far jump from depicting life in the old west to life in cheezy horror movies, his style was so utterly and completely brooding gothic perfect that it’s one of those great meetings of project and skill. a perfect match.

As per the values of the time, he knocked those things out for the money and GAVE the original artwork to aurora. that was sort of the way things were done in commercial art for centuries. it wasn’t until extremely recently that the original art was protected along with copyright. basically bama was paid to do a painting and then gave them the painting to use. i’m sure he was paid fairly for the times. but, who can predict the long term usage and cultural impact of this stuff.

One of the very sad ironies of this story is that as, the model kits were re-issued (later using glow-in-the-dark plastic) they re-drew the images on the kit covers to reflect this glowing. they also shaped the boxes closer to square (rather than their classic long thin shape). to do this, they went back to the original paintings and PAINTED OVER THE TOP OF THEM. so, the few originals that still exist have a large square area in the middle where they re-painted (badly) the head and torsos of the subject to make a fake glowing appearance. it’s pretty awful.

----But some critics felt these new kits, which included The Hanging Cage, The Pendulum, and Dr. Deadly, a mad scientist who appears to be experimenting on animals, had a mean-spirited, sadistic quality, and were inappropriate toys for young children.---Read More:

This was also not an uncommon fate for original art. even the late great frank frazetta would periodically re-do his masterworks by simply painting on top of the originals (in his case to “improve” them). so, the famous original artwork got lost forever. but, at least something, however badly damaged, still exists. the fate of 99% of original illustration artwork of the past century was the garbage dumpster. i can remember pulling beautiful illustration originals out of garbage dumpsters as recently as the mid-80′s.

---When the wholesome Nabisco company bought Aurora and found themselves picketed by angry parents, Monster Scenes were retired.---Read More:

The “forgotten prisoner” model kit was unusual for the series of model kits in a number of other ways (than just being the last). it was a “tie-in” with ‘famous monsters of filmland’ magazine. the magazine did a survey or ran a contest or something and this image (and story) was selected as the subject for an aurora monster model kit (an old spanish prisoner left in the cell to rot. the full title of the kit was “the forgotten prisoner of castle mare.”)

So, this brings me to my basic primal question: who designed these packages? the designer/art director of this sort of thing never seems to get recognized or even documented. there are books and countless magazine articles detecting and documenting every single minute detail available on the long history of these model kits. but, nowhere does it mention who actually designed the things. who HIRED james bama? who came up with the long tall box shape? most of all – who did that amazing iconic lettering? the lettering style alone defined the corporate look for monsters for the last 50-60 years. it’s even been adapted into a commercially available computer font for purchase. yet, we don’t really know who created it.

I have a pretty solid guess as to who did these things. the ‘famous monsters’ magazine tie-in clued me. the lettering is identical to the masthead of “monster world” magazine (the short term sister publication of famous monsters) and the clunky layout style is also virtually identical to a Warren Publications (the famous monsters publisher). warren also published “creepy (who’s masthead is another identical piece of type to the model kits) and eerie. also, they published screen thrills, thrilling westerns, blazing combat, and HELP! (to name a few others).

The designer for those publications was a guy named harry chester (whom i’ve written about before). he was a close friend and co-worker with harvey kurtzman, and his studio was the paste-up palace that did the magazine large scale re-design of MAD still used today. chester was also a cohort of james warren (warren publishing) and connected these two guys together to create HELP! and all the amazing careers of the people who worked on that publication as well (which i will detail at a later date).

Chester ran a commercial art/design studio. he took on all comers. he had a constant stream of projects moving through his studio and a lot of clients referred him to their cohorts and friends. I think it was harry chester who designed those monster model kit boxes. my evidence is circumstantial, but, until i find out otherwise, i have to look at the obvious connections of this circle and the obvious style similarities and call it done.

Those aurora monster model kit boxes were extremely important to the development of a great deal of american subculture (and the resulting crossovers into mainstream culture). it would be nice if those “academics” working at the big schools out there would bother to try to research this stuff. it would be actually sorta nice to actually know who designed some of these important items from the history of American design.

I mean, really. do we really need another book about the bauhaus? or paul rand? or dutch graphic design? really?


AC:i take that back about the ‘CREEPY” masthead being identical tot he lettering on these boxes. after i posted this i thought a little harder about it and it’s not the same at all. my bad. please ignore that part. thnx….

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