Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Paperback Art of George Ziel

This week the talented and versatile Polish-born paperback artist George Ziel would have been 100 years old.  From the 1950s until his death in 1982, he drew many uncredited covers for romance, Gothic, and mystery paperbacks for the major paperback publishers including Avon, Dell, Fawcett Crest, Harcourt, Paperback Library, and Pyramid.

Maigret And The Madwoman cover, Curtis Books, 1973.

Ziel, before his career as an American paperback artist, was known as Jerzy Zielezinski. His life forever changed in 1939, when after his father was murdered by the Nazis, Ziel was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto.  He was later sent to the Dachau concentration camp.  Since pencils and paper were banned, he used charcoal and scrap paper pieces to draw.

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The Gifts Of Love cover, Harcourt Brace, 1960.

Several years after surviving the Holocaust, Zielezinski moved to New York and worked in a restaurant before breaking into the American commercial art industry.  To the paperback industry art editors, he became known as George Ziel.  To paperback readers, he was an unknown artist, since his signature was cropped off of the covers.

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The Rose And The Yew Tree cover, Dell, 1982

The paperback industry, and the art opportunities that came with it, began in the late 1930s after Penguin Books successfully launched in England.  Despite this success, American publishers were skeptical, until Pocket Books proved these doubts wrong  in 1939 by selling out a 100,000 print run in a week.  At this time during the Great Depression, hardback books sold at $2.75, while Pocket sold its paperbacks for 25¢.  Pocket hired artists to create colorful covers to catch potential readers’ attention.

World War II put a damper on the growth of the industry, due to paper restrictions.  When the war ended, paper rationing ceased, allowing the paperback industry to grow.  Meanwhile, the popular magazines who printed serialized fiction, such as Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post, were losing subscribers and advertisers, as interests and money shifted to the booming television industry.  Eventually, many of these magazines folded, leaving fiction readers to turn to paperbacks, which started to publish original novels in addition to just reprints of “classics” or popular hardback titles.

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The Poker Club cover, Condor Books, 1978

Ziel entered this industry in the 1950s, using his life experience to create unique covers with gothic and macabre themes.  He liked to draw in muted colors, and even created his own special color of black paint to give hair a blue-black sheen.  Ziel was known for being meticulous and as a result, produced less covers per month than other artists.

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Tower Abbey cover, Fawcett Crest, 1979

His characters often portrayed deep and hidden emotions that could not be found in the work of other paperback artists of the time.  Ziel, who had learned some English, never felt comfortable enough with the language to read the books he was assigned to illustrate.  His wife, a nurse at a Manhattan hospital, would read them for him and give him a summary of what the book was about.

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The Seance cover, Dell, 1981

After the 1960s, the gothic genre eventually died out, but the romance genre took off.  Ziel, an ever versatile artist, was easily able transition from macabre gothic scenes into American romance novels.

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Crown Of Passion cover, Avon Books, 1980

Art directors never forgot his ability to draw the macabre.  He drew 31 covers for reprints of  mystery writer Ngago Marsh’s novels in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Artists In Crime cover, Jove Books, 1980.

The covers have the same style with a collage of characters or artifacts “supposedly” relevant to the mystery.  In all these covers, there is a sense of fear, foreboding, and impending doom.

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Died In The Wool cover, 1981, Jove Books.

By the 1980s, cover space for illustration was shrinking, as more attention was given to the name of the book and the artist.  Despite the limited space, his uncredited covers for this mystery series are artistically memorable, even if the novels they illustrate, are not quite as memorable.

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Way Of The Passion cover, Avon Books, 1981.


The paperback images are from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive.

Information for this blog came from:

Munroe, Lynn. George Ziel. Lynn Munroe Books.com, n.d.

Reed, Walt. The Illustrator In America 1860-2000. Society of Illustrators, 2001.

Shaffer, Andrew. How Paperbacks Transformed The Way Americans Read.  Mental Floss, August 14, 2012.




About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.