Friday, December 10, 2021

Design Classics

David J Howe takes a look at a classic design of book covers from one UK publisher in the 1970s.

They say that you should never judge a book by its cover ... and yet we do it all the time. Nevermoreso than when looking at covers which enchanted and moved us back when we were children ourselves. Everyone has their favourites, whether it is the Pan Books of Horror edited by Herbert van Thal, or the Narnia books from C S Lewis, or Susan Cooper’s magnificent The Dark is Rising sequence … but standing head and shoulders above them in my opinion are some series of paperback titles published by the Universal-Tandem Publishing Company in the seventies.

Universal-Tandem was not large, and was run by an entrepreneur by the name of Ralph Stokes who employed approximately nine staff to handle everything, including Sales Manager Brian Miles. The company specialised in publishing mass market paperback fiction and non-fiction. Universal-Tandem’s book covers were almost exclusively handled by a freelance designer, Brian Boyle, who had a knack of creating an eyecatching cover. 

In 1968, Tandem had published three novels which tied into the Sergio Leone Dollars Trilogy of films: novelisations of For a Few Dollars More and The Good The Bad The Ugly were published, along with an original novel, A Dollar to Die For, and each featured photographically based covers. The rights to the original film – A Fistful of Dollars – were not available due to a legal wrangle with Akira Kurosawa over similarities to his film Yojimbo.

Miles recalled that once the legal issues were ironed out, then they were free to get the novelisation sorted. ‘Tandem had already established the first Dollar books from the American editions but there had not been a book for the first film. So I was very friendly at the time with Terry Harknett who wrote for one of the Trade journals, and I arranged a showing of the film in one of the private cinemas in Wardour Street and obtained the script and he wrote the book. The book was just as successful as any of the American editions!’ Harknett published the book under the name Frank Chandler, and went on to have a successful career as a Western novelist writing as George G Gilman with his series of Edge books from New English Library.

In 1972, the novelisation of A Fistful of Dollars was released, together with reissues of the earlier titles, all with new matching covers featuring a simple title with colour illustration and a white backbround and a dollar bill at the top which incorporated each author’s name. A young artist called Christos Achilleos was commissioned to create these 1972-onwards covers, and he continued to complete eight titles in the series.

‘I came straight out of art school in 1970 and went into a job doing maps and illustrations based on my degree exhibition,’ explained Achilleos. ‘I spent six months doing that, and was then made redundant! So I headed into Foyles, the big bookshop, and looked at the book covers and started to ring around the publishers. One of the people I contacted was Brian Boyle. He was mainly a photographer, but worked as a freelance designer, and he gave me a couple of jobs: I remember the first was three covers for a fantasy series about Brak the Barbarian for Tandem. He then asked me to come and work in the studio with him at Great Portland Street, so I did, and I was doing art and book paste up and layout as well as painting covers. He quickly gave me a pay rise and wanted me to stay, and when the “Dollars” commissions came in I grabbed them.’

Achilleos decided to use a specific method for creating the covers for the Dollar Westerns. ‘The image was intended to be printed in three colours, so I first sketched out the element that I wanted in black using an art pen. Then I overlaid a sheet of tracing-paper-like material and created on top – again in black – the areas I wanted to be in brown or sepia. Finally I created another layer with the red sun background on. All these layers then went to the publishers with the instructions as to which colour each layer should be. It was a good way of creating the images! I also painted and designed the dollar bill for those covers.’

There was one exception to this approach, and this was 1974’s first edition of The Million Dollar Bloodhunt which used artwork with a colour background from the outset. Reprints of the books from 1974 retained the dollar bill at the top, but most now included a full colour background to the art. ‘Later on,’ explained Achilleos, ‘when they wanted to reprint the books, I took my original layers, and overlaid a sheet of white paper, carefully cut out to reveal the original black and white image, and then painted the colour element on that. The completed image was then stuck down on art board to create the finished art.’ 

From 1977, further reprints dropped the dollar bill design from the front cover and again mostly included Achilleos’ amended art (Blood for a Dirty Dollar however reused the original cover art rather than using the ‘colour background’ art). These reprints started as Tandem paperbacks but transitioned to Star (as Universal-Tandem had been bought by Howard and Wyndham in 1975 and they were rationalising the imprints). It’s interesting too that the title for the novelisation of the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which had originally been published as The Good The Bad The Ugly, had the missing ‘and’ added to the book title for the 1977 reprint.

By 1972, Universal-Tandem was doing so well that Stokes and Miles, wanted to expand further and to set up a childrens’ imprint, which they called Target. They engaged an editor called Richard Henwood, and Henwood set about finding titles for the new imprint.

‘Undoubtedly,’ said Miles, ‘what guaranteed the success of Target was the Doctor Who acquisition right at its heart. Definitely a publishing scoop of the first order that, retrospectively, I feel very lucky and privileged to have had come my way.’

Henwood picked up paperback rights for three Doctor Who novelisations (Doctor Who andthe Daleks, the Crusaders and the Zarbi) which had been written and first published in hardback (and the first two in paperback) in the sixties, and to provide the covers for the new Target paperbacks, they again contacted Christos Achilleos 

‘One day I got this call from Brian Boyle,’ Achilleos recalled. ‘He said that Universal-Tandem were doing three Doctor Who books, and would I like to do the covers? They wanted to have something like the ones that Frank Bellamy had done for the Radio Times; so they asked if I would do them in that style.’

Achilleos was provided with photographs, and created his covers using a style reminiscent of that of Bellamy, of who Achilleos was a big fan. ‘Generally when you illustrate a book,’ he recalled, ‘you get a copy of it and either it’s a reprint, in which case you can have a look at what the other fellow’s done, or if it’s new, you just read through a manuscript quickly looking for something visually exciting, maybe an actual scene in the book. But the cover is more than just an illustration of a particular bit in the book, it has to be a graphic interpretation of it. The cover of a book is what sells it.

‘As far as designing the Doctor Who covers was concerned, it was left entirely up to me. The art director would tell me which one was next, and I just gave him the finished product, which was how I got away with so much. I used a technique I’d learned at college for scientific illustration called pointillism for those covers, with a rapidograph pen which had just been released. The cover design and style was similar to that I’d used for the Dollar Westerns and other works.’

The Target imprint launched in May 1973, and the first 12 titles in the Doctor Who range represent a clear iconography and style (as well as the first three, these were: Doctor Who andthe Auton Invasion, the Cave Monsters, the Day of the Daleks, the Doomsday Weapon, the Sea-Devils, the Daemons, the Abominable Snowmen, the Curse of Peladon and the Cybermen). They are clean covers with colourful images against a white background, and with a simple block logo for the Doctor Who title. Of particular note is the fact that the lead character – in this case the Doctor – is rendered in black and white – the same approach as on the Dollar Western covers – which gave a neat focal point to the art. There is a magnificent consistency and excitement about the covers and their design, and this conformity was key to their success in crowded bookshops. Kids buying them were drawn to the imagery of monsters and adventure, and the simple design made them stand out on bookshop shelves. 

Also during 1973, as part of the initial ‘buying spree’ of books for the Target imprint, Henwood obtained the paperback rights to another series of novels, this time by a Swedish author called Nils-Olof Franzén. The Agaton Sax novels were an ironic pastiche on detective fiction and featured a titular detective who smoked meerschaum pipes (one for each day of the week) and a hapless Inspector Lispington of Scotland Yard (who seemed modelled after Lestrade from the Sherlock Holmes stories). They were first published in Sweden from 1955 onwards with covers and illustrations by Åke Lewerth, with André Deutsch in the UK publishing hardback editions from 1965 with covers and illustrations by Quentin Blake, a popular cartoonist and illustrator known for his collaboration with writers such as Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen, John Yeoman and, most famously, Roald Dahl. 

Researcher Charlotte Berry discussed the decision to use Blake for the UK hardback books in her 2016 essay ‘Keeping the Spirit of the Text’: ‘British children’s editors gave careful consideration to illustrations in their translated Nordic titles. Following the precedent set elsewhere in commissioning new British illustrations for translated children’s fiction in order to create a strong in-house style, Quentin Blake was selected as the new illustrator of the series as early as May 1964 as Pearce [Philippa Pearce, first Children’s Editor at André Deutsch] felt “his sense of humour exactly matched the humour in the stories”. As Royds [Pamela Royds, second Childrens’ Editor at André Deutsch] comments, “Agaton Sax [did not] establish his reputation in children’s literature but [...] built on it”.’

The covers for the new Target paperback editions were also by Blake, and he was most likely chosen for the covers precisely because of this intimate relationship forged with the subject matter, something that Achilleos had also achieved with the Doctor Who titles.

Berry notes in her essay:  ‘Blake also became involved in the publicity for Agaton Sax and the League of Silent Exploders (1974), attending the Deutsch stand and doing drawings on the spot at Heffers’ Bookshop in Cambridge in autumn 1973 where the paperback Target editions “sold like hot cakes” according to Royds.’

The first four Target paperback Agaton Sax titles (Agaton Sax andthe Diamond Thieves, the Scotland Yard Mystery, the Bank Robbers (renamed from Agaton Sax and the Max Brothers) and the Criminal Doubles) went on sale in November 1973, and, it seems, were instantly as popular as the Doctor Who titles. These were followed up in May 1975 with the London Computer Plot and the Colossus of Rhodes, with a final title, Agaton Sax and the League of Silent Exploders following in August 1976. 

‘The Agaton Sax books were not a great success,’ said Miles, ‘but the curtailment of further publication of that series may have had something to do with the destruction of Universal-Tandem by the takeover by Howard and Wyndham.’ Indeed there were three Agaton Sax titles which never received a Target paperback edition.

A further range of novels, again with the covers and logo painted and designed by Achilleos, was the K’Ing Kung-Fu series by the pseudonymous Marshall Macao. Published by Universal-Tandem from 1974 onwards, the books featured a series logo, with the book title and colour artwork presented against a white background. As Achilleos said, ‘It was a design structure that I was pleased with, and so I used it a lot on several different titles and ranges of books.’ The K’Ing Kung-Fu range ran to four titles in the UK, and Achilleos used a similar cover design on another title from Tandem: Kung Fu Master Richard Dragon: Dragon’s Fists by ‘Jim Dennis’ (Dennis O’Neil and Jim Berry), later to be developed by O’Neil into a comic book series for DC Comics.

What is distinctive about all these diverse ranges of books is the way that the covers are simple and uncluttered, and yet each has a precise series feel to them and draw you in: you want to collect all the books in the range, and the covers all sell the respective series magnificently. Even those initial Dollar Western covers, with the dollar design at the top, have a simplicity which just feels right. 

In many ways these covers from Universal-Tandem, combined with the art and design from Christos Achilleos and Quentin Blake, form perfect paperback covers: memorable, effective and collectable. And all are true design classics.

With thanks to Brian Miles, Christos Achilleos, Russell Cook, Gary Russell, Matt Evenden, Mark Wayne Barrett, Peter Mark May, Stephen Laws, Fritz Maitland, Tim Keable.


Howe, D. (2009) The Target Book (Telos Publishing, England)

Berry, C. (2016). Keeping ‘the Spirit of the Text’: A Publishing and Translation History Case Study of Nils-Olof Franzén’s Detective Series Agaton Sax. Barnboken – Journal of Children’s Literature Research, 39.

Holland, S.

Achilleos, C.

Written in May 2020.

Remembering Christos Achilleos

David J Howe with Chris Achilleos and Peter Capaldi at the Cartoon Museum in London, 2016

I grew up with Chris Achilleos! One of the earliest items of Doctor Who merchandise that I bought with my own money was a copy of the Target novelisation of The Curse of Peladon. It was also the first Target book that I owned ... and that cover!  From the elegant black block logo, to the painting of the Doctor, an Ice Warrior, Alpha Centauri and Aggedor, it drew me and entranced me.

I found other books with art by the same guy ... all of them perfect recreations of those television adventures. And closer inspection gave the artist a name. Chris Achilleos.

The Curse of Peladon cover art
As time passed – I bought The Curse of Peladon in 1974 – I got more of those iconic Target books. And in 1977 I started my own fanzine – initially called The Surbiton Doctor Who Appreciation Society Magazine but which morphed quickly in to the much easier to digest Oracle – and printed Target news therein, gleaned from catalogues and press releases and, of course, the Target Book Club (Sandy Lessiter – whatever happened to him/her?).

When time came for the final edition of Oracle, published at the end of 1981, I wanted to fill it with special things ... and none more special than an interview with the legendary Chris Achilleos. But how to find him?

It was in the London telephone book of all places (the same way I found the phone number for Terrance Dicks!). Luckily there weren’t many Achilleoses in the phone book – in fact I think there was only one – and I found myself speaking to Chris.

We arranged to meet, and I spent a happy afternoon (2 May 1981 in fact) at his house in North London, looking at artwork originals and having my mind blown at the size, the colours, the detail – much of which was lost in the translation to a small paperback reproduction.

Chris in his studio, 1981
We talked and the resultant interview went into that final edition of Oracle along with the photographs I took of some of his amazing originals. There was no digital scanning here ... it was all old-school!

I stayed in contact with Chris, and, as he was willing to part with them, managed to buy some of the Doctor Who original artworks, some of which I still have to this day.

By 1983 I was running the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s Reference Department, and had the idea to do a special ‘Making of’ magazine about the show’s 20th Anniversary story, ‘The Five Doctors’. And who did I want to do the cover. Yes, of course it was Chris.

So we met and discussed and planned. I sorted out photographs, and art edited the cover (I wanted to do it as a poster as well as using it on the magazine, and so needed to foil stamp the title on the cover (so it wasn’t on the poster)) ... things like that were tricky and fiddly back then!

The Making of The Five Doctors artwork
Chris duly delivered the art and it was massive! Easily three times bigger than any of his other Doctor Who paintings, but we managed to get it photographed to provide the transparency for the printers to create the printing plates from.

Time went on, and Chris released books of his magnificent art ... Amazons and fantasy and Doctor Who and Star Trek and everything in between ... he was so prolific!

We talked about the business, the industry, artwork and ideas ... He would often call me for advice on various elements, or for help with reference materials – Chris was not native of the UK, and as he readily admitted, was not good with certain aspects of the business, and so I helped as and where I could.

King Kung Fu cover
I recently penned an article about some of his non-Doctor Who cover work, extolling the genius of his layout and design training and skills, which he applied to Kung Fu and Fistful of Dollars book ranges, as well as the Doctor Who titles ... and he was gracious enough to add in background details and to explain finer points where I had gone astray. You can read it here: Design Classics

The last time we spoke, he called to ask my advice on a new Doctor Who Calendar he wanted to do: what should he call it? Ideas for how to present it ... Of course we had a natter and a laugh as always ... 

And now he is no longer with us. 

His art and genius will live on in those covers, ideas and concepts. His work has always been the benchmark for excellence and imagination, and in the eyes of his fans, he was unmatched.

I truly hope that his more recent forays into the world of conventions: meeting the fans, setting up and selling prints and posters and books; all helped him to see how loved he was, and how influential his art was, not just to those who bought the books as a result of seeing it gracing the cover, but to artists who followed in his wake: inspired to try and create work which would move people, which would sum up a story or a concept, and which would push at the boundaries of what commercial art and illustration was capable of.

I’m going to miss Chris. I can still hear his distinctively accented voice telling me about how he created his covers ...

RIP Christos Achilleos. 26 September 1947 – 6 December 2001.