Earl Norem, A Master of 80’s Toy Art
by Joshua LH Burnett
A mighty barbarian swings his sword at a giant serpent while a scantily-clad princess watches in horror. A gun-toting, square-jawed American bursts in on a Nazi officer surrounded by ill-gotten gold and barely-dressed women. A different barbarian warrior clashes with a skull-faced sorcerer at the gates of a skull-faced castle. A group of evil robots fights a brightly-colored group of heroic robots in the depths of space. All these are examples of the thrilling art of Earl Norem.
Over the 50-year span of his career, Earl Norem painted covers for men’s adventure magazines, comic books, story books, and promotional toy art, including properties such as Conan, He-Man, GI Joe, and Transformers. His vibrant, energetic compositions stand out as more than just commercial packing, but as stunning pieces of pop art.
Earl H. Norem was born in Brooklyn, NY on April 17, 1923. With the onset of World War II, Norem joined the army and became part of the 10th Mountain Division. He became a squad leader and staff sergeant by the age of 20. Norem saw action in the Apennine Mountains in Italy. He ended his military career after becoming wounded in the Po Valley. Upon his return to the United States, Norem entered a career in commercial illustration.
Norem first gained recognition for his painted covers of men’s adventure magazines, especially those from Magazine Management Company. This publishing company was founded by Martin Goodman (no relation) who would later found the company that would become Marvel Comics. These magazines, boasting titles such as Man’s World, Man’s Life, True Men, or simply Men, featured pin-ups, and lurid adventure tales aimed especially at veterans now settling back into post-war American life. In this period, Norem’s acrylic cover paintings featured muddied colors and earthy textures that complemented the gritty contents of the magazines. The paintings would typically feature women in various states of distress and undress menaced by enemy soldiers, criminals, or wild animals, waiting to be rescued by a handsome male protagonist.
In addition to men’s magazines, Goodman also founded Timely Comics, the company that would eventually become Marvel Comics. As the comics side of his business grew, Goodman would recruit writers and artists from his magazines. In the 1970s, Norem found a new audience with his thrilling covers for Marvel’s black-and-white magazine format comics, especially Savage Sword of Conan and related titles. Here his compositions shared many of the same themes as his men’s magazines posters: buxom women, savage opponents, and a buff hero, only wielding a sword instead of a gun this time.
While working for Marvel, Norem created covers for a wide variety of titles and genres, from fantasy, to horror, to superheroes. His art graced the covers of Tales of the Zombie, Planet of the Apes, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and more. It is perhaps his work with superhero titles that motivated him to move away from muted colors, to the brighter – almost lurid – hues that would become common in his later projects.
While he continued to keep one foot in comic magazines, Earl Norem found his biggest audience in the 1980s when he began to create promotional and merchandising art for several popular toy lines. Any child of Generation X will recognize his energetic art on various posters, books, and magazines for G.I. Joe, Transformers, and especially Masters of the Universe. Here his more subtle colors were often accented by bold splashes of primary colors, silver-whites, and magenta, demonstrating the more fantastic worlds aimed at younger eyes.
Norem especially enjoyed making paintings for the Masters of the Universe magazine. With the men’s adventure magazines finally dying as a market, Norem needed another account to take its place. With his Masters paintings, he was paid twice – once for the cover, and again for the larger poster of the same image inside. According to Norem, “It was one of the best accounts I ever had.”
Earl Norem continued to work until his retirement in 2005. In addition to toys, comics, and adventure magazines, he created cover and interior art for properties as wide and varied as Field & Stream, Reader’s Digest, Mars Attacks, and the New York Yankees. He suffered from arthritis, and after his retirement, he mostly only painted for his grandchildren or his own amusement. He died on June 19, 2015 at the age of 92. By all accounts, Norem was a humble man, who enjoyed his work, but still considered it a simple commercial art job. It wasn’t until late in his life that he became aware of his own popularity.
From The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Dark Horse Books, 2015):
“Well, all I know is that when I was doing the artwork, it was a job and it was fun to do. I like He-Man and the superhero stuff. It kept me young, right up into my seventies, doing that stuff. I just appreciate the fact that I have so many fans that I did not know I had.”
Earl Norem’s Appendix-N-style influence on modern science fiction and fantasy is obvious. Men’s adventure magazines share DNA with the pulps that gave the world Conan, the Shadow, and John Carter. With the exception of Frazetta, his Conan the Barbarian is perhaps the most iconic image of the famous hero. An entire generation of writers, artists, and game designers grew up surrounded by Masters of the Universe, its peers, and its imitators. Norem’s spirit is felt wherever a proud warrior takes a sword to a robot while their companion fires a raygun at a wizard.
For more on classic fantasy and science fiction art and artists be sure to check out The Artists of Appendix N