November 7, 2014

An interview with Johnny Acurso, who painted a beautiful and terrifying portrait of a shirtless and chiseled Jeff Bezos


On Tuesday, The Seattle Weekly published an excellent cover story by Nina Shapiro about the “perks, pitfalls, and paradoxes” of Amazon publishing. It’s a balanced, excellent piece about a tentacle of Amazon’s business that’s widely misunderstood and widely misrepresented. If you haven’t read it, you should.

The piece itself has gotten the accolades it deserves, but the accompanying cover art stole the show. The Seattle Weekly‘s cover this week features a painting of a shirtless, totally ripped Jeff Bezos that is both beautiful and terrible, like one of Rilke’s angels.B1spUCKCQAEuVKV

Illustrator Johnny Acurso, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the greatest newspaper cover in the history of journalism. Acurso is a freelance illustrator working in Portland. You can check out his work here and follow him on Twitter @JohnnyAcurso.

How did the idea for the cover come about? How did it develop?

The romance novel idea came from Seattle Weekly’s Art Director, Samantha Wagner, so the Sexy Bezos theme was nailed down from the start. After we discussed the type of mood she wanted and some basic composition notes, I jumped into research mode. During my travels across the interwebs I stumbled on a cover for Flowers from the Storm that seemed particularly iconic of the romance novel style, so we basically decided to spoof it with Bezos. There’s just something about that beckoning hand that says “sexy but terrifying”.

What was most challenging about painting a sexy, shirtless Jeff Bezos holding a Kindle? Was it fun?

Likenesses can always be difficult, particularly when you are combining them with elements that aren’t actually part of the subject’s normal physique. Plus, I think this may have been the first time I’ve been asked to paint abs, so there’s that. Still, I really enjoy doing portraits, especially when I get to go a little nuts, and painting something so ridiculous relieved a lot of the normal tension. Sometimes painting can be a painful process, but this one was pretty much pure joy. We even came up with some Sexy Bezos theme songs in the studio. Good times.

Theme songs? 

Oh you know, stuff like versions of “Shaft” but with Bezos stuck in. (“He’s a complicated man, but no one understands him but his Kindle. Talk’n bout Bezos.”)

Did Amazon provide you with a Jeff Bezos sitting, or did you have to make do with a life-size anatomically correct Jeff Bezos doll?

I think Amazon actually has an army of Sexy Bezos they send out to woo potential authors, so they just sent me one of those. But seriously, it was a lot of photo mashing, and some very awkward reference shots of myself in front of a fan. If only those were my actual abs…

Are there any hidden meanings in the cover? What does the rose mean? Do the clouds represent THE cloud?

We really wanted drive home how hard Amazon Publishing is trying to win over authors, while simultaneously embroiled in controversy that threatens their reputation with those same authors. Some of the initial roughs had very stormy skies with a more monolithic, imposing representation of the Amazon headquarters looming behind Bezos. We decided to tone it down a bit, but the clouds definitely represent the coming storm.

Jeff Bezos isn’t seen as a sex symbol. Should he be?

Absolutely. Wealth, power and outrageous abs? Some people just have it all.

Do you have any strong feelings about Amazon? Or Amazon and publishing? If so, did they factor into your cover?

Generally speaking, I try to keep my own politics out of my professional work. My job as an illustrator is to convey the client’s idea and if you let your own feelings get in the way, it becomes about you. Politics can affect the type of jobs you take, but they should never affect the type of work you produce once you’ve already agreed to do the job. That isn’t to say you can’t inject your own style, but it should all be in service of the client’s idea. That’s the real difference between gallery work and illustration. Gallery work is your message; illustration is the client’s.

Have you painted other CEOs? What about other heroic figures? Is it insane that your painting of Bezos reminds me of Putin?

No other CEOs yet (but if there are any out there who want a sexy portrait of themselves, give me a call) but I love heroic/epic illustrations, particularly old propaganda posters. Putin is basically a walking Soviet propaganda poster, so it doesn’t surprise me that some of that seeped in. Plus it appears they share a barber, personal trainer, and the need for supreme control over their domain. I see the similarities.

What’s the response been like to the cover itself?

Somewhere between hilarity and horror, which I think means I did my job well?

What’s your favorite picture of Jeff Bezos?

This one. It really says “Your friend’s dad who also happens to teach junior high algebra” to me. It’s comforting.




Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.