"For the last 40 years," he said, "the magazine community has never understood the overwhelming message of my covers: that the editorial content and imagery of a great magazine belong to the passionate writer and iconoclastic graphic designer and heroic editor-and not to outraged advertisers or quivering sales departments or the celebrity flavor of the month whose butt you're kissing, or to your readers, and certainly not to cranky letter writers."
A day after the Magazine Publishers of America picked three of his covers for its top 40 of the last 40 years, Mr. Lois took the audience through some of his provocative work. When editor Harold Hayes asked for a Christmas cover, Mr. Lois gave him one using boxer Sonny Liston. "In the days of rising racial tensions and the Black Revolution," he said, "I decided to depict America's first black Santa: Sonny Liston, the meanest [expletive] in the world, the last person anybody would want coming down their chimney on Christmas Eve. Respirators were rushed to Esquire's ad offices."
Mr. Hayes protected his art director through the storm that followed and many others, but editors don't support that kind of work today, Mr. Lois said. He threw a challenge out to today's editorial teams to step up and prove what he knows to be true: "Great magazine covers with big, edgy ideas that make powerful statements about America's politics and culture-through wit, irony and even ambiguity-can force-feed an irresistible taste of a magazine's content and, issue after issue, create a titanic stir in the American psyche."
The Lois covers were wonderful breakthroughs that started people talking, said Kent Brownridge, senior VP-general manager at Wenner Media. "But that was then and this is now," he added. "The culture was completely different then. George doesn't have a bigger set of cojones than we do now."