On SF/F Art: A Few Words on a Thousand Pictures

There is the old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. This may be true, but in science fiction and fantasy, we can certainly identify a book–sometimes even a story– by its cover art. Our genre has been blessed with artists and artwork that have given vision to writers’ words since its inception. Many of the extraordinary paintings found on science fiction covers have become emblematic of the work itself. In college, I can recall spending my hard-earned money on the newly-released coffee table book, The Art of Michael Whelan and then spending hours leafing through the pages. I cannot read Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation stories without Whelan’s image of Hari Seldon in my mind. When I think of Mars of the future, it is Whelan’s interpretation of Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles that I see.

This was all brought home to me back in May when I found myself at the Nebula Awards banquet seated at a table with, among others, Michael Whelan and his wife. While my wife and his chatted through most of the meal, I sat mostly silent, rather in awe of the man who created so many of these memorable images. On some level, it made me realize just how important art is to our vision of the stories we know and love.


The names and styles change with time, but they don’t lose their power. Fans familiar with the dawn of the Golden Age when Astounding Science Fiction was the best game in town will be familiar with names like Rogers and Schneeman and Wesso and Gladney and Finlay.

Graves Gladney painted the cover for the July 1939 Astounding which contained A. E. van Vogt‘s first story, “Black Destroyer.” That issue and cover ushered in the Golden Age of science fiction. But other covers were equally striking. Huber Rogers was a fan favorite, producing striking covers like the one for the October 1939 Astounding‘s “Gray Lensman”; or the April 1940 cover for L. Ron Hubbard‘s “Final Blackout”; or one of my favorites, the cover for the September 1941 Astounding protraying the climactic scene of Isaac Asimov‘s “Nightfall”. The letter columns of these issues discussed the art and artists as much as the stories they represented.

Over time, the names change but the images produces remain a vital part of the genre. Beginning in the 1950s, science fiction books began to enter the market and artists began producing covers not just for the magazines but for the book publishers as well, giving life to famous characters and scenes from books we all know so well. Today some of those images are inseparable from the books the represent.

Magazine covers, however, are still an important part of the genre, even for magazines that are entirely electronic. Fortunately for us, artwork translates as easily from the easel to the screen as words and in addition to the covers we get for magazines like Analog, Asimov‘s and F&SF, we also get some gorgeous artwork on newer magazines like Lightspeed, Clarkeworld and InterGalactic Medicine Show.

Some of my favorite science fiction artwork appeared in the pages of Science Fiction Age, which ran from 1992-2000. Science Fiction Age was a “slick” magazine with gorgeous artwork not only on the cover but throughout the issue, accompanying each story. Not only that, but Science Fiction Age went a step further. In each issue, a major writer in the genre was commissioned to write an essay about a major artist in the genre. The essay was illustrated with artwork from that artist. It was over the course of those 8 years that I really got to know and admire the skill and artistry of folks like Jim Burns, Vincent Di Fate, Steve Youll, Wayne Barlow, Michael Whelan, Steve Hickman, Bob Eggleton, and many others.

These days, despite the high quality of artwork that captures the covers of our books and magazines, we don’t learn as much about the artists and their creations. For such an important part of the genre, you would think one of the magazines out there would take this up, as Science Fiction Age did. Instead of just a cover and a credit, it would be nice to see a monthly feature that highlights the talented artists of our genre. Lightspeed and Fantasy magazines have an “artist spotlight.” It would be nice to see some of the other magazines do something similar.

5 thoughts on “On SF/F Art: A Few Words on a Thousand Pictures”

  1. Good piece, and I totally agree on Michael Whelan, one of the most gifted artists the field has ever known.  There are so many good ones that the mind boggles just trying to think of them all.  If I may offer some others I don’t want overlooked:

    Frank R. Paul — While Glandney’s “Black Destroyer” is a seminal, iconic work, lest we forget the fantastic aircraft, spaceships, giant robots, bizarre aliens and flying cities that Paul created as the SF field began to coalesce around Hugo Gernsback & contemporaries in the 1920s. Great stuff.

    John Schoenherr — I cannot imagine the sands of Arrakis without visualizing Schoenherr’s wonderful work on the original Analog Magazine covers and subsequent paperbacks.

    Paul Lehr — Fabulously bizarre, abstract and neon colorful covers for countless paperback covers in the 1960s.

    Ed Emshwiller — I cannot read anything by Philip K. Dick without visualizing the fabulously inventive “Emsh” covers from those Ace Doubles in from the 1950s and 60s.

    John Berkey — Wonderfully hard-edged, often-exploding spaceships from 1960s covers.

    Frank Kelly Freas — There is no way I can describe Freas’ extravagant use of color, wonderfully expressive characters and the way he brought so many shades of color to deepspace in the 1960s and 70s.  And one helluva nice guy.

    So many, many others … but gotta run.

  2. You’re right, Jamie. You would think one of the magazines would take that up, or maybe, oh, I don’t know, a website or something, you know, one that focused on science fiction and fantasy.

     

  3. I’m surprised you don’t mention Interzone in your list of magazines. They have fabulous colour art from a range of artists illustrating each story in every issue and at the end of each year an interview with the artist who produced the six covers for that year. 

  4. Great list, Mark. I can’t believe I left off Emsh and Freas!

    Scarab, I know this is a terrible excuse, but–I’ve never read Interzone. No judgment on the magazine, which I know to be a good one. But I can barely read half of the stories in the half dozen magazines that I DO subscribe to. I’m glad you mentioned them, though and it is good to hear that they are highlighting their artists as well.

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