Science Fiction And Fantasy Artists Of The Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary by Jane Frank (book review)
Oddly, there are very few really expensive first-hand books about Science Fiction. I’ve resisted ‘Keep Watching The Skies’, even if both volumes are on McFarland/Eurospan’s list although the length of time reading is a consideration in case my helpful Eurospan publicist is thinking why I haven’t asked about them yet. The same also applies to Robert Weinberg’s book, ‘A Biographical Dictionary Of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists’ which I’m pretty sure I read chucks of in my local library’s reference section back in the 1990s and is referenced in this book. However, as our audience covers a wide range of buying power, it does tend to seem prudent to include the odd book that would consider either buying or saving up to get. If you’re into Science Fiction art and need a decent reference book, then there aren’t many to choose from.
So, here we have Jane Frank’s ‘Science Fiction And Fantasy Artists Of The Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary’ and it is a superb reference book. As she and her husband, Howard, have an enormous original SF and fantasy art collection, it seems appropriate for her to have created this book. Interestingly, she uses Weinberg’s article from his book covering the artists as an introduction and incidentally the history of the pulps to slicks to books to the 1970s and then herself to the present to give a history putting the significant artists from the USA and UK in context.
Please bear in mind that it was released in 2009 and I thought it prudent to turn the basic info into a database to check up on statistical info. 392 artists are covered, of which 30 are women with only the late Jeff Jones on both sides of the fence. Nationality wise, based on where they were born although some moved to the USA: 296 Americans, 1 Argentian, 74 British, 4 Canadians, 1 Dutch, 1 Hispanic, 1 Hungarian, I Italian, 1 Japanese, 2 New Zealanders, 1 Peruvian (hello Boris), 1 Polish, 1 Russian, 5 Spanish and 3 Swiss. That’s a lot of coverage. I knew a few of them have died since this book was released and was staggered by the number being 28 when I compiled a database for my own reference. On the plus side, very few SF illustrators die young, most living past their 80s and there must be more superseding them which does suggest a need for a book such as this for the 21st century.
There is a lot to learn here and probably answers questions that you always wanted to know. I’ll give a few examples. Weinberg cites French artists as the start of SF art because of Jules Verne, although it’s a shame that they don’t go back to the 19th century as there couldn’t have been many of them. Then, of course, along came HG Wells, so the next is the UK, and again, 19th century. That should dispel the thought that SF art started in the USA. Interestingly, the questionable quality of the early art can be put down to how little it paid so didn’t attract any of the ‘quality’ artists who might not have allowed some of the names we know today to break into the business. If anything, reading the stopping and starting of the SF genre seems to indicate that it survived the trends by the geek attitude to seek it out, often attracted by the art with the likes of Frazetta and Kelly Freas getting key attention. All helped along by the book publishers who discovered attractive SF art on the cover sold books. This also enabled the rise in their fees but not the whereabouts the original art went. From other book reviews I’ve done, I’ve pointed out that auction prices of these have only really soared in recent decades propelled along more by films and other sources than books, oddly enough, although there are a lot of genre artbooks out there now. You rarely see that happening for painters of other genre books so there is some karma going on.
I always supposed the reason for an SF artist to place their signature so far into the painting as an act of vanity but it appears that this is done to prevent it being chopped out in a publisher cropping exercise.
The nitty-gritty of this book is the biography, set in twin columns a page, there’s a lot of material and took me over two weeks to read and digest. You get unfettered biographies, no set length just determined by their genre output, but of particular interest is the twin bibliographies that looks at any artbooks they’ve been in and where their art has appeared, so if you’re tracking anything down this becomes a big asset and I was making notes along the way to see what was available and will slip the odd review in over the next few months of some older books I’d missed and picked up. Keep a notepad handy as you read because I suspect there will be many books you’ll want to add to your collection. You can’t rely on Internet search engines to find them without the names and titles.
What was a surprise was seeing Dan Atkins in there. I knew him from his comicbook work but hadn’t realised his SF art connection. The same applies to Murphy Anderson. I should say not many comicbook artists are in here but those who are straddle the line, as do those who do space art, but those that are presented the biggest surprises. I forgot all about Otto Binder’s elder brother, Jack, had drawn SF material. Alex Schomburg also did many covers for Timely/Marvel Comics during the 1950s. From the UK, Ron Turner gets coverage, showing he did more than ‘The Daleks’ comicstrip in ‘TV21’. Of course, the likes of Berni Wrightson, Jim Steranko, Wallace Wood and Wendy Pini are also included.
Something that I missed or overlooked was Frank Hampson’s wife, Dorothy, who came up with the name ‘The Eagle’ for the 1950s comic, based on a church stone lectern. Probably better than called ‘The Gargoyle’.
Although I haven’t seen much of Edmund Emshwiller’s work. It’s about time someone re-released some of his work in affordable books. I didn’t know about his switch to animation and early computer animation shorts at that. Even more remarkable, many of them are available on YouTube. I had a look at his first, ‘Sunstone’ (1979) which was very abstract and surreal. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ed+Emshwiller
A couple things I learnt about names if Frank Kelly Freas’ surname is pronounced ‘freeze’ and Jack Gaughan’s is pronounced ‘gawn’. Both of which I’ve been getting wrong for years.
I was a bit puzzled why the brothers Hildebrandt had nearly identical long entries when it would have made sense to have combined them and then split for their individual work. Unlike the Yull brothers, who divided their careers early, this could have been handled better.
Just in case you think I don’t read the entire book of this nature, Jane Frank only made one mistake that I spotted and that was thinking Ray Bradbury wrote ‘Childhood’s End’ in the Richard Powers entry.
That was until I came across Harry Rountree and whose children were born (1907 and 1910) before he was born (26 January 1978) and then realised looking at his own dates, that he also died (26 September 1950) before he was born. Do we have a time traveller in our midst? I little investigation on the Net and Rountree was born in 1878 and everything falls into place. I don’t normally number crunch but it caught my editor’s eye and shows how much I was paying attention while reading just in case any of you think I only glance at these heavy books. I only did that with the credits for where each author’s material went other than the books solely about their work.
It was nice to put a name to the artist, David Pelham, who painted the surreal covers for a lot of 1970s British book covers for Penguin.
I didn’t know SF author Keith Roberts (him of ‘Pavane’, amongst others) was also an SF artist.
Although Jim Steranko wrote and drew ‘Nick Fury, Agent Of SHIELD’, I’m sure Arnold Drake might have a say as to who wrote The X-Men # 49-51.
I didn’t realise that Boris Vallejo is a violin player or the fact that he never submits any of his work for awards. Considering Julie Bell, his wife, isn’t in such lists, the same must apply to her. At the back of the book there is a list of the winners of many of such awards and it isn’t hard to figure out how the voters think or how some continually come up which neglects other artists in the field.
One flaw that could have been easily remedied is when artists are known by pen-names, there should have been reference to them under the respective letters or even in an appendix for quick reference. After all, if you didn’t know Fangorn was Chris Baker you wouldn’t know where to look. There are a couple that are noted but not that fully covered. Jane Frank frequently describes how the various artists sign their works that it really would have paid to have had a physical insert guide or appendix for quick reference.
Something else that comes out of this book is how many of these artbooks have become very expensive and for others on the second hand market, for a song. With so many of the artists no longer with us, I really hope some publisher uses this book as a guide to getting some reprints made, especially for the older artists so their work can live on. I did wonder before reading why there wasn’t a picture section, even if it was only for selective artists, but put that down to a cost consideration. Looking at some of the sample paintings through goggle are truly spell-binding.
Something that comes out from many entries is if you want to some decent sample book, pick up Vincent De Fate’s ‘Infinite Worlds’ (2001), Frank and Jane Howard’s book ‘The Frank Collection: A Showcase Of The World’s Finest Fantastic Art’ (1997) and, although harder to find, ‘Science Fiction Art: The Fantasies Of SF’(1975) by Brian Aldiss should give you a decent selection and these three books come up the most across the biographies. If you get addicted, I’m sure you’ll work out your own preferences and pursue the artbooks you really want to own.
I think you’ll realise by now, I’ve absorbed a lot more information from this book than I’ve written here and any points made are things that I’ve learnt from. Please don’t think of the errors I’ve pointed out was the sole task of this review. If anything, they are really out-numbered by how accurate the rest of the book is and how my own knowledge kicked in. This is a book that makes you pay attention. If it didn’t, then there would be little point reading it. I suspect many of you who buy it will use the book purely for reference but it does make sense to at least read it all the way through at least once.
Although I’m not sure about an updated version should be released, there should certainly be one covering the new artists coming up doing current SF and fantasy covers to keep people up-to-date and give some much needed connection of names to art. In the meantime, I put this book as required reading.
(pub: McFarland, 2009. 525 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £80.95 (UK), $75.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-78647-727-2)