A Work of Art, If Not a Masterpiece
Jane Frank. Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 534 pp. $135 hc.
Officially, only the first 68 pages of Jane Frank’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary are devoted to a two-part “Historical Overview” (written by Robert Weinberg and Frank) of twentieth-century science fiction and fantasy art); but unofficially, any comprehensive reference book of this sort, even if primarily consisting of biographical entries, functions as a survey and a history of its field. And, as someone who enjoys reading a reference book in its entirety, I approached Frank’s book interested in discerning the larger story of science fiction and fantasy art that the various pieces of its mosaic would be collectively relating.
Three conclusions about this burgeoning genre stand out. First, critics of science fiction and fantasy literature are generally disinclined to discuss the role that money and the marketplace may have played in the creation of a novel or story, preferring to implicitly posit that writers are heeding their artistic muses and nothing else. If financial considerations enter into their thinking at all, scholars will characterize the marketplace as a purely evil force unfortunately leading some authors away from producing their best work in order to write spurious trash in pursuit of filthy lucre—ignoring inconvenient truths such as the fact that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer (1984) solely because editor Terry Carr commissioned him to do it. I co-edited an anthology of essays, Science Fiction and Market Realities (1996, with George Slusser and Eric Rabkin), designed in part to open a more nuanced discussion of the interactions between the genre and its marketplace, but to no apparent effect. This problem clearly does not exist in examinations of science fiction and fantasy art, however; Frank has no qualms about identifying her subject as a form of “commercial art,” and both the overviews and the entries repeatedly explain how monetary concerns drove artists to create certain kinds of works in response to certain demands of the marketplace at certain times. Of course artists, like writers, are also striving to express themselves in their own individual ways, but it is refreshing to observe a calm acceptance of the fact that, yes, the need to earn a living is one of the factors that may influence creative people’s decisions.
Second, it is now commonplace to note that science fiction and fantasy art, once an illustrative adjunct to the literature, has evolved into a thoroughly independent force that moves in its own directions and in several arenas outside of book and magazine covers and interior illustrations. I might go further to argue that fantastic art has often anticipated, or driven, changes in fantastic literature. For example, as I noticed while co-editing another anthology of essays, Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art (2002, with George Slusser and Kathleen Church Plummer), the concern for absolute scientific accuracy in space art seen in the works of Chesley Bonestell and a few contemporaries was visible before a similar concern for absolute scientific accuracy emerged in the works eventually identified as hard science fiction; if the cover painting is indeed the most important factor in a book’s total sales, a novel’s relationship to its projected artwork may be subtly influencing writers in the sorts of stories they produce; and as anyone who visited a science fiction convention art room in the 1980s can attest, fantasy art was dominating science fiction art well before fantasy literature dominated science fiction literature. As the art once followed the lead of the stories, in other words, it may well be that the stories are now following the lead of the art.
Which leads to a final point that Frank’s volume seems to be conveying: whereas a widespread sense of impending doom regarding the future of science fiction and fantasy literature is now well into its second decade, there seem to be no comparable fears regarding the future of science fiction and fantasy art. True, artists have dealt with the vicissitudes of economic downturns like everybody else, but their field as a whole seems to be on a steadily upward course, as artists have moved beyond a dependence on work for books and magazines to find both financial success and personal fulfillment by producing art for gaming, merchandise, or films; or by shifting their careers to “fine art” and making a living by selling paintings and prints. Today, a comparable biographical reference on contemporary science fiction and fantasy authors would surely include many blunt or soft-pedaled tales of woe about authors who published several novels with mainstream publishers, were declared personae non gratae due to disappointing sales, and were forced into inactivity or small-press publication; in contrast, the artists chronicled by Frank all seem to be doing fine. Thus, the question arises: why is fantastic art seemingly growing in popularity more than fantastic literature? The ominous thought for devotees of novels and stories is that, while people may retain a keen interest in imaginary pasts and possible futures, they might prefer to ponder—and purchase—images of imaginary pasts and possible futures instead of stories about those pasts and futures. In the decades to come, in other words, it might be naturally assumed that a journal entitled Science Fiction Studies would be devoting its critical energies primarily to examinations of science fiction art, not science fiction literature, as carefully crafted images of tomorrow become the primary way that people contemplate the future.
Although a book like Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary might thus be esteemed for the cosmic thoughts about fantastic art and fantastic literature that its voluminous data provokes, one must also evaluate it more practically as a potential reference to assist scholars in their studies of science fiction and fantasy art; and considered in this light, Frank’s book merits considerable praise, along with a few criticisms.
Building and expanding on the work of Robert Weinberg’s Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (1988), Frank has produced a volume that, like Weinberg’s, will be regarded as absolutely essential for anyone examining this field. It includes entries on every single artist one would expect to find in such a reference tome, along with many others that are not as well known. Frank has made a strenuous effort to obtain accurate biographical information about each artist and to compile generally complete lists of each artist’s books, book and magazine covers, gaming artworks, card series, and other projects to conclude the entries. The entries themselves helpfully discuss the artists’ careers and describe their characteristic styles and techniques. Although for obvious economic reasons the book lacks illustrations (except for a striking Robert Fuqua cover taken from an old issue of Amazing Stories), the problem can be remedied by reading it in the context of an extensive personal library (as I did) or in the science fiction section of a public library, so that one can finish an entry and then look at a few examples of the artist’s work on the covers of the books that happen to be available. The fact that my subsequent discussion of the book’s flaws will occupy more space than this summary of its merits should not be interpreted as a statement that the book’s defects outweigh its virtues, because precisely the opposite is true. It is just that criticisms, unlike praise, demand a certain amount of elaboration and support.
One issue to mention is something completely beyond Frank’s control, and that involves the two main reasons that a person would probably want to consult this book. If someone is interested in an artist and wants information about which covers and other works they have produced, Frank’s book is ideally organized to provide that data. On the other hand, if someone is interested in a cover and wishes to know which artist painted it, they will have no other recourse but to spend many hours reading through the credits following each author’s entry until they hit upon the book in question—which might not even be there, since in the cases of some prolific artists, Frank’s credits are admittedly incomplete (thus, while Frank’s own book on Richard M. Powers confirms that he painted the distinctive cover of the 1962 Crest edition of Clifford D. Simak’s Time Is the Simplest Thing, that title is not included in this volume’s list of Powers’s credits). Overall, this is clearly the sort of reference book that might be more useful in the form of a searchable database (which will surely become the standard format of such reference works in the future).
For experts in the field, one question in their minds will be the extent to which Frank duplicates or improves upon Weinberg’s volume. In her introductory materials, Frank notes only that she had Weinberg’s “permission to build upon his labors” (2) and that “[w]here Weinberg is cited as a source, the content of the biography is based in some measure on his writing and information” (5). A side-by-side comparison of several entries indicates that Frank followed varying policies in employing Weinberg’s work. In the case of the Wallace Wood entries (Weinberg, 296-98; Frank, 486-88), Frank’s entry is entirely different and much more detailed than Weinberg’s entry. In the case of the James Gurney entries (Weinberg, 137-38; Frank, 246-48), Frank’s entry closely parallels Weinberg’s entry in discussing his career up to 1988, though the language is generally different, and adds five paragraphs about his more recent activities. In the case of the Richard M. Powers entries (Weinberg, 217-22; Frank, 384-89), the language in Frank’s entry does at times borrow heavily from the language in Weinberg’s entry; for example,
One of the most prolific science fiction artists ever, Powers ranks as one of the most influential, rivaled only by Virgil Finlay and Frank Frazetta for lasting and important influence in the science fiction field. More than any other artist, Powers changed the perception of science fiction from space opera to real literature. He ranks as the most influential in terms of setting a standard and style continued by many other artists such as Vincent Di Fate, Paul Lehr, and Jack Gaughan. (Weinberg 217-18)
Considered one of the most skilled and inventive of artists to work in the science fiction field, as well as one of the most prolific and versatile, Powers is rivaled only by Virgil Finlay and Frank Frazetta in his influence on other artists in the field. By dominating the paperback market in the 1950s and 1960s, and introducing a range of styles influenced by surrealism, Powers changed the perception of science fiction from space opera to real literature. He set a standard and style continued by many other artists such as Vincent di Fate, Paul Lehr, John Schoenherr, and Jack Gaughan. (Frank 384)
For the record, in terms of its added information and prose style, I would regard Frank’s version as superior (as she constructs more complex sentences and eliminates Weinberg’s three uses of “influence/influential” in three consecutive sentences). And of course, there are numerous entries on recent artists who emerged after Weinberg’s book was published that are entirely the work of Frank.
There is a visible imbalance between the two introductory “Historical Overviews”: Weinberg’s survey of twentieth-century fantastic art up to 1975 (taken from his 1988 book), is concise (22 pages) and reasonably well-organized, whereas Frank’s survey “from the 1970s to 2000” is longer (34 pages), loosely organized, and at times repetitive. Even granting that the field has grown tremendously in the last thirty years, I found myself wishing for more of Weinberg and less of Frank.
Finally, there is the issue of proofreading. Here, I must choose my words with care, for I myself have published and will be publishing books with McFarland, but one might gently observe that while the company has produced many valuable volumes of science fiction and fantasy criticism, it has never been renowned for the extraordinary accuracy and thoroughness of its proofreading. What this means is that all authors working for McFarland must be especially vigilant both in preparing their original manuscripts and in reviewing their proofs, for there is no assurance that other eyes will notice and correct all of the errors or infelicities in their writing. Quite obviously, Frank did not rise to this challenge.
In the first place, I simply stopped bothering to note all of the innumerable times when book or film titles were not italicized, or other material was improperly italicized, along with instances when the verb “is” was left uncapitalized in titles and other punctuation errors. Then there are the misspelled names. Certainly, this is not the first time that I have been cited as “Gary Westphal” (188), though this might be excused on the grounds that I am not a figure of great importance; yet one might think that critics with longer track records such as John Clute and Peter Nicholls might escape the fate of being referred to as “Klute” (221) and “Nichols” (459, 481). And on what grounds does one excuse errors in the names of major authors like “Hans Christian Anderson” (325), “Werner von Braun” (320), “Frederik Brown” (330), “Arthur C. Clark” (474, 494), “Samuel R. Delaney” (141), “Allan Dean Foster” (329), and “Frederick Pohl” (423)? Not even prominent artists escape this inattention: the heading—the heading!—to the entry on Wayne Barlowe reads “Barlow, Wayne Douglas” (89, 90), and three pages after the entry on Mervyn Peake, one finds another entry referring to “Mervyn Peak” (376, with bonus points for also misspelling the title of his novel as Gormanghast). Which brings up other misrendered titles such as Chess of Mars (162), Out of the Silent Places (164), Rocket Ship Gallileo (195), The Simarillion (261), Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (329), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge (377), Report on Probablity [A] (410), Galactic Patroi (415), and Pelucidar (433). There are also garbled sentences such as “Employment prospects for artists who work mostly on a free-lance or commission basis found it difficult to earn a living solely by selling their artwork” (66) and “While he still takes an occasional commercial assignment, Schleinkofer’s focus has largely shifted to producing fine art paintings: marine art, landscapes and children’s portraitson [sic] fine arts, painting marine has largely left the field of illustration has been married since 1976 to Mardi, a former art teacher whom he met in college” (412).
One next moves into the more serious matter of factual errors, which necessarily diminish the book’s value as a reference. Given my own area of expertise, it was disconcerting to be misinformed that Hugo Gernsback “started his career as a diagram illustrator for home-built radios” (416), launched Amazing Stories in 1923 (417), and edited, eight years after his death, a book entitled Fantastic Science Fiction Art (351; the actual editor was Lester del Rey). Dates of publication obviously cannot be trusted, since there are three references to editions that appeared years before the novel’s first publication: Our Friends from Frolix 8, 1961 (415), A Choice of Gods, 1966 (318), and I Will Fear No Evil, 1969 (318). Also, the film Conquest of Space was released in 1955, not 1953 (119), and the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began in 1993, not 1995 (435). And were you aware that Ray Bradbury wrote Childhood’s End (385)?
Are all of these errors nothing more than harmless annoyances? Not necessarily. As one example, I happened to notice that the credits for artists Robert Pepper and Jerome Podwil both included A.E. van Vogt’s “Science Fiction Monsters (Paperback Library, 1967)” (377, 382), and it is extremely difficult to believe that a company would publish the same book with different covers during a single calendar year. In fact, Internet research indicates that the book was first published in 1965 with one cover, and then republished in 1967 with a different cover; presumably, one cover is by Pepper and the other is by Podwil. Thus, dedicated collectors of the works of Pepper or Podwil who rely on Frank’s 1967 date—accurate in one case, inaccurate in the other—will have only a 50% chance of obtaining the cover they actually want.
Unfortunately, people who are interested in science fiction and fantasy art do not have the option of choosing between several suitable reference books; for years, they have relied on Weinberg, and now they will have to rely on Frank. And while she will generally be providing them with the accurate information that they need, they must be warned that she is not always a trustworthy source. It is to be hoped that, when a third version of this volume appears, this problem will be addressed.
Weinberg, Robert E. Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. New York: Greenwood, 1988.
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