The artists of Future Life

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My earlier post about Future Life magazine mentioned the regular Portfolio series which featured interviews with illustrators and space artists, the latter group being the people who providing conceptual paintings for astronomy books and government entities such as NASA. Since the magazine files at the Internet Archive aren’t searchable I thought it worth making note of the interviews here, for my own benefit as much as anything else. (This blog has often served as a useful notebook.)

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Issue 1: Chesley Bonestell.

Many of the artists featured in Future Life were receiving their first (in some cases, only) high-profile feature at a time when little attention was given to the producers of this kind of work even in popular science-fiction magazines. The story magazines have always run interviews with writers but prior to Future Life, Science Fiction Monthly was the only magazine that I’d seen with a regular illustration feature, and that title didn’t last very long. Future Life covered some of the same people, Chris Foss, for example, while seeking out the prominent figures of the US illustration world. Not all the art is to my taste at all but the interviews are of interest even if you don’t like the pictures. One surprise was finding an interview in one of the issues that I’d missed with Ludek Pesek, a Czech artist whose views of the Solar System and depictions of the evolution of life on Earth I knew from the Puffin books he worked on with Peter Ryan. Those books were aimed at a young readership and were great favourites of mine before I’d seen anything by Foss and co. Another of the space artists interviewed is David Hardy, a British contemporary of Pesek’s whose view of an alien planet will be familiar to Hawkwind enthusiasts on the back cover of Hall Of The Mountain Grill. Another notable feature of the series is the lack of women artists, although this isn’t so surprising given that women creating pictures of space hardware are few even today. All the same, they might have featured Rowena Morrill, a popular cover artist for SF and fantasy novels at the time, and someone whose work I prefer to many of the people they did profile.

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Issue 3: Boris Vallejo.

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Issue 4: Robert McCall.

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Issue 5: Shusei Nagaoka.

A Japanese artist best known in the West for his album-cover art for ELO, Earth, Wind and Fire, and many others.

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Issue 6: Ron Miller.

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Issue 7: The Brothers Hildebrandt.

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Issue 8: David Hardy.

Continue reading “The artists of Future Life”

Science Fiction Monthly

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Art by Chris Foss.

Recent uploads at the Internet Archive include an incomplete run of British magazine Science Fiction Monthly, a large-format collection of SF art and original fiction that ran for 28 issues from 1974 to 1976. Science Fiction Monthly was significant for my generation since it was the only regular British SF magazine available in the mid-70s. (Michael Moorcock and co. were still producing issues of New Worlds but the only ones I saw were the quarterly paperbacks). Science Fiction Monthly was published by New English Library which made it seem at first glance like a promotional tool for the publisher, even more so when most of the cover art and almost all the ads were for NEL titles. The early issues lean heavily on NEL content but later issues had a broader reach and contained all the features you’d expect from an SF magazine of the period: news columns, film reviews, interviews, a bad comic strip, and so on. The thing I liked most at the time was the reproduction of book cover art at a large size, with full-colour paintings filling the broadsheet pages or spreads, all printed with the intention of being removed and fixed to bedroom walls. The early issues were also unique in giving regular attention to the artists, running interviews and even showing photographs of the people responsible for all of that familiar paperback art. I didn’t see all of the early issues but the interviews were later collected in book form by NEL in Visions of the Future (Janet Sacks ed., 1976), a volume that made a considerable impression since it showed me that SF and fantasy illustration was a viable career rather than the product of remote and mysterious talents.

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Artist Bruce Pennington (see this post).

A few page samples follow. It’s a shame the collection at the Internet Archive is incomplete since the magazine’s contents were interesting to the end. The only copy I own today is the one for October 1975 (not currently available online) which is almost a JG Ballard special, with a feature on the writer, an interview about his new novel, High-Rise, and an original piece of fiction.

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Art by Bruce Pennington.

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Art by David Pelham.

Continue reading “Science Fiction Monthly”

Weekend links 252

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Waiting by Liz Brizzi.

• “Music, politics, sex, and art were also widely represented by Evergreen. Gerald Ford famously maligned the magazine on the floor of Congress for printing the likeness of Richard Nixon next to a nude photo.” Jonathon Sturgeon on the return of an avant-garde institution.

• “The hallucinogenic properties of language are widely recognized by all repressive societies…which treat words like other tightly controlled substances.” Askold Melnyczuk reviews Where the Bird Sings Best, a novel by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

• Mixes of the week: A Mix For Thomas Carnacki by Jon Brooks whose Music for Thomas Carnacki has been reissued on vinyl; Solid Steel Radio Show 27/3/2015 by DJ Food.

One of the few vice-friendly cities left in the US, New Orleans remains his spiritual home, or whatever the atheist equivalent is. Waters’ supposed favourite bar in the world is here in the historic French Quarter. The Corner Pocket is a gay dive bar with tattooed strippers—filthy in exactly the way Waters likes.

“Trash and camp just don’t cut it any more,” he told a rapt audience at his interview panel on Friday. “Filth still has a punch to it. The right kind of people understand it and it frightens away the timid.”

John Waters growing older disgracefully

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti are being republished in a single edition by Penguin. Jeff VanderMeer wrote the foreword.

• “The film is brimming with Bacchanalian revelry, arcane mystery and mortal dread.” Robert Bright on The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Has.

Alistair Livingston has posted page scans from When Darkness Dawns, volume two of his zine from the early 80s, The Encyclopedia of Ecstasy.

• “Without first understanding the flâneur we cannot understand the development of arcades,” says Aaron Coté.

• At A Journey Round My Skull: Jo Daemen cover designs; at 50 Watts: the art of Manuel Bujados.

• Vast spacecraft and megastructures: Jeff Love on the science-fiction art of Chris Foss.

• At Dangerous Minds: RE/Search’s Vale on JG Ballard and William Burroughs.

• RIP John Renbourn

Pentangling (1968) by Pentangle | Lyke-Wake Dirge (1969) by Pentangle | Lord Franklin (1970) by Pentangle

Covering Viriconium

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The Pastel City (New English Library, 1971). Illustration by Bruce Pennington.

There are writers’ writers, of course, and M. John Harrison is one of those. He moves elegantly, passionately, from genre to genre, his prose lucent and wise, his stories published as sf or as fantasy, as horror or as mainstream fiction. […] His prose is deceptively simple, each word considered and placed where it can sink deepest and do the most damage.

Neil Gaiman in the introduction to the Bantam/Spectra edition of Viriconium (2005)

This is a lengthy post of potentially minority interest for which I make no apologies. It’s often been a function of the writing here to think aloud while communicating an enthusiasm; as enthusiasms go this one runs deeper than usual. I love these books indecently. If they were people I’d want to sleep with them even though doing so might mean contracting some debilitating illness. When you’re employed as a book designer and illustrator it’s impossible to avoid taking a professional interest in the packaging of your favourite books. M. John Harrison‘s Viriconium books—three novels and a collection of short stories—present challenges that the illustrators and art directors of the past have invariably failed to meet. This post looks at prior cover designs while a subsequent post will suggest some solutions to the challenges. But first it’s necessary to say something about Viriconium itself.

In the distant future of the Earth, when the human race has flourished then lapsed into a state of terminal decay, only one city of note remains: Viriconium, the Pastel City, surrounded by the wastes and fens of a ruined world. Or so we’re told in the first book of a series which begins as outright fantasy and moves by an astonishing feat of authorial dexterity closer to our world and our time. (A shorthand description might describe a series that starts out reading like Jack Vance and ends up closer to Bruno Schulz.) It becomes apparent that Viriconium stands for all the cities that have ever been, and with its avenues, rues and strasses often seems to be a composite of them all. Aside from the unspecified future its fixture in time is indeterminate: one story may concern events which are in the distant past of another while the streets and quarters never remain anchored enough for any kind of map to be drawn. Areas of continuity rise like towers from a sea of vapour. Even the city’s name slips its mooring: the origin is Viroconium Cornoviorum, a Roman town in Shropshire, and Viroconium, a poem by Mary Webb. In the later books we’re told the city is also called Uriconium or Vriko but whether these variants lie in the past or future of Viriconium is unclear. The indeterminacy was deliberate, a riposte to what Harrison calls “fauxthenticity”, and the tendency of genre readers to reduce the subtleties of fiction to the schematics of role-playing games, spaceship diagrams and books with titles like The Science of Middle-Earth. It’s this indeterminacy and a refusal to offer neat resolutions (or that awful term “closure”) that no doubt explains why Harrison’s books often seem to attract more praise than actual readers.

The most remarkable aspect of the books presents the greatest problems in design terms. In the fourteen years that Harrison worked on his series he used its mutable qualities to pull the entire project to pieces without actually destroying it or turning the whole thing into a self-regarding postmodern game. The early books critique the lazy assumptions of the fantasy genre while the later books recast the earlier stories as myths or half-remembered dreams. The first two books may use the apparatus of the fantasy genre but that doesn’t mean the tired imagery of fantasy illustration necessarily suits their covers. The very last story, A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, is set in the north of England in our own time. Changing the name Viriconium to London throughout the text, which Harrison has done when the story has been published elsewhere, dissolves the remaining genre trappings. The process is akin to watching those Buddhist monks who construct elaborate mandalas of coloured sand only to sweep them away when the work is finished. All this makes the Viriconium books unique, it’s one of many reasons why I hold them in such high regard and it’s also why they frequently irritate those who want simpler fare. The problem of appealing to a reactionary readership may explain why many of the following covers have failed to honour the content of the books.

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The Pastel City (Doubleday, 1972) Illustration by Wendell Minor.

Dustjacket summaries do none of the books any favours but for the unacquainted they help give a flavour of each volume. They also show how the presentation gradually shifts emphasis. Here’s the Doubleday edition:

An intriguing fantasy in which past and future blend uniquely on an Earth far different from any known to man.

There, in the Empire of Viriconium, a world of chivalry, of magic and strange powers, two Queens clash in bloody warfare for control of the Pastel City and all of its domains. The armies of the defender, Queen Methvet, are led by Lord tegeus-Cromis and the rest of a legendary band of knights, while their attackers are the vicious and cunning Northmen who serve the rival Queen Moidart.

More is involved than a struggle for a throne however, for in their lust for victory the forces of Queen Moidart have unleashed creatures from Earth’s dim past whose terrible potential they little realize until too late. And as Lord Cromis and the rest of his band seek to meet the challenge of these nightmare apparitions, their quest leads them on a perilous journey across many weird lands to a deadly climax in a buried city where a solution is revealed that is as old as time itself.

It’s apposite that a series about an indeterminate city begins with some confusion evident from the outset. The Pastel City in its first UK printing was described on the cover as a fantasy yet compared to Dune which is generally regarded as science fiction; the Doubleday edition is labelled science fiction yet the cover illustration shows a mailed and armoured warrior; the narrative is situated somewhere between the genres in what used to be called science fantasy. While the story concerns the distant future many of the props are the familiar material of heroic fantasy: horses, swords, feuding queens, an axe-wielding dwarf. What technology remains is either defunct or barely functioning. The ruin and decay of Harrison’s world is part of the pleasure, as is the vacillating and ambivalent nature of the characters, a quality which increases as the series develops. None of the publishers dare to reflect this ambivalence in the cover art. Unaware readers would be led to believe from subsequent editions that these books contain the determined and super-efficient heroes they’d find in other books. Compared to what follows the first two covers aren’t so bad; Bruce Pennington gives us one of his flying saucer apocalypses while Wendell Minor’s avoidance of a genre scene is an approach that might have been deployed a lot more often later on.

Continue reading “Covering Viriconium”

Leo Dillon, 1933–2012

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Illustrations for Dangerous Visions (1967) by Leo & Diane Dillon.
top left: Lord Randy, My Son by Joe L. Hensley; top right: Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Leiber
; bottom left: The Happy Breed by John Sladek; bottom right: Shall the Dust Praise Thee? by Damon Knight

Beyond my love for them and my understanding that they have influenced my ethical and moral life almost more than anyone else I’ve ever known, my respect for their artistic intelligence and their incomparable craft is enormous. Leo and Diane Dillon are the best. Simply put: the best.

Harlan Ellison, from The Illustrated Harlan Ellison (1978)

Pre-internet, illustrators and designers often suffered from being landlocked by whatever territories (to use that wretched marketing term) the work they embellished was sold in. I’ve said as much in the past but it’s worth repeating since it explains how reputations could loom large in one country while the artists in question might be unknown elsewhere. Leo and Diane Dillon are a good example of this, lauded in the US for work that spanned a variety styles and media yet barely visible in Europe unless you chanced across an imported paperback bearing one of their covers. Their long and fruitful relationship with Harlan Ellison saw them illustrate many of his major works, books which when they were reprinted here were often packaged with inappropriate spaceship art by Chris Foss or one of his imitators. Happily the Dillons’ superb woodcut illustrations for Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology survived the journey across the Atlantic. I still find those illustrations thrilling for the way they condensed the essence of thirty-two challenging stories with the greatest economy of means. And thanks to the internet we can see just how versatile they were at The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon. That site also includes links to interviews and further examples of their art.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Science fiction and fantasy covers
Groovy book covers
Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth