Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 2 October 2023. Tagged: Comics, Theme.

Icon made by Freepik from


Note: because both the original entry written by Brian W Aldiss for the 1979 First Edition, and the continuation written by Peter Nicholls for the 1993 Second Edition, can be regarded as interpretative essays on sf art by important critics as well as historical surveys, the decision has been made to retain them in their original form, and to add a third essay covering more recent developments. [GW]

1. From the Beginnings to 1978

The historical function of art in sf has been to illustrate rather than interpret; this reflects the hard-edged nature of early Genre SF itself, which portrayed technics-dominated society rather than interpreting its raisons d'être; just as this kind of sf was popular science plus human- or wonder-interest, so the illustrations were there to provide page-interest. When these functional attitudes weakened, sf illustrations became freer, aspiring to illumination rather than diagram. Today their relationship to text is often generic rather than specific.

Before the SF Magazines, there is little that can be regarded as pure generic sf illustration, though the art history of that early period of sf publication awaits research. Inspiration was derived on the one hand from black-and-white masters of graphic pun, such as J J Grandville, Richard ("Dicky") Doyle (1824-1883) and the astonishing Albert Robida, or specialists in Future War like Fred T Jane, and on the other hand from more "serious" artists, such as Gustave Doré and John Martin. The latter in particular, the first artist of the immense, has had great influence; his mighty visions were natural material for Hollywood, and echoes of them abound in, for instance, the original King Kong (1933).

The other matter upon which the first generation of sf illustrators could rely was the spate of pictures of scientific and engineering marvels appearing in the press; a later generation turned to NASA handouts. Many drawings in Hugo Gernsback's early magazines in particular can be traced directly to sawn-down or blown-up versions of the Eiffel Tower and the thermionic valve or tube. Such illustrations accompanied stories which were often cautionary in nature: scientific experiments could result in Disaster; interstellar gas and renegade planets were hazards in Earth's path; Robots were prone to rape inventors' daughters but still Technology had to go on. The illustrations were diagrams to enforce the thesis, and often set over a line or two of actual text.

Yet the subservient role of the sf artist is by no means the whole story. Even in the most commercial period it was recognized that the impact of the cover sold the magazine or paperback; in consequence, care and money went into the cover art. Some artists worked at their best on covers not just because the pay was better. Dedication was a more noteworthy characteristic than artistic excellence among this low-salaried breed of men.

Because of printing deadlines some publishers, particularly those with a "stable" of magazines, commissioned covers before stories. As a result, a writer might be asked to write a tale to fit a picture; this doubtful privilege gave the writer his name on the cover but could also entail a cut in the already mean rates of payment.

In this way, magazine art developed and became, even if in small compass, a tradition, with names of prolific illustrators like Frank R Paul, Virgil Finlay and Emsh (Ed Emshwiller) dominating the field. Interior art became increasingly less tied to text, just as text became less tied to technics. It was free to indulge in the pleasantly hazy symbolism of a Paul Orban, the immaculacy of an Alex Schomburg, or even the whimsicality of an Edd Cartier. It was also at liberty to fudge on the detail in which members of the previous generation of illustrators, such as Frank R Paul and Elliott Dold, had gloried. Increasingly, the magazine covers symbolized the spirit of the magazine rather than depicting an incident in an actual story; the series of covers Emsh executed for Galaxy Science Fiction in the early 1960s provides a noteworthy example of this.

Increased paper and production costs in the 1940s hit the Pulp magazines hard; as they dwindled, the Comic book – which grew out of comic strips – rose in popularity. Hal Foster (1892-1982) had started the ever-popular Tarzan strip in 1929, in the same year that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, drawn by Dick Calkins and written by Philip Nowlan, appeared on the scene. What Tarzan did for Africa, Buck did for space. Success bred imitators: the 1930s brought the caveman Alley Oop, a sort of anti-Tarzan (by Vincent Hamlin), The Phantom (Lee Falk and Ray Moore), Brick Bradford (Clarence Gray and William Ritt), and the much admired Flash Gordon, elegantly drawn by Alex Raymond. From such Superheroes it was only a step to the king of them all, Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two sf fans, this character began life in a comic book, Action Comics, in 1938, and was a success from the start. Like Flash and Buck before him, Superman went into Radio and then into films. By 1941, the fortnightly comic-book version had reached a circulation of 1,400,000. The day of the superhero had dawned.

Marvel Comics introduced The Fantastic Four in 1961; since then Marvel's fabulous but fallible beings – The Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Silver Surfer and the rest of the grotesques – have changed the nature of comics and, on the whole, improved the standard of draughtsmanship in the field. But the most astonishing developments came from France, in particular from the group of artists (of whom Philippe Druillet was one) working for the magazine Métal Hurlant. Here the mood was of brooding unease rather than action; sophisticated surreal effects were achieved without recourse to balloons or commentary.

As the written word affected artwork, so artwork influenced the written word. There was a period in sf when interiors of Spaceships were vast, shadowy and echoing; they came complete with cast-iron doors opening directly onto space and equipped with doorknobs for handles. That was the influence of Calkins's Buck Rogers. Raymond's Flash Gordon had similar effects, and his line of galactic romance, with proud queens dressed in fur-tipped boots and haughty expressions, and usurping villains lurking behind the arras with axe and ray-gun, is with us yet. The enormous vacuum-vehicles of Christopher Foss spring from A E van Vogt's epics – and will surely inspire future van Vogts.

Imitation is promoted by systems of tight deadlines and tighter payrolls; whatever comes to hand must be used. Artists, like writers, still borrow heavily from each other. In the jungle world of the pulps, artists moved easily from one genre to another, depending on the corporation employing them. We should be surprised not that there is so little individuality but that there is so much. Hubert Rogers, Astounding's chief artist throughout much of the 1940s, produced many covers for other Street & Smith magazines; Frank Kelly Freas, an Astounding illustrator of infinite jest, created Mad Magazine's lunatic optimist Alfred E Neuman ("What, me worry?").

In the magazines of the early post-Gernsback period the mode depended heavily on horror and Gothic, perhaps because here was a convention readily to hand, waiting to be adapted. Finlay, Lawrence (Lawrence Sterne Stevens), Hannes Bok, Alexander Leydenfrost and Cartier are names that spring to mind. These artists of the macabre secured and kept a great following: Finlay and Bok in particular have become revered since their deaths. Leydenfrost, son of a Dutch illustrator, produced some of the most imaginative Monsters in the business; they are frequently based on insect morphology.

Later sf artists were able to forge an idiom more in tune with the technophile nature of sf. The precept of Frank R Paul was decisive here. An artist with training as an architect, Paul was possibly Gernsback's most remarkable discovery. This prodigious talent created his own brand of future city, with its sensuously curving lines an exotic amalgam of Byzantium and the local movie palace, owing something to the Art Deco movement. The same patterns were exaggerated in paranoid style by Elliot Dold, who developed an intense poetry of machinery. During this period, H W Wesso also produced spirited interpretations of mighty cities and machineries, as did Leo Morey and Orban, but it was the purity of line of Charles Schneeman and Rogers that best conveyed the aspirations of technocratic culture, where the merely human dwindles in the light of its aseptic artefacts.

Few sf illustrations are memorable in their own right; they come and they go. An exception must be made for Schneeman's idealistic picture of E E "Doc" Smith's hero, Kimball Kinnison, the Grey Lensman, striding along with two formidable alien allies (Astounding October 1939). Together with Rogers's cover for Robert A Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" (June 1940 Astounding), it represents a synthesis of that immaculate metal-clad future towards which many thought the world was rolling. Of course it was an illusion: World War Two was already raging in Europe. In place of Rogers, Freas became Astounding's most popular artist; he specialized in roughnecks with guns.

Astounding was iconoclastic, aware of its brand-image as the intellectual's sf magazine. The emphasis was on the word, which got things done, not the drawing, which was merely decorative; in consequence, much interior artwork was dull. For vigour, one turned to lesser magazines, to the crowded Herman Vestals in Startling Stories and Planet Stories, or to Rod Ruth in Fantastic Adventures, whose spirited sketches for "Queen of the Panther World" by Berkeley Livingston (July 1948) still retain their power.

Of the new 1950s magazines, Galaxy has already been mentioned. Its misty interior illustrations appeared refreshingly contemporary; best-remembered exponents of this style are William Ashman, Don Sibley, Dick Francis and the alarming Kossin. Among the names rising to prominence in the 1960s were John Schoenherr, Mel Hunter and Jack Gaughan. By this time, the magazines had tidied up their typography, imitating their powerful rivals in the paperback industry; it is in paperback books that most of the traditional art is aired nowadays.

With sf motifs pervading certain strata of popular Music, sf and fantasy art made formidable appearances on record album sleeves. Notably, Roger Dean's striking composites of machine, insect, animal and bone have convincing power. Dean and the remarkably fecund Patrick Woodroffe published collections of their own work, as did Karel Thole, King Surrealist of sf art.

The new professional magazines of the later 1970s relied heavily on old modes of illustration. Galileo did best, with Tom Barber striving towards something fresh. But it seemed undeniable that innovations would be more likely to occur elsewhere. Innovation follows cash flow: movies, television and record-album covers adopted, on a wide front, an idiom that virtually began in the magazines. That early work, for many reasons, can never be repeated; for aesthetic reasons, it cannot be ignored. A number of books of the 1970s deal, in whole or in part, with sf illustration: Hier, L'an 2000 (1973; trans as 2000 A.D.: Illustrations from the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps 1975) by Jacques Sadoul; One Hundred Years of Science Fiction Illustration (1974) by Anthony Frewin; Science Fiction Art (1975) by Brian W Aldiss; and A Pictorial History of Science Fiction (1976) by David A Kyle. [BWA]

2. From 1978 to 1992

This was a period of few sf magazines: Galaxy died and the circulations of those that survived slipped inexorably downhill. The new UK magazine Interzone (begun 1982) unevenly experimented with cover art in many styles, Ian Miller's bizarre, Steampunk machines being among the more memorable results. The balance, so far as sf illustration was concerned, became permanently tilted in this period away from magazines and towards the covers of paperback books and the dust-jackets of hardcovers, and even here (remuneration in the book business not being highly competitive) some of the more successful artists, like Frank Frazetta, worked only briefly in the field before moving on to other forms of commercial art. Notably successful on book covers of the late 1970s were the erotic fantasies of Boris Vallejo, whose busty bimbos in bondage harked back with a kind of frozen tastelessness to the era of the pin-up girl, but after a while his work could most easily be bought in the form of calendars.

Through much of the 1970s and 1980s UK sf paperback book covers were dominated by space pictures in a smooth, airbrushed style, with vast spacecraft looming – a style which most critics associated with Chris Foss. Tim White and Jim Burns, Foss's heirs as the most successful UK sf illustrators, worked easily in this mode, though much of the best work of both is in other styles. Tony Roberts and Angus McKie were also among the guilty parties. Burns was the first UK artist to win a Hugo for his work. While the style lasted, it looked to the casual bookshop browser as if all UK-published sf was effectively the same book.

In the USA, sf cover art was dominated through the 1980s by the paintings of Michael Whelan, meticulous and vivid but perhaps with a rather-too-commercial predictability. He has created what will surely be an all-time record by failing to win the Hugo for Best Professional Artist only twice in the years 1980-1991 inclusive, winning ten Hugos in all in that category, and an 11th for Best Nonfiction Book. Some find that the covers of one of his closer competitors, Don Maitz (who also won a Hugo), have more movement and vigour. Many of Maitz's covers are fantastic rather than technological, and the move away from icons of technology as a means of selling sf in book form was if anything even more pronounced in the USA during the 1980s than in the UK. Sf books sometimes featured the work of almost purely fantastic artists like Rowena Morrill or the well-achieved Art Nouveau pastiche of Thomas Canty (although decorative styles based on woodcuts, stained glass and late-nineteenth-century illustration had previously been used, to very great effect, by Diane and Leo Dillon). Other notable US cover artists of the 1980s include James Gurney, Barclay Shaw and Darrell Sweet.

It is surprising that Surrealist book covers have been used comparatively seldom for sf, despite the memorable work of Richard M Powers in the USA (Ballantine Books during the 1950s) in this supposedly more up-market and respectable style. Others to adopt a semi-Surrealist style were Brian Lewis in the UK, Paul Lehr in the USA and Karel Thole in Europe, but none of these are artists whose work is at all typical of the 1980s. The best known sf-Surrealist of our time is, like Thole, a European, and deeply influenced by the traditions of decadent graphic art that were always so much stronger in Europe than in the USA: this is H R Giger, the Swiss painter whose work became justly celebrated in the USA with the film Alien (1979), for which he designed both monsters and spacecraft. His biomorphic creations are both phallic and vulval in a manner that, had they appeared in comic strips in the 1950s, would have justified the hysteria of Dr Fredric Wertham, whose book The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) charged that coded vaginas appeared in the shading of some comics drawing. (These and similar charges led directly to the introduction of the Comics Code in 1955.) Giger is not a cover artist, and has had only a small influence in that field.

It may be that sf illustration as a separate genre is slowly dying away, with the advent of the paperback book not really compensating for the death of the magazines in providing a niche for it. Certainly, there is not much in the sf art of the late 1980s/90s to get excited about; most of the development has been in fantasy art (and much of that, too, deals in visual stereotypes). While general standards are much higher than they were in, say, the Pulp magazines, the sense of lurid freedom seems to have disappeared now that publishers carefully commission book covers which, normally, are designed to attract without giving offence.

In one area there have been great advances: the Comics, once again. Most comics art is poor, but some is very good indeed. A new development in comics, the Graphic Novel, has showcased artists, either working in close collaboration with writers or writing their own scenarios, some of whom are exceptional; they include Enki Bilal, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Dave McKean and Frank Miller. But this is a wholly different art from sf illustration proper, comics being themselves a storytelling medium whereas magazine illustrations and book covers have the more static function of rendering icons designed to label the publication as being sf (or fantasy) and then to sell it, not to further the story. [PN]

3. From 1992 to 2012

The original decision to discuss sf art under the heading of "illustration", fully justified at the time, now seems increasingly inappropriate, as there has emerged a robust tradition of sf artworks which are not designed to illustrate texts but rather to stand alone as independent visions of future or alternative worlds. Thus, many of the recent artists discussed in this volume now make their living primarily by selling their imaginative works directly to the public in the forms of original paintings, prints, collectible cards, and merchandise. Today, then, one might say that there exist two different ways to create a future world: one may use words (to write narrative prose or Poetry), or one may use pictures. (Of course, as noted above, there are also genres that combine narrative prose and pictures, most prominently comic books and graphic novels, as well as the combinations of words and moving pictures observed in Cinema, Television and Videogames.) By this new logic, one might regard the paradoxical images of M C Escher as works of sf, as interesting and valuable in their own right as short stories or novels. Even within genre sf, there have been instances of art being employed to construct unusual new worlds bearing no relationship to any prose fiction: one thinks of Frank R Paul's famous back-cover paintings for Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures depicting life on other planets, and the surreal book covers of Richard M Powers often seem to describe realms that are unrelated to the books' contents and, indeed, are much stranger than anything their authors envisioned. Sf art produced as an accompaniment to prose fiction is certain to endure, but as marketing demands impose increasing restrictions on such illustrations, the true future of sf art may lie in artists who present their visions of tomorrow outside of that milieu.

Having said that, one must also acknowledge that these independent artists have mostly been exercising their new-found freedom by focusing on Fantasy, not sf, and by producing paintings that often do little more than recycle fantasy's most familiar tropes – but that is merely one of many reflections of the increasing dominance of fantasy over sf in all areas, a trend that shows no signs of abating. Space art, however, has remained both intellectually vigorous and modestly popular, and amidst innumerable renderings of dragons and elves on display in the art shows at sf Conventions, there are still sprinklings of impressively outré Aliens and futuristic Technology.

As another way to escape the unpalatable demands now faced by sf cover artists, some have turned to writing and illustrating their own children's books (see Children's SF). While some earlier artists like Paul Galdone had exploited this option, increasing numbers of artists in the 1990s and thereafter embraced the freedom that this genre offered, resulting in some excellent children's books by Fred Marcellino, Shaun Tan, and James Warhola, among others. Lucrative assignments in the film and television industries have also drawn artists as diverse as Fred Gambino, John Howe, and Rick Sternbach away from cover art to work almost exclusively in this field. Artwork for increasingly popular Role Playing Games and other Games did not necessarily offer the same sorts of creative opportunities, but it represented yet another well-paying alternative to cover art that many artists took advantage of.

A more recent development which in several ways has revolutionized the sf field, like all other fields, is the computer. First, some artists in the 1980s began exploiting computers to create innovative forms of art; the first computer-generated image to serve as sf art was Rick Berry's cover for the Ace Books 1985 reprint of William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), demonstrating its utility in crafting striking geometric designs; the James Warhola cover for the original edition looks in fact like a computer-aided early attempt at rendering Cyberspace. Berry later became known for employing digitally-enhanced photographs to make covers that looked like paintings, while J K Potter pioneered in digitally distorting photographs in order to produce strikingly bizarre imagery. Other artists who have shifted to computers include Jim Burns, Peter Gudynas, and Chris Moore, while some younger artists like Shelley Eshkar have worked in digital art for their entire careers. Still, there are also many working artists who continue to rely on conventional techniques, insisting that they can only do their best work by applying a brush to a canvas. In addition, the creation of computer games and video games opened up new jobs for sf artists – both to create artwork for packaging material and to assist in their visual design – while the Internet has assisted many artists in publicizing and selling their works directly to consumers. And it goes without saying that the proliferation of websites displaying the works of both old and new artists – most significantly, the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, which endeavours to include images of every book and magazine that it lists (see Online SF Resources) – has greatly facilitated research into the history of sf art, as once-elusive magazine covers and paperback book covers can now be easily viewed after brief searches. The more than 16,000 cover scans featured in this encyclopedia's Picture Gallery, which are tied by caption to original editions only (unrevised reprints being excluded), are particularly useful in gaining a sense of how illustrators engaged with works whose contents were new to the world.

Despite many predictions of their demise, a few sf magazines are still publishing, most notably Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction, Interzone, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and these invariably are still adorned with cover paintings, although interior illustrations are growing more and more sparse. In addition, online sf magazines (see Webzines) – which surely represent the future of the form – have generally retained the habit of accompanying their fiction with artwork. But even more so than in the past, the main market for artists who illustrate works of sf has been books, and as their publication is increasingly dominated by huge conglomerates, there have occurred two significant shifts in attitude that have impacted the careers of sf artists. First, the research of corporate bureaucrats brought the realization that cover art was the most important factor in selling books, which for a while served to increase artists' income, as artists like Michael Whelan who were proven crowd-pleasers found that they were in great demand. But then, after more intensive research, publishers decided that they knew precisely what sorts of art were most effective in selling books, and their conclusions are visible in any contemporary bookstore: Spaceships and Aliens might still be efficacious in selling occasional works of Hard SF, but portraiture was the best all-around strategy, as readers of sf and fantasy increasingly read stories because of their appealing protagonists, not their thought-provoking new ideas. And this made individual artists much less important; that is, having discovered that the best way to sell, say, a young-adult Vampire novel is to offer a portrait of an attractive young man and woman staring soulfully out at readers, one can simply instruct an artist to provide precisely that sort of cover, and if an experienced artist does not wish to execute such a threadbare vision, it is hardly difficult to locate a hungry young artist more than willing to do whatever a publisher wants, probably for much less money. As a result, in the 1990s and thereafter, artists found their rates of pay were diminishing, and their options were increasingly constrained by specific instructions accompanying each assignment. And these developments were one powerful factor in motivating many working artists to find other ways to make their living. (Oddly, there may now be more artistic freedom in the once-marginalized field of book design, as represented by figures like Chip Kidd and Ray Lundgren.)

This is not to say that there is no longer any significant creativity in sf cover art: Potter and Eshkar, for example, have produced many unique covers employing their new techniques, while other new artists like Brom, Donato Giancola, Stephan Martinière, and John Jude Palencar have impressed many with their distinctive artistic styles (though these artists, like many others, are increasingly drawn to illustrating Fantasy or horror [see Horror in SF], not sf). Also, while books from major publishers may tend to look monotonous, increasing numbers of Small Presses often provide their books with more variegated and imaginative artwork. Still, one disheartening trend in recent years has been the regular reuse of sf art from past eras to illustrate republications of classic works, and even some new works; for his original anthology Eclipse 3: New Science Fiction and Fantasy (2009), for example, Jonathan Strahan employed an old painting by Richard M Powers. Earlier artists also have been regularly celebrated in retrospective compilations of their best works, in some cases – like Alex Raymond and Frank Frazetta – to an almost obsessive extent. Such powerful nostalgia inexorably suggests a sense felt by many that there are once-important elements now lacking in most contemporary sf art, such as an unfettered imagination and a distinctly individual approach. Still, since sf art is now flourishing in more arenas than ever before, it would be foolish indeed to predict the death of this long and fascinating tradition. [GW]

see also: Sex.

further reading

Portfolios and studies of individual illustrators are cited in their entries. A selection of more general texts is given here, including histories of sf illustration, and studies in how illustrators envisioned worlds either previously unseen, or anticipated.


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies