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Kelly, Ken

Entry updated 24 July 2023. Tagged: Artist.

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(1946-2022) Working name of US artist Kenneth William Kelly, who also signed works as Ken W Kelly and K W Kelly (though the unusual style of the latter signature misled some into incorrectly rendering his name as C W Kelly). A self-trained artist, Kelly served in the US Marines and, after returning to New York in 1968, garnered his first assignments with the help of his friend Frank Frazetta, to whom he was related in a convoluted manner and to whose studio he was given access; from the start, Frazetta was a strong influence on Kelly's work.

After doing covers and interior art for Castle of Frankenstein and the Warren Publishing Comics magazines Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella in the 1970s, Kelly increasingly focused on book covers. These were usually for works of Sword and Sorcery, including paintings for several books by Robert E Howard which sometimes featured a very Frazetta-like Conan. However, Kelly soon developed a distinctive style that seemed darker and less decorous than Frazetta's – as exemplified by the bloody knife and decapitated head observed in his 1977 cover for Howard's Red Nails (July 1936 Weird Tales; 1975), or the sombre confrontation between man and Monster in his cover for Howard's Trails in Darkness (coll 1996). He was also known for occasional music album covers, beginning with Destroyer (1976) by Kiss and continuing until at least 2020. By the 1990s, he was seemingly being employed almost exclusively to portray bare-chested barbarians for books that included many Horseclans novels by Robert Adams, Gor novels by John Norman, and Conan novels by various hands, with occasional departures such as his cover for a 1990 edition of Martin Caidin's Star Bright (1980), showing two helmeted soldiers confronting the yellow-glowing "microstar" that threatens humanity in the novel.

Kelly's first collection was The Art of Ken Kelly (graph 1990); three collections of fantasy art trading cards [not listed below] followed in the 1990s. Escape (graph 2004) includes autobiographical reflections and a personal selection of the artist's "classic" images, plus previously unpublished paintings and pen-and-ink drawings. In later years he produced relatively little new work. He was inducted into the First Fandom Hall of Fame in 2023. [GW/DRL]

Kenneth William Kelly

born New London, Connecticut: 19 May 1946

died 3 June 2022


  • The Art of Ken Kelly (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Friedlander, 1990) [graph: hb/Ken Kelly]
  • Escape (Nesconset, New York: Kelly Prints, 2004) [graph: hb/Ken Kelly]


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