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Whelan, Michael

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Artist.

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(1950-    ) American artist. After obtaining a BA in art from San Jose State University in 1973, Whelan began attending the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles; however, after displaying his artwork at a few sf conventions, he received an offer from Donald A Wollheim to paint covers for DAW Books, inspiring him to leave school and move to New York to work as a professional artist. Some of his early covers clearly reflect the influence of Frank Frazetta, featuring muscular warriors and beautiful women in various states of undress, a style displayed on some highly praised covers for republications of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom novels and Michael Moorcock's Elric books. But he also produced more variegated covers along more symbolic lines which were striking and carefully designed: for Richard Davis's anthology The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series III (1975), he painted a clutching hand with an eye in its palm emerging from an Asteroid also inhabited by the traditional figure of Death; for a 1976 edition of Clifford D Simak's City (fixup 1952), he referenced all of its elements with a moody amalgam of human, Robot, and animal faces next to a large ant, with the planet Jupiter in the background; and for Doris Piserchia's Earthchild (1977), he depicted liquid blue hands emerging from an ocean holding a transparent egg with a naked woman inside. Other covers, like his stunning effort for a 1978 edition of Poul Anderson's World without Stars (1967), combined realistic portraiture, persuasively bizarre Aliens, and unexpected use of colour. Such skill and versatility did not go unnoticed, as Whelan in the late 1970s was recruited by other publishers, began receiving nominations for awards, and published his first compilation of artwork, Wonderworks: Science Fiction and Fantasy Art (1979).

It was in the 1980s, however, that Whelan unquestionably emerged as the field's most renowned, and most profitable, artist. He received the Hugo as Best Professional Artist seven years in a row – from 1980 to 1986 – a streak broken only because he declined a nomination in 1987; he went on to win the same award six more times, also receiving the 1988 Best Nonfiction award for his second compilation, Michael Whelan's Works of Wonder (1987). Whelan has also won numerous Locus Awards and Chesley Awards, along with some World Fantasy Awards and Spectrum Awards. Among sf artists, only Frank Kelly Freas had ever achieved such sustained popularity. His talents were eagerly sought by publishers who recognized that a Whelan cover would boost any book's sales, leading to many major assignments, and his original work fetched astonishingly high prices at sf art auctions. Some found his singular success difficult to explain or analyse, though everyone acknowledged that his work was consistently vivid, meticulous, naturalistic, and highly finished, if occasionally a bit languid; his style was also not entirely unprecedented, since he has acknowledged a debt to British colleagues, and he was regularly compared to Jim Burns in particular. Whelan has spoken of his consciousness that it was during the 1980s that sf art became – at least at the top – a well paid profession for almost the first time, and even his critics would have to agree that he played an important role in steering sf art away from the abstract styles of previous eras toward a more representational approach, and also helped to boost the prestige and visibility all artists in the field.

Whelan's success soon allowed him to work on some independent paintings, some of which found their way into his third book, The Art of Michael Whelan: Scenes/Visions (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), and after being asked by Michael Jackson to paint the cover for the Jacksons' Victory album (1984), he went on to paint a number of additional album covers, most famously Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell (1993), an extravagant portrayal of a huge bat roosting on a building while being approached by a man on a flying motorcycle. But he never abandoned book covers, continuing to work steadily in that area during the 1990s. He earned particular acclaim for his cover for Joan D Vinge's The Summer Queen (1991), an attractive portrait of a woman wearing an elaborate, multicoloured mask that earned him both a Chesley Award and a Hugo Award for Original Artwork. He also won Chesley Awards for the cover of the November 1992 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, celebrating the late Isaac Asimov by showing him standing on a stack of books, holding a keyboard, next to a reclining Robot holding a chalice; for the cover of Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott's The Golden Key (1996), a subdued portrait of a painter next to a painting of a man surrounded by gold bands; and for the cover of Tad Williams's Mountain of Black Glass (1999), a complex array of Egyptian statues, craggy mountaintops, and a tiny winged woman. If Whelan's star no longer seemed to shine as brightly, that was largely due to the emergence of newer artists who, for the most part, were following in his footsteps.

Since 1998, Whelan's productivity has been limited by a series of health problems, and he was also nearing the age when artists typically reduce their output and instead begin to receive lifetime achievement awards – which duly arrived in the forms of a 2004 Spectrum Grandmaster Award and his 2009 induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Yet, as if to show that he was not quite ready to retire, he received another Chesley Award in 2011 for his cover for Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings (2010), an evocative painting of an armoured warrior holding a long knife and staff as he stands on a mountaintop and faces a setting sun. True, there is nothing special about his cover for yet another major publication, Robert Jordan and Sanderson's A Memory of Light (2013), the final volume of Jordan's Wheel of Time series, an image of a man holding a glowing sword in a cave, but Whelan still seems capable of adding more memorable items to his vast and remarkable series of sf and Fantasy book covers. [PN/JG/GW]

see also: Frank R Paul Award.

Michael Whelan

born Culver City, California: 29 June 1950

works (excluding calendars)


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