Sean McMullen's

Australian SF Art Turns Fifty

Next Easter in Sydney the Australian National SF convention, Syncon 92, will have SF artist Michael Whelan as its Guest of Honour. Whelan holds the current record for winning Hugo Awards for art, and justifiably so. His style, execution, imagination and technical skill are awesome yet, even though he is at the top of his field, he remembers one of the most important rules of SF cover and internal artwork; that it is there to sell the story to the reader. Since the first series of local SF covers was produced in 1942 the above rule has been stretched and broken many times, yet our artists have had their triumphs as well. This is a good opportunity to present a brief introduction to professional SF art in Australian magazines and books. Like written SF in Australia, the best local artwork is world class, while the worst would stop a clock.

It began in mainstream magazines (I have found an SF story in a 1909 issue of The Lone Hand illustrated by Lionel Lindsay, and all through the inter-war years The Bulletin ran occasional SF stories, nearly all of which were illustrated) and it was not until the Second World War that an SF publishing industry was able to develop. However, this industry was hungry for cover art.

In 1940 a series of strict foreign exchange controls was made law by the government, effectively cutting off overseas SF magazines just as the so-called Golden Age of SF was unfolding in the US. Local publishers attempted to fill the demand for SF by enlisting authors of detective and mystery fiction to try their hand at SF. The quality ranged from readable to terrible, but the Australian reading public had nothing else to buy, so such ventures as Currawong Novels' SF line sold well and made a profit.

John Andrews, a Currawong illustrator, was probably the first Australian professional artist to do a series of SF covers, two of which are reproduced here. Unlike nearly all of his contemporaries, Andrews took considerable care to make his covers both individual and eye-catching. His art-deco spaceship for John Heming's Other Worlds (Fig. 2) had graceful lines that would not be matched until the Fifties. The best known (and best loved) of his covers was for Paul de Wreder's (John Heming's) Time Marches Off (Fig. 3), featuring a smug, suave robot and his neo-punk girlfriend against a futuristic cityscape. The charm and originality of Andrews' covers was enhanced by his deft use of primary colours. His cover art for Currawong's crime fiction was by contrast menacing and stark, well tuned to the fiction that it was selling.

While some of Andrews' contemporaries were often competent, none were able to approach his standards during the Forties. By the late Forties local publishers were producing series of novellas; both original local works and reprints from overseas. While much of the artwork was the stuff that migraines are made of, the situation improved dramatically in 1951 when Ray Cavanagh began working for Australia's first SF magazine, Thrills Incorporated. The following year Stanley Pitt began to set standards in SF cover art that would not be bettered locally for three decades.

Ray Cavanagh's strengths and weaknesses are both visible in his Thrills Incorporated 17 cover for Norma Hemming's "Amazons Of The Asteroids" (Fig. 4). The Amazon and her winged horse are a graceful and dynamic study in movement, yet the spacecraft is a bit bland. Although Cavanagh was not afraid of hardware, his art usually featured swirling lines and exaggeratedly sinuous human forms. Yet in Thrills 13 (June '51) one of his internals contained one of the most stylish spacecraft in Australian SF to that date, so why the lapse with the "Amazons" cover? Lack of opportunities, perhaps. By overseas standards there was little SF-related work, and without a lot of practice one's art becomes patchy. Whatever the case, Cavanagh still produced original and stylish artwork that was occasionally excellent.

Like Andrews in the Forties, Stanley Pitt also worked with both SF and crime covers, but Pitt had a strong background in comics, and the amount of practice that this involved meant that he produced cover and internal art that was consistently good, and often world class. Pitt kept abreast with developments in technology, unlike most of his contemporaries, and one can often see elements of leading edge fighter aircraft of the Fifties in his spacecraft designs.

Pitt worked for Thrills Incorporated, its successor Action Monthly, and two series of novellas republishing overseas SF, American Science Fiction, and Selected Science Fiction. American Science Fiction ran to forty one monthly issues between 1952 and 1955, and Pitt's covers for it are still the largest series in Australian SF history. Pitt came late to Thrills Incorporated, providing thecovers and most of the internals for issues 21 and 23 in mid-1952. When Thrills was turned into Action Monthly, Pitt continued to provide covers and internals in the same style. Pitt's cover for Thrills 21 (Fig. 5), "Outcasts of Planet J", shows a phenomenon common in SF: A dynamic, attractive cover enticing the reader to buy a quite uninspiring story by a house hack. The cover was almost certainly done before the story was written; a practice also common in US magazines. Pitt's background in comics gave him a slick, confident style with the human form, and with the collapse of the local SF industry in the mid-'50s he went on to do such work as the stunning series of covers for the Carl Dekker mysteries from Calvert Publishing.

In some ways there is a yawning gap from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s, partly due to the wartime import restrictions being relaxed and then finally abolished (in October 1958). Australians were still writing and selling stories of course, but it was all to overseas SF magazines and mainstream Australian magazines.

While this lack of specialist outlets for two decades was annoying for local authors, it was catastrophic for artists. Specialist artists need specialist magazines and publishers to focus upon, and these simply did not exist. What did exist was SF in newspapers, variety magazines, "men's" magazines and student magazines, as well as the occasional SF book from a mainstream publisher.

Under such conditions one should expect to find a domination of the human form over icons of technology, for the simple reason that mainstream artists were now doing the illustrating. Leslie Platt's Survival 3 was serialised in the Melbourne Herald in October 1965, and the artist, identified only as "Lants" has done a fairly good job of capturing and selling the spirit of the story (Fig. 6). Although the starships are little more than scaled-up battlefield missiles, the fear and desperation of the refugees streaming aboard them comes across vividly. To get the undivided attention of any protective parent (myself included) one only has to present an image of a child under threat. The crudely drawn rockets do, however, provide the valuable service of establishing this work as SF for the reader.

The "men's" magazines of Australia published literally hundreds of original SF stories from the late Thirties to the present. Bertram Chandler was selling to Man ten years before he came to live in Australia, for example. The trouble is that the vast body of artwork done for these stories was almost always an afterthought provided by some staff or contract artist. While they generally presented the stories well, these artists could do nothing to advance the standard of Australian SF art beyond those set by Pitt in the mid-'50s.

In 1970 Pitt was given the rarest of rare opportunities; that of illustrating for an overseas magazine. The short-lived but famous Vision of Tomorrow was Australian financed, but edited and published in Britain. Pitt painted two covers, both for Lee Harding stories (see Fig. 1), and did a colour internal for E.C. Tubb's "Spawn Of Jupiter". His technique and imagination had matured considerably in the fifteen years since his previous SF covers, and Pitt was clearly still the best of Australian SF artists by a very large margin.

In the mid-'70s a combination of Australian Arts Council funding and the enthusiasm generated by the 1975 World SF Convention held in Melbourne resulted in an outpouring of small-press publications and semi-professional magazines. Once more there was a market for SF art to grow in, and the local artists began to develop their skills. Paul Collins' Void magazine had become an anthology series by 1979, when this frontispiece by Francesco Turco was published in Alien Worlds (Fig. 7). It should be apparent at once that Void Press was establishing high fantasy and swords & sorcery in Australia, with their icons of chains, armour, bulging muscles, swords, straps and sinister toothy beasties.

With the Eighties, local SF and fantasy art finally had a more or less stable market for specialist artists. The emerging local film industry provided work in modelling and painting backdrops and, in addition to covers for books and magazines, there were further opportunities to illustrate record covers and computer game boxes. Inevitably, standards rose considerably now that artists had something to work for.

Marilyn Pride's cover for the 1981 Penguin reprint of Damien Broderick's The Dreaming Dragons (Fig. 10) was one of the most striking book covers of its time, with its beauty, menace and alien energy. In the same year Steph Campbell provided the cover painting and internals for David Lake's The Man Who Loved Morlocks (Fig. 8), demonstrating that Pride's work was not just an isolated anomaly, and that there might be a pool of local artists who could develop whole new styles of SF illustration. At Void Press, Roweena Cory did brightly coloured and stylish covers for many of the eighteen novels and anthologies that they published (see Fig. 11).

In 1981 Omega Science Digest was launched, and not only did the editor, Phillip Gore, include two local SF stories in each issue, he also had each story illustrated in colour by a local artist. Some wonderful art resulted, as artists found steady work illustrating both science fiction and science fact in Omega. As the magazine prospered the payments improved, so that by 1986 an artist who illustrated a story and then sold the original painting could earn more than an author selling a novel to a small press. A reader survey was conducted in 1986, but market upheavals closed the still successful magazine before the results could be published. Phillip Gore was kind enough to provide the results, however, so that we have a rare insight into Australian readers' tastes in professional SF art. First was Mark McLeod for McMullen's "The Pharaoh's Airship" (July '86), second was Nick Stathopoulos for Dowling's "A Dragon Between His Fingers" (May '86), third was Mark McLeod for Dowling's "The Terrarium" (May '84), and equal 4th were Franz Cantor for Wilkins' "Press For Ground" (September '85) and Tony Pyrzakowski for Reynolds' "Marluc" (January '85).

These artists were also the most popular in terms of overall voting for all works published. As can be seen, McLeod is at his best with landscapes, often suggesting high-tech with a minimal use of high-tech imagery (see Fig. 9). Stathopoulos by contrast painted a group of anatomically correct human and reptilian forms. Cantor's lift scene for "Press For Ground" featured a geometric yet curiously erotic human figure, while the Pyrzakowski painting for "Marluc" was wild and impressionistic. Oddly, the stories for two of the three most popular paintings were in a three way tie for best story! Did the editor line up the best artists with the best stories, do good stories inspire the best art, or does good art predispose the reader to favour the story? These are important questions, but I am not sure how a researcher could go about answering them.

The Cygnus Chronicler was the main semi-professional magazine in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and featured the work of Michael Dutkiewicz. Reproduced here is the cover of the last full issue of the magazine (Fig. 12), and it shows Dutkiewicz's flair and confidence with both human and alien anatomy. He has gone on to concentrate on mainstream art, and has had exhibitions in Adelaide. The standard of illustration in the half-dozen or so semi-professional magazines of this period ranged from professional, through stylish but scrappy, down to amateurish but promising.

Nick Stathopoulos is the artist that most Australian fans would mention if asked who is currently the top specialist genre artist in Australia. He has worked for Disney and Hanna Barbera, and currently works for the successful computer games company, Strategic Studies Group. In 1990 he won a Penguin Award for his work on the mime-animation film, Son Of Romeo, and his cover for Bertram Chandler's posthumous anthology From Sea To Shining Star (Fig. 15) is arguably the finest piece of cover art so far produced for a work of Australian SF. Like Stanley Pitt, decades earlier, Stathopoulos is equally proficient with anatomy and current technology, while having a strong imagination when called upon to visualise such things as Terry Dowling's sand ships in this internal from an unpublished Omega insert which first appeared in Eidolon 4 (Fig. 14). For a rare insight into an artist's creative process I recommend his short story "Linear Perspective" (Eidolon 6, '91).

I have already alluded to Aphelion magazine, which ran from 1986 to 1987 before folding and re-emerging as Aphelion Publications. Aphelion appeared after a gap of several years from the previous regular semi-professional magazine that featured artwork with its fiction. The covers tended to be surreal landscapes of one sort or another, and while the internal artwork was often rough and ready, it quickly improved. Again we see that once the market has been established the talent develops and seeks that market out. Aphelion Publications has used Stathopoulos covers for two of its collections, both of which have been praised by reviewers along with the fiction. Stathopoulos has also done the covers for Dowling's Blue Tyson and McMullen's Call To The Edge, both due to be launched by Aphelion Publications at Syncon '92.

There are two SF magazines currently published in Australia; Aurealis and Eidolon. Aurealis initially ran cover art but no internals, and the covers were stark and simple. After some criticism the later issues featured internal art by Shaun Tan, and an advertisement for cover art for future issues. Eidolon, on the other hand, has only varied the cover colour with each issue while keeping the same simple logo. However, its internal artwork has often been superior to that in most semi-professional SF magazines over the previous decade.

Speaking now as an author instead of an art critic, I must say that I fear bad artwork only a little less than I fear typographical errors in my published stories. Good artwork is a wonderful surprise for me, and when my stories have been illustrated the standard has varied between acceptable and excellent. One of my favourites so far is that for "At The Focus" (Fig. 13). The artist, Gavin O'Keefe, managed to roll the main elements of the story into a single image, and when you consider that the main elements are time, music, an oasis in the desert, and an Aboriginal's relationship with the land . . . well, I was sufficiently impressed to buy the original. For the future, I can only hope that my good luck runs on, and that I continue to get good artists who read my stories carefully.

What about the artists who have not been mentioned? My Bibliography of Australian SF and Fantasy - due to be updated and republished for WA's 1992 State Convention - lists forty one artists active professionally over the past six years, yet artists who now work mainly in non-print media, such as Lewis Morley, do not appear. Looking at the breakup by sex, 28% are female. This is a little behind the 33% figure for female writers, but not by much. If anything, artists are discriminated against by the medium that they work in, rather than by sex.

What has also gone unmentioned is the vast amount of artwork done by overseas artists for Australian SF. If you take such art as a collaboration or sorts, then Australians have collaborated with the likes of Frank Paul, Virgil Finlay, Kelly Freas, Vaughn Bode, Leo Morey, Eddie Jones, Gerald Quinn, Stephen Fabian, Ed Cartier - and Michael Whelan. Even though the quality of the best overseas art and the best Australian art is fairly close, the overseas artists have a lot of work from big markets, and so have plenty of opportunities to hone and develop their skills and styles. The result is that they produce a lot more good art.

SF artists depend on the local publishing industry, because they cannot submit work overseas as writers can. In all of my work on Australian SF art, I have found only one artist, Stanley Pitt, who managed to place artwork in an overseas magazine, yet the best of Australian genre art is of an international standard. On the subject of recognition, there are no local awards for professional SF art. There is a Ditmar Award for fan art, and professional fiction is eligible for Ditmar Awards, yet the best of our professional art is being ignored. This situation is an insult to our best artists, and cannot be allowed to continue.

Being a mere 3000 words in length, this article has confined itself to magazine and cover art, yet SF artwork covers film, video clips, commercials, fan art, advertising posters, animation, models, record covers, computer game covers, and computer game screen art. I like to hope that SF art in Australia now has a sufficiently wide and stable base that future fluctuations in SF publishing will not have too drastic an effect, but this may be wishful thinking.

The overall lesson is clear. The local SF market needs good artwork to generate a wider appeal, and local artists cannot get work outside Australia. If you really care about Australian SF art and want to see it flourish, then subscribe to Australian SF magazines and buy Australian SF books. Lastly, come to Syncon 92 and meet some of our best artists and authors in person, along with Michael Whelan.

Originally appeared pp. 45-55, Eidolon 7 January 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.