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April 14, 2006

Richard Powers and SF Artwork


After commenting a bit about John Picacio's artwork a few days ago, and also admitting my relative ignorance of the history of science fiction cover art, Picacio suggested via e-mail that I might want to take a look at the work of Richard Powers, who did hundreds of SF covers, primarily in the 50s and 60s. I went on eBay and found The Art of Richard Powers in relatively short order, so I bought it and it arrived also in reasonably short order (if you're not willing to buy a book, there's a collection of his covers online here).

Seeing Powers work, of course, made me realize that I did know him, or at least his work, although I have to say that by the time I started reading SF in volume, in the early 80s, his time had pretty much gone, and it seems like the work that he was producing at the time (like this cover of Heinlein's Friday) bowed to certain possibly self-loathing aesthetic imperatives of the time, which I suspect amounted to "make this look as craptacular as possible. And add boobs."

Again, I could be wrong about this, but I seem to remember the 1980s being a particularly bad time for science fiction cover art, a time in which airbrushed mammaries had their ascendency, an esthetic from which we are only now beginning to get away from. This was a difficult time to try to convince non-SF readers to read SF because the cover art was so lame; I remember buying a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land -- the one with the Carl Lundgren cover -- for a friend of mine as a Christmas present and begging her to ignore the cover (I did the same when I gave someone the Lundgren-covered Time Enough for Love as well (The current cover for Stranger is slightly better).

The issue for me with both books was not the nudity (that would have been ironic, considering what goes on in the books), but just the whole tacky presentation, and the fact that the covers to me missed most of what the books were about. The best cover for Stranger is still probably the original, which rather intelligently highlighted the Rodin sculpture which Heinlein used as a metaphor for his main character (the original cover for TEFL, with women sprouting out of Lazarus Long's Speedoed body, is not so great).

The main body of Powers' SF work has almost nothing to do with the 80s airbrushed boobmania, which is to be considered a good thing. Powers trafficked in surrealism -- impossibly-designed structures and creatures that were evocative of the contents in the books without being an explicit analog to a particular event in the book. The covers are definitely dated -- you couldn't look at a Powers cover and not have it evoke a certain era of SF illustration which is now gone -- but it's worth noting that it was a good era in SF illustration.

Perhaps based on my early experiences trying to offer SF to non-readers in the 1980s, I definitely do look at SF book covers from the point of view of "are normal people going to be embarassed to be seen reading this book?" Again, no offense to Carl Lundgren (whose other work, particularly his rock posters, is pretty cool), but his covers -- and most SF covers of the 80s -- seem designed only to appeal to one crowd, which would be teenaged boys who wouldn't know what to do with a breast even if they got to hold one. I mean, I was one of those teenage boys in the 1980s, so in one sense, fair enough. They got me. But I do think as a consequence there were a lot of missed opportunities to draw in other readers, and I think it's probably also fair to say SF is still suffering from what this sort of artwork said about the genre and how it saw itself (among, to be fair, a number of other issues).

Powers' work, on the other hand, seems more open to different readers, as does more of the work of the current generation of cover artists, Picacio included. To speak to Picacio's work specifically, many of the people on his covers are no less nude than the girls on the covers of 80s science fiction, but it's a more artful sort of nude, attempting to evoke more than just the "look! nipples!" response (it's also a more egalitarian sort of nude, as men seem to be nude as often as women, which I think matters).

Picacio's work, and the work of many of the current generation of SF illustrators, can't be seen as a direct line descendant of Powers' work, at least not as a matter of technique. But what I think you can see -- and which I applaud -- is more of an attempt to evoke the spirit of the work the cover represents, rather than lay out a pedestrian illustration of some climactic scene or imagine the main female character in some filmy stage of undress.

To be clear, cover art has to fulfill a commercial end; it has to sell the book. But you can sell a book a lot of different ways. One way is with boobies; another way is with brains. Powers' work was the latter, I think, and I'm glad to see that particular idea making inroads in the current generation of SF cover illustrators.

Posted by john at April 14, 2006 02:50 PM

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Gabe | April 14, 2006 04:52 PM

Yeah, I can't count the number of books I've had to beg people to ignore the covers of.

In fantasy the Wheel of Time books, pretty much every damned one of them, gives an interesting impression from the overall book, but they are usually laughably bad. I can't pick one I would actually call good.

Jim Millen | April 14, 2006 07:39 PM

Regarding the Wheel of Time covers, if you've ever got half an hour spare it my provide some amusement digging up the archives of the rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan newsgroup for some robust discussion of the topic. I hear the words "Darrel K Sweet" are still treated as anathema in that particular Usenet enclave.

Riccardo | April 14, 2006 08:05 PM


If you want to look at some really cool SF covers, very different from the usual run of US ones, you should check the following site: http://www.mondourania.com/urania/uraniaelencopagine.htm, that collects all the covers for Italian SF collection "Urania". In particular, check out the covers starting with # 265 (and especially those after # 336) when Dutch artist Karel Thole started to leave his very surreal mark on Italian SF publishing.

David Klecha | April 14, 2006 10:01 PM

You know... those Powers covers still have the odd ability to make me want to read those books. There's something... some nostalgia value, almost, for the afternoons in the public library, digging out the nuggets of classic SF amid the towering shelves of media tie-ins.

I think that the surreal covers gave me a picture that I wanted to explore, and I can't think of a better sort of image to introduce a book. Something tells me that if you could quantify that urge, you could increase SF's market share considerably, on the strength of covers alone.

Martin Wagner | April 15, 2006 12:22 AM

Thousands of SF fans over the years have seen Powers' covers but probably not known the name of the artist until seeing this post today. A shame it took so many years for cover artists to get their due credit on indicia pages.

Kevin Q | April 15, 2006 08:02 AM

At least Powers' cover for Friday suggests there's something to the story besides breasts, as opposed to the Del Rey paperback version: http://members.aol.com/siure/heinlein3.htm


Bret S | April 15, 2006 10:55 PM

So, I'm guessing you're not a fan of Michael Whelan? I always liked his work. Call me shallow, I guess.

John Scalzi | April 15, 2006 11:11 PM

I don't have any particular problem with Michael Whelan, actually.

To be clear, the illustrators themselves aren't necessarily the problem -- I assume the art directors of the publishing houses set the tone for the work in the 80s, and the illustrators executed on that.

Timothy Elliott | April 16, 2006 01:11 PM

Glad this topic came up again. John, I sent you a note last October suggesting an SF mag covers site, but I don't recall seeing it mentioned here. Given the vagaries of spam filters these days, it's entirely likely you never saw it. Thanks for an always-interesting site. Earlier note follows:

Thought you and your readers would enjoy this:


- a few thousand science fiction covers
- an experimental image-browsing interface by jim bumgardner, of krazydad.com
- covers from the visual index of science fiction cover art, courtesy Terry Gibbons
- move the mouse over the covers to see more information, click to see the cover full-size
- covers are arranged horizontally by time, and vertically by average hue
- read how it was made


Tim Elliott

Jody the Librarian | April 17, 2006 10:40 AM

Hey, I got to meet John Picacio and his lovely fiancee Tracy this weekend at MiniCon. He presented an extraordinary slide show of his work. I think the thing that impressed me the most about him is the fact that he reads the books he illustrates and carefully tries not to spoil them. It's very cool when the cover artist is an advocate for the writer when it comes to the marketing arena smack-down that sometimes happens.

Irene Gallo | April 17, 2006 01:24 PM

Hey John,

I'm glad to see any mention of Powers!

As for the 80s...I don't think it was an sf/f problem alone, so many book covers look dreadful from that era. We're just getting over the 80s now that we are in the 00s. There seems to be a _much_ greater range in cover art today than when I started at Tor in the 90s.


Matt McIrvin | April 19, 2006 10:35 PM

Powers' work strikes me as heavily influenced by the French-American surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, though it's not exactly the same. There's that same general theme of melancholy foggy landscapes piled with indescribable objects.

It's a good influence to have, though.

Matt McIrvin | April 19, 2006 10:42 PM

Ah, I see Wikipedia also picked up on the Tanguy connection.

Therese Norén | April 24, 2006 07:57 AM

I recently read Harry Harrison's Great Balls of Fire, which was an interesting essay on sex and nudity on SF covers.

At the end of the book, Harrison is unabashedly in favour of the Great Boob Era, with arguments such as "bring on the fertility goddesses" and "an end to puritanism". Post-GBE, I have to say that was the one thing that was markedly outdated in the book.

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