Stephen Fabian and Robert E. Howard: Part One

Today is the eighty-eighth birthday of artist Stephen E. Fabian. He was arguably the greatest artist in the SFF small press scene during the '70s and '80s. He also did an imposing amount of work for TSR, especially for their Ravenloft setting. In 2006, he won the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. I attended and got to shake his hand. I'd been a fan since boyhood.

This is a tribute to Mr. Fabian and his career. The emphasis will be on his huge contribution to the field of Howardian art. I think it can be argued that he be considered the greatest illustrator of REH's creations and tales ever. Disagree? Follow me and decide for yourselves, gentle readers.  

Stephen Emil Fabian was born on January 3, 1930 in Garfield, New Jersey. After serving in the USAF, he entered the electronics industry. Rather than being a "child prodigy," Fabian was a "thirtysomething prodigy" who came to illustration very late but got quickly up to speed. Here is an account in his own words:

"My interest in science fiction began way back in 1951 when I was a 21 year old airman in the U.S. Air Force at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois...
In 1953 my time in the Air Force ended and I was a New Jersey civilian again. I worked at Dumont TV Labs for five years, at Curtis Wright for another five years, and in 1963 I found myself working for Simmonds Precision Products, an electronics company in Vermont. It was in 1965 that I began thinking about learning how to draw and paint like my favorite SF illustrators. And that's what I did, I bought some art instruction books [by Andrew Loomis] and worked at it in my spare time. I had this dream that when I retired, in about 20 years or so, I might do some part-time illustrating in the Science Fiction field. Astonishingly, just two years later my drawings and paintings began appearing in print; in fan publications and professional magazines. It all happened a lot sooner than I had expected."
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Fabian was published in various zines and whatnot in the late '60s and early '70s, but his first hardcover was nothing other than The Vultures from Fictioneer Books in 1973. This came even before he lost his job at Simmonds Precision in 1974 and decided to turn pro. Thus began Fabian's reign as the go-to guy for Howardian art in the small presses of the '70s and '80s.

One of Fabian's most reliable clients early on was publisher George T. Hamilton. Hamilton had him illustrate various previously-unpublished REH yarns. This gave a solid jumpstart to Fabian's present position as the man who's depicted more Howardian protagonists, characters and scenes from REH yarns than any other artist, past or present. In my opinion, Fabian's greatest work for Hamilton was his last, Spears of Clontarf (1978).

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Fabian did a bit of mainstream paperback REH art, though not nearly enough, in my opinion. He rendered the cover and illos for Zebra's Sword Woman, but was ordered to make the cover more "Conanic". He wanted to stay more true to Howard's description but was overruled. That incident bothers him to this day. Compare his initial treatment of Agnes below to the cover he was forced to paint.

Fabian was also busy doing numerous portfolios. Below is the cover to one of his Conan art portfolios illustrating "The Tower of the Elephant." What gorgeous color.

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The next few years were a little barren regarding Fabianic Howard art--though he stayed busy illustrating books by Gene Wolfe, Julian May, Stephen King, Philip K. Dick and others--but then a preacher-man appeared out of the gloaming with an offer Steve couldn't refuse. Reverend Robert M. Price had fired up Cryptic Publications and he wanted Fabian to work for him. Bran Mak Morn: A Play and Others was the first project.

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This situation was much like the one with Hamilton, though Price seems to have wanted a little more of a "pulpy" vibe. Once again, Fabian had the opportunity to illustrate numerous obscure REH characters and yarns.

Well, that wraps up the first two phases of Stephen Fabian's career as an illustrator of REH's works. In Part Two, I'll look at Fabian's final contributions to the canon of Howardian art. Mr. Fabian's official website can be found here:

http://www.stephenfabian.com/