Robert E. Howard died on this date in 1936. Thinking about that tragic day eventually reminded me that I'd never followed up on my first two looks at Stephen Fabian's illustrations of Howard's works. Today, I'll attempt to make the argument that Fabian should be considered the greatest illustrator of Robert E. Howard's characters and yarns.
Pay close attention to those parameters I laid out. I said "illustrator", not "artist." Frank Frazetta remains my favorite artist of all time. That said, his actual illustrations of the works of REH are relatively few and highly concentrated. He only painted Conan and one crowd of Picts. We don't even have Frazetta paintings which were intended to depict Kull or Solomon Kane, let alone, say, El Borak or Dark Agnes.* So, here's my case...
As noted in my first post, Fabian hit the whole "illustrating REH" scene running in the early 1970s, crafting Howardian artwork for FAX, George Hamilton, Dennis McHaney and Two-Gun Raconteur among other publishers. Again and again, Fabian would illustrate a story or depict an REH character for the first--and often, last-- time. Classy, well-wrought illustrations and covers. His scores of separate pieces of art limned many of Howard's more obscure--but still unforgettable--characters and tales. Eithriall the Gaul and "Two Against Tyre"? Covered. "Under the Baobob Tree"? Ditto. Even the fragmentary "The King's Service" featuring Donn Othna received the classic Fabian treatment.
As I've pointed out previously, there was a bit of a lull in the late '70s and early '80s. Then, Fabian came roaring back with his Howardian artwork for Cryptic Publications and Marc Cerasini's Cromlech. Once again, we get one-of-a-kind illos of REH characters like Lal Singh, the Sonora Kid and others.
After another lull in the '90s--during which time he created numerous private commissions featuring REH characters--Fabian made his final contribution to Howardian art with his covers for the "Weird Works of Robert E. Howard" collections from Wildside Press.
There is my case, such as it is. I don't expect to convert all that many to my position. I'm not even rock-solid convinced of it myself. Frazetta, Jeffrey Jones and Ken Kelly are certainly contenders, in my opinion. Michael Wm. Kaluta, Barry Windsor Smith and Sanjulian as well. I'll just say that if one were tasked with publishing a variorum edition of all of Howard's works at this moment and could only illustrate it with quality Howardian images--specifically commissioned for Howardian publications of whatever kind--by one artist, Fabian is the only one who wouldn't leave large chunks of the series blank. At the least, the blank chunks would be smaller. To my knowledge, Mr. Fabian never illustrated any of REH's humorous boxing and Western yarns, but the same can be said of every other artist in the running except Jeffrey Jones.**
When one does the admittedly complex and somewhat subjective calculus--figuring in both quantity and quality, breadth and depth--it's hard not to place Stephen Fabian somewhere near the top. The number of REH stories he illustrated is just staggering. Many, many of those were not "marquee" characters or tales, but they now have quality illos nonetheless, thanks to Fabian's extraordinary talent and oft-stated love for Howard's works.
As much as anything, I just wanted to cast the spotlight on Stephen Fabian one more time. At eighty-eight, he can't be long for this world and I believe in honoring people while they're still alive.
*Yes, I'm fully aware of Frazetta's illos contained in The Ultimate Triumph. The majority/many of those are "found" art. Art that wasn't initially crafted for any REH tale or character. We even have Frank's claim that he never read the Conan stories, let alone anything else by Howard.
**Then again, maybe Fabian did do a cover for a boxing yarns collection.