The Artistic Legacy of Donald A. Wollheim

Jeff Jones’ second cover for Ace Books.

Jeff Jones’ second cover for Ace Books.

The legendary editor/publisher, Donald A. Wollheim would’ve turned one hundred and five today. While justly famous for his work in the field of publishing SFF prose, some Gentle Readers of the DMR Blog may not be aware that Don was also a titanic mover n’ shaker when it came to the graphic side of the equation. Wollheim’s instincts for spotting promising artistic talent were second to none in the entire history of the field.

In fact, I considered just typing, “Frank Frazetta and Michael Whelan. Mic drop.” and then posting some pics, but I decided that might be a bit too terse.

My time is short today, so I’ll just hit the high points of Don’s decades-long run as an SFF art talent scout. While Don always had an eye for a pretty picture, it was during the long decade betwixt 1962 and 1975 that he consistently kept hitting it out of the park as an art director, giving artists new to the field—and soon to be legends in their own right—their first shots at doing cover work for the American paperback market.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Wollheim spotted the artwork of Roy G. Krenkel in the pages of the award-winning fanzine, Amra. Roy was soon doing wild-ass covers for Ace Books, winning a Hugo in his first year of eligibility. Wanting to share the love, Krenkel talked his younger art buddy, Frank Frazetta, into submitting art to Wollheim. Wollheim wasted no time in signing Frazetta up for numerous Edgar Rice Burroughs book covers starting in 1963.

This is as good a time as any to discuss Wollheim’s impact on Frazetta’s career. While it is noted over and over again that the Lancer Conans with Frazetta—and John Duillo—covers sold “millions of copies,” it is also a fact that the earlier ERB editions from Ace also sold in huge numbers. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of exotic adventure fans first saw Frazetta art on the covers of those Ace paperbacks edited by Donald A. Wollheim. Some of the covers that Frazetta did for Ace are still considered stone-cold classics within his body of work, inluding Tarzan and the Lost Empire and Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.

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Wollheim hadn’t stopped looking for new artists. Ace was publishing scores of books a year and the beast needed to be fed constantly. The year 1967 saw the publication of the first paperback covers by a young artist possessed of obvious talents: Jeff Jones. Jones, like Krenkel, had risen up through the ranks of fanzine artists and Wollheim spotted him quickly, giving him the cover gig for Leigh Brackett’s The Big Jump. Numerous other covers for Ace would follow, including the classic covers for the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser paperbacks.

In 1971, Wollheim had left Ace Books and started his own SFF publishing company, DAW Books. Several artists from his old stable at Ace, including Kelly Freas and Jack Gaughan, followed Don to DAW. Roy Krenkel—who had spent a few years at Lancer with his friend, Frazetta—came back to DAW to work for Wollheim. DAW Books published some of the very last pro work from Krenkel, including his covers for the Opar books by Philip Jose Farmer, As the Green Star Rises by Lin Carter and Ironcastle.

While Roy was fading into the sunset, a new star was blazing in the SFF firmament: Michael Whelan. In 1975, Wollheim gave his newest discovery the cover to The Enchantress of World’s End for Whelan to cut his teeth on. Cover after cover followed at DAW, as did one Hugo award after another for the superlative art of Whelan. Whelan created iconic art for the Elric books which have stood the test of time. Whelan also created classic work for C.J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun, Morgaine, Arafel and Foreigner series. Almost forty-five years after he got his first gig at DAW and nearly thirty years after Don Wollheim passed away, Michael Whelan is still painting covers for Don’s daughter, Betsy, at DAW Books.

I’ve concentrated in this post on the four artists above because…how could I not? However, as I said earlier, time is short today and I had to leave several worthies out of this blog entry. Wollheim nurtured talented artists long before Krenkel and he would hire other noteworthy newcomers for years after he signed up Whelan. Discussing those artists—and more of Donald A. Wollheim’s artistic legacy—will have to wait for another post.

Feel free to check out the gallery below.

Michael Whelan’s first cover for DAW Books.

Michael Whelan’s first cover for DAW Books.