The Sword and Planet Art of Richard Hescox

Richard Hescox

Richard Hescox

ERB’s Amtor and Barsoom. Moorcock’s “Old Mars.” Norman’s Gor. Ken Bulmer’s Kregen/Antares. Artist Richard Hescox—who turns 70 today—has painted them all over the course of five decades, making him one of the preeminent living artists in the Sword and Planet field.

Richard made his first professional sales to Marvel Comics after Neal Adams gave him a recommendation, doing several covers for Marvel’s black-and-white magazine line. However, it was good ol’ Donald A. Wollheim at DAW Books who gave Hescox his first paperback cover gig—David Lake’s planetary adventure novel, Walkers in the Sky—in 1976. By 1977, Richard had moved up to full-on Sword and Planet when he did a striking cover for John Norman’s Marauders of Gor.

It was his work on Michael Moorcock’s “Old Mars” novels that first caught my eye. My hometown library had an old copy of City of the Beast. While this early cover was no Frazetta, there was a crude vigor about it that I liked. As Hescox said in 1999:

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“For the first couple of years I’d worked for [Don Wollheim], I had never met the man. We’d spoken on the phone and dealt through the mail. I was living in Pasadena, California at that time. I didn’t get too many jobs from him, one or two a year here and there. But looking back on it, I wasn’t that good yet. He was giving me a break and he was letting me learn my skills over a number of years by doing it. Then somewhere in the late ‘70s he was coming out to California for a convention and he called and said that he was going to be out here, so why don’t we meet? By this time my work had gotten much better. So, he came over to my house, and we met and during the visit he offered me a series of three Michael Moorcock books. He gave me the books that were published as: City of the Beast, Masters of the Pit and Lord of the Spiders (all 1979).”

City of the Beast is very much a cover I’m unhappy with, for the same reasons I’ve already mentioned. Lord of the Spiders I liked a lot more; the technique wasn’t much better but just the concept, the image and the composition, graphically I thought was really good. And Masters of the Pit was technically the best of the three.”

The same year, Don gave Hescox his first job on Ken Bulmer’s “Dray Prescot” S&P series. Richard would paint eleven more covers for the Akers/Prescot/Bulmer series over the next six years. In my opinion, Richard’s cover for Manhounds of Antares was where he really began to come into his own as an artist. He agrees:

“There were certain [paintings] that [flowed easily right from the start]. Manhounds of Antares (1981) was an early one that went really well. I do a loose lay-in when I’m starting a painting and just knock in a bunch of the colors to get everything there, and I let the paint do accidental things because I just have to get it on the board. Sometimes the accidents work really well and I go, ‘Oh, I don’t have to change anything, or only tweak it a little and it’s done.’ “

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In regard to the fact that he was DAW Books’ go-to Sword and Planet artist for more than half a decade, Richard had this to say:

“Early on I was [given S&P covers], firstly because there was a lot of that stuff being published, and secondly because the other kind of books were given to the more established artists that he was using. I also think that the stuff I had already done for him led him to think, ‘Well, he does that kind of stuff well, so let's keep going.’ (…) I’d had an interest in that type of story because of Burroughs. I loved the Burroughs’ stories, that’s why I always wanted to illustrate them; when I got Burroughs clones I always had high hopes for them but none of them ever seemed to come up to the quality of Burroughs.”

Despite heroic efforts by Wollheim, the market for S&P was shrinking by the mid-’80s. Richard did his last S&P cover for DAW in 1985. He had already branched out into doing all kinds of SFF covers, so he kept right on working, both for DAW and for other companies.

When Del Rey/Ballantine approached Hescox in 1991 to do covers for new editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Carson of Venus books, they didn’t have to ask him twice:

"As a kid I read various science fiction books until I discovered the Ace reprints of Edgar Rice Burroughs [edited by Don Wollheim]. I voraciously read those until I ran out of them, basically.(…) The entire time my pet desire was someday to do Burroughs illustrations. Years before I had done sketches for some possible paintings, long before I ever was given an opportunity to illustrate [Burroughs]. In fact, the ones I got furthest with were for the Venus series, and so it was really fortuitous that they [Del Rey Books] gave me the Venus books because that was probably my favorite series and certainly the most interesting one to illustrate.”

“I was so in love with the project that I was enthusiastic and hyped for it and I just enjoyed working on it. I don’t think I had any real problems with any of the paintings, except that I really wanted to do my best work, so I put a lot of extra labor into it. Obviously I went back and reread them with an eye towards illustrating them this time, but the one cover idea that came out completely unchanged from the very first time I had read the book as a teenager was the land-battleship scene for Escape on Venus.”

Richard’s painting for  Carson of Venus .

Richard’s painting for Carson of Venus.

Despite the actual painting going smoothly, Richard isn’t all that happy with how Del Rey handled things:

“Based on my sketches [for the Venus books], they decided it was going to be a full-bleed cover with this little key line around the main area of the illustration. Instead, after I painted them for that treatment, they wound up cropping the images down to the key line and blotting out everything outside of it. So, since the paintings were done to the original design they got badly mauled in the publishing. I was happy when they told me I was going to get full bleed, but on the other hand, when they changed it without any notice, that just messed everything up.

Additionally they published two of my covers on the wrong books, so the one that should have been on Carson of Venus was on Lost on Venus, and because of the new cropping you have all the main figures there, but the crowd of some two hundred people I painted at the bottom was completely lost. The only place you get to see how they really look is in the trading card set where they were reprinted. The point of that illustration was that they were in a big parade of a festival in one of the Venusian cities, but all you can tell now is that there are two people sitting on top of this beast and that’s it. Sometimes art directors — the bad art directors—say, ‘We want the main characters big, big, BIG,’ so they will crop in, and sometimes they’ll crop out an absolutely necessary story element. Without that detail the cover doesn't tell the story. They don't realize that, they just don’t know visually how an image works. Some of them don’t have any visual interpretive ability, and yet they are art directors.”

Disillusioned by such shenanigans and tired of other hassles associated with being a freelance cover artist, Hescox soon went to work in the computer games industry. While he has largely continued to work in that field, he has taken several book cover jobs over the last twenty-five years. He has also done private commissions, including some set on ERB’s Barsoom. In 2015, the Gollancz edition of Kane of Old Mars featured his old painting for City of the Beast on the cover. His latest painting is a cover for Fritz Leiber’s Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, which brings his career cover-painting total to somewhere north of one hundred and forty.

For this post, I have shamelessly plundered—like a horde of rampaging Tharks—Phillip Burger’s awesome 1999 interview with Richard Hescox. It can be found here. A good bio of Mr. Hescox can be found here. The official Hescox website can be found here. Feel free to check out the gallery of Hescox S&P art below.

Happy birthday, Richard, and thanks for all the great art!