Today is the birthday of Michael Whelan, one of the greatest artists to ever work in the fields of fantasy, sci-fi and horror. The occasion prompted me to think back on the Whelan covers that really, really affected me when growing up. I have decided that there were four such.
I was a Whelan fan before I was a Frazetta fan. In fact, Michael Whelan—along with Jeffrey Jones—was the first non-comic book artist I was ever a fan of. My fandom started the day I bought the DAW edition of Elric of Melniboné. I was already familiar with the Barry Windsor-Smith comics version of Elric, but that cover blew me away. I also thought that Whelan’s little black-and-white frontispiece illo was cool. Reading and rereading the novel, it seemed to me that Whelan nailed the look of Elric’s face, the dragon-helm and Stormbringer. I now realize that Whelan’s Elric was a bit too beefy and he should’ve been wearing much more ornate armour, but I can live with that. Whelan made Elric look like a rock star and helped launch the commercial success of the character in the U.S. To this day, despite being somewhat inaccurate, Whelan’s rendition is how I reflexively envision the doomed king of Melniboné.
I kept an eye out for Michael Whelan covers. Not necessarily to buy—I’ve never bought a book for the cover alone—but simply to find new art of his to enjoy. I did buy several more books with Whelan covers, all of them excellent, but the next one that really blew my mind was C.J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun: Kutath. That cover just grabbed me. A desert landscape, robed and masked swordsmen in the foreground and a lander dropping down in the distance. It promised Brackett-style planetary adventure in spades. Having read a little bit of Cherryh’s work already and liking it, buying that book was a no-brainer. Ever since then, I’ve pulled out that copy several times a year just to look at the cover. It has the same effect on me as Frazetta’s cover for Tarzan and the Lost Empire. It is the concept and feeling of “Adventure Awaits” distilled and put to canvas.
The next Whelan cover that really stuck with me was not a book cover, but the “cover” for a boxed set. As I related in a previous post, I got an Ace boxed set of Fritz Leiber books for Christmas one year. The art on the boxed set was taken from a painting Michael did for Leiber’s Swords and Ice Magic, which was part of the set. However, the art was somewhat truncated on the book cover. You got more of that Whelan goodness just looking at the box. The other Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story collections in the set had Jeffrey Jones covers from the ‘60s. While beautiful as art, they really didn’t give much of an idea as to how Faf and the Mouser actually looked. Not so with the Whelan cover. To this day, I consider that painting to be the iconic image of Leiber’s duo. Since I don’t have an optimal scan of the boxed set, check out the pic above for the full painting.
The final cover—or “covers” depending on how one parses such things—that truly shook me in my younger days was Whelan’s painting for Del Rey/Ballantine’s The Best of H.P. Lovecraft. I had previously bought several editions from Del Rey/Ballantine’s Lovecraft series, all with Whelan covers. All the covers, to my mind, were outstanding examples of horror art. Just incredible. So, try to imagine my reaction when I stumbled upon The Best of H.P. Lovecraft and realized that Whelan had done all of those cover paintings as parts of one cosmically blasphemous whole. A polyptych-style saraband of eldritch horror. Eat your heart out, Richard Upton Pickman!
Hyperbole aside, I do consider Whelan’s painting—and its component tableaus—as one of the greatest Mythos/Lovecraftian paintings ever created. The painting works whether divided into its discrete elements or taken as a whole. It is a tour de force of macabre imagery and I have yet to see it equaled. That feat becomes even more impressive when one looks at Michael’s achievements illustrating everything from Barsoom to Pern to Asimov’s Foundation/Robot stories. The man has few limits and I am profoundly grateful for that.
Happy birthday, Mr. Whelan. Thanks for rocking my world.
Michael Whelan’s official website, The Art of Michael Whelan, can be found here.