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The Fantastic Art of Boris Vallejo!

By (November 11, 2015) No Comment

boris!Our book today is a great gaudy thing from a great gaudy decade, The Fantastic Art of Boris Vallejo from 1978, with an Introduction by the late great science fiction editor Lester Del Rey, a third-rate hack of an author but an absolute impresario when it came to finding, editing, and packaging sci-fi and fantasy books from one of the genre’s golden ages. I loved most of the execrable books in his Del Rey lineup when I found them on the spinner-rack of Trow’s Stationary.

And when it came to packaging, the Peru-born artist Boris Vallejo played a big part. His paperback covers were utterly distinctive, and that was of course their purpose, as Del Rey knows perfectly well and makes clear:

Except perhaps in the case of a few best-sellers, it is the cover art which must sell a mass-market work of fiction. That is what the reader sees first. Unless the cover painting attracts the right attention, the book will remain untouched on the stands, to be returned unsold to the publisher.

As modern-day practitioners of the art will attest, it’s no easy thing to craft one of i am a barbarianthese covers. Certainly Lester Del Rey himself, having commissioned more than his fair share of them over the years, knew the challenges involved:

The requirements for such a successful painting are many and difficult. The final reproduction is small – about four by seven inches in most cases. This means that every detail of the work must be visible at first glance, even when greatly reduced. And the books appear on the stands in rows and tiers that tend to bury any single volume in an overall blur. Somehow, the cover must stand out strongly in the multitude.

tarsman of gorThere are all sorts of ways such a cover can stand out, and the SFF genre lends itself naturally to most of those ways. The genre is stereotypes that look great in full color; helpfully, Del Rey lists them on the back jacket of this book: “magnificent women – heroic men – beasts and monsters – lands of glory and mystery – worlds of the distant past and the incredible future!”

Mostly, Vallejo – a passable draughtsman with some sense of scale, zero sense of motion, but a good grasp of comic-book anatomy – gets the first three right and just stops there. He’s comfortable giving his fans heroic men, magnificent women, and beasts and monsters, and some of those covers were instantly iconic. Look at the cover he did for a reprint of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sole Roman historical novel, I am a Barbarian, for instance: man versus tiger, and the winner gets the requisite cringing woman! Or the wonderfully tarzan the untamedexploitive covers he did for “John Norman”’s wretched misogyny-fest “Gor” novels, where the “magnificent women” are usually not only cringing but in chains (even back when these books first started coming out, I thought, “So your idea for a fantasy series is a world where women are objectified and enslaved? This was your great leap of imagination?”) – these images are not only very simple, they’re also very squarely aimed at a target demographic. Likewise the cover for a “handbook” of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels: John Carter might look all bare-chested and heroic, but we only get a demure rear-end view of Dejah Thoris.

barba the slaveAnd yet, you could never quite tell with Vallejo. Despite what the preponderance of selections in The Fantastic Art of Boris Vallejo might suggest, quite often this artist seemed to be aiming the appeal of his work at, shall we say, a very different demographic altogether. This book Del Rey assembled a lifetime ago is only a couple-dozen pages long, so it can hardly include all the work Vallejo had done even up to 1978 (there have been many collections since); it leaves out his great series of Tarzan covers, for instance, like the … curious one he lucy looks at borisdid for Tarzan’s Quest. And then there’s Barba the Slaver, a … curious cover he did for “Dael Forest”’s “Tales of the Empire” series, and there are plenty of other … curious examples.

It kept a reader on his toes, I guess. And looking at all these covers also served to remind me of all those gloriously squandered summer evenings I spent actually reading the books that came adorned with the fantastic art of Boris Vallejo. I’d never re-read those books today, I think, but if I find a more comprehensive Vallejo collection one of these days (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course), I won’t hesitate to snap it up.