Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Covers

Frank Kelly Freas
1922 - 2005
Frank Kelly Freas was one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy artists to grace the covers of books and magazines; actually, I would say he was one of the finest American illustrators, but it was among spaceships and aliens, space explorers and mythological creatures, and alien worlds and ancient lands that Kelly found his niche. I met Kelly about a half-dozen times between ComicCons and events for Bridge Publications, and it was during one of those meetings, as Kelly sipped champagne and I discovered that Long Island Iced Tea was not just really strong tea, that I asked Kelly about two covers he did for Weird Tales magazine, forty years apart.

The first appeared on the November 1950 issue of Weird Tales, which was then under the editorship of Dorothy McIlwraith. Although Miss McIlwraith has her detractors among fans of the venerable fantasy magazine for her editorial style (August Derleth called her "constantly flippant"), she had an eye for artwork, and she knew she had something special when art student Kelly Freas brought "The Piper" to her. The startling image had emerged from a class assignment in which only two colors could be used (no black), and Kelly was urged by a friend to submit it.

Kelly resisted because he had portrayed the musical satyr playing a "nothing horn" when what he wanted was to give the little fellow a snazzy Benny Goodman clarinet. Miss McIlwraith accepted the painting with only one change -- surround the figure with a nimbus of moondust, which helped to highlight its form, separating it from the background. Kelly liked the result so much he used the technique in various paintings and drawings the rest of his life. The second incarnation appeared on the Fall 1990 issue of Weird Tales, and this time, black was included as a color and, more importantly, the satyr has his jazz horn. Kelly was quite grateful to then editor George Scithers (sadly, George passed away in 2010) for the opportunity to "make it right" after four decades.

I was fortunate enough to obtain the 1950 issue from a dealer who wanted it less than he wanted me to autograph some of my own publications, and to own a complete set of Arkham Post and Innsmouth Private Mail postage stamps. The second was a newsstand purchase at Third Avenue News (alas, Chula Vista now has neither newsstand nor bookstore, but that's another story). As we discussed the two covers, Kelly asked me which I preferred. I immediately replied the 1950 image, which surprised him. "But what about the horn?" he demanded. Oh, the horn was great, I told him, but the full cover was a better showcase, and with display art, size matters. He protested that the original art for the second cover was much larger, but, oddly enough, when I suggested the art would make a great gift to a fan, he just smiled.