by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
FOR years i collected paperback book covers just for the covers (sort of like how i collect records). especially science fiction covers. to be totally honest, i’m really not much of a SF aficionado. don’t get me wrong, i don’t dislike it, in fact i deeply admire it and everything about it from the brilliant concepting to the weirdo personalities of the authors. but, i really don’t read it much. i’ve always been more of a ‘horror’ fan. the authors and books i tend to keep and re-read in the pulp paperback world are the scary ones.
nevertheless, i still managed to gather up a huge collection of vintage SF (and horror) paperbacks just because they have terrific covers. in fact, i tended to gather my very favorites in a separate space and drag them out once in a while and just lay them out on a table to sort of wallow in their wonderfulness. it was sort of my personal secret art museum of the strange.
one day, after many years of hoarding, i had this little special ‘fav’ collection all spread out over my desktop. it spilled over onto the floor, actually. all wonder and swirl and texture and abstraction and mystery and color. on one particularly great cover i noticed a very pronounced signature – “powers”. for some reason, even after collecting this stuff for so long, it had never occurred to me to actually try to figure out who did them. so, i sorta glanced at another – ‘powers’ – and then another – ‘powers’ – and again – ‘powers’. it seems that almost every single little book cover in my crappy collection was all by the same artist! now, that came as real jolt. like i’d accidently tripped across a grand master.
his styles jumped around a lot. it varied from psychedelic line art done with marking pen to oils of alien skies with floating cities to humorous collage to brittle grungy blobby disquieting figures on di chirico landscapes. yet, it was all easily identifiable by the signature (and the basic look) to the untrained eye. i had even gathered several individual styles together in areas already, assuming they were all done by the same artist, but each one a different artist. but it was all just one guy – richard m. powers. who the hell WAS this guy?
that began an obsession with his work and career. as i explored more, i quickly found out that, although not celebrated as the great science fiction illustrator of note, he was definitely recognized by SF fans. strangely, he wasn’t even close to be considered the best by fans, though. his work was sort of too sophisticated. the fans dearly loved the detailed fantasy imagery.
but, richard m/ powers turns out to be THE guy who changed the way we ‘see’ SF. prior to his emergence int he 1950′s, since fiction tended to be spaceships and rayguns like flash gordon. all the imagery and the way we saw since fiction in our mind’s eye was deeply controlled by that tradition. but, in the 50′s, there emerged a new region of since fiction. pioneered by writers like bradbury and heinlein and dick and clarke and wyndham. it was a new imaginary world based more on the psychology on man encountering the vast unknown rather than their exploits.
powers is the guy whose imagery lead the way for the ‘new’ science fiction to mature from buck rogers to surrealism. he taught us what that world LOOKS like. we can’t think of SF today without envisioning the visions of richard powers.
richard m. powers became the one who introduced the fine arts world to SF illustration and imagery. he employed surrealism and abstraction and color field and an obsession with exploring media to a world that had previously become moribund. his eerie and cold alien landscapes became so convincingl that he was the first choice of most of the great SF writers then emerging to be the illustrator of the first paperback editions – the true vehicle of choice for SF.
over the next 10-15 years or more, powers cranked out literally thousands of paperback covers. he became the defacto art director of ballantine books and his design work (particularly his lettering work) became a virtual signature brand for that publisher (even though he took the style to other publishers when he did freelance). he wasn’t so much the art director or a specific label, but the art director for the new science fiction itself.
then, around 1968, he sort backed off. his work had become the standard, but the culture had changed around him. suddenly, swirling pulsating color charged surrealist landscapes were the visions of the hippies (available with a drug that was cheaper to buy than single paperback book). the paradigm was shifting on its axis.
powers was no hippie. he was from an earlier generation and it’s culture and it’s norms. for instance he was a hi-fi fan (stereo was still a novelty to him) and he listened to explosive beautiful CLASSICAL music. he saw this new world emerging in the young as rather alien (ironic, eh?) like so many professional illustrators past their commercial prime, he retreated to gallery art. his work became very popular in europe (especially spain) and he found a new career painting whatever he wanted. his exhibits regularly sold out.
he still did SF book cover work, usually in an honorary capacity through the scene. like for years he did the covers of the ‘best of the year sf annual’. he was quickly being forgotten.
i actually hired him to do a project for me one time. through dave crider at estrus records, i had become involved with doing graphics for a band called “Man… or Astroman?” they purported to be aliens from another world who were obsessed with instrumental surf music, b-level spy movies and little debbie snack cakes. they performed with televisions on their heads and tesla coils sending out bolts of lightning and old episodes of the twilight zone projected onto the stage. the band even had a couple of physics majors in their line up who went onto get phd’s.
so, when i mentioned this guy ‘richard powers’ to do an image for their first record cover, they JUMPED at the chance. they actually knew who he was. it was illustrator stan shaw (my favorite art detective) who actually found a contact for the guy.
when i called him up, he was so thrilled that anybody under the age of 40 even knew who he was. when i told him the situation (about the band, about the music, about our zero budget), he still was excited by the idea. we sent him a recording of the music and he loved it. the result was he actually let us use a painting for only a couple of hundred dollars! it made for a wonderful first cover for the introductory man or astroman release.
now, because i had dealt with so many old skool illustrators and designers from the past (it was habit i had developed – hiring the old masters) that i assumed that he did the job because he needed the money. sad, but true.
so many illustrators and designers from the past have actually very short careers – average about 5 really active years if they’re lucky. some of my heroes were now destitute and jumped at any sort of work they could get – no matter how lowbrow and insulting. it was often the case that i always assumed that was why these guys would actually work with me on projects when i contacted them.
so, after the record was released, i called richard powers back up to get an address to send copies of the finished record. he was cranky on the line. it seems he just come back from a trip to spain for another sold out success at his galleries there. he’d left his kids (who must have been in the 60′s at this point) in charge of the tennis courts. but, when he got home the grass was brown (!) and he was mad at them and told me about it. huh?
now, as i understand it, when a guy got a gig to do a paperback book cover back in the 50′s and 60′s, it was like a $300 job. powers (being in such demand) probably got more than that, as well. strangely, paperback book projects that i get hired to do today are still around $300. so, the price tag has never really changed all that much. but, apparently, back then, $300 stretched a lot further – especially when it’s multiplied by thousands of commissions.
combined with his gallery sales and (surprise!) richard powers was a very well-off man, with an estate in connecticut, spending his final years (he died about 10 years ago) in comfort and appreciation. go figger. it’s so nice to actually hear about an old school illustrator who isn’t living like a rat, barely able to eat.