Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
August 1972 issue
Illustration: Leo (1933-2012) & Diane (b. 1933) Dillon
Leo Dillon passed away two Saturday’s ago from complications of surgery for lung cancer. He leaves us with a significant and impressive legacy of illustration at its best—done in tandem with his wife of 55 years, the equally impressive Diane Dillon, with whom he met while both were attending Parsons, the celebrated art university in New York City. They began as “bitter” rivals—two stars in the making. “If one got a better place in a show, we wouldn’t speak for three weeks” Diane Dillon quipped in an interview. Upon graduation, they married, as a “survival mechanism to keep us from killing each other.” Together, they formed an impressive art studio of true synchronicity, and a greater tandem in art you will be hard pressed to find.
They are, of course, best known for their work in Children’s Books—they won back-to-back Caldecott Medals, the only artists to have done so, with the added significance of Leo having been the first African American winner. Most all of the obituaries you will see will feature their work in this area. Many of their projects celebrated African American achievement or African-origin folklore, culture and history. Their work—along with the work of their contemporary, Jerry Pinkney—helped topple whatever remaining doors there were down for this to become a healthy and celebrated aspect of children’s books—in contrast, African American fiction has only recently begun to emerge in the mainstream out of literary or genre categories. Their work in Children’s isn’t restricted to that certainly, but the insight and richness of their contributions is important and cannot go unremarked. The authors they illustrated are not only a who’s who of Children’s Literature, but of popular culture at large including Margaret Musgrove, Virginia Hamilton, P. L. Travers, the soprano Leontyne Price, and Science Fiction master, Ray Bradbury.
For Bradbury, they illustrated the picture book, Switch On The Night (Knopf, 2000, repackaging his 1955 children’s book). This, however would not be their first foray into the world of Science Fiction authors. On the contrary, the Dillons cut their eye teeth in particular on record album LP sleeves and adult Sci-Fi paperback and pulp digest covers! You could say they refined their approach and developed much of their collaborative technique and style working in Sci-Fi. The example posted here is well over a decade into their work in this genre, and for a time they were as busy in Sci-Fi as such illustration notables as Ed “Emsh” Emshwiller, Jack Gaughan, Kelly Freas, Vincent DiFate, and Frank Frazetta (they could certainly be found alongside them on the paperback racks) with the probable exception of the master, Richard Powers. They were certainly included in Vincent DiFate’s epic survey of science fiction art, Infinite Worlds (Virgin/Viking, 1997).
The stylistic diversity of their work—incorporating influences as broad as African folk art, “Old Master” paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Stained Glass windows or Medieval illumination—yet still not straying from work that in the end looked “from their hands,” was as useful in Sci Fi as it would be in Children’s. Their first picture book, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (Dial, 1976, based on an African folk tale) which had a stained glass/mosaic-like quality to its execution, is a brother to this Fantasy and Science Fiction cover from a few years earlier—albeit not as malevolent.
One feels that Diane Dillon will carry on, as Alice Provensen did when her artistic partner, Martin passed away (the other great husband-and-wife duo in Children’s Books). The work will be different (or, will it?) but I have no doubt it will remain great (as Alice Provensen’s has). But Leo Dillon’s passing nonetheless ends an era. As a collector and a fan who long wanted to work with them, I will mourn the loss to the industry of the genre-spanning “power couple.”