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Weaver of Wonder:
Portraying Michael Whelan from a Far Eastern Perspective

by Hicaru Tanaka

Everything has an exception; and exceptions often tell us the simple truth.  Needless to say, the world's leading exporter of fantasy and science fiction is the United States.  Thousands of American fantasy and SF novels have been translated into Japanese since the Second World War.  The cover art for these editions is usually done by Japanese artists.  We have our own tastes and traditions when it comes to cover illustrations.  But a Japanese publisher will occasionally divert the original American cover art for a particular book.  Across fantasy and SF, thirteen pieces of Michael Whelan's cover art have been used this way in Japan.  No other American artist has ever achieved such a record in these combined genres.  This simple, remarkable exception shows us the artist's brilliance.

Hicaru Tanaka

Once upon a time, before the Internet, in a world without, the foreign bookstore was an amazing showcase of American and British fantastic art for a science fiction fan in Japan.  How fascinated I was, looking at covers of imported SF paperbacks.  In 1980 I came across an art book entitled Wonderworks : Science Fiction & Fantasy Art by Michael Whelan at a bookshop in Kanda, Tokyo.  The book was filled with the sense of wonder I was always seeking.  I found I had seen not a few pieces as actual book covers.  I loved the color harmonies, delicate tones and sophisticated details of Whelan's paintings.  And the brightness of his paintings' base colors, his treatment of the characters in the frames, and the expressions he gave them made me feel positive, as though I were being offered hope about future universes and other worlds.  I realized then that I had another hero painter, someone comparable with Frazetta, Boris, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Jeff Jones, Syd Mead, Jean Giraud, Chris Foss and Alan Lee.

The next year, in 1981, a Japanese translation of Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon was published, with cover art by Whelan.  I was glad to see the familiar art on the Japanese edition.  In 1982, the first three books of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series were released here.  It was a nice introduction of Michael Whelan's art to the general SF readers of Japan.  McCaffrey's science fantasy found a lot of dragon lovers here, too, and Whelan's vision was perfect for extending the imagination of the readers.  Whelan's covers for McCaffrey's Crystal Singer, C.J. Cherryh's Kutath, and Tanith Lee's Volkhavaar followed the Pern series.  And the covers of Larry Niven's The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring impressed me very much when I saw them displayed as flat pictures in bookstores.  They had plenty of Whelan's delicious essences, rich colors, fabulous details and dizzying depth.

Another piece that made me sigh with admiration was the dust-cover for Robert A. Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice.  It looked very different from other books in the shop, and even from pictures Whelan himself had previously painted.  Various symbols, some easily recognizable and others suggesting some odd story, were sealed into it, the colors making it appear to have aged and yellowed like an old painting.  The details were more eloquent than in any of his previous pieces.  I started reading the book as soon as I came home, because I was intrigued by that cover.  Though these pieces published in Japan are just the tip of the iceberg, they are a great sampler of Whelan's works of wonder.

You can see that I sometimes buy a book because of its cover art, as you undoubtedly do yourself.  Superior artists like Whelan have given me reason to buy an American book many times.  But not every artist can always paint what he likes, when he is asked for commissioned work.  It's rare to have the chance to see those artists' real spontaneous vision, even in their own monographic art books.  Whelan's third, greatest art collection, entitled The Art of Michael Whelan (1993), excited me very much, for its content included many of his dazzling private works in amongst the commercial pieces.  To a professional artist, creating a personal piece with no direction is a sort of double edged sword.  It allows him absolute freedom, but removes the excuse of someone forcing him to paint a certain way.  Whelan seems to have succeeded in concentrating on his original, simple, impressive ideas, without unnecessary decoration, in these personal works.  Looking into them, we can visit various narrative worlds of his inner space.  My favorite piece is the one entitled "Sentinels", which represents huge, mysterious, griffin-like statues in line along a shore.  I really wish I could have painted this piece myself.

Every time I find one of Whelan's new paintings on a book cover, on a page of Spectrum (the annual anthology book of the best fantastic art, published by Underwood Books), or at the Art Show at Worldcon, I'll be captivated with his ever-intensifying vision, as always.  I'm sure he will keep expanding the frontiers of his imagination, and leading us to a sense of wonder, for all the years to come.

Our Artist Guest of Honor, Michael Whelan, was born in Culver City, California.  He studied Biology and Art at San Jose State University, eventually majoring in Art.  After graduating, he continued learning at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, leaving the college nine months later to work as a professional artist.  His first paperback cover assignment was for DAW books.  He is a fourteen-time Hugo Award winner, and a three-time winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Professional Artist.

(H. T. thanks Jill Lum for her support in finishing this English text.)