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The Future Of The Past Is On Full Display In ‘Frank R. Paul: The Dean Of Science Fiction Illustration’

Legendary science fiction illustrator Frank R. Paul is probably not an instantly-recognizable name for every ComicsAlliance reader, but for generations of science fiction, fantasy and comic book enthusiasts, his work took the fantastic worlds described on the pages of the pulps and made them real. IDW’s recently-published book, Frank R. Paul: The Dean of Science Fiction Illustration, sets out to collect a good chunk of the illustrator’s work in one book while giving readers a look into the life and career of the man whose dazzling cityscapes, bizarre creatures and ability to make the fantastic palpable earned him a place among the greats of science fiction illustration. And while the book tends to over-extends its reach, it’s still an impressive amassment of amazing classic pulp illustration that is worth checking out if you’re at all interested in the future of the past.

Born in Vienna in 1884, Paul studied architecture, a background that shines through when he tackles the marvelous cityscapes that adorned the covers of magazines like Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories or Science And Mechanics. His sense of scale and materials sell ideas that, even now, seem impossible.

And then there’s the “Buck Rogers” cover for Amazing Stories, August 1928, a hugely influential piece that, for me at least, hits you right in the solar plexus with its abruptness. It’s thought-through in a meticulous fashion, with the way that harness is designed to hold the wearer in properly, to the leather-looking fabric on the forearms and elbows to brace the flying man should he happen to crash. You can’t help and see a lot of Star Wars in that get-up as well, from the striped Han Solo pants and knee-high boots, to the Darth Vader-ish chest panel and belt. In fact, the whole thing reminds me a lot of this early Star Wars concept piece by Ralph McQuarrie.

The cover art for Air Wonder Stories, August 1929 is equally impressive. Paul not only does an amazing cut-away of this marvelous Victorian vessel, with a huge boiler-looking engine and Deco-influenced detailing, but he also adds in those little bodies flailing through the air as the ship is sliced in imperfect quarters. It’s that detail, that insanely realistic detail, that kills me. Because of course if this were a real vessel that really got sliced up in the sky there would really be those unfortunate people who got tossed overboard and Paul, with his desire to make these things as real as possible, thought this through to the gory end.

Like most illustrators at the time, Paul also tried his hand at comics, illustrating the adventures of long-forgotten heroes like spaceman Mitey Powers and prodigy-mastermind of the year 2680, Marvo 1-2Go+: the Super-Boy. While Paul’s analytical nature never allows the strips to get as bonkers as something like Fletcher Hanks or Basil Woverton’s output, it’s hard to argue with the craft on display in the strips.

Paul’s most notable contribution to comics, however, is the iconic cover to Timely’s Marvel Comics #1. You know the one. There, on that one cover are the seeds of what would become the Marvel universe: a hero, cursed with a horrible power, uses said power to protect those that would hate and fear him. It’s an image that’s supposed to feel heroic, but feels like a nightmare; like a scene from The Terminator, only the Terminator is on fire and your bullets keep melting before they can hit him and he can walk through walls and he’s smiling like a total creep and, oh yeah, did we mention that he’s the good guy?

My biggest nitpick with the book is the design. While the book is organized mainly by the main periods of Paul’s work, the visual organization leaves a lot to be desired, with images laid out in a fairly staid fashion. Each section is accompanied by an essay that details the section of Paul’s career and, while they’re very informative, the three-column grid they’re laid out in, with their huge indents and wonky justification, make them nearly impossible to read. The typefaces are meant to recall vintage pulp magazines, but instead of feeling retro, they just come across as old-fashioned and unattractive. Even the title, Frank R. Paul: The Dean of Science Fiction Illustration is kind of dull and on-the-nose. One wonders how much better the book would read were a little more attention paid to making it feel more pleasing to the eye and better-laid out.

There’s also a feeling that this book is trying to do too much, with the last quarter or so of the book being devoted to cramming as many of Paul’s covers into pages of nine-panel grids on top of a distracting background of ghosted-out artwork. While it definitely ticks off the box for including a massive amount of Paul’s covers, it sells his artwork short and makes you wish they’d condensed the biography portions down into fewer pages, freeing up more space for the covers and spot illustrations. It can’t decide if it’s a showcase for his artwork, a biography, or some hybrid of the two, and that lack of focus makes it difficult to recommend without some caveats. It’s a shame, because if IDW had approached this with the same deft hand they did with the recent Alex Toth: Genius Illustrated book, I would heartily recommend it. As it stands, it’s recommended mainly because there’s not another book of this scope out there that showcases Paul’s work.

In the end, it succeeds in showcasing an artist that a lot of modern enthusiasts might not know. If you want to look at great pictures of streamlined spaceships, spindly-limbed aliens and adventuring spacemen, Frank R. Paul: The Dean of Science Fiction Illustration is definitely worth your time.

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