The pulps at your service!

I was doing some research on Harold W. McCauley, the artist of the
above image and was finding relatively little, but I did come across
this neat article about a show featuring Sci-Fi art then and now.
It’s interesting to see the writer’s take on an image from the old Star
Frontiers role-playing game, as well as the last few lines of the
In regard to the reference to McCauley, I found the mentioned image,
“Cosmic Bunglers,” but it lacked the humor I’ve found in most of
McCauley’s work. The above image seems much more representative of his
best work.

By Michael O’Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2000; Page N55

WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE about “Possible Futures,” an exhibition of science
fiction book and magazine illustration at the University of Maryland
Art Gallery that manages to be both breezy and erudite?

It’s got sex, bug-eyed monsters, high-tech hardware, action, drama,
robots run amok, rock-jawed heroes and pneumatic heroines, killer
rabbits, explosions and eye-popping vistas of planets on which the foot
of man has never trod. It’s also got implications about man’s love-hate
relationship with technology, xenophobia and jingoism, changing
society, gender roles and the hubris inherent in trying to exert
dominion over nature.

In this heady frappe of the Western, the romance novel, gadget love and
futurism, there’s something to delight everyone–even a comparative
Luddite like the critic who stakes his expertise in the literature on
three meager titles, discovered in adolescence: Walter Miller’s “A
Canticle for Leibowitz,” A.E. van Vogt’s “The World of Null-A” and
Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” (a life-changing short
story on the subject of Superman’s love life).

“Well, those are some good ones,” says Jane Frank, who curated the show
from the extensive collection she and her husband Howard own. “But I
could give you another 50-best list that would keep you going for a

No doubt.

Even before the Franks began acquiring art depicting themes from
science fiction and fantasy (think Bilbo Baggins and Conan the
Barbarian), the couple collected books and periodicals, and several of
those publications accompany the pictures on display. But the book
jackets and magazine covers are only faint echoes of the pictures on
the wall. Going from the books (or for that matter the teensy
reproductions in the show’s catalogue) to the original paintings is a
bit like finding yourself in front of an Alexander Calder after having
seen only the postage stamps.

Okay, so the works here are not really monumental–they were
commissioned for photomechanical reproduction, after all, not museum
exhibition–nor do they move (at least not literally). But they do
possess, in addition to an aura of mystery, excitement and the romance
of the alien, a technical virtuosity and wealth of detail that often
gets lost in translation.

Take Allen Anderson’s lissome Amazon from the cover of the 1952 novel
“Sargasso of the Lost Starship.” The blonde bombshell’s getup–an
amalgam of Rita Hayworth decolletage, form-fitting body armor, stand-up
collar lifted from a military officer’s dress uniform, holstered
pearl-handled revolver and primitive arm-dagger–is all over the
couture map. About as far away from the space-age mini-dress of Lt.
Uhura as Joan of Arc’s chain mail, its pastiche of the familiar in an
unfamiliar form signals to us that this is science fiction . . . that
and the fact that she appears to be leading an army of green-eyed
wombats into battle, armed only with spears.

In the words of author Ursula LeGuin (quoted by former gallery director
Terry Gips in her forward to the show’s catalogue), “Science fiction is
not predictive; it is descriptive.”

Yes, but descriptive of what?

It’s laughable to look back 50 years to what mid-20th-century artists
thought the future would be like, and it will be equally laughable 50
years from now to look back at the visions of today’s artists. The
hovercraft of Alex Schomburg’s 1952 “Death of Iron” looks like two
streamlined tops from metal cocktail shakers welded together, but
fitted with a picture window from a suburban ranch house. Behind that
window sit two pilots (male, natch) and behind them a woman primly
dressed as if to serve shrimp canapes (wearing gloves because, um, the
future is a dirty place?). The landscape, of course, looks like Arizona
since, as Greg Metcalf points out in his astute catalogue essay on
sci-fi’s Western roots, “we always conquer land that looks like
Monument Valley.”

Now compare Jim Burns’s 1985 “Star Frontiers”: the shiny space cruiser
(looking for all the world like a blue Batmobile) is piloted by a
driver (once again male) in wrap-around shades (so 15 minutes ago!)
while his female companion with the wind-swept, platinum blond locks
rides shotgun, brandishing a gun whose ludicrously long barrel would
have been sure to strike penis envy into the hearts of Schomburg’s
flyboys. She’s still not much more than window dressing, but this
modern bit of cheesecake has got firepower and is not afraid to use it.

For mixed messages, how about Robert Fuqua’s 1944 “The Mad Robot”?
Sure, the scene of the Flash Gordon-style hero doing battle with an
angry automaton (powered by a disembodied brain in a jar) can be seen
as a parable of the evils of science out of control, but what’s our
hero attacking him with? No wooden cudgel but a state-of-the-art ray
gun. Then, as even now to a great degree, technology is seen as both
the hope and the downfall of civilization.

But despite the show’s best efforts to, as Gips writes, disrupt a
“simplistic understanding” of the genre and to drag sci-fi art into
“the mainstream of art history, art theory and cultural criticism,”
“Possible Futures” is above all else a hoot. Good examples of its sense
of fun are James Gurney’s 1989 “Quozl,” depicting a close encounter
between a race of man-size space hares and a typical American living
room (Bugs Bunny plays on the boob tube), and Schomburg’s 1963 “Monkey
in Space,” in which the first banana-wielding primate on the moon
stares forlornly out the window of his now trashed lunar excursion

Yes, there’s psychosexual subtext out the wazoo here if you’re of the
mind to go looking for it (and no one can tell me Harold W. McCauley
didn’t study Giovanni Bologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women” before
painting the damsel-abducting robot of his 1956 “The Cosmic Bunglers”).

Here’s catalogue essayist Dabrina Taylor writing of Virgil Finlay’s
1955 painting of a half-naked alien babe and a marooned astronaut:

“As the vulnerable, prone body of the male explorer in ‘Mistress of
Viridis’ illustrates, the otherness of femininity and its alienness to
a masculine observer can also be aligned with danger. Lying entranced
or somehow overcome beneath the towering body of a woman who, in
another context might easily be labeled a siren or a mermaid, this male
traveler seems helpless; behind him, all the phallic power and
technology and power signified by his ship are useless to him now.”

Here’s collector Jane Frank:

“Really? I don’t see it.”

Sometimes, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, a robot is just a robot.


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