Visionary Meets Mundane: Richard Powers at Western Publishing

« Are all your projects this dangerous, Dr. Solar? »

Dateline: 1962. Printer-packager Western Publishing had just dealt its biggest client, Dell Comics, its slow death sentence (by mutual agreement, it is diplomatically claimed), though Dell should have seen it coming: for decades, Western Publishing Co. had « secured the rights, created the comics, printed them and shipped them out for Dell. Dell acted as the publisher and distributor and did the billing and paid Western for its creatively manufactured products*. » In 1962, Western cut out the middleman and launched its Gold Key imprint (1962-1984.)

Enter, briefly, revolutionary illustrator Richard M. Powers (1921-1996), who successfully wed representational and abstract art for his paperback covers of the 50s and 60s, bringing science-fiction visuals an unprecedented visual maturity. Don’t merely take my word for it: treat your peepers to a gander at his work. You may well find that you know it already.

What with a Cold War on, in the early 60s, atom-powered heroes were understandably in vogue. Charlton even had two: after Al Fago‘s 1955 creation Atomic Rabbit, came Joe Gill & Steve Ditko‘s Captain Atom. In 1962, the newly-founded Gold Key threw their hat into the nuclear furnace with the advent of Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom. He was created by writer Paul S. Newman and editor Matt Murphy.

PowersSolar1A
Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom no. 1 (October, 1962)
PowersSolar2A
Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom no. 2 (December, 1962)

So far so good, right? And then… we may never know exactly what transpired, but I assume that some art director at Western Publishing chose to second-guess Mr. Powers… smothering the tonal and compositional balance of his painting (« can’t… bear… negative space! »), and likely depriving the outfit of Powers’ further services. He was at his peak, was being offered assignments than he could hope to fulfill, assignments surely more lucrative and friction-free. He wisely scooted along.

The printed version:

KarloffThriller2A
Boris Karloff Thriller no. 2 (January, 1963.) It was decades before I realized that this ho-hum comic book cover was the work of Richard Powers. In truth, the scales only fell from my eyes when I caught a peek of the original art. The printed version is so tame, so drained of its power(s) that the issue didn’t even appear in Jane Frank’s checklist of book covers in her fine The Art of Richard Powers (Paper Tiger, 2001).
PowersThriller2A
See? Now *that* is clearly Powers. « Just slap a 60% cyan overlay over the dang thing, Gertrude. It’s too effin’ artsy! »

And the tale might have ended there, but here’s the curveball: in the mid-to-late Seventies, Powers provided the fading publisher with a pair of gorgeous, but seldom-seen cover paintings.

Starstream1PowersA
A lovely Rorschach blot of a cover for the inaugural issue of Starstream, issued in 1976 under Western’s Whitman imprint. Starstream‘s four issue-run offered sober adaptations of smartly-chosen science-fiction short stories by the exalted likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Jack Williamson, et al.
UFOOuterSpace17A
Let’s hear it for unearthly-looking extraterrestrials. With their translucent skin, these guys remind me of unhatched fish. The fifth and final cover created by Richard M. Powers, this is UFO & Outer Space no. 17 (continued from UFO Flying Saucers), published in September, 1978.

See what I mean?

Anemone_Fish_Eggs

If memory serves, my own Powers epiphany took place in the autumn of 1982, in Lennoxville, a small college town in the Eastern Townships of Québec. There was this little bookstore… and its fine selection of 60s horror and science-fiction paperbacks, priced in the 35-to-50-cents range. The kind of place book lovers dream about stumbling upon, and wake up dismayed to find themselves in the real world… empty-handed.

My favourite (inside and out) of the lot I picked up that day? Fritz Leiber’s Night’s Black Agents (June 1961, Ballantine Books). If you’ve had a similar thrill of discovery with Powers’ art, please do tell us about it!

NBALeiber

-RG

*quoted from an interview with Gold Key’s Matt Murphy.

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