Michael Whelan had rocketships flying over his house when he was a toddler.
His father worked for the aerospace industry, so he always lived near airbases and got to see things—like rocket launches—that most of us only saw in grainy black and white.
If rockets weren’t flying directly over his house, they should have been.
Michael excelled from the beginning. He sold every piece of art he took to his first World Con. He’ll tell you that that’s because they were all priced under $20, but you know that they were probably also beautiful, thoughtful pieces. Shortly after that, he left the Art Center in LA to begin his illustration career on the East Coast.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
I believe I first became aware of his work, like so many did, when Anne McCaffrey’s White Dragon hit the shelves. It was an intelligently thought-out dragon. It made sense. It was believable, and the character sitting on it’s back had nobility. I was hooked.
I bought his book Wonderworks early on, and spent many hours poring through the pages. His painting of Elric in Stormbringer drew me again and again. It had a striking color pallet and distinct energy. It was simple, but so alive and emotional. Or Amazons; a warrioress bronzed by the last light of the setting sun, full moon framing her head like a headdress. Powerful iconic images that grabbed the eye from afar and sucked the viewer in.
His work was everywhere. Not just on book covers, but on album covers for artists as varied as Michael Jackson and Meatloaf. Spot illustrations in a book called The Universe of aliens that might live on the other planets in our solar system.
But it was, of course, the book covers. The covers! I remember in particular his painting for Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees. I loved the hard-science school of science fiction best — books that played with the possibilities implied by modern physics to create worlds strange and fantastic.
The Integral Trees was one of those, and as I read the story I kept turning back to the cover art. It was exactly right. Michael understood the science of that bizarre world. How the weightless conditions encouraged an elongated species of human, the way the giant trees were bent by coriolis forces.
But he also knew how that world would feel. It was perfectly composed, using the bottomless landscape to best effect, with all the lines converging on the pretty huntress and the haloed star at the center of her universe. Everything was in balance. He knows how to crawl inside a story, experience it fully, and then communicate that time within flawlessly.
That is one of the things I admired first about Michael Whelan’s work: the thoughtfulness with which he considered every cover. It was not enough to simply make an eye-catching sales piece. He clearly reads and values each tale. I think of Hari Seldon, sitting in his wheelchair on the cover for Foundation, with his raven lapel pin and a blanket on his lap covered with stars. (Could Corruscant have looked any more like Whelan’s image of Trantor?)
Ask most people about his painting of Heinlein’s Friday, and they might speak of the cleavage or the zipper pulls, or they might recall some of the subtle metaphors in the placement of the planet or the shape of the window, but I think also of a color pallet and thematic approach that launched a raft of imitations.
The spirals in Destiny’s Road. The ring of Thunderbirds in Mountain of Black Glass. The endless number of possibilities implied in 2061: Odyssey Three. The Snow Queen wearing her story right on her head.
Anne McCaffrey said, “Fortunate indeed is the author who has Michael Whelan for an illustrator.”
He moved effortlessly from science fiction to fantasy and back again, with stops in horror and bizarro and places between. He made it look easy. Foundation. Pern. The impossible geometries of Lovecraft. The Dark Tower.
Along the way he picked up enough awards to pad this little speech out to about twenty minutes. Sixteen Hugos, including 12 for Best Artist. And does the 16 include the SuperHugo? I’m not clear on that.
Three World Fantasy Awards for Best Artist — the maximum allowed.
In Locus, voted Best Professional artist 26 … make that 27 or 28 times.
Communication Arts Award for Excellence.
Spectrum awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Guest of Honor appearances around the world, advisory board of the Western Connecticut State University Master of Fine Arts program, blah-de-blah-blah-blah. It goes on like that for a while.
And of course, he was on the advisory board for the Science Fiction Museum.
“Michael’s hobbies include martial arts, electronic music, and travel!”
I met Michael Whelan at the World Con in Winnipeg in 1994. I promised myself I wouldn’t be a fanboy and embarrass myself. I knew it would be difficult, because Michael’s work was an important part of my experience of art and literature. His imagination had kept me inspired through a decade and a half of mindless advertising work. He was the first “celebrity” artist I met, but he had already been my favorite for years.
I wanted to be like Mike.
There I saw the first of his originals I’d seen in person, his painting Passage: The Rainbow. A misty, rune-covered stone arch sweeps across a serene blue-gray sky; beneath it a calm waterway divides a landscape that is at once familiar and strange.
This was a whole ‘nother side of Michael Whelan
These personal works came to be my very favorite Whelan paintings—in fact, some of my favorite paintings, period. Direct, powerful, almost abstract compositions: Impossible stairs. Textural wallscapes of concrete. Curling nautilus shells. Portals. Malthusian Waves. Ebbs and Floods, Glimpses, Leaps of Faith. Dreamlike fantasies and deeply personal exorcisms, exquisite visual metaphors for things temporal and spiritual.
But back in 1994, of course, when I saw Michael standing next to The Rainbow, I goobed.
“Mr. Whelan – your work has been an inspiration and I’m such a fan and I’m really honored …”
He was gracious, of course. And later in that convention he stopped me in the hall to tell me how much he loved one of my pieces, Cerberus. It made my convention, and was the biggest spring in the springboard that that convention was for me. That simple compliment punctuated all the years of visual inspiration in a way more meaningful than you’ll ever know, Michael.
In the time since I have come to know you as a friend. Ever gracious, thoughtful, and generous. Compassionate and passionate both, accessible to your many fans, and always, always humble. It could not thrill me more to be here today to help present you with this much-deserved honor.
Ladies and Gentlemen — Michael Whelan.