Let us continue our discussions of some possible nominees for the 2016 Hugo Awards.
Today I want to look at Best Professional Artist.
This is one of the older Hugo categories… but, if truth be told, one of the more problematic. In theory, the Hugo is supposed to recognize outstanding work from the previous year. In the four fiction categories and the drama categories, where specific books, stories, movies, and TV shows are being nominated, that works admirably. But the system tends to sputter and fail in all the categories where the nominees are people rather than works. In those categories, more oft than not, a “round up the usual suspects” philosophy seems to prevail. The same handful of people seem to get nominated year after year, regardless of what they produced during the specific year in question. Breaking in to the final five is very hard. Having once made the list, however, nominees tend to keep coming back. Often they lose for a few years, then win… and keep on winning. Whether they have had a good year, a bad year, or a long vacation does not always seem to matter. They are thought of as one of the best in their field, thanks to previous nominations, so their names are the ones that come to mind when voters fill out their nominating ballot.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Best Professional Artist category, where long winning streaks have been the rule, not the exception. Science fiction and fantasy have always been blessed with a plethora of talented, imaginative, amazing artists, a tradition that goes back way beyond the Hugos and the worldcon itself to the heydey of the pulp magazines. In fact, the very first worldcon Guest of Honor was not a writer, but an artist, Frank R. Paul.
Unfortunately, come Hugo time, only a handful of those artists have ever received the recognition they deserved, due largely to the aforementioned rules, wherein nominations go to a person rather than to a specific work (to be fair, an effort was made a few years back to add a second Hugo category for professional art, for specific works rather than artists, but it received so few nominations that it was, sadly, abandoned). Popular — and thus well-known — artists tended to run up long streaks of nominations and victories. Frank Kelly Freas won the first four rockets in this category from 1955 to 1959, won again in 1970, then collected another five from 1972 to 1976. Michael Whelan started winning in 1980, after being a runner-up for two years, and continued winning throughout the 80s, losing only once in the entire decade (to British artist Jim Burns, when worldcon was in Brighton). Whelan won in 1991 and 1992 as well, but in 1994 Bob Eggleton broke through, after finishing behind Whelan for a number of years, and started a streak of his own, winning in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2004. In between the Eggleton victories Whelan won twice more, in 2000 and 2002, and Jim Burns took another in 2005.
((The whole list of nominees and winners can be examined here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_Award_for_Best_Professional_Artist)).
The point of this is not to take anything away from Freas, Whelan, or Eggleton, all three of whom are magnificent artists, among the most talented ever to work in our field. (I have been fortunate enough to have my own work illustrated by both Freas and Eggleton, though never alas by Whelan, and have originals from all three hanging on my walls). But consider the list of artists active during the same years who NEVER won a Hugo. Virgil Finlay. Chesley Bonestell. Jeff Jones. Steve Fabian. George Barr. Paul Lehr. Tom Kidd. Tom Canty. Barclay Shaw. James Gurney. John Jude Palencar. All Hugo Losers, many of them multiple times (it is a proud thing to be a Hugo Loser, as I have often said). Perhaps even more mind-blowing, Alan Lee and John Howe and Ted Nasmith have never even been nominated.
It is a flawed system, truly. Not at all the fault of the artists, of course. If the Hugo founders had decided, way back when, to give out a “Best Writer” rocket instead of awards for Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story, I suspect Robert A Heinlein would have won the first ten or so, maybe losing one or two to Asimov, until the New Wave when Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny and Ursula Le Guin would have taken a few. Then cyberpunk would have arrived and Bill Gibson would have won five in a row, and then… thankfully, though, the writing awards have always gone to stories, not people, so it has always been easier for newcomers to break into the short list.
Flawed or not, though, this is the system we have… which brings me to this year’s nominations. I suppose the point of my history lesson here is to urge all those nominating to (1) consider the Usual Suspects by all means, since most of them are terrific, but look BEYOND the Usual Suspects as well, and (2) nominate artists who actually produced great work in 2015, rather than over the entire span of their careers. The award is meant to be for this year’s work.
So who do I think produced outstanding art during 2015?
Well, lots of folk, of course, but there are four in particular I had the pleasure of working with this year, and would like to draw to your attention.
First: JOHN PICACIO http://www.johnpicacio.com/ Yes, John is a past winner. Truth be told, he is one of the current crop of Usual Suspects. He was nominated for the first time in 2005, and lost. Thereafter he was nominated every year from 2006 to 2011, losing every year and winning a place of honor in the Hugo Losers party… until he finally broke through and won in 2012. He won again in 2013, lost to Julie Dillon in 2014, and was squeezed off the ballot by the Puppies last year. He’s also won the Chesley Award, the Spectrum Award, the World Fantasy Award… and deservedly. Picacio just keeps getting better. A couple of years ago, Picacio embarked on a passion project of his own, creating spectacular original artwork for a loteria deck (an extremely popular Mexican card game). He’s still deep in the midst of that, but some of the cards he painted were exhibited last year at worldcon (and probably other cons as well), and during a gallery showing at my Jean Cocteau Cinema. Those of you lucky enough to see them know how amazing they are. Though the loteria deck has been taking most of his time, Picacio also found time during the year to do some cool STARS WARS and WILD CARDS art. You can find samples of that on his website. Meanwhile, here’s his most recent loteria card.
Next up: MAGALI VILLENEUVE http://www.magali-villeneuve.com/ Magali is young French artist, immensely talented. I met her for the first time last year during a trip to Paris, but I was already well acquainted with her work. She first came to my attention a few years ago when Fantasy Flight Games hired her to do the art for some of the cards in their GAME OF THRONES collectible card game. Her stuff impressed me so much that I told Random House I wanted her to do the next ICE & FIRE calendar. Magali knocked that one out of the park as well, as all of you who bought the calendar (it debuted last summer at Comicon) can testify. Those of you who have not seen her work… well, the calendar is still widely available, and you can check out her website to see her card art and other work. Magali has never been nominated for a Hugo. She should be.
That brings me to my third suggestion: MICHAEL KOMARCK http://www.komarckart.com/ Komarck’s website is a tad outdated, I fear; you won’t find much of his recent work there, but I can assure you that he has been active in 2015. I fell in love with his style years ago when he did the cover for the Meisha Merlin edition of TUF VOYAGING, and he’s been doing all the covers for the WILD CARDS books, old and new, since Tor re-launched the series. Komarck has been nominated for the Hugo once before, in 2012, losing to Picacio. I think it was about time he was returned to the ballot. Here’s his painting for the reissue of DOWN & DIRTY, just a beautiful piece of work.
Lastly, but far far from least, I offer you GARY GIANNI http://www.garygianni.com/ Gianni has never been nominated for a Hugo, which I find truly appalling, since I am convinced that this guy is the living reincarnation of N.C. Wyeth. He blew me away years ago with his artwork for the gorgeous Wandering Star limited editions of Robert E. Howard’s SOLOMON KANE and BRAN MAK MORN collections. He followed that up by doing the art for the PRINCE VALIANT comic strip for several years… and it speaks volumes that he’d be tabbed to follow in the footsteps of the immortal Hal Foster. Gianni did the art for the 2014 Ice & Fire calendar, which I know many of you have in your collections. And for the last two years, he has filled his days doing the artwork for the Dunk & Egg collection, A KNIGHT OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS. That one came out in October, and it’s hit all the bestseller lists so I know that a lot of you have seen it. If you love the artwork as much as I do… and how could you not? … do remember Gianni when making your Hugo nominations. He’s way past due, and I can’t think of anyone who has produced a more significant body of fantasy art this past year. Here’s a taste:
It should go without saying that the four artists I’ve mentioned above are by no means the only ones to have done outstanding work this year. Many of you will no doubt have other artists to suggest, and you are welcome to do so in the comments below. I would ask, however, that if you want to recommend an artist, please make certain it is for work published in 2015, and do provide a link (where possible) to the work that impressed you, to give us all a look. With art, seeing is believing, and carries way more weight than just dropping names. (Yes, I know, comments with links will be screened by Live Journal, but that’s not a problem. Be patient, and one of my minions will unscreen the comment and the link when we get to it).
Let’s make this year’s ballot a race between the five artists who actually did the best work in the field during 2015.