It was nightfall. An unspoiled terrain of soft ancient sand stretching back 20 kilometers - it might as well have been 200 - loomed under the shadow of a colossus. Unspoiled, of course, but for the footprints of three. Only now, four full days after the forsaken wreck of the Odysseus plummeted to the bottom of that aweless ocean like a hot coal (it had damn near burned-up in the atmosphere), had they managed to breach the monolithic mountains of Olympos, notorious, death-addled rocks which rose dramatically from the earth like tombstones for the Gods. They had all heard stories that these mountains were restless, tempestuous, crawling with madness - alive! But how? An enclave drove them apart. Sheer cliffs, at points just four feet from each other, contained all the trappings of death. The decay of silence came in equal portions; taking their first wandering step into the void - hushed, brave, but unsure of what was yet to come - they were willing and ready, always ready, to share the rot.

The Golden Era of Science Fiction

We are now in the domain of the early science fiction pulp magazines. With titles like Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, titles which, during the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, stamped excitement, wonder and occasionally terror indelibly inside fourteen-year-old minds on both sides of the Atlantic, titles that even today may provoke "a laugh, a flash of the eyes, and a stream of bright memories" (Stephen King, On Writing) from those same kids grown-up, they were the scourge of self-respecting readers everywhere.

The famous and acclaimed science fiction and mystery writer Wilson Tucker (a man of taste, surely!) in 1941 went so far as to coin a phrase to approximate what he described as the kind of "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn" these magazines were involved with. The phrase? It was "Space Operas." This was sometimes an apt coinage - after all, science fiction pulps sold a vision of giant ants from outer space to an entire generation - but they were also where such hefty authors (you might have heard of them) as H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury cut their teeth crafting gifted, highly-intelligent and sophisticated tales of the future; of outer space and adventure; heroes and villains; robots and rogues; and new frontiers both literal and metaphorical.

The Art of the Golden Era

Wilson Tucker was not entirely wrong, but he missed the point; the modest appeal of the Space Opera is found exactly in the cliches: heroes of the chiseled-jaw variety, futuristic ships duking it out in space, maybe a touch of romance. They put fire in the soul of the nostalgic for adventure. Anyway, can't you get excited about giant ants from outer space? Nevertheless! If there really is a difference, then the few paragraphs of fiction atop this article are what the author is not too modest to admit more closely resemble the nobler kind. His words are, however, merely a ruse; the long shadow of the great American science fiction illustrator Virgil Finlay (Virgil - a pioneering name to be sure) obscures them entirely (referring, specifically, to an illustration originally printed in the 1966 December issue of Galaxy, which for all intents and purposes we'll call "Face in the Cliff"). As surely as Robert Crumb's History of America exposed the horror of modern architecture, this masterful, textured line drawing allies an undeniable technical gift for stippling and hatching to an instinctive genius for exposing the madness at the heart of the technological age. It represents the best of the genre and continues to inspire students of art textbooks today.

The Portrait of the Young Man as Commercial Artist

Born in 1914 in Rochester, New York, the son of a woodworker who died at the tender age of forty in the midst of the Great Depression, it is fair to say Virgil Finlay grew up poor. Luckily, or perhaps not so luckily - he was, after all, possessed of an impressive artistic talent demonstrable by the even tenderer age of sixteen - by 1935 he had managed to reconcile his collective misfortunes, successfully convincing Farnsworth Wright, editor of the horror and fantasy magazine Weird Tales, to buy his artworks. His indelible, dense-as-a-thicket style transferred spectacularly to the raw paper used commonly in pulp magazines.

Earle K. Bergey, on the other hand, was a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts graduate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as a pretty well-to-do middle-class kid from Philadelphia, Bergey never truly comprehended what has been described elsewhere in this article as "the madness at the heart of the technological age." Too young to enlist in 1919, he missed finding out just how mad it got (not much is known about his time in England during WWII).

His first job - in 1927 - landed him in the art department of the Philadelphia Ledger, illustrating what can only be ascertained on the sole evidence of its name to fairly spry comic strip called Deb Days. During the 1930s and 40s he carved out a niche as cover artist for a wild array of pulp magazines. These included several science fiction publications including Captain Future, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Fantastic Story Magazine. His style was in the popular mold of the period, summed-up neatly as "Bim, BEM, Bum" (bimbo in a kooky outfit for frills, bug-eyed-monster for chills and a heroic bum for thrills).

Fittingly, his most enduring work is his iconic book cover illustration for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but to be fair, his style, which is often derided for homogenizing a well-loved subculture with its emphasis on conventional heroism, scantily-clad women, unsightly aliens and garish colors, is the stuff Space Operas are made of.

Can you even imagine even how Star Wars might have looked without all or even some of those fantastical details?


Thanks to Art Lorte for the Deb Days strip, and to D. D. Degg for aiming Art in the correct direction. Allan Holtz's American Newspaper Comics
Deb Days ran from April 18 - November 19, 1927
Bergey was the artist from June 20 - November 19, 1927

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