Anyone who has had an interest in heroic fantasy in the 1970s -1980s would surely recognize the name of Stephen Fabian – or, at the least, would have seen his logo initials “SF” below his stylized depictions of beautiful women and muscular men. It’s also wonderful and inspiring to know that Fabian (as he is usually referred to, by all who appreciate his art) at the age of 90 is still with us and happy to know he’s being featured here!
Fabian had been working for Simmonds Precision Products, an electronics company in Vermont when, in 1965, he began dreaming about a different career. He was only 21, an airman in the U.S. Air Force at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, when at the base PX looking for magazines he noticed "Famous Fantastic Mysteries," "Fantastic Novels," and "Astounding Science Fiction" with story illustrations by Virgil Finlay, Lawrence Stevens, Edd Cartier, and Hubert Rogers, and – as he puts it – “I was hooked.”
Fabian chafes at the ‘self-taught’ label, crediting Andrew Loomis, a golden age illustrator, and his five art instruction books, for his education in art. For two years he studied those books faithfully in his spare time, producing hundreds of drawings and paintings, all in pursuit of the “dream” that he might turn to part-time science fiction illustrating one day, when he retired from his day job.
One of his “lessons” resulted in a copy of Loomis’ well-known “The Mermaid.”
Fabian points out that he “made a lot of changes, so it’s not an exact copy.” What we see, however, is not how he avoided copying Loomis, but rather how artfully he managed, even at this early stage, to incorporate so many of the stylistic flourishes associated with pulp art ‘femmes’ – the hair, the hands, the more sensual breasts, the more exotic eyes and expression, the tilt of the head and of course, the saturated, bordering on cartoonish, coloration – all scream Virgil Finlay . . .
The dream became a reality only a decade later, when in 1973 the Arab oil boycott forced cutbacks in several industries, and Fabian found himself jobless – in a state where Electronics firms were scarce, and with a wife and two sons to support. But in what can only be termed a miraculous turn of events, Fabian reports that upon his return home from being fired he found two letters in the mail from professional magazine editors offering him assignments: Jim Baen (Galaxy Magazine), and Sol Cohen (Amazing Stories). And he still recalls with fondness the appropriateness of the title “The Splendid Freedom” - one of the first interiors that Baen commissioned him to produce.
Fabian’s first paid job in the SF field came in 1973, a book assignment for the cover art and interiors for the western story The Vultures by Robert E. Howard (Fictioneer Books). This serendipitous commission set the stage for a future filled with jobs calling for “swords and sorcery” illustrations – at which Fabian excelled. Indeed, the volume of artworks he produced relating to Robert E Howard starting the late 60s and into the 70s was astounding; Fabian reigned supreme in the genre for Howardian art in the small presses.
At the beginning he found freelancing difficult, but was able to persevere with the help of his family and friends, and the patronage of book dealer, fan, collector and publisher Gerry de la Ree. There was a time when this field was much smaller – a time when individuals (fans and book dealers, predominately) – could exert huge influence if their interests ran to small press publishing. Such was the case when de la Ree, seizing upon Fabian’s obvious affinity for drawing adventure-packed scenes featuring sexy nudes, in 1976 published Fabian's first Fantastic Nudes portfolio.
This was followed, in the same year, by Fantastic Nudes 2nd series, and by the late 70s de la Ree had published books: Fantasy By Fabian - The Art Of Stephen E. Fabian and More Fantasy By Fabian - The Art Of Stephen E. Fabian (1978/1979) Fabian and de la Ree became close friends, and these publications helped establish Fabian as one of the most prominent black-and-white illustrators in the field.
In the same decade there was also published The Best Of Stephen Fabian (1976 - Loompanics Unlimited), Conan, Queen of the Black Coast and Conan, The Tower of the Elephant (House of Fantasy, 1976, 1977), and Pagan Images (Bob Lynn, a.k.a Anthony/Tony Raven, a.k.a Bob Raven, 1978) Lynn was a magician, psychic entertainer and espouser of Bizarre Magick, which relies on horror and the supernatural for effects. (sidenote: It is interesting to speculate on the connection established with Lynn; one of Fabian’s influences was the artist Hannes Bok, who also had a magician, Dunninger, as his fan and patron)
Fabian’s connection to the fantasy field was further solidified, early on, by commissions for drawings from George Hamilton, a California based fanzine publisher of “The Fabian Fan Club.” Hamilton was devoted to the works of Robert E. Howard and published many Howard booklets for which Fabian did most of the artwork.
Early in his career Fabian also discovered that he had to contend with art directors, some of whom he found very frustrating. As one example, Fabian created the painting “Dark Agnes,” which was intended to be the cover for a paperback, "Sword Woman" by Robert E. Howard.
“But I ran into a problem,” Fabian writes, “I never expected as an illustrator; some editors have no integrity.”
By that, Fabian meant that editors were more concerned with attracting “Conan” readers than being faithful to the story.
As the characters were described in “Sword Woman” the characters wore clothing just like the Three Musketeers – the same time period, the same style, the same weapons. (whence wide-brimmed feathered hats, pantaloons, and fencing swords)
But as Fabian recalls the editor putting it, to his dismay, “I want your artwork on the cover of this book (to) make the eyes of a browser in a bookstore pop out when he looks at it, and won't be able to resist buying the book!" So it was "goodbye" to musketeers, and “hello” to Sword Woman’s breasts and Howard’s barbarian universe – just for the sake of capturing the audience that Frazetta (and then Kelly, Jones, and others) created.
Fabian produced images for Howard’s stories both known and obscure; he created memorable drawings for small press publishers like Paul W. Ganley, who produced a fanzine, "Weirdbook." Fabian illustrated several books for him as well as many Weirdbook covers. And then for Fictioneer Books he created three fantastic Conan Posters, in 1976. The second of the three is based on Robert E. Howard's Conan story, "Queen of the Black Coast." It also appears on the dust jacket of Howard's book, "Gardens of Fear".
Right from the beginning of his career, Fabian also had an affinity for horror and the macabre. So, among the small presses of the day which featured his work was Stuart Schiff’s memorable fanzine digest Whispers. Fabian’s cover for Whispers #2 (1973) gives you an idea of his talents in that genre.
I asked Schiff recently to recall his early fascination with Fabian’s art. He wrote “I have always said, although their styles were very different, that Steve Fabian was a worthy successor to Virgil Finlay. His B & W artwork had movement that, to me, Finlay’s did not. His colors were bright and bold and his women busty and round . . . “
Which naturally brings me to add: This observation is shared by almost every admirer of Fabian’s art. The influences are unmistakeable yet Fabian’s style of expression remains uniquely his own.
What was also undeniable, over time, was that Fabian’s females were in greater demand than his spaceships – although he did them quite well. His “busty and round” – Finlay-inspired, stylized female nudes, with slim waists, perfect breasts, and idealized beauty – combined with an equally liberal implementation of Finlay’s stippling technique and exquisite handling of ink, made Fabian’s “Ladies” impossible to ignore.
Not that all his depictions of sexy babes were drawn to his liking.
Through the years, Fabian – like many commercial artists - has felt compelled to accept jobs that went “against my better nature,” as he puts it, and he has had his share of problems with editors over their directorial decisions. In spite of his clear attraction to depicting women unclothed, He never liked doing “bondage” cover art, despite the popularity of this kind of subject matter - starting with Golden Age pulp magazines with titles (he recalls) like Eerie Stories, Horror Stories, and Weird Tales, and “they had lots of readers.” The Devil’s Bride, he recalls, was done “after I concluded that if I didn't do it the editor would probably not send me any more commissions in the future. I learned very early in my career that editors did not like their decisions criticized, or their requests turned down
By the mid- to late 1970s, and despite the continued influence of artists like Cartier (the simple “hot” color schemes, models that recalled the pulpy 30s, and compositions that featured looming menaces etc) Fabian’s sheer natural talent was becoming clear. His style was dynamic, immediate, involving, and bold. And he had permanently established himself as a master of “sword and sorcery imagery.
By the 1980s Fabian was working for Donald M Grant Books, Centaur Press, Arkham House (he illustrated ten books for them) and other publishers, and was beginning to expand his skills, show his versatility. The evocative, dreamy mood he conjured up for Hodgson’s “Dream of X” (Grant, 1977) is an example of how he was able to capture an author’s storytelling spirit in a very different style.
Despite these departures, throughout the decade and into the 80s Fabian continued to create graceful but complex and highly detailed compositions echoing Pulpy influences, especially when the subject matter called for it. Many of Fabian’s works had strong contrasts between light and dark, usually very bold contrasts that affected his whole composition and created a kind of theatrical intensity that set his art apart – even though use of the chiascuro technique recalled Edd Cartier’s.
By the mid 1980s Fabian was busy turning out private commissions, still enjoying commissions from independent presses, and making history with his classic images for TSR’s dark fantasy/horror role-playing game “Ravenloft”. And he adjusted his style accordingly. Fabian was able to appeal to readers familiar with Abraham Merritt as surely as he was able to connect with adolescent fans of D&D. It was “win-win” for publishers and fans of all ages.
There was renewed interest in compilations of his artworks from specialty presses in the 1990s: Ladies and Legends (Underwood, 1993) and Stephen E. Fabian's Women & Wonders (Underwood, 1995) both containing reproductions of his many fantasy book and magazine illustrations of the 70s and 80s. Meanwhile, commissions for his covers and interiors broadened to depicting the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, L Sprague de Camp and many others. He also continued to contribute interior and cover art to magazines: Galaxy, If, Amazing Stories, Fantastic.
A whole new world opened up for Fabian after the turn of the century, when John Betancourt, of Adventure Press/Wildside Books commissioned him to produce the cover art for a series of books – The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard. By that time, Fabian had mastered the skill of creating art digitally. And he discovered that he had a veritable treasure chest of older artwoks to draw from, and “re-visit” if need be. Artistically invigorated by new technologies, he found that he enjoyed accessing, and re-working previously published images, to create distinctly updated versions that could reach contemporary readers. Here is one example, for the title “Wings in the Night”.
The painting originally appeared on the cover of the book, "The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate." However, as Fabian observes, “the swordsman in that painting is a Persian warrior and stands to the right of the woman. For “Wings in the Night” I replaced the Persian warrior with "Conan," and placed him on the left side of the woman.
(sidenote: it’s worth visiting Fabian’s site, stephenfabian.com, if only for the pleasure of reading all his anecdotes….e.g., associated with this image is his recollection of attending the award ceremony for the 1979 world fantasy convention where he met the author L. Sprague de Camp, his wife, and the formidable editor Judy-Lynn (Benjamin) Del Rey (Galaxy, If, Ballantine and ultimately - married to Lester Del Rey – whence her imprint: Del Rey Books)
Like many of his older fans, Fabian says he is “trying to stay safe from the Coronavirus since it's me that the virus is particularly looking for” but otherwise he doesn’t have to worry much about his status in the science fiction and fantasy world: he’s already outlived his competition and won his awards.
Because, from the very beginning, the field took notice. As early as 1970, he was being nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist (and again, 1971), and was a seven-time nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist (1975–1981). In 1977 the British Fantasy Society created a category for Best Artwork, in addition to its award for Best Novel… and that continued for three years until 1979. Fabian won the award in its second year, 1978. And when, In 1980, the Artwork Award was replaced by an award for Best Artist, Fabian won the inaugural award. Most recently, in 2006, Fabian received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement.
Today, well into his retirement, Fabian “still spends time occasionally doing new artwork for my own personal pleasure using my computer and mouse to draw and paint pictures. And my hobby nowadays is making hardcover books and DVDs that contain all the artwork I did since 1964 to date.” He puts them up for sale on eBay, and sells prints through his website: stephenfabian.com.
At the end of the day, what is the take-away here? Steve Fabian would tell you: if you have a compelling urge to create, don’t ignore it. I would add: Stand proudly on the shoulders of giants who came before you, and expand upon what is already known. The continued cultural evolution of visual imagery depends on it.