Our attitudes towards the alien tells us more about ourselves than almost any aspect of Science Fiction
Human beings have always had a fear of, and at the same time, a fascination with the “other”.
Almost as soon as humans were able to make art on cave walls depictions of strange and bizarre creatures began showing up amongst images of their fellows and animals. The stone walls of ancient Egypt were rife with depictions of gods with human bodies and the heads of jackals, eagles or snakes.
In modern times, when gods were replaced with aliens, depictions of beings from other planets have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Before the twentieth century a number of Victorian illustrators, chief among them French illustrator Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (who was generally known by the pseudonym of Jean-Jacques or J. J. Grandville), were adept at creating menageries full of wild and outrageous creatures. Most of these early illustrations took the form of political satire, but divorced from their cultural meanings as they are today they are wonderful examples of imaginative illustration.
It wasn’t until the twentieth century with the rise of the Science Fiction pulps, that alien creatures really took center stage.
J. Allen St. John
J. Allen St, John was an American author, artist and illustrator. He is considered by many to be ‘The Godfather of Modern Fantasy Art’. Although he illustrated works of many types, St. John had the enviable opportunity to be one of the first to illustrate the fantastic tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs,
Although mostly remembered as the author who created Tarzan, Burroughs also wrote planetary romances set on the Moon, Mars, Venus and even at the Earth’s core. Burroughs’ books contain a menagerie of alien creatures that were ably depicted by St. John. From Martian Thoats to lunar Kalkars, St. John’s versions inspired the imaginations of readers beginning with the A. C. McClurg publication of The Return of Tarzan (1915) until the Amazing Stories illos for Ray Palmer in the 1940s.
Frank R. Paul
The Science Fiction magazine Amazing Stories was, of course, no stranger to alien creatures. The pages of that pulp magazine were chockfull of all manner of odd and bizarre alien beings. The chief artist of the magazine was Frank R. Paul. Frank Rudolph Paul was a discovery of editor Hugo Gernsback. Paul was influential in defining the look of both cover art and interior illustrations in the nascent Science Fiction pulps of the 1920s. And he depicted his fair share of extraterrestrial creatures. As adept as Paul was at depicting architecture and futuristic machinery, his skill left a little bit to be desired when it came to human anatomy. His aliens were rendered in a similarly clumsy fashion. An artist needs to be fully conversant in human and animal anatomy before he or she can successfully subvert the form in such a manner. Paul did try and his alien creatures are suitably outre if not entirely believable.
One of the ways he would work around that shortcoming was to suit his aliens up in metal suits. As in his 1940 illustration for “Life on Uranus” (insert sophomoric joke here) Paul depicts a frog-like alien but only its face is visible through the front plate of a helmet. The rest of the structure is merely suggested by the configuration of the metal suit.
Of course, Paul is famous for one of the earliest depictions of a well-known alien — the Martians from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. (He was also the first artist to draw a space station and a flying saucer.) Paul naturally chose to depict only the Martian’s tripod walking machines and not the biological creatures themselves on the cover of Amazing Stories, August 1927.
There is so much more to this topic and M. D. Jackson’s article in the second issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly goes much further in depth. You can read the entire article and more in the latest issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY. Download issue # 2 for FREE right here, or click on the download button below!