Farewell, Kelly Freas

One treat I'd promised myself at the 2003 World SF Convention in Toronto was to say hello (or, more likely, grovel like some abject fanboy) to the great Kelly Freas, who was one of the guests of honour. Alas, he'd just broken his hip and couldn't make it. The opportunity won't come again, since he died unexpectedly on 2 January this year.

Frank Kelly Freas – pronounced "freeze" – was probably the best-loved American SF artist in the second half of the twentieth century. Born in 1922, he made his first science fiction cover art appearance on the jacket of Weird Tales in 1950, and went on to paint literally hundreds of covers for all the major magazines, notably Astounding SF both before and after its title change to Analog.

Besides the magazine covers, there were stacks of interior illustrations and countless paperback jackets. The Freas covers were the best thing about the ill-fated Laser Books SF series, whose authors were required to deliver a male protagonist, an upbeat ending, no sex or atheism, and a minimum of long words. The 1975-77 series ran to 57 titles before perishing of its own editorial ineptitude, and our man painted the jacket art for every one.

He collected ten Hugo awards as best professional artist, beginning in 1955 and with an unbroken run of wins from 1972 to 1976. In 2001 the fans voted him a Retro Hugo for his 1950 debut work (more about these awards in my column for SFX 125). Many other prizes came his way, but the honour he may have appreciated most of all was being asked by SF fans at NASA to design the official crew shoulder-patches for Skylab 1 and the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

The Skylab patch was mentioned in most Freas obituaries, but – in the great tradition of downplaying mere SF – what took pride of place was his seven-year stint as chief cover artist for Mad. "Mad magazine, sci-fi artist Freas dead", said the CNN headline. Indeed, his 1950s Mad covers established the leering features of that magazine's hideously freckled, gap-toothed mascot Alfred E. Neuman, whose catch-phrase is: "What, Me Worry?"

For younger readers to whom all this cobwebbed stuff is a mystery, I should add that a Freas painting of a werewolf appears in the obscure cult film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Trying to describe an artist's charm in mere words is foolhardy to the point of insanity, and therefore well suited to this page. Freas's paintings sizzled with colour, energy and humour. His aliens could be creepy, but more often were comical. However, his most famous single image is full of pathos, with a pale, outsized robot looking puzzled and unhappy as it holds a crumpled human figure in one hand, blood splashed on the other hand's metal finger ... (This 1953 Astounding cover was reworked many years later for a Queen rock album.)

As a rule, his Earthmen look like obvious rogues, but rogues who'd charm and sweet-talk you into unwise acts. The hero of Eric Frank Russell's The Space Willies (also known as Next of Kin) manages to blarney his way out of a maximum-security alien prison using only some copper wire and a great deal of doubletalk about having an invisible companion called Eustace. There he is on Freas's cover for the Ace Books edition, grinning and waving his useless wire stage-prop – and you can see at once that the slow-witted alien gaolers have no chance, no chance at all.

Then there were his women, the sexiest in SF art. Naturally Freas would have no truck with PC notions, and was in his element when one of James H. Schmitz's novels (A Tale of Two Clocks) described a high-fashion dress consisting solely of strategically placed ribbons. An unnaturally pink, glowing girl in this riot-inducing outfit turned up on another Schmitz book in which no such dress, or undress, is mentioned. In fact I seem to remember closely similar outfits on Freas covers for books which weren't even by James H. Schmitz.

Some favourite interior illustrations appeared with Randall Garrett's 1978 send-up of E.E. Smith's Lensman series, "Backstage Lensman", which described the alien baddies in very Smith-like prose:

"... a group of entities indescribable by, or to, man stood, sat, or slumped around a circular conference table. Though they had no spines, they were something like porcupines; though they had no tentacles, they reminded one of octopuses; though they had no wings or beaks, they seemed similar to vultures; and though they had neither scales nor fins, there was definitely something fishy about them."

I can only assure you that Kelly Freas rose joyously to this artistic challenge.

But my favourite of all his slyly comic covers is one which has been sadly outmoded by the march of technology. It appears on the February 1959 issue of Astounding SF, illustrating Murray Leinster's ripping yarn The Pirates of Ersatz. Sure enough, the central figure is a roguish space pirate swarming through the airlock – kerchief round his head, ray gun in hand, and a slide rule between his teeth. Once seen, never forgotten.

So long, Mr Freas, and thanks for all the pictures.

"Pirates of Ersatz" cover

British reprint edition of that Astounding, dated May

David Langford wishes the Death of SF would take a little holiday.