JUXTAPOZ Special B&W Issue, 2005

by George Petros

The Terrifying Beauty of Tomorrow: Virgil Finlay’s Unbelievable Universe

In Virgil Finlay’s universe, bug-eyed monsters abuse star-haired babes. Souless robots and ideal men battle. Phallic spaceships obscure the private parts of pin-up princesses. How do we know this? Finlay drew more than 2400 such fantastic scenarios for Science Fiction pulp magazines.

Virgil Finlay (1914-1971), considered by many the Twentieth Century’s best Science Fiction/Fantasy illustrator, specialized in magnificent scratchboard drawings that transformed black-and-white into energy and light. He was an excellent draftsman and a master of anatomy.

In 1935, as the Depression raged, SF pulp mags entertained fickle fans whose tight stream of small change financed publication. Savvy editors wooed regular readers with adventure, new technology, and racy pictures. That year, at age twenty-one, Finlay submitted a drawing to the mag Weird Tales. Its editor, Farnsworth Wright, ran it to test the intricate linework’s viability on a big press. It printed just fine, and the rest is history—or, more precisely, the obscure edge of arcane history.

Finlay was born in Rochester, New York. His family, bedeviled by the hardships of hardscrabble America, had little money. From an early age he drew, encouraged by friends and teachers. He poured over art instruction books from local libraries. Shortly after his fourteenth birthday, Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery exhibited a few of his figure drawings (his age unknown to the curators), clinching for him the tag “prodigal.”

In the early Thirties, the Depression-busting Works Projects Administration (WPA) inaugurated local art-training programs, and Finlay studied anatomy, portraiture, and landscape painting. Those egalitarian exercises in public art served as his only formal training. After that, he learned as he went along. While he favored oil painting, a pursuit paralleling his SF and Fantasy work, scratchboard put him on the map.

Scratchboard, at once a technique and a medium, consists of white illustration board covered with a thin layer of black ink. The artist scratches off the ink with fine pen-like points, resulting in white lines against black backgrounds. Larger points produce larger white areas, in which the artist draws with an ink pen.

Finlay conquered other techniques—like stippling, the placing of fine dots in tight order to approximate gray tones. He made each dot by holding a pen a slight distance from the board (rather than touching it) so that only a tiny bead of ink reached the surface, and after each dot’s application he wiped off the pen point, carefully dipping it again into the ink. And his cross-hatching—it’s as if he painstakingly mimicked the tonalities of etchings and photographs. The latter technique often appears in his depictions of stars, fire, explosions, and other energetic phenomena.

Dramatic draftsmanship and killer detailing typified the drawings he provided in a steady stream to Weird Tales. Those drawings generated a big response—and a big increase in readership. Was it the sexy ladies whose likenesses Finlay lifted from sleezy magazines? Or the male hunks rescuing them? His flawless fashionings of devils, monsters, and aliens animated the subjects and amazed the fans. His realistic renderings of buxom babes as objects of interstellar angst transcended cheesecake. He illustrated stories by many now-forgotten space-opera scribes, as well as by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft.

Adoring abandon inspired Lovecraft, one of Finlay’s many admirers, to write, “What limner he who braves black gulfs alone/And lives to make their alien horrors known?” (A “limner” is one who draws.) Finlay definitely had fans.

Harsh economics ruled publishing then as now. Despite fans’ constant clamoring for his work, Finlay received seven to eleven bucks per drawing—not much even back then. He never escaped the near-poverty from which he came—except for a few years prior to World War Two, when he held a well-paying and prestigious position.

Abe Merritt, SF writer-turned-editor of America’s largest-circulation periodical (The American Weekly), hired Finlay as illustrator and art director (replacing not-yet-famous-actor John Barrymore). Virgil went to New York in 1937, soon thereafter summoning longtime love Beverly Stiles from back home in Rochester. Mostly Irish, born a Lutheran, Finlay converted to Judaism in order to wed her.

“Those were good days for my dad,” says daughter Lail Finlay. “My mom and him hung out at the Pen And Pencil and the Algonquin; he knew Hemingway and Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker and all those people—if the war hadn’t come along his life would have been a whole different story.” World War Two changed everything. Drafted, Virgil departed for Okinawa’s front lines, where he engaged in brutal combat with suicidal Japanese forces.

He returned to America a different man. He suffered from nightmares. The American Weekly no longer existed. SF mags paid even less than before the war. He and Beverly settled on Long Island, rebuilding their lives while he re-established himself. Lail: “Before the war he was very social. After the war he never left the house. He had what he used to call ‘second sight.’ He could tell you what was going to happen—that’s why he never went out. It would drive him nuts. When friends came over, as a parlor game they used to have a few beers and say to him, ‘Read my palm —’” Lail goes on to recollect her dad predicting a few untimely deaths. The premonitions bothered him. Because of their distracting intensity, he didn’t drive. Yet he regarded clairvoyance as a fact of life, like musical or mathematical aptitude.

And so Finlay, cigarette in hand, remained stationed at his drawing board for the rest of his life. He contributed to Weird Tales, Amazing, Fantastic, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Galaxy, and If, among others. He did some full-color covers, but fans preferred his black-and-white stuff.

Although poorly paid, he spent inordinate time on each drawing. Rarely did he resort to grease pencil in place of pen, to more quickly finish. He worked all night. He never left the house. He didn’t go to the store, or to restaurants. Manuscripts arrived in the mail; Beverly read them, highlighting passages for Virgil’s attention. He selected ones he liked and proceeded to conjure up cool compositions.

Like clairvoyance, a fantastic imagination was just another component of his reality. In his head the magnificence of space and time was obvious and apparent, indistinguishable from other manifestations of the everyday. On the moons of Jupiter, rocket jockeys might rescue alien tarts from fiendish tyrants, but back home on Long Island lawns needed mowing and creditors awaited. He depicted the wonderful and the terrifying—yet he toiled in a small, cluttered area, smoking and worrying about money like everyone else, occasionally getting glimpses of the future. As he hunched over his drawing board, perhaps imagining the celestial history of each dot he made, the aroma of a cooking meal intensified until he put aside cosmic concerns and headed off to eat. Then he went back to work.

Even for mundane stories he created the most beautiful allegorical figures—spacemen representing conquerors, beautiful women their prizes, monsters their rivals. He rendered the angry, the triumphant, the confused. Each dot denoted a tiny piece of reality. And dot by painstaking dot, Finlay cranked it out. When it was past deadline Beverly personally delivered his work to editors in New York, an hour’s train ride distant; otherwise she mailed it. He did his business by mail and telephone.

Lail Finlay remembers his set-up: “As you came in the front door of our house, you were in the kitchen, and there was like a little dining area. There was a pass-through to the living room. That’s where he worked. He had like three square inches of space. Anyone who walked into the house was on his drawing table. He drew all the time.”

In addition to routinely illustrating the writings of Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert Heinlein, Finlay produced hundreds of oil paintings: landscapes, Abstract Expressionism, figure studies—he tried his hand at everything. Of his place in the fine art world, Lail says, “He did okay. Of course he was much more known in Science Fiction. But he was in a show at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York. A piece hung in the Fogg Museum at Harvard. The actor Edward G. Robinson bought two of his landscapes.”

Lail continues: “He was a regular guy who just happened to stay up all night drawing fantastic pictures. He was a good husband, and a good dad. He was not what you would typically consider an artist. He had hands that were huge—huge. He was a very physical type of a guy.

“He wasn’t a big talker. He only spoke when he had something to say. He would wait while everyone else bantered back and forth, and at the appropriate moment he would make some small comment and everyone would fall on the floor and die laughing. He was a very funny guy.

“He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t go to the doctor until he was dead.” That’s just about what happened. For years, cigarette-triggered mastoid cancer ate away at his throat and jaw. He basically hid its effects from the family. One day Beverly noticed he couldn’t open his mouth far enough to lick a stamp. At that point it was too late. He went through a horrible surgery anyway. In the hospital he continued to draw, and upon his release worked for astrology mags like Everyday Astrology, Every Woman’s Daily Horoscope and Your Daily Horoscope. Imagine him at his drawing table with part of his neck cut out, jonesing for a cigarette, his mind a million miles away. Two months before he died, Lail caught him smoking. That’s the kind of guy he was. Hospitalized again, his systems just shut down. Lail: “He came out of his coma. We left a sketch pad and pencils by the bed. He did a drawing, went back into the coma, and died.”

His work almost fell through the cracks. Yellowing pulp mags lingered in thrift shops, occasionally attracting the attention of a rummaging nerd. A few reprinted Finlay drawings graced anthologies of SF illustration, where they stood out like sore thumbs in a sea of hack work.

Finlay had always asked publishers to return his original artwork, much of which he proceeded to gave away—like to his old pal Gerry de la Ree, who in 1975 gathered together many surviving originals and published a series of six Finlay hardcover books in runs of about a thousand each. Another old friend, editor Sam Moskowitz, contributed a loving bio to the first volume. In the ’80s, Underwood-Miller re-packaged much of the content of those books, along with additional drawings and color work.

Awareness of this body of work is slowing spreading. Art know-it-alls are getting hip to Finlay. Bob Weinberg, author of The Biographical Dictionary Of Science Fiction Illustrators and premier Finlay collector, puts the interest in perspective: “It’s Finlay’s attention to detail and his fabulous imagination. The detail is hypnotic. He made Science Fiction art more than just some alien creature—he made it beautiful. People were astonished.”

The world may soon pay the master his due. Weinberg: “For a long time nobody thought Science Fiction illustration had any value. In the Fifties you could buy a really good Finlay original drawing for a dollar—and nobody bought one. He sent his originals to SF conventions for auctions, and they couldn’t sell it. No one really cared. When he was having health problems at the end of his life, he personally put a lot of his artwork up for sale. The average price was ten dollars. That was the only time he really made money from Science Fiction. When I started collecting in the Seventies, I could buy a Finlay for twenty-five dollars.

“Nowadays the Finlay price range is from 200 dollars up to 4000 dollars for a black-and-white illustration. His paintings go for 12 or 13,000. If you look at a piece and can really lose yourself in it due to the incredible detail, and you’re hypnotized by it, it’s one of the more valuable pieces.

“But all of Finlay’s work was amazing. It was just beautiful.”

On some faraway planet rusting robots manhandled space queens, and devilish aliens trapped wild-eyed space jocks. But down on Long Island, Virgil nonchalantly lit up his imagination like a trusty old cigarette, rolled up his sleeves and got to work, what with all the bills to pay. Thanks, VF, for the amazing art.

Here are websites that deal to varying degrees with Finlay’s work. No site is devoted to him.