Reminisce With Me/ARS GRATIA ARTIS: The Lost Art of Illoing

From Fanlore
Jump to: navigation, search
The following represents the fannish memories of Nancy Kippax, which she recorded on LJ in the last months of her life. Permission to archive these memories has been granted to us by April Valentine.

Jul. 20th, 2008

I am a fandom dinosaur. But you know that already. I wonder if there was a day when the actual dinosaurs – the Brontosaurus and the T. Rex and all the other great beasts – looked out upon their diminishing world and despaired at how much had been changed, how much had been lost. I can't speak for the behemoths, but I can speak for myself and what I often perceive as the diminishing landscape of fandom.
There are a few things that I miss more than others. Some I've already written about -- the satisfaction of holding a new zine in your hands, editors who edit, the enjoyment of good filk songs – and now I'd like to tackle another rather broad subject: Artwork. Both fanzine illustrating and the business of buying and selling it. Both dying breeds.
Granted, there are still a few fandoms with active but limited artistic involvement. Among the ST:TOS community of predominantly K/S fen, and also in the still fertile Starsky & Hutch and The Sentinel circles, artwork is still gracing the pages of print zines, still being bought and sold at convention art shows, and even occasionally posted with a story on a web site, but with less excitement and smaller participation. Yet overall, as fandom has moved away from the print zines and onto the Internet, artwork has taken a much less important place. It's one of those things that I most deplore about posting a story online. You never get to see an artist's rendition of your scenes.
As a writer, I know that there is nothing more sublime than having a talented artist capture scenes that you have written with a gorgeous illo! I remember the first time I received artwork for something I'd written from someone outside my family. Almost every hour I was pulling it out of the envelope and looking at the illos again in wonder. Someone else had seen the vision I'd created in my head and translated it into art. Impressive! If my memory serves, the story was "An Act of Love", in Contact II, and the artist was Leslie Fish.
Over the years, Bev and I were privileged to have illos done for our own writing by most of fandom's top artists – including Alice Jones, Pat Stall, Connie Faddis, Suzan Lovett, Merle Decker, and Stephanie Hawks, to name just a few. And each one was like opening a much-sought-after Christmas present, with all the attendant joy and delight. I recall, for example, when Stephanie Hawks did the illos for our novella in Contact VII, "A Different Drummer". One of the illos was of our created character, Diogenes. When the artwork arrived, both Bev and I said, "Ah! So that's what he looks like!" We'd had a vague mental image, but this was seeing it come alive! He was real.
During the fanzine heyday, when literally hundreds of zines were pouring out from all over the globe, artists were at a premium. There were far more writers and fanzines than there were good artists to provide artwork. Some editors developed a close relationship with a popular artist and was said to have that person "in their pocket". That artist would often loyally free up their schedule to accommodate certain editors over others.
Partly this was from loyalty and partly it was the more practical situation of selecting those editors whom the artist knew would reproduce their work in the finest way possible. Artists like Alice Jones, who worked in a very fine pencil style, or Pat Stall, who used a pen and brush technique of modified gouache, spent a lot of time and effort on their creations, and they didn't want them showing up in a zine faded or bleeding. So they went, for the most part, with experienced editors and publishers who had learned the best ways to reproduce artwork.
Bev and I actually decided with Contact III that we were going to focus on making our zine as attractive as possible and to concentrate on getting good illos. Fortunately for us, Pat Stall dropped into our lives around that time, and between her art and the printers she sent us to, we learned everything we needed to know about reproduction (Art reproduction – get your mind out of the gutter!) Yes, it cost more; yes, it took more attention, but it was well worth every cent!
Bear in mind that this was before the days of quality xeroxing or color xerox. Text print was reproduced by offset printing. Color artwork, most commonly 2 or 3 colors, had to be separated and printed one color at a time, thereby doubling or tripling the cost of that page. This was the preferred method typically used only for the front covers. Many used white card stock and selected one or two other colors for an attractive and eye-catching zine. On her first issue of Interphase, printed in 1975, Connie Faddis employed a method called silk-screening for her cover – a detailed, time-consuming project which only an accomplished artist like Connie would have the skill to pull off. But the rest of us settled for what we could learn and do more easily. Artistically, Interphase set the bar for all the zines that followed, in more ways than one.
When it came to interior art, most pen and ink work was easily printed the same way as the text pages. But for the more delicate and detailed work of artists like Pat or Alice, a method called "screening" was used by the printer . Essentially what it meant was that the page or art piece was photographed with more dots, like the photo pixels today. The more dots, the more detail, and sometimes a printer had to fiddle with it to get just the right amount of ink on the page. From Contact V on, we went to a printer who supplied us with "blue lines". That was a dummy copy, printed in a strong blue ink, which we were required to go over one final time (and believe me, by this point we were sick of the darn thing!) for any adjustments or changes. Special attention was paid to the artwork, to assure that it was printed in a way that would please the artist who created it. You didn't want to get an artist pissed at you! An editor fostered those relationships with its artists.
For the most part, I have to say that the artists who were available in those days were angels to work with. We always tried to accord them the freedom and discretion to do as they wished. Sometimes we would suggest a scene we'd like to see illoed, or give some idea what we'd like for a "title illo" (that illustration at the beginning of a piece), but mostly we'd send the story or poems out to an artist and either give them free rein or work with them to come up with adequate pieces. One of the major issues was time – artists typically took a longer margin of time than an editor wanted, and many a zine was delayed waiting for a set of illos.
In the "payment" protocol of zines, an artist had to illustrate three poems or a full story to earn a contributor ("'trib") copy. Likewise, an author had to contribute the same for their copy. (Special arrangements were made regarding smaller "vignettes".) But here, the artist had the advantage over the author. Artists were then allowed to sell their artwork.
After the zine was published, the artwork reverted back to the artist. Often, editors would buy a piece from an artist on sight, most often the cover art for the zine, or sometimes illos from their own written work. The contributing authors sometimes also bought the illos for their work under personal arrangement with the artist, and would get the pieces after publication of the zine in which they appeared. And if I may also say here, Bev and I received a number of pieces, covers and interior art, given free to us by generous artists simply as a gift, as I'm sure other zine eds did, too.
I'm not sure when or how the Art Show at conventions began. I remember there being smaller ones at some of the New York cons run by Townsley, but whether or not artwork was sold or just displayed, I don't recall. Artists would sell prints of their work in the dealer's room. I'm also pretty sure that Shore Leave had an art show, albeit small, from the beginning, as did Media West and its antecedents. So somewhere in there, in the late '70s, convention promoters set aside a room for any artists to exhibit their work for sale. Originally, as early as I can remember, there was an obligatory 10% hanging fee for each piece, plus 10% or more of the sale price (depending on the convention). Later, the hanging fees were widely dropped and just the percentage on what was sold remained. Art was sold then, as now, at an Art Auction, usually held near the end of the convention.
Oh, what great fun and entertainment were the auctions in those early days! The first one I remember attending was at one of the midwest fan cons, Media West was (and still is) the premiere con for art sales, because it has always attracted the biggest assortment of zine and art collectors and enthusiasts. Here is where fans will go toe to toe over that perfect Spock or the picture that illustrated a story that they loved. Top artists could pull in a tidy little sum at one con, if it were the right one. Often, they would work on pieces solely for convention sales, and often zine eds would come strictly to buy art at auction for inclusion in their upcoming issues. Art was sold either with or without reproduction rights, and those pieces with the printing rights were fair game for any editor.
A good auctioneer could whip fans into a frenzy, especially when there was a bidding war, when two or more were determined to get a certain piece. It was fun to sit and watch as the prices went up, up, up! I never had the money to participate, so I always sat on my hands and watched others spend their money.
I always thought it was a bit unfair (and so did others) that an author could spend months working on a story, or a novella, and receive only a free issue of the zine in which it appeared. But an artist could spend perhaps weeks on an art piece and not only get it in a zine, earning a free issue, but then sell it at auction and get money besides. At one point there was some desultory talk about writers selling their original manuscripts, editing and all, but nothing ever actually came of it!
As slash swept fandom, more erotic artwork was produced, for zines and simply for sale. Artists picked up on this new freedom just as writers did. At cons, there were concerns about this explicit artwork being seen by underage attendees or by mundanes visiting the hotel and wandering into the art room. Some conventions restricted what could be hung, others fashioned a screened off area beyond which specific artwork was hidden. At multi-media cons, slash cons, and cons like Media West where the entire hotel was inhabited by con attendees, this issue never became a problem. Eventually, it all got sorted out and the long-running conventions settled in according to whatever dictates they had devised.
Today, with the majority of fiction posted on line, there is little need for story illos. The use of photographs is also employed for an artistic touch. When Susan K. James and I put our "Queer as Folk" novel, Broken Image, on the web in 2003, we used a pertinent photo illo or two for each chapter. Dinosaurs both of us, we couldn't abide the idea of not having some kind of visual addition to our writing.
Fewer and fewer of the fan artists working now are willing or able to pick out which scenes to illo, preferring to focus on simple character portraits that will be more readily sold for a higher profit, A longtime fan was once said to remark, "We don't need more artists – what we need are slaves who can draw really well!"
I suppose that as long as print zines still exist, there will be artists to illustrate them. But on the whole, it's becoming a dying form. I mourn its passing.