A Most Unexpected Affair

The visual art of Harry Harrison.

Harry Harrison 1
Art by Harry Harrison from Cry #178, published in December 1968 by Elinor Busby, Vera Heminger, Wally Weber.

Harry Harrison is one of my all-time favourite science fiction authors, not so much for his later work which became rather too epic in style for my tastes, but for those books my teenage self found in the local library back in the seventies. It was then that novels such as The Technicolor Time Machine, Deathworld (but not so much the sequels), Bill, the Galactic Hero (but not so much those sequels either), Make Room! Make Room!, and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers became firm favourites.

Given how much and how well Harry Harrison wrote I was surprised to discover he didn’t start his professional career as an author. It was while reading the collection of autobiographical essays he edited with Brian Aldiss, Hell’s Cartographers, that I discovered in Harry’s own memoir, The Beginning of the Affair, how he began selling as an artist long before he attempted to write professionally. According to this essay he only came to write Rock Diver (his first published science fiction short) because a dose of influenza had rendered him unable to draw but still capable of using a typewriter.

More recently however I have discovered a far older Harrison essay called The Author’s Lot II (so titled because it was written as a sequel to an already published Brian Aldisss article) which recounts a more detailed, if less poetic, version of this conversion. The article in question appeared in Vector #22, October 1963, which was and is the journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

Harrison starts off with some detail about his development as a visual artist:

‘At the same time I was building a career in art. My interests were Classical and my training was done on the antique and I leaned towards portrait painting. However I watched my maestro, the incomparable painter John Blomshield, starve himself to death and had second thoughts. Easel painting is only for those with private incomes. Recognising the handwriting on the canvas I went to a series of commercial art academies and emerged able to do a competent job of magazine illustration, book jackets, advertising layouts and comic books, all of which I drew with varying degrees of commercial success. I eventually found my niche in the comic books which paid the most money for the least work and gave golden premiums for speed. (I once inked a standard nine panel 15” by 20” comic page in 25 minutes and became known in our professional circle – not without a certain amount of jealousy – as Harry the Hack.) I would probably still be there, buying India ink by the gallon instead of the quart and inking with a bigger and bigger brush, if it hadn’t been for the enduring SF interest.’

Of course this was only possible because Harry had natural artistic talent to work with. To prove this I’m going to share with you the earliest example of Harry Harrison art I’m aware of. (Feel free to think of me as a terrible person for letting you see a beloved author’s earliest, and crudest, work.) “ROBOT” appeared in Sun Spots V5 #2, which was published by by Gerry de la Ree in May/June 1941. I think it’s obvious that even as a teenager (my guess being that Harry was about 16 when this was published) he was already a decent draftsman.

Harry Harrison 2

On the other hand you can see the influence all those years of commercial work had in the piece of art at the top of this column. I wouldn’t try to sell you the idea that if Harry had stayed working on comics he would be up there with the greats like Jim Steranko or Steve Ditko but I do think he had enough talent to become a well known industry professional. If you want further proof then I suggest you ferret out some of Harry’s professional work listed below and judge them:

‘At the same time I was an art pro and did as much SF work as I could find. (If collectors want a new excuse to grub through their files, they’ll find a book jacket of mine from Gnome Press, and illustrations in the revived Marvel, Galaxy and the original Science Fiction Adventures.) I also enjoyed the fannish transports of delight of rubbing shoulders with all the pros, ninety-five percent of whom were living in and around New York City at that time.’

Now comes the more detailed but less poetic story of his conversion:

‘This heady atmosphere was inspiring and the writing bug hit hard. I had had experience editing various kinds of magazines and had written goodly numbers of comic scripts – so why not SF? I wrote and discarded a few stories until I finally had one that seemed adequate. At this time I was illustrating Worlds Beyond and I took it along when I turned in a batch of drawings and asked the editor, Damon Knight, to do me a favour and read the story. Instead of giving me an opinion he gave me a cheque for $100 and since then I have never looked back. (The story was titled I Walk Through Rocks, a terrible title that Damon instantly changed to Rock Diver.)’

Well I guess $100 was enough to turn heads in 1951 but according to Harry there more to it than that:

‘That’s the physical history and I have neatly sidestepped away from my emotional reasons for writing…

…A writer’s job is to turn the dross of his daydreams into gold. SF is the most exacting form of fiction, making all the demands of ordinary fiction plus the science-fictional rationale. Therefore when it is successful its rewards to the author are that much greater. (Not in money of course – that is expecting too much.) I really cannot see what pleasure can be exacted from the writing of yet another bed-sitter novel. Without giving away any secrets I can reveal that writing SF is just as much fun as reading it – and even more therapeutic. Remember; those guns go off louder for me, the blood is redder, the machines shinier – and the phallic spaceships reach up to the clouds.’

This I have no trouble believing having read the novels named above. This was something my teenage self loved about reading a Harry Harrison story, the way it felt as though the author had stood inside the story before me and written it from there rather than from some god-like authorial perspective. I loved all the little random details not essential to the plot but which added so much to the world as it unfolded insdie my head. Forty years on and I can still remember clear as day how in The Technicolor Time Machine the danger of not being entirely inside the field generated by the time machine was ever so casually demonstrated by the discovery of a severed section of exhaust pipe. This is the sort of detail presented in such a way that made me feel as though the author had been there first and had really seen how an exhaust pipe might be accidentally severed and drop unnoticed to the ground.

I don’t suppose an author has to have the talent of a visual artist to make such stories full colour but it Harry’s case it certainly didn’t hurt.

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