The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
ELTON FAX: BLACK F&SF PULP ARTIST
Part of a series on black artists in F&SF magazines.
See also Jay Jackson: First Black SF Pulp Artist and Leo Dillon's Solo SF Art.
Elton Clay Fax was born in 1909 in Baltimore, the son of working-class parents. When he died in 1993 he was famed and respected, universities vying to grab any of his papers for their collections. If you read any of the many short biographies of him scattered around the net, you'd see something like the following composite.
Fax somehow scraped together sufficient money to attend Claflin College, a historically black college in South Carolina. and then transfer to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a B.F.A. in 1931. He was married by then to Grace Elizabeth Turner, with whom he would have three children.
He scraped through the 1930s as well, teaching art at Claflin College and for the W.P.A. and exhibiting his art at major venues like the Baltimore Museum of Art and the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. After the war he illustrated a stream of children's books. From 1949 through 1956, he was a chalktalk artist - one who gave talks accompanied by instant drawings on a chalkboard - for the New York Times Children's Book Program. Always restless or just driven by a fascination to see the world, he lived in Mexico for several years, took his chalktalks to South America for the State Department's Educational Exchange Program, and traveled to Europe, Asia, and Africa.
That last trip brought him major recognition. Fax meandered along the coast of West Africa in 1959, avoiding cities and the elite in favor of meeting with common people. His sketches of ordinary Africans became a book published by the American Society of African Culture, revised and expanded in hardcover in 1960 as West African Vignettes.
That started Fax on a new career as a writer and historian, whose often self-illustrated books included Contemporary Black Leaders, 1970; Seventeen Black Artists, 1971 (Coretta Scott King Award, American Library Association); Garvey: The Story of a Pioneer Black Nationalist, 1972; Through Black Eyes: Journeys of a Black Artist in East Africa and Russia, 1974; and Black Artists of the New Generation, 1977. A c.v. of his fellowships, residencies, and exhibitions would fill pages.
Elton Fax, self portrait: Baltimore Museum of Art
Yet there exists a blot on this otherwise admirable escutcheon. Unmentioned by the standard artworld biographies is a seamy portion of his career seemingly too unseemly to mention. Fax spent several years as ... a pulp artist.
The perpetrator of this unconscionable deed was Columbia Publications, a small-time operator which nevertheless always had a load of monthly titles in the western, sports, detective, and crime genres that needed interior art. Fax didn't specialize. His work could be found in All Sports, Complete Cowboy, Real Western, and Western Action Novels. He even did the cover for the April 1946 Real Western.
Fax also managed to sneak the occasional black face into the usually all-white world of the pulps, as in this illustration for the February 1945 Western Action.
Too bad that Columbia didn't do a line of science fiction pulps, you must be thinking. They did, publishing Future Science Fiction and Science Fiction Quarterly. For inexplicable reasons, Fax never appeared in them. Yet he most certainly worked for the sf pulps. From November 1942 through May 1944, he could be found almost monthly in Astounding Science-Fiction, Unknown Worlds, Weird Tales, or Science Fiction Stories.
His first appearance was in the November 1942 Astounding, illustrated "Vulcan: Ice King," a bizarre essay by Malcolm Jameson that hoped for a volcano to explode, throwing so much dust into the atmosphere that it would create a worldwide winter to hinder the Nazis. Fax tackled the assignment by producing a strong metaphorical image of a Nazi arm reaching futilely out of the ice. Typical of his illustrations, the art contains bold and powerful strokes of black, a fine feeling of movement, and not a trace of science fictional content. Oddly, this wasn't a requirement in f&sf mags. Most artists depicted the people in the stories and placed them in familiar, earthlike settings. Made it easier to bring in outsiders to the genre, I guess.
Other than a few weird faces, the first truly science-fictional piece Fax drew was for Anthony Boucher's robot story "Q.U.R." in the March 1943 Astounding. Ironically, the setting - a bar - was familiar and earthlike; only the characters - an alien and a robot - weren't. The story is literally set on Earth, so I don't know why the guys in back are wearing space helmets.) The art is stiffer than his other pieces.
Far better, and far more typical, were pieces done for two A. E. van Vogt stories, "The Great Engine" in the July 1943 Astounding (below) and "Concealment" in September 1943 Astounding (at top). It may be a cliche but a giant spaceship swooping out of the page at you almost in 3-D is exactly what I would have wanted to see in a science fiction magazine in 1943.
For reasons unknown, Fax stopped working with Astounding at the end of 1943. His next several contributions were to Weird Tales. Of them, this confrontation with what looks like the ghost of a Christmas tree was by far the weirdest. It's from "The Letters of Cold Fire" by Manly Wade Wellman, Weird Tales, May 1944. Interestingly, it's credited to Elton Fax. All his Astounding work was signed by E. Fax or just Fax.
Columbia must have swept him up after 1944 because he never returns to f&sf art. Fax had already started illustrating children's books by then, with a half dozen of them published during his pulp years: Tommy Two Wheels, 1943; Dr. George Washington Carver: Scientist, 1944; Melindy's Medal, 1945; Upton Arithmetic–Grade 4, 1945; Sitting Bull: Champion of His People, 1946; Story Parade Treasure Book, 1946.
You already know the rest. Or at least the parts biographies tell. I'm sure they leave out all the lean and tough years from 1950 on that virtually all freelancers have to face. No question that Fax had a redoubtable career, one earned through all the years of sweat and effort that went into it.
To close this out, here's the complete list of Fax's f&sf art.
ELTON FAX INTERIOR ART IN F&SF PULP MAGAZINES
Story Title, Length, Author, [real name if pseudonym used], Magazine and Cover Date, Illustration Page(s)
Vulcan: Ice King • essay by Malcolm Jameson, Astounding Science-Fiction, November 1942, 89
Interlude • short story by Ross Rocklynne, Astounding Science-Fiction, December 1942, 67
The Cave • novelette by P. Schuyler Miller, Astounding Science-Fiction, January 1943, 83
Q. U. R. • short story by H. H. Holmes [Anthony Boucher], Astounding Science-Fiction, March 1943, 82
Open Secret • novelette by Lewis Padgett [Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore], Astounding Science-Fiction, April 1943, 37
Whom the Gods Love • short story by Lester del Rey, Astounding Science-Fiction, June 1943, 62,65
Dominion • novella by Arthur J. Burks, Science Fiction Stories, July 1943, 10
The Great Engine • novelette by A. E. van Vogt, Astounding Science-Fiction, July 1943, 48,54,62
One Man's Harp • short story by Babette Rosmond, Unknown Worlds, August 1943, 121,123
Concealment • short story by A. E. van Vogt, Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1943, 91,94
Death Sentence • short story by Isaac Asimov, Astounding Science Fiction, November 1943, 32,40
Hoofs • short story by Manly Wade Wellman, Weird Tales, March 1944, 47
The Shoes of Judge Nichols • short story by Stanton A. Coblentz, Weird Tales, March 1944, 55
The Letters of Cold Fire • short story by Manly Wade Wellman, Weird Tales, May 1944, 30,32
John Thunstone's Inheritance • short story by Manly Wade Wellman, Weird Tales, July 1944, 17
January 7, 2019