The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
LEO DILLION'S SOLO SF ART
Part of a series on black artists in F&SF magazines.
See also Jay Jackson: First Black SF Pulp Artist and Elton Fax: Black F&SF Pulp Artist.
I was thirteen when The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the perfect age to grow up with rock and roll. I was seventeen when the first Ace Science Fiction Special appeared, the perfect age to grow up with adult, literate science fiction.
The Specials, as I learned much later, were the brainchild of Terry Carr, backed by Donald A. Wollheim, who had built Ace into the leading publisher of paperback science fiction. Wollheim had been in the field since forever - he organized the first science fiction convention in 1936. Terry was in the thick of the New Wave generation of writers, most of them also in their mid-30s, most of whom blossomed in the 1960s. After a few titles from older stalwarts, Terry gave the Specials over to his peers, publishing a multitude of first novels or early works. The results were spectacular. In three years, ten Specials were nominated for Best Novel by the Hugos and Nebulas, four of them for both, led by Ursula Le Guin's multiple-award winning masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness. Yes, there was a time when such a book could only be published as a paperback original. The great success of these books and others like them lifted f&sf out of the perceived paperback ghetto and into hardback respectability.
I quickly learned to pluck the Specials off the science fiction shelves at the Clinton Book Shop, a task made easier because all the covers stood out with amazing images limned in subtle and evocative colors. The early ones were admittedly broken into two matching squares but the art soon took over the entire cover and was far the better for it. Not a spaceship or robot or machine of any kind were to be found on them. The main motifs were trees and anguished faces, swirls and curves, organic soft bodies symbolizing that inside the covers lay tales whose subjects were as deeply human as their readers. Here's a handy graphic collecting almost all the covers.
These 36 of the 39 Ace Science Fiction Special covers share a commonality. All were produced by the team of Leo and Diane Dillon. (The remaining three covers toward the end of the run were by Davis Meltzer.) They were husband and wife, a true team who can be said to have completed each others' sentences in the way that the husband and wife team of C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner famously and triumphantly had collaborated, a whole greater than the individual pieces whom the Dillons referred to as the "Third Artist."
Even though they had been working full-time as illustrators in the publishing industry, they were neither wealthy nor famous nor much recognized in the science fiction community in 1968. For years they concentrated on lofty mainstream projects including a long stream of record jackets for Caedmon's spoken-word albums and a set of new editions of Shakespeare's plays. They knew Harlan Ellison, though, having done covers for his books as early as 1961, and he naturally recruited them for the cover of his monumental 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. There weren't supposed to be any interior illustrations but Harlan, being Harlan, suddenly decided he wanted them. On the Friday before the book was to go to press on Monday. He hied over to the Dillon's brownstone in Brooklyn and they stayed up the entire weekend taking inspiration from Harlan's synopses of all 33 stories. For some reason Harlan brought Terry Carr with him. A 2000 interview in Locus captures the sequel.
Diane: ''After that, Terry began giving us assignments for book jackets, the Ace Specials. I don't think when it started we realized there were going to be that many. A whole series. Maybe even he didn't know.''
Leo: ''He said we could do them any way we wanted. That was Terry: pure freedom. He said 'You can design the logo, you can do anything, anything that you want to do.''' ...
Leo: ''We had really begun to get into experimenting with different techniques and looks. So along comes this chance to do what we had always wanted to do, to take science fiction out of that spaceship-and-craters-on-the-planet look. And here was Terry, who said, 'Go ahead. Try it. Try it.' It was really just perfect for us.''
The Dillons, a singular plural, would soon become famous as children's book illustrators after they won back-to-back Caldecott Awards in 1976 and 1977. They had already won the 1971 Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist for their Ace Special covers. They wouldn't win a second. The Specials died that year after both Wollheim and Carr left Ace for many good reasons. Without that impetus and freedom, the Dillons mostly moved away from science fiction, except for continuing to do covers for Harlan's books. Outside of those connections few people associate them with science fiction at all.
But I cut a line out of that interview I quoted.
Diane: ''We had done science fiction before this, for the art editor W.I. Van Der Poel at Galaxy.''
That's both true and misleading and inadvertently hides a large chuck of Leo's early career, before they were The Dillons, before Leo&Diane, before even Leo.
Leo was born in New York as Lionel John Dillon, Jr. in 1933 (the same year as Diane, a year before Harlan, four before Terry), the son of Trinidadian immigrants. (He was black, Diane white.) After attending the prestigious High School of Art and Design, he enrolled in the Navy so that he could use the GI Bill to go to college afterward. On the advice of his former high school teacher he decided on the Parsons School of Design. He not only excelled with his technique but had an eye for his top competition. Lionel felt he could beat any of them until a West Coast student arrived after summer classes had already begun in 1953, presenting an instant challenge. That student, Diane Sorber, felt the same way, so knocked out by a piece she later learned had been Lionel's work she wondered if she belonged at the school.
They could have been at each other's throats. Instead, they became friends and then partners, collaborating on outside work that forced them to quickly learn new techniques. Yet after graduation in 1956 they separated for a bit, the obstacles society placed in front of interracial couples overwhelming. Diane went to Albany, Leo tried working for men's magazines. One of his first known solo pieces appeared as the illustration for Arnold Marmor's story "The Big Picture" in the April 1957 issue of The Dude. The magazine was one of the more highbrow attempts to imitate the cultural cosmic shock that was Playboy. The names of John O'Hara, George Orwell, and Robert Benchley were on the cover of that issue.
In the long run the magazine wasn't important and neither is the illustration, although it's interestingly signed "Leo Dillon." (Neither of the Dillons were willing to do sexualized nudes, which instantly cut their men's magazine assignments to a handful.) My guess is that The Dude's editor mattered more than either. His name was Bruce Elliott, a name that will ring no bells except for the fantastically knowledgeable. He was a sometime science-fiction writer and a traveler on the circuit of men's magazines that many young sf writers wrote for and edited in the 1950s and early 1960s. In fact, he followed Harlan as editor of Rogue magazine, which is where the Dillons met Ellison around 1958.
The exact link is missing but somewhere in the mix of people in the everybody knew everybody publishing world of New York City Leo met Washington Irving van der Poel, Jr. The name sounds like a scion of a snooty Dutch family who could trace their ancestry back to Nieuw Amsterdam. Maybe it was. Always "W. I." in his signed work, van der Poel is one of the rare major names in sf history about whom almost nothing is known despite the obsessive digging of fans in the field, less than even the more minor Bruce Elliott. Van der Poel had been Art Director for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine since its very first issue in October 1950 but remained just a name to readers. As far as can be told he never did a single cover or interior illustration for the magazine. No artwork of his appears in the field until 1956 when he suddenly started designing covers for the small f&sf publisher Gnome Press. Sixteen titles bearing his cover work would appear from 1956 through Gnome's last book in 1962.
And in 1956 or 1957 van der Poel met Lionel Dillon and immediately piled him with work. A flood of his art suddenly began appearing in Galaxy, debuting with an astounding six illustrations for four stories in the March 1957 issue. The two below both come from that issue, pages 73 and 110. His pieces, sometimes multiples of them, would appear in the next 25 of 32 issues, each billed to "DILLON" in all caps.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB) assigns all this interior art to Leo and Diane. That's wrong. Of these 42 titles, the Dillons' own blog confirms 23 as "Leo Dillon solo work." The other stories are not mentioned at all. Those include "The Other Celia," from that first Galaxy appearance, and that's certainly solo work. More problematically for proper credit, none of the 1960 stories are mentioned at all in the blog. I don't think that indicates an end to Leo working solo, however. The blog entries run from 2011 to the beginning of 2014 and are in no seeming order. There have been fewer than two dozen posts in the almost eight years since, listing other works in no chronological order. No entries from Galaxy are marked anything other than Leo Dillon solo work. Given that no major stylistic changes appear in 1960, my conclusion is that Leo Dillon indeed worked solo on them all and that the haphazard Galaxy blog entries merely petered out before the poster got to 1960.
Here is the full listing of those works, complete as I can make it. (Notes: Two-page entries indicate a single illustration spread across two facing pages; Galaxy went bimonthly at the start of 1959.)
LEO DILLON SOLO ART IN GALAXY MAGAZINE
Story Title, Length, Author, [real name if pseudonym used], Cover Date, Illustration Page(s)
The Ignoble Savages • novelette by Evelyn E. Smith, March 1957, 6-7, 22-3, 33
The Other Celia • short story by Theodore Sturgeon, March 1957, 41
The Deep One • short story by Neil P. Ruzic, March 1957, 73
The Light • short story by Poul Anderson, March 1957, 110
Army Without Banners • short story by Edward Wellen, April 1957, 112
Once a Greech • novelette by Evelyn E. Smith, April 1957, 116-7, 132-3, 138-9
Founding Father • short story by Clifford D. Simak, May 1957, 67
Time in the Round • novelette by Fritz Leiber, May 1957, 127, 134-5, 140-1
Make Me an Offer • short story by Con Blomberg, August 1957, 124
The Man Outside • short story by Evelyn E. Smith, August 1957, 126-7, 137, 142-3
The Dark Star • short story by William Tenn, September 1957, 96
Shadow World • novelette by Clifford D. Simak, September 1957, 108-9, 128-9, 140-1
Share Alike • short story by Daniel F. Galouye, October 1957, 59
Double Indemnity • novelette by Robert Sheckley, October 1957, 80-1, 92-3, 96-7
Gray Flannel Armor • short story by Finn O'Donnevan [Robert Sheckley], November 1957, 108
Graveyard of Dreams • novelette by H. Beam Piper, February 1958, 122-3, 129, 138-9
My Fair Planet • short story by Evelyn E. Smith, March 1958, 64
A Feast of Demons • novelette by William Morrison, March 1958, 124-5, 131, 139
The Eel • short story by Miriam Allen deFord, April 1958, 82
Never Come Midnight • novella by Christopher Grimm [H. L. Gold], May 1958, 33, 42
Bridle Shower • novelette by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., May 1958, 84, 93, 98
The Last Letter • short story by Fritz Leiber, June 1958, 51
The Back of Our Heads • novelette by Stephen Barr, July 1958, 7, 33, 41
Bullet with His Name • novelette by Fritz Leiber, July 1958, 74-5, 87, 96-7
To Marry Medusa • novella by Theodore Sturgeon, August 1958, 5, 33, 57
From an Unseen Censor • novelette by Rosel George Brown, September 1958, 78-9, 83, 95
The City of Force • novella by Daniel F. Galouye, April 1959, 8-9, 29, 50-1
Take Wooden Indians • novelette by Avram Davidson, June 1959, 74-5, 85, 92-3
Traveling Companion Wanted • short story by Richard Wilson, June 1959, 110, 121, 124
The Malted Milk Monster • novelette by William Tenn, August 1959, 144-5, 153, 162-3
Way Up Yonder • novelette by Charles Satterfield [Frederik Pohl], October 1959, 162-3, 175, 182-3
Prospector's Special • novelette by Robert Sheckley, December 1959, 8-9, 17, 28-9
Flower Arrangement • short story by Rosel George Brown, December 1959, 38
Dumbwaiter • short story by James Stamers, February 1960, 59
The Day the Icicle Works Closed • novelette by Frederik Pohl, February 1960, 68-9, 89, 96-7
Something Bright • short story by Zenna Henderson, February 1960, 117
The Lady Who Sailed the Soul • novelette by Cordwainer Smith, April 1960, 58-9, 67, 78-9
Upstarts • short story by L. J. Stecher, Jr. [Joseph Wesley], June 1960, 62
Monkey on His Back • short story by Charles V. De Vet, June 1960, 135, 139
Inside John Barth • novelette by William W. Stuart, June 1960, 172-3, 181, 190-1
The Hills of Home • short story by Alfred Coppel, October 1960, 43, 47
A Fall of Glass • short story by Stanley R. Lee, October 1960, 131
There's little mystery why Dillon's work stopped appearing in Galaxy by the end of 1960, though. Van der Poel's last issue as Art Director was June 1960. Whether his replacement, Sam Rudivich, didn't like Dillon's art or Leo wasn't interested in working with a new Art Director is unguessable. For that matter, Leo may have welcomed the excuse to stop working on his own and plunge full-time into his artistic interplay with Diane.
Despite this long listing of Leo's solo work, Diane's recollection that both of them worked for van der Poel is also correct. Gold launched a paperback f&sf line called Galaxy Novels at the same time he started the magazine , which van der Poel presumably also had to art direct. By the late 1950s, the "novels" were issued as 128-page digest paperbacks, not quite long enough for most novels. Some books in the series were brought to near-incoherence by huge cuts so shorter originals were sought. Numbers 28 and 29, in 1958, Fritz Leiber's Destiny Times Three and L. Ron Hubbard's Fear, were originally novellas, just the right size. Both, coincidentally, had also been earlier reprinted by Gnome Press and the association was prominent on the copyright pages. The covers for the two paperbacks are not signed or otherwise credited but their provenance is unmistakable and the Dillons' website confirms that the covers were by both Leo and Diane Dillon. There lie the gestation for the Ace Science Fiction Specials a decade later.
The Gnome connections don't stop there, nor did van der Poel's ability to get Leo work. Or, rather, Lionel.
Also in early 1957, Gnome released the first hardback edition of The Seedling Stars by James Blish. A new and quite unknown artist was credited with the jacket design: Lionel Dillon. The cover contains anguished faces in the fetal position floating next to plants, as organic as any Ace Special cover. For the only time in his sf work, to my knowledge, the cover contains the full signature "Lionel Dillon."
According to copyright registration data, the very next month saw Fritz Leiber's Two Sought Adventure (at top). The cover depicts Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, barbarians who lived long before the technological revolution. No trees, but no machines either, only half-formed faces that you can read your own meaning into.
Methuselah's Children, a 1958 collection by Robert A. Heinlein, bears another enigmatic face, a post-Cubist breakdown of the human body done almost as a schematic.
Those three covers are listed on the ISFDB under Lionel Dillon, with no cross-reference to Leo Dillon. More oddly, Lionel is credited on a fourth Gnome title without it being mentioned in either entry. Lionel's last cover for Gnome appeared toward the end of 1958, in the form of two classical portraits for the cover of Talbot Mundy's gigantic saga of Roman Britian, Tros of Samothrace. The Galaxy connection here is closest of all. W. I. van der Poel is co-credited with "Lionell Dillon," probably responsible for the anachronistic castle since his forte was far removed from portraiture. The face on the spine reminds me of the one on the Heinlein cover, in fact. That Gnome would misspell the name of an artist who worked frequently for them is only bizarre to those who haven't studied the history of the press. Frank Kelly Freas did six covers for them and he was misspelled "Frease" in every case. Numerous other typoed names of authors and characters can be found on flap copy and back jacket covers. Gnome meant well and often supplied superb workmanship, but sloppiness abounded in what was at the best of times a two-person operation.
Leo's New York Times obituary - he died on May 26, 2012 - included this critical line:
[The Dillons' art] was also noteworthy for the diversity of the people it portrayed. This was especially striking in the 1970s, when the Dillons began illustrating for children: until then, the smiling faces portrayed in picture books had been overwhelmingly white.
Much the same could be said for Leo's solo sf art. Faces in f&sf magazines had been overwhelming white, even those of aliens. Leo's portraits were not overtly those of black men, but a more than casual look reveals that they frequently were not stereotypically white and often impossible to assign to any specific ethnicity. He drew for everybody.
A tribute page to the Dillons summarizes their incredible legacy:
In 2008, Diane and Leo Dillon were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society of Illustrators. By this time they had worked together for over 40 years and produced more than 50 children’s books. The couple has been awarded nearly every award in their genre (sometimes more than once), including the Society of Illustrators’ Gold Medal, three New York Times Best Illustrated Book awards, and the NAACP Image award.
Science fiction gets a bare mention, as part of their range. That means it's up to us to remember that critical portion of his life as art.
November 26, 2018; minor update January 15, 2022