Stephen Fabian: Grandmaster of Fantasy Illustration

I was a Robert E. Howard fan for about a year when I first came across Stephen Fabian’s work in one of the first hardcover collection of Howard’s stories I ever purchased. That book was The Vultures, published in 1973 by Fictioneer Press. I was totally blown away by Fabian’s art and immediately was on the lookout for more of his stuff. I soon found it in Cross Plains, REH: Lone Star Fictioneer, Fantasy Crossroads and The Howard Review, to name but a few. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a bad Fabian illustration. As far as I’m concerned, his unique style and quality are unsurpassed.

Stephen Emil Fabian, Sr. was born in Garfield, New Jersey on January 3, 1930. He grew up in Passaic, New Jersey, graduating High School in 1949. At that time there was a mandatory draft going on in preparation for the anticipated Korean war and since Fabian did not want to go into the Army, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, signing up for 4 years. After basic training in Texas, Fabian attended the Radio and Radar Schools at Scott Air Force Base, Belleville, Illinois, completing both the general and the advanced radio and radar courses, he stayed on as an instructor.

In the early 1950s Fabian was 21 years old and teaching electronics courses in the U.S. Air Force. At that time he began buying and reading Amazing Stories, Galaxy and other science fiction magazines, being attracted to them by the beautiful Virgil Finlay covers and the wonderful story illustrations of Edd Cartier and others. He was also a huge fan of Hannes Bok. Fabian recalls thinking at the time, “I wish I could do that.”

Returning to civilian life in 1953, Fabian went to work for Dumont Television in East Paterson, New Jersey. In 1955 he got married and shortly thereafter, two sons, Andy and Stephen, Jr., were born. Soon Fabian established a lifelong friendship with Gerry de La Ree, fantasy bookseller and publisher:

Gerry de La Ree was the first person I met who was an insider in the science fiction and fantasy field. That was back in 1955 when he lived in River Edge, New Jersey and had a mail-order book and used magazine business and my first visit to his home was to buy some back issues of Fantastic Novels and Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Those issues featured the artwork of Virgil Finlay, Lawrence Sterne Stevens, and Hannes Bok, and I just had to have them; I was just starting to collect SF books and magazines. When I entered his home that first time it was like going from black and white to color and stepping into the Magical Land of Oz. All those beautiful paintings and all those wonderful books, all over the house, and all science fiction and fantasy! My sense of wonder was overflowing, and I could tell that Gerry could see it in my face, by the smile he had on his face. At that time I had just gotten married and was working as an electronic technician at the Dumont Television Lab in East Paterson, New Jersey, and if you told me then that one day I would become a munchkin in that Land of Oz, I would have laughed and said, “I wish!” Well, would you believe it, 20 years later, I actually did become a munchkin, turning out illustrations and cover paintings for science fiction books; magazines, fanzines, and I’ve been doing it for many years, in the Magical Land of Oz!

In 1958 Fabian went to work for the Curtiss Wright Electronics Division, also in East Paterson, which lasted for 5 years and in 1963 he was hired by Simmonds Precision Products, working in their Research and Development department. Most of the work at Simmonds involved military and aerospace contracts. When they moved to Vermont in 1965, Fabian and his family went with them. In 1974 things got so bad in those industries that his department was eliminated and Fabian lost his job. Not long after, Simmonds Precision was gone.

In the mid-1960s when he had dreams of becoming a professional science fiction illustrator, Fabian was teaching himself to draw and paint. He purchased 5 art instruction books by the great illustrator, Andrew Loomis: Fun With a Pencil, Drawing the Head and Hands, Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth, 3-Dimensional Drawing and Creative Illustration. As practice, Fabian copied Loomis’ “Mermaid” painting from Creative Illustration and made lots of changes in order to be a little “creative” about it.

Steve’s first published artwork appeared in 1967 in the fanzine Twilight Zine, published by the MIT Science Fiction Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The editors placed an ad in a SF magazine that Fabian read soliciting artwork for their fanzine. He quickly worked up the courage to create a drawing and mail it to them. Fabian soon received a copy in the mail of Twilight Zine No.24, saw his drawing on the cover and was overjoyed. It was his first small step toward fulfilling his wish to become a professional SF illustrator.

Fabian kept refining his craft until his artwork gained widespread attention in the publishing world:

In 1974, I became free of the burden of having to “work for a living,” From the very first day that I lost my job at Simmonds Precision Products and came home to find two letters in the mail from professional magazines asking me to contribute artwork, I have never had to go out and solicit assignments from anyone. Every week, for years and years, I received phone calls or letters from paying fan magazine editors or professional publishers offering me work. I don’t know why this “miracle” happened to me, but it did.

On discovering Robert E. Howard, Fabian comments:

As I continued to work at my new career and art fans began to contact me wanting to buy my original artwork I soon learned that certain subjects were sure sellers; any drawing or painting I did that featured a well-endowed female or a unicorn, were sure sellers. There came a time when I thought, “Gee, why don’t I just draw and paint women and horses with horns, I can make a living just doing that!” And then along came the discovery of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and he also became a “sure-seller” for me. Dozens of fanzine publishers asked me to do Conan drawings for them. I have enjoyed reading Howard’s “original” stories, and for giving me that enjoyment, I forgive him for hating Lincoln.

Around this time Fabian did a lot of work for a California publisher named George Hamilton. First his art was featured in Hamilton’s Howard fanzine Cross Plains, followed by artwork done for a number of REH chapbooks, including Blades for France, Isle of Pirate’s Doom, Shadow of the Hun, among others.

Fabian does not have one favorite Howard piece, but believes he did some of his best Howard artwork on the “Queen of the Black Coast” portfolio published by Bortner & Kruse in 1976. I have to agree; the portfolio is stunning and true to the story.

In 1977 when Zebra Books was ready to publish a collection of Howard’s Dark Agnes de Chastillon yarns titled The Sword Woman, Fabian was commissioned to do the cover and a number of interior illustrations:

When I received the manuscript for this job I was asked by the editor to do some preliminary sketches and bring them to their New York office. A few days later, when I got there, the editor introduced me to her very young assistant who led me to a small room and directed me to a table. On the table were paperback covers that had been removed from their books and laid out neatly in rows; there must have been about 30 or more of them, from various publishers other than Zebra. He pointed to them and said, “I don’t want anything that looks like this junk, I want you to do me artwork that will make a browser’s eyes in a bookstore pop out when he sees your cover and reach out and grab it!” I leaned over to get a closer look at the artwork on some of the covers and I recognized a couple of Jeff Jones covers, another by Frazetta, one by Kelly Freas, and it occurred to me that this table was filled with paperback covers painted by the best artists in the field! Before I responded, I reminded myself that I was in the Land of Oz now, I was not back in Vermont at my old job in the Research and Development department at Simmonds Precision Products trying to convince my boss that resistors R25 and R28 in the Torque Indicator square-wave circuit need to be .5% wire-wound precision resistors in order to make the indicator meet specs. Like many of the characters I read about in science fiction stories over the years, I had taken a step…into another world.

When I returned and showed my preliminary sketches to the assistant editor, he was shocked to see the “sword woman” wearing a wide-brimmed feathered hat, dressed in pantaloons and swinging an epee. “No, No, No” he uttered, “We want her in a steel helmet, wearing armor, and swinging a broadsword, like Conan the Conqueror! This is Robert E. Howard here, not the Three Musketeers!” “But,” I answered, “This is Howard’s version of the Musketeers, all the characters in the story use fencing swords and wear clothes like them. It is the time and place of the Musketeers.” He ran out of the room and came back a few minutes later. “We don’t care,” he said, “we want all the characters looking like barbarians; we want the book to attract the Conan readers.” So that’s what I did, and there you are, anyone who reads this book no doubt thinks that I did not, since my drawings are all wrong in the details! In a way though, I did try to put a hint of the Musketeer look into the pictures.

Also, the editor was not concerned with the cover artwork being faithful to the story, she wanted the book to attract “Conan readers,” and insisted I make my artwork reflect Howard’s barbarian age stories, and suggested the scene that appears on the cover. When I brought the finished painting to the office, the editor thought the sword woman’s breasts were a bit too small so I took it home and made them larger. This time they were a bit too large. I got them “perfect” the third time around. As I rode back home on the bus watching the city streets go by, my thoughts turned to Vermont, my old job, and how much I missed all those “problems” I had to deal with in the lab, the drafting department, the assembly department, the machine shop. Geez, I was thinking of them as “the good old days!”

Fabian would eventually find a use for those preliminary “Sword Woman” sketches. Years later he finished the drawings and sold them to art collectors whenever they phoned to ask if him if he had some Howard artwork for sale.

Fabian also did a great deal of artwork for Cryptic Publications. Most of their chapbooks featured Howard stories:

Editor and publisher Robert Price had a lot of fun coming up with titles for his fan publications. During the 1980s he probably produced nearly 100 titles before he stopped doing them. They were priced from $3.00 to $4.50. each with print runs of perhaps 500 copies. Now, they show up on eBay occasionally, with starting prices at $175 and higher. And to think that Bob not only paid me for the cover art, he gave me 5 complimentary copies of each title, which I gladly turned around and handed out to my friends with my compliments. So let’s see…if I had held onto those free copies I would have over 100 of them, and if I put them on eBay…. Oh well, when I was a kid I also gave away my copies of the first issue of Action Comics, Batman, Superman, I had them all! What I did not have was the smarts to know that someday they would be worth thousands of dollars, each! I know, you’re going to tell me that after all the intervening years I’m still smart-less, giving away all those Robert Price fanzines.

Some more recent work done by Fabian was for the covers of Wildside’s ten volume collection, The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, which brought his artwork into the computer age, as he explains:

The computer allows me to do something unique now with my artwork; I can take a part of one picture, combine it with another, change the colors, the sizes, play with the composition and create a whole new painting. Sometimes I use a painting that I did just as a palate to start a new painting, the former painting gets completely obliterated after a while as the new painting begins to take shape. The computer monitor is now my art palette, my old paintings are my tubes of paint, and the mouse is my stock of brushes.

Fabian is well respected in his field and has fans all over the world. In 2006 he was a recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. Fabian was also twice nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist (1970 and 1971), and is a seven-time nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist (1975-1981).

He is still going strong at age 85, creating new masterworks of fantasy illustration, making new fans and awing a new generation with his immense talent.

Visit Stephen Fabian’s website for hundreds of examples of his art and the story behind each illustration. You can also purchase a number of signed portfolios of his artwork directly from him at reasonable prices.

 Artwork appearing on this page is © Copyright by Stephen Fabian. All rights reserved.
“Mermaid” painting by Andrew Loomis.