The potency of cheap paperback covers


Picasso had his blue period, Van Gogh had his Arles period, and I . . . well, when I was still pretty much a sprout I had my Leo and Diane Dillon period, triggered when a hardcover copy of Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions fell into my young hands at the local library. I was a bit dillonpavane2young to grasp what was going on in a lot of the stories — frelking? — but I was captivated by the Dillons’ woodcut-style illustrations, and for several months after that encounter I diligently copied their black-and-white style, using markers to approximate the thick lines and shadows. I’m not saying the results were anywhere near as good as what the Dillons did, but even back then I understood the venerable artistic principle that since you’re going to be stealing a lot from other people’s styles anyway, you might as well steal from the best. Even so, I never tried to jack their color style, which variously suggested stained glass, batik or mosaic. As a character from another genre said back then, a man’s got to know his limitations.  

Leo and Diane Dillon quickly moved up from genre work to become one of the most honored artistic teams in publishing. By happy accident, my youthful interest in science fiction exposed me to a lot of Leo and Diane Dillon’s work, because their relationship with Ellison (born of the time when he was editing a men’s magazine called Rogue) led to them doing the cover designs for a great many of his books. In the mid-Seventies, when Pyramid Books embarked on a uniform paperback edition of every book Ellison had published up to that point, including the early teen gang projects such as Web of the City and Memos from Purgatory, they brought in the Dillons to do the covers. Many of them, such as the design for the story collection No Doors, No Windows, included little portraits of Ellison himself in the designs.


The association with Ellison also led the Dillons to hook up with Terry Carr, who in the late Sixties and early Seventies was an editor with Ace Books, at that time a leading publisher of science fiction and other genres. (It was Ace that exploited a copyright loophole to publish the infamous mid-Sixties paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, which flew off the shelves until the revised Ballantine Books edition came out, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s endorsement on the back cover.) Carr and Ace launched the Ace Science Fiction Specials line, and while Ace was not known for its aesthetic sense, the Specials commanded attention even on the most crowded paperback racks, thanks to the Dillons’ artwork. Carr was also an exceptionally savvy editor, and until he and Ace parted ways under acrimonious circumstances, titles from the Ace Specials line were heavily represented in each year’s Hugo and Nebula nominee lists.


The Dillons are now known chiefly as illustrators of children’s books, particularly collections of African-American folktales such as The People Who Could Fly, but their genre work is usually the first thing I think of when I hear their names.

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