Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hugo Thoughts: Dirty Pros (Artists)

Today in "Hugo Thoughts," I'll look at the Best Professional Artist category, another one based on vague body of work (supposedly in the given year, but, in actual voting practice, usually not). Since I worked in the SFF field myself, once upon a time [1], I know several of these artists and have worked, at least through an art director, with nearly all of them. And thus I'll probably be less sarcastic and dismissive than I am in categories filled with people I don't know; it's probably not my most attractive feature, but it is true.

Best Professional Artist
  • Daniel Dos Santos
  • Bob Eggleton
  • Stephan Martiniere
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan
Dan Dos Santos did some great work for "me" back in my SFBC days -- "me" being in quotes, because he always dealt with our wonderful art director, Toby Schwartz, and I was just some editor he met once or twice. He's an excellent commercial artist, greatly in demand because he's really good at capturing the essence of a book in one of his luminous, energetic paintings. So, as a guy who sells books, I love his work. But in this category, with this competition, he comes off as the most conventional -- he does tightly realistic work in the post-Whelan manner, and I've never seen him do anything more impressionistic or painterly. He does have a sly sense of humor (in covers like Alien Tango, in this year's packet) and a fine design sense (as seen in Butcher Bird, an older cover), but the other covers chosen for the packet this year all looked like excellent illustrative work -- Dos Santos is particularly good, as Whelan and Don Maitz before him have been, with painting light effects -- but didn't, for me, transcend that category in those works, which is what I hope for in a Hugo winner. He's been nominated twice before without winning.

Bob Eggleton, on the other hand, has been nominated in this category twenty-two times before, and has won nine times. (He was what I think of as the default winner -- this is one of the categories, like Semiprozine, Fan Writer, and the old Professional Editor, that tend to stick to one person for decades at a time -- for much of the '90s.) He also sometimes does work more loosely, and I like his stuff best when he's smearing paint around, seemingly without thought, and really going to town. But his most popular work, inevitably, is the carefully-detailed retro space rockets and equally detailed dragons; the work in the packet is mostly in that vein.

Stephan Martiniere is something like the default "digital artist" for Hugo voters -- well, nearly all artists do some work digitally, but his work looks digital, slick, and utterly modern in a very influential way, and he's become quite popular as a SF artist along the way. He's been nominated in this category four times before in the past decade, winning once. Even his most representational scenes have a slight shimmer, as if of unreality, that I find deeply appealing and utterly science fictional.

John Picacio has been nominated six times before in this category without winning, but I'm sure he'll have a rocket before long; he's definitely qualified, and I think he's got the "fan-favorite" thing coming along as well. (The dirty secret of all popular-vote awards is that they're, in large part, about popularity rather than the best work, but John is a great guy and often seen at conventions, which I'm sure will put him over the top one of these years.) He's also got a great, distinctive, instantly recognizable style, which hearkens back much more to Paul Lehr, Richard Powers, and other artists of that era rather than the ultra-realistic School of Whelan. His Elric work, one painting of which was in the packet, particularly shows his strengths -- he's great with dynamics and stark, limited palettes.

And Shaun Tan is the most interesting nominee, since -- unlike the other four nominees, and unlike the vast majority of nominees in the history of the award -- he doesn't do covers for other people's books. Instead, he's a graphic novelist (or the writer/artist of books for readers of many ages, depending on how you look at it), who produced such excellent books as The Arrival (my review) and the omnibus Lost & Found (my review). I'm definitely in favor of having this category consider other "professional artists" outside the very narrow field of SFF cover art, as long as their work is clearly fantastic, and Tan's work clearly qualifies. Unfortunately, the only major work that would qualify him for this award that actually came out in 2010 -- the year in question -- is, as far as I can tell, the short film The Lost Thing (based on his book of the same name). And that movie may be totally awesome -- I assume so, but I haven't seen it yet -- but it's also already nominated itself in Short Dramatic Presentation. So I feel a little odd considering it as the reason Tan is nominated in this category. Still, I'd like to see Tan, or someone like him, win this category at some point.

All the nominees are clearly worthy, though my rooting instinct in this category is always to pull for someone who doesn't already have a Hugo rocket on the mantelpiece. If you are voting for the Hugos this year, please take a look at the actual works these five artists produced last year, and compare their actual eligible work rather than your default mental image of good skiffy art. (I'm particularly talking to you, the people who keep nominating Michael Whelan in this category a good decade after he retired from illustration.)

[1] And I'm still very willing to talk to anyone who wants to drag me back in.

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