Monday, February 20, 2017

Damon Knight: Artist! [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

When you think of Damon Knight (1922-2002) you get a picture in your head of an old dude with a long, grey beard. Maybe you see him editing Orbit or hanging off the arm of his wife, Kate Wilhelm. Knight won many awards, wrote several books on writing science fiction, and is best remembered as a reviewer with high standards of quality in the genre. What you don’t picture is a twenty-year-old kid doodling – because Damon Knight started in science fiction as an artist. His first published work was in Amazing Stories, May 1940. His first story appeared just a little later in Ray Bradbury’s fanzine, Future Fantasia, Summer 1940. It was called “The Itching Hour.” His first professional sale wasn’t until February 1941 in Stirring Science Stories with “Resilience,” where they botched the ending. By 1950 he would be writing stories like “Not With a Bang” and “To Serve Man” (made famous on The Twilight Zone with “It’s a cookbook!”) and his fame as a short story writer would be forever set. Before then, a lot of minor work and plenty of artwork.

It would be fair to describe Knight’s art style as “cartoony.” That first sale to Ray Palmer was a cartoon. The cover he drew for the fanzine, Le Zombie in January 1940 has the same line-oriented feel. Despite this simplified style, Knight puts it to good use, adding more atmosphere and interest with delicate shading and atmospheric tones, eventually working on black scratch board. His work appeared primarily in Science Fiction Quarterly, Future, Super Science Stories, and Weird Tales, all low-paying art markets. This also explains why his artwork is so hard to find. With the exception of Weird Tales, these magazines were small timers and not collected as widely. (I imagined only for a random second that it was because Knight had purchased up as many copies as possible over the years and destroyed them. Like I said, only for a second.)

There is almost nothing written about Damon Knight’s artwork. He did not comment extensively about it himself. (I could be wrong about this and if you know otherwise, please let me know. I found one bio where he calls himself “artist.”) So I’m going to make a few surmises about it. I think his biggest supporter and influences were Boris Dolgov and Hannes Bok, two other Weird Tales artists with cartoony but powerful styles; acolytes of Maxfield Parrish. If this is true, then when Knight got to illustrate a story by Hannes Bok with “Starstone World” (Science Fiction Quarterly, Summer 1942), this must have pleased both of them. (Though the two illos are not his best and I haven’t included them.)

After the reprinting of “Herbert West, Reanimator: Part 4” (November 1942), most of Damon Knight’s work for Weird Tales was illustrating poems, but in January 1943, Knight got to illustrate Mary Elizabeth Counselman’s “Seventh Sister.” By 1946, Knight put away the drawing pencils for the blue ones. With new markets coming like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy, he was ready to explore SF through words alone. His last illo was “The Haunted Stairs” in Weird Tales, May 1946. Knight was twenty-four. Any dreams of being another Hannes Bok or Lee Brown Coye were abandoned for the typewriter. Sadly, Knight never got to illustrate one of his own stories.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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