Michael Whelan: Pop Culture Phenom

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”


The opening words to the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower opus, The Gunslinger, have inspired many readers since the book’s publication in 1982 — but perhaps none more so than artist Michael Whelan. Even if you don’t know Michael’s name (which you should), then chances are good you know his art, particularly if you’ve read King’s Dark Tower series. Or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. Or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern saga. Or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars tales.



“Legends: The Gunslinger” is one of more than three dozen paintings that Michael has done whose subject is Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. (Image courtesy of Michael Whelan)


Are you sensing a pattern yet?

It’s no coincidence that “Michael Whelan” is spoken in the same breath as the biggest sci-fi and fantasy creators of the 20th century. As one of the greatest living artists in the genre today, Michael is a monolithic tower in the imaginative realism world, not unlike the eponymous structure in Stephen King’s famous series. But you wouldn’t know it to meet Michael in person. Soft-spoken and humble, with a wry sense of humor and not a few surprises up his sleeve, Michael conquered the world a long time ago — even if he doesn’t know it yet.


Symbolic Storytelling

At 66 years old, Michael has the creative energy of an artist half his age. Even though his attention is fully on the conversation at hand, there’s always a part of his mind that’s working. In the middle of answering one question, he stops to observe a child that’s peering through a nearby window, commenting with excitement about how perfect the lighting is and how he needs to fix the image in his memory for later. There’s a painting he’s been stuck on for more than a year, he says. Could this be the breakthrough he needs to finish it?

To say that art is always on Michael’s mind is an understatement because it’s clear that he genuinely savors everything in the world around him. He loves music, film concept art, and video games. He enjoys cruising Deviant Art and reading the latest works by Neil Gaiman. And one gets the sense that there’s a giant filing cabinet in his mind where all of this stuff is kept, just waiting to be filtered through a paintbrush someday soon.

“We have to be cognizant of the idea that we’re still being influenced — but subconsciously — by things we experienced or dreamt about or lived in the course of our lives,” he says. “And that’s providing some weight to whatever decisions we’re making in terms of where the image is going or what the subject of the image is going to be.”



“End of Nature” was the first in what became a series of personal paintings for Michael. Each piece carries symbolism related to man’s relationship with the natural world. (Image courtesy of Michael Whelan)


This idea of influential symbolism is one that has been central to Michael’s work for a while. In his artist statement, he talks about “a deliberate attempt to invest the image with layers of meaning” — something he’s been doing since at least 1979 when he did the cover for an anthology called Amazons! published by DAW and edited by Jessica Salmonson.

“Around the mid- to late-80s, I became aware that I was unconsciously [putting symbolism in my work],” Michael continues. “There were paintings I had been doing where I had elements in there that were related to things I was experiencing in my personal life at the time. That was a real surprise to me and a real wakeup call. Symbolism was going to appear in my art whether I was deliberately deciding to do so or not!”

As a result, Michael’s work aims to illicit an immediate response — usually one of wonder — before drawing the viewer in for a more intimate encounter. What is the meaning of the anchor in the 1992 painting “Glimpse”? Is it coincidence that the woman in the 2000 painting “Chasm” is standing in a crevice shaped like a triangle? And moreover, how did the people in these images get to where they are?



Layers of meaning — from the red glass heart to the crack in the wall — infuse the 1992 painting “Glimpse.”

(Image courtesy of Michael Whelan)


These questions, of course, relate to storytelling, which is perhaps Michael’s favorite part of the creative process. “I love creating environments,” he says, and he’s not just talking about painting. Long a fan of electronic music, Michael used to trade music album artwork in exchange for synthesizers, which he would use to compose instrumental settings.

“I used to create soundtracks to play in my studio while I was working on the Dark Tower series,” he continues. “So I had a two-hour audio soundscape of the sound of wind blowing in the desert. Stuff like that.”

He also loves video game design, a passion he can trace back to the release of the original Myst P.C. game in 1993. Michael says that he would have elected to go into digital art and designing computer games if he were graduating from college today. The concept of creating a virtual world of one’s own is an idea he finds very appealing. He also loves puzzle games, first-person shooters, and the texture design that went into making the Halo series.

So, has he played any games recently?

“I was until my wife pulled the plug on me,” he says with a laugh. “I have a totally addictive personality. They’re meant to be addictive, and boy do they work that way on me. I love ‘em.”


No Small Assignments

When Michael isn’t slaying digital adversaries — something he does rarely these days because of his demanding schedule — he’s doing what he does best: opening windows of imagination in his studio. His work remains in demand by clients that run the gamut from book publishers to game designers to gallery owners, and he sometimes has to turn down very attractive projects. Case in point: He’s had to pass on doing the George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire calendar three times. He even had to turn down a chance to do covers for the Lord of the Rings (“My favorite books in the universe!”) because the publisher wanted the assignment done in six weeks.

“There’s no way I would take that on unless … I could do everything I could to make them the ultimate, definitive covers for those books,” Michael says of the would-be Tolkien project. “If I’m going to have to rush through them and do a substandard job, I’m not going to take the assignment.”



A huge music fan, Michael has produced a number of album covers, among them the 1993 cover for Meatloaf’s Back into Hell album. (Image courtesy of Michael Whelan)


One person whom he can rarely turn down, though, is Stephen King. In 2004, a full 22 years after the publication of The Gunslinger, Michael returned to illustrate the final book in the Dark Tower saga. He is the only artist to have provided images for two books in the series — the first and the seventh.

Asked why the Dark Tower, which will soon be made into a film starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, continues to resonate with audiences, Michael explains that the series “is quintessentially American,” a Lord of the Rings saga for a U.S. audience.

“They’re exciting as hell!” Michael continues. He goes on to dissect how King is having fun with the writing, how there’s no barriers and never a cheap out. Characters you care about are going to die.

“He’s one of the best writers we’ve got going in our genre!” Michael concludes.

In addition to being associated with numerous epic book series, Michael has also contributed in ways both large and small, respectively, to two of the biggest games of our time: Warcraft and Magic: The Gathering.

In 2012, Blizzard Entertainment commissioned Michael to compose an epic painting of the dragon Deathwing, one of Warcraft’s outsize antagonists and a major character in several games. The painting was so well received that it was recreated in one of the elevators at Blizzard headquarters!



The epic Deathwing painting that Michael created for Blizzard’s Warcraft series. (Image courtesy of Michael Whelan)


Eighteen years earlier, though, Michael had created an entirely different dragon painting for another game. It was 1994 and Wizards of the Coast was ready to make a big splash with its newish game, Magic: The Gathering, at the annual Dragon*Con event in Atlanta. To commemorate the convention, Wizards commissioned a special card, Nalathni Dragon, and asked Michael to illustrate it. Though the card was distributed in issues of The Duelist after the con, it was never printed in any set and remains an interesting piece of MTG trivia.

For his part, Michael says the assignment came together quite quickly, a few hours in one night perhaps.

“I threw it together,” he says. “I had no idea that the game was going to be as big as it was. If I had known, I would have put on the afterburners and really done a major job.”


Beyond Science Fiction

In addition to his commercial assignments, Michael is somehow able to find time for personal projects. Two series that he works on frequently are called Palette Gremlins and Leftovers.

When working on a painting, Michael will generally mix colors to take him through the entire project instead of mixing new paint each day. This often left him with airtight containers full of paint that he wanted to use before they spoiled.

“I’m really cheap when it comes to paint,” Michael explains. “I hate throwing paint out. … [Leftovers] started with trying to use some of that leftover paint.”

Palette Gremlins, on the other hand, came about when Michael started discerning shapes in the swirls of paint on his palette. Sometimes while working on a project, he would make a random shape to see if it suggested something more concrete. One might become a tiger dressed in a suit holding a cup of tea. Another might birth the portrait of a man sitting on a fantastical tanglewood tree. He tries to complete at least one Gremlin or Leftover a week and has done about 40 to date.



Michael works on one of his Palette Gremlin paintings at IX9 this past October in Reading, Pa. (Photo by Patrick Scalisi)


“Every week, even if I’ve been stalled on another project, I can say, ‘At least I did that’,” Michael says.

He’s also ready to start a whole new series of paintings — “the creative equivalent of sticking my toe in the water before jumping off the diving board” — that he’s not quite ready to elaborate on yet.

Most exciting for fans, though, was the announcement on Nov. 21 that Michael was launching a Kickstarter in conjunction with Baby Tattoo publishing to create a new retrospective art book titled Beyond Science Fiction: The Alternative Realism of Michael Whelan. Running through Dec. 21, this is Michael’s first art book is several years and promises to be a “unique showcase of visionary work by the most awarded sci-fi/fantasy artist of all time.”



One of the proposed covers for Michael’s new art book, Beyond Science Fiction, which is currently being funded through Kickstarter.


If that sounds like a heavy mantle to bear, Michael certainly isn’t worried about his legacy or how he’s perceived by future generations. Forget the fact that he’s won an outstanding 15 Hugo Awards. Or that he was the first living artist to be inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in Seattle. Or that the readers of Locus magazine have named him Best Professional Artist 30 times in their annual poll. At the end of the day, he simply wants to continue working and bringing wonder to the world.

“I’m doing my own thing, and I’m really pleased that there are people who are a lot younger than I am who like my work. But I don’t expect them to. It’s great if they do,” Michael says.

He agrees with a statement that Norman Rockwell attributed to Richard Miller: “Let the next generation paint its own pictures.” And he loves that we’ve reached a point where science-fiction art doesn’t look nostalgic or old-fashioned even if it’s 15 or 20 years removed from the present day.

“I can’t think about what’s going to happen or where things are going to be 100 years from now,” Michael says. “Such guesses are usually folly. You certainly can’t let it guide what you’re doing now.”

I tell him that’s a good philosophy to live by.

To which Michael smiles and says, “Well, it works.”

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