In 2014, we celebrated the 100th year anniversary of the artist Virgil Finlay. Finlay understood that the mark of a great artist was that his work lived on after him. A look at his work should convince any doubters that Finlay’s work will remain relevant for many years to come. Virgil Finlay was, and is, one of the true “Masters of the Imagination.”
Virgil Warden Finlay was born July 23, 1914 in Rochester, New York. From an early age he exhibited the beginning of a lifelong interest in the arts. By the time he reached high school, he was convinced he wanted to become a gallery artist. Obsessive about art in general, he studied all forms of art, and one teacher, Gertrude Botteford, introduced him to scratchboard illustration.
As years passed, Finlay refined his technique, drawing directly onto scratchboard using a 290 lithographic pen, a pen point so fine that most artists couldn’t use it. Sometimes, it took the artist months of searching to find a pen that would allow the ink to flow properly.
Like so many other teenagers of the time, Finlay discovered the pulps—cheaply priced fiction magazines usually costing a dime. He began reading the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1928, and discovered Weird Tales a year later. Subtitled The Unique Magazine, the pulp regularly published stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Mesmerized by the contents, the young man was soon a devoted fan.
In 1935, at age 21, Finlay submitted five illustrations to Weird Tales. He was convinced he could produce better art than most of the staff artists working for the magazine. He was right. By early 1936, he was providing memorable originals for the pulp. Finlay’s first cover appeared in February 1937 with his illustration for Globe of Memories, a historical tale of reincarnation by Seabury Quinn. Quinn was perhaps the most popular author writing for Weird Tales at the time, and being assigned a Quinn cover story was a major triumph for Finlay. The painting was a huge hit with the readers, and editor Farnsworth Wright immediately commissioned him to do more. Success with Weird Tales was only the beginning of Finlay’s rise.
In November 1937, Finlay received a letter from Abraham Merritt, the editor of The American Weekly newspaper, saying that as a reader of Weird Tales he liked Finlay’s art very much and that “there might be an advantageous opening on The American Weekly at the present time for you.” Merritt was a famous fantasy writer who had retired from writing to edit The Weekly, the Sunday newspaper supplement that was distributed with all of the Hearst newspapers and which boasted the largest circulation of any newspaper section in the world. More important, from Finlay’s point of view, working for the newspaper as a staff artist paid $80 a week, so a very flattered Finlay moved to Manhattan and began producing incredible illustrations for the newspaper supplement. Once in New York, he discovered that many pulp magazines were published there, and that all of the science fiction ones wanted originals from him, the hot new artist. Within months, he was doing illustrations for publications such as: Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Captain Future, and Strange Stories.
Living alone, Finlay missed the social life he’d had in Rochester. There was a girl in that northern metropolis that he wanted to marry—Beverly Stiles—but she had rejected his proposals 20 times. Beverly, one year younger than the artist (with whom she shared the same birth date), was Jewish and Finlay was not. In 1938, he converted to Judaism and the pair was married.
All was going well for Finlay. Along with his work for The American Weekly, he was selling to most of the major science fiction magazines of the time. Unfortunately, World War II came along and spirited him away. Drafted on June 2, 1943, Finlay spent most of his time in uniform in the U.S.A. But in 1945 he was sent to Okinawa where he saw combat. He was wounded by a knife-wielding soldier and nearly hit by a tank. Fortunately, he was promoted and transferred back home.
He returned to the Brooklyn apartment he shared with Beverly in 1946. In 1948, they moved to a rental home in Levittown, NY, where their only child, Lail Finlay, was born in 1949. The next year, as a veteran, Finlay was able to buy a home in Levittown for no money down and a $55-a-month mortgage. It was here, at 55 Cobalt Lane that Finlay lived for the rest of his life.
The late 1940s and early 1950s were a boom time for the artist. Magazine publishing flourished after World War II, and new science fiction publications constantly approached him to illustrate their stories. The pulp field expanded like never before. But it couldn’t last.
At the same time as the pulp expansion, numerous smaller magazines, the size of Reader’s Digest, featuring new science fiction stories, began to appear. These “digest” magazines were easy for commuters to carry aboard buses and trains, and soon were outselling their pulp brethren. Unfortunately, publications like the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction didn’t print illustrations in their issues. There wasn’t enough room in most digests to run full-page or even half-page artwork. It was the end of a science fiction tradition—the publishing of illustrations to illuminate the miracles of science featured in those stories.
In the early 1950s, the collapse of a major magazine distributor in the United States sent many publishers into bankruptcy. Paperback books, many with lurid, outrageous covers, replaced pulps, and fiction grew harder, tougher, more hardboiled. Finlay found himself without much work. He continued to do interiors and covers for the remaining science fiction magazines, and found a new market in the numerous astrology publications. He had a few gallery shows, fulfilling a lifelong dream, but sales were disappointing.
In 1970, Finlay discovered he had cancer. It proved difficult to contain and he died on January 18, 1971, at age 56. After his passing, it was determined that the artist, a lifelong chain smoker, had died of lung cancer.
Was Virgil Finlay as highly regarded by the science fiction community as he was by such editorial heavyweights as Farnsworth Wright and Abraham Merritt? Ask a hundred science fiction fans under thirty years old to name the best black-and-white illustrator working in the science fiction field. Most likely, you’ll get a hundred different replies. Now, ask a hundred fans older than thirty, readers who have delved into the musty old pages of 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s science fiction magazines, the same question. Be prepared for one answer: Virgil Finlay.
Finlay wasn’t merely great. He was the greatest. His heroines were the most beautiful, his heroes were the most heroic, and his monsters and villains were the most frightening. Always. He was the best.
Award-winning author of A Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction Artists
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