Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1987, Michael Whelan published a beautiful, glossy collection of some of his fabulous cover art, Michael Whelan's Works of Wonder. In many cases, he not only included the entire paintings (some of which had been used as wrap-around covers), but also a smaller reproduction in which the final cover is shown, complete with cover text and cropping. This helps give the reader an idea of how the version of a book cover seen on the shelves can differ dramatically from the author's interpretation.
The book opens up with a brief, but typical, introduction by Isaac Asimov, which tells us more about Asimov than about the artwork the book is devoted to. This is followed by Don Munson, who spends altogether too little time discussing Whelan's attitude towards his work and how it relates to the novels he has been hired to illustrate. Of course, both of these essays are only a prelude to the real reason to purchase the book, Whelan's art.
Not only does the book include large reproductions of Whelan's work, but also preliminary sketches and the aforementioned covers. Whelan also has written a series of short paragraphs which describe what he was attempting to accomplish in each of the illustrations and how he feels about the final artwork. Given Whelan's stature in the field, many, if not all of the works, will be familiar to readers, but seeing them in a clean format without the cover copy associated with a novel allows them to be viewed in a new light, which both reflects on Whelan's impressions and the way the artwork must conform to the publishing field.
This conformation to the needs of the publisher is very evident in the illustration for Asimov's The Robots of Dawn (which also provides the cover for Michael Whelan's Works of Wonder). The trees and figure of Giskard fill the bottom half of the artwork, leaving the entire top half for Asimov's name and the title of the book. In the original painting, Giskard is looking to the heavens and appears to be alone in the universe. In the form the painting appeared on the cover, he is drawing the reader's attention to the title and author of the book and his alienation is less conspicuous.
Not only does the reader get to appreciate the illustrations without the promotional text, the reader has the opportunity to see the wrap around covers as a complete entity in a way which isn't quite the same as removing a book jacket and flattening it out. In this way, Michael Whelan's Works of Wonder more fully presents Whelan's works as they were originally produced.
The book is organized to allow Whelan to group his paintings by book series, so the reader can see all the covers for Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series or Anne McCaffrey's Pern series and see the similarities and differences Whelan brought to each title while tying the book covers together thematically. In some cases, such as Whelan's work on books by H.P. Lovecraft, Asimov's Foundation or Burroughs's Barsoom books, Whelan has separated the series out with essays that introduce the entire series of work.
Naturally, Whelan couldn't include all of his artwork in the book, and that will lead just about any reader to lament the works which were not included. I would have liked to have seen Whelan's series of covers for Michael Moorcock's Elric series, which established the albino's look, but the decision to not include them can easily be defended and the inclusion of the Barsoom sequence provides a similar feel as the Elric covers.
Michael Whelan's Works of Wonders is an excellent collection of paintings which provide insight into the extraordinary artwork of a man who has been honored time and time again by the voters of the World Science Fiction Convention and provided inspiration for so many aspiring speculative fiction artists.