Michael Whelan is a legend in the field of illustration, the only living artist inducted in the SF Hall of Fame.
Earlier this year, his cover for A MEMORY OF LIGHT by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and he just completed another blockbuster in Sanderson's WORDS OF RADIANCE.
At the same time, Whelan has taken on covers for small press titles like Robert McCammon's I TRAVEL BY NIGHT (Subterranean Press) and Todd McCaffrey's DRAGONWRITER (Smart Pop Books). Most peculiar among these assignments just might be the Mutant Hunter series by Stephen R. Cox.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Whelan about the project.
Top Image: Legends of the Fallout (detail)
In the last couple of years, you've been illustrating covers for a series of ebooks written by Stephen R. Cox. How did this collaboration on Mutant Hunter come about?
Simply put, Steve invited me out to New Mexico. Upon my arrival he and Pam took me out to some Mexican restaurant. He handed me a funny-tasting Dos Equis and the next thing I remember I was on a plane coming back to Connecticut.
I have these strange disconnected memories—or are they dreams?—of him making me bury something in the desert, of weird looking aircraft flying over us as we crept over an alien terrain, and both of us stumbling in high winds through a volcanic outcropping with a weird tubular weapon, hunting for, for, something. I can't remember what...
Every time I think about these visions I seem to hear "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin, and some Joe Walsh song, whistling in the wind. At least, I think they're dreams. It's all so confusing.
What appeals to you in illustrating post-apocalyptic fiction?
I like variety and enjoy illustrating all the themes and subgenres in F and SF, including post-apocalyptic fiction. I guess you could say that it does have a special appeal to me when I feel the desire to explore the darker fringes of speculative fiction.
Steve creates such visual and evocative images that I feel compelled to draw and paint them. The Mutant Hunter books are a visual feast for a painter like me. Steve’s imagination draws from old west gunslinging imagery, a ruined techno-based future, and an edgy quality that’s refreshing for me...
So it’s not really post-apocalyptic fiction, the genre, that appeals to me, it’s the writing and the vivid world and characters Steve creates that appeals to me.
Most of your cover assignments in the last decade have been fantasy. How does it feel to get back into the swing of science fiction?
It feels good to illustrate anything that excites both my imagination and intellect, but I admit that I've grown tired of painting sword-wielding heroes at times in my career. I hate being pigeon-holed, especially when fantasy and science fiction comes in so many forms, shapes and sizes.
In any event, some books seem to straddle or even transcend the boundaries of the various types of F&SF. I'm not sure one could classify the Mutant Hunter books as science fiction any more than Stephen King's Dark Tower series could be so labeled.
Steve wrecked the earth in interesting and creative ways. Who knew there could be such a range of post apocalyptic wastelands? How have his settings inspired the backgrounds for your covers?
They’ve inspired me greatly. Steve obviously has a creative imagination and he isn’t afraid to try and put down in words what’s in his head.
The Slicks, the Atlantic Speedway, Splinterland, the Pacific Ditch—just look at the map on his website. All of the places he describes trigger my own imagination, and it’s easy to get drawn deeply into those worlds.
Steve and I share a strong visual attraction to weathered and pitted concrete, rusting metal, red dust, degrading monolithic structures, strange landscapes and violent weather. His descriptions of the ancient space-launch facility in the last chapter of SPLINTERLAND knocked me out. And then there are the ruins of old Disney World!
We’re going to try something new in the sixth book of the Mutant Hunter series, GREY CITY PART I. I had a dream about Miller (the Mutant Hunter protagonist) making his way through a particularly nasty and dangerous territory in the Slicks called Asuncion Valley. Steve is writing and incorporating that scene into the book based on my description. It’s kind of a reverse input, or mirror image of the way we’ve been working together so far. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Image Above: The Slicks
Steve has described a recurring theme in the books as “excursions into dangerous, foreboding places where the characters’ wits, skills, weapons and luck are all that sustains them.” His military background clearly informs the action sequences, and he's tapping personal experience when he talks about how the journey is thrilling and deeply frightening at the same time. You obviously come from a very different background. How do you relate when taking on a cover assignment like this?
You've touched on the really hard part.
I've been blessed with never having to experience combat, so that's where I have to use my imagination as much as possible. It helps to have read a lot of real life accounts of individuals in those situations, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with combat veterans, but I'm not kidding myself, it's not the same as living it.
Still, one doesn't have to be a vampire to be able to paint one.
Having said that, the concept that Steve articulated can be applied to much more than combat and weapon-wielding circumstances. Think about mountain climbers on K2 going past the point of no return. Think about a young couple getting married when everyone who knows them, everyone, tells them not to do it. It’s the same sort of situation. You just have to have the guts to roll the dice.
Regardless, Steve’s experiences in the military, I’m sure, help him describe the action and circumstances in the particular scenes that carry such thematic elements and details.
Care to talk about your romp through White Sands? Sounds like you had interesting adventures with Steve there.
White Sands in Southern New Mexico is one of my favorite places on the planet.
I first experienced it when I was very young and my father worked at the missile range there. On some occasions they allowed him to bring me along and I got to ride in a jeep with missile recovery teams racing across the desert to retrieve a missile that they had test fired to try out a parachute retrieval system. It was like a scene from Spielberg movie!
In a surrogate sense, White Sands was probably the closest I’ve been to being on another planet. The Park Service allows you free access to wander a large portion of the vast gypsum dune field and you can literally get lost in it.
When I think of the place, I do think of Frank Herbert’s DUNE, vice versa, but then again, it’s different. If you have a bucket list of places to visit, White Sands should be on it.
Several of the images I use in my paintings are drawn from White Sands as well as from the surrounding desert, which seems to go on forever, especially when you’re standing in the middle of it.
Leon Miller uses a shock weapon called a "Jaff". It's one of the many interesting pieces of equipment in the world of Mutant Hunter. What's the key in conceptualizing gadgetry from the future, especially a broken one?
It’s all part of Steve’s visualization of a future based on advanced technology that can no longer be sustained.
In Mutant Hunter, man has for the most part destroyed his own capabilities to effectively maintain the weapons, technologically-based infrastructure, and machines that existed before the apocalypse. The Jaff shock weapon is an artifact, but it still works.
Steve made it up but describes it in technical detail in SPLINTERLAND, in the chapter where Miller and Treadlow have to get it out of hock. It’s believable—technically—and it serves to make the Mutant Hunter books even more enjoyable to read.
Steve does it without it being too obvious, including flashes of details that add an aura of convincing reality to his scenes, characters and tech. While wild and sometimes insane, all of the gadgetry, vehicles, and technology are plausible.
By the way, an actual mock-up of the Jaffeson shock weapon exists. I used it as a model in the three Mutant Hunter covers published so far.
Image Above: Splinterland
Also in the realm of military equipment from Mutant Hunter, the screamer looked like it was a lot of fun to design. What was your reference for it?
I consider my visualization as a work in progress. I still don't feel I've got a definitive handle on it. I mean, I know how it should feel, but I don't think I have the knowledge and hardware competence to really nail it...yet.
Steve describes it as a cross between an A-10 Warthog and a V-22 Osprey on steroids. I like that description, and my vision of the aircraft leans in that direction.
The series isn't short on villains and unsavory characters. You've done some interesting portraits, including No Blood the leader of a band of mutants known as Hydrates. Steve gives good physical description, of course, but how do you go a step beyond to convey crazy?
That's where catharsis comes in. I just have to listen to the news, put on some badass music and I'm ready to rumble.
Steve's characters are really engaging, fun to try to visualize and are as critical to the story as the settings and plot. I know he bases most of his characters, including mutants, on real people he knows or has known. I don’t know if I’d want to meet the guy he had in mind when he created No Blood!
Image Left: No Blood (detail)
What are you looking forward to illustrating on the next in the series?
A portrait of Treadlow, Miller’s insolent and sardonic tracker. I have little love for the guy, but he's too interesting to ignore! Treadlow may end up on the cover of the fourth book, THE SKIN BAGS, which I’m reading now.
The main problem, from my perspective, is that Steve’s books have so many cool scenes to choose from. I'm extremely frustrated I don't have the time to explore more of the visual possibilities in the series. I wish some quality comic company would pick up the series, or even better, a good director/producer. When I'm reading the books it feels as if I'm watching a movie of it inside my head; the books are that visual to me.
Sell potential readers on Mutant Hunter. Why should we read Steve's books?
It's a hell of a thrill ride, but be ready for some rough road and surprising turns. Once you get into the story, it’s hard to stop. You don’t want to. The language, the action, and the grey moral area in which it all takes place is integral and natural in the world Steve has created. Yes, this is an epic adventure, but I read it because it’s exciting, wild, fun.