Eye-Gougingly Good: The Vintage Sci-Fi Art of Bruce Pennington

Aside from Frank Frazetta, Bruce Pennington is the name to know in terms of vintage sci-fi/fantasy art. The graphic genius composed some of the most iconic covers in the genre’s history, including works for the Dune series and the New Sun Cycle. Here’s a brief gallery of his maddening designs, from a time before the Apple-induced simplicity we’re accustomed to today, when publishers wanted every square inch of the book jacket to scream bizarre adventure, alien vistas, and mind-blowing narratives.

You know you’re looking at a winning cover when you read the title and exclaim “Wait what, what was Dune about again? I thought it was just a bunch of walking–you know, kinda like Lord of the Rings, but in the desert…?”

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Do you remember the zealous hordes of sardaukar troopers culled from the Emperor’s prison moons? the zealous Fremen paladin-commandos? Do you remember the crys-knife duels, the blend of genetic predestination and religious prophecy that underpins the series’ themes? Today’s Dune cover is almost entirely black, with a thin strip of desert off to the right and a miniscule figure trekking across it in black. It’s a suitable sort of cover for today, where it’s generally agreed that the world is chaotic enough as it is, that we don’t need extraneous adornment on our covers, whether they’re movie posters or book jackets, but Pennington came from a time when these jackets needed to spill with character …

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The three covers above are Pennington’s covers for, respectively, The Shadow of the TorturerThe Claw of the Conciliator, and The Citadel of the Autarch, books 1, 2, and 4 of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, which is as amazing as baroque fantasy/sci-fi gets, just unbelievably rich in its themes, language, and imagery; it depicts the neo-medieval future of an earth orbiting a fading sun, and I hope you’ll agree that Pennington did the series homage like no other illustrator could, which earned him a written thanks from Wolfe himself.

Pennington’s been on the cover of the works of genre giants like Ray Bradbury, Walter M. Miller, and actually received his breakthrough with the cover of Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land. I’ve neglected to include those because, fantastic as they are, they just don’t hold a candle to his weirder stuff . . .

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I think you can pin down Pennington’s style and strengths at this point: monolithic ruinscapes, unfathomable oddities in wasteland depths, hypnotically repeated motifs, etc. etc. But even these pale in comparison to what is arguably the artist’s magnum opus: the Eschatus album, which depicts Pennington’s own interpretations of the prophecies of Nostradamus, spliced with correlations from the Book of Revelation. The result is as ambitious and world-encompassing as the premise sounds:

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Here’s a piece humbly called The Rise of the Anti-Christ, a two-page spread in the book in which the Earth’s landmasses are superimposed against the sky, where a portion of the globe is obliterated about where the sun should lay obscured; we’ve got the ruins of the Vatican in the foreground, the Virgin Mary with wings outspread on the left, and a vast serpent piercing from out the firey fog on the right.

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The sacred pomp will come to drop its wings,
By the coming of the great law-giver:
He will elevate the humble, will vex the rebellious,
No rival will be born on earth.

In the book (which you can purchase here), the illustrations are accompanied by Pennington’s own written interpretations of the prophecies, making the work more of a personal reflection than a cold translation. Here’s another arresting illustration:

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Towards Aquitane by British insult
By them also great incursions:
Rains, frost will make soils iniquitous
Port Selin will make mighty invasions.

What do you think? What say we drop the minimalism in design and make a return to the tradition of lush, captivating sci-fi covers, have some fun in the maddening sun before Nostradamus’ future fries us between an exploding sun and a descending demon? And if you’d like more Pennington, check out his website here.

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