I was sad to hear of the death of Leo Dillon who, in close (indeed inseparable) collaboration with his wife Diane had been one of the finest book illustrators of the last half century. The couple met on a design course in New York in 1953 and married after graduating in 1956, and have been together ever since, apparently rather reclusive and living in creative domestic bliss. Their book cover designs, which have appeared since the late 1950s, have always been dually attributed, and the signature Leo and Diane Dillon was a guarantee of a visually distinctive and strikingly imaginative graphic style. This was particularly gratifying as far as their work in the SF and fantasy genres was concerned, where clichéd images of spaceships, aliens and mighty thewed, sword-wielding barbarians and bronze-brassiered amazons were the wearisome norm. The Dillons style was very diverse, but always with an instantly recognisable signature. They produced blocky, heavily outlined designs which had the look of prints; watercolours in which translucent figures interpenetrated each other, often creating further images at the point of overlaid intersection; pictures resembling pieces of marquetry; illustrations with the jewelled colours and oriental atmosphere of Leon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev or Kay Nielsen’s fairy tale pictures; intricate, intertwining pen and ink drawings; paper cut-out collages; paintings emulating stained glass (the beautiful cover to CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces); and bright pop art assemblages (the cover to the US paperback of Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat). They often arranged images representing the subjects or moods of the stories they were illustrating into larger designs, so that a peacock might be made up of marching figures, trees, a river with boats and a bridge; or a sad woman’s trailing veil containing cars, basilisks, levered and crank-shafted mechanisms, triceratops, ape-like faces and the outline of a carrion bird with a skull extending towards its hooked beak (Ellison’s Deathbird Stories). Leo Dillon’s parentage means that there is a significant representation of African American figures in their work, too, which again makes their work particularly distinctive (sadly). They worked outside of the field of book cover design, providing the covers for many LPs in the Caedmon series of spoken word recordings. I particularly like their series of paintings for the Sing Children Sing records, which cover various countries around the world. They all have a large planetary globe with the country in question prominently outlined, a choir of open mouthed figures in costumes associated with the place, and a distinctive landscape in which well-known or vernacular buildings are placed. For Britain, we have the white cliffs of Dover, the houses of parliament, a castle and a small thatched cottage and an array of figures which includes Henry VIII, a friendly bobby, a pearly king, a yeoman of the guard, a Norman knight, an extravagantly bewigged Regency lady, a judge and a Scotsman. I think they’ve captured our character rather well.
They have enjoyed a long and close personal and artistic relationship with the writer Harlan Ellison, who has himself always sat rather awkwardly upon the generic shelves to which his intensely felt short stories have been consigned. Their covers for Ellison’s collections display a unique and deeply rooted understanding of his work. They are expressionistic, reflecting the heightened style and feeling of the stories within. The cover of one of Ellison’s rare novel-length works, Spider Kiss, has the pattern of the rock star protagonist’s pink shirt made up of the anguished faces of his worshipping fans, whose looks of devotion are indistinguishable from grimaces of agony. Gentleman Junkie is a study in cross-hatched shading worthy of Mervyn Peake, whilst Web of the City is one of their woodblock prints (by the looks of it) whose distorted faces are reminiscent of those in the Expressionist paintings of Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann or George Grosz. The cover of the original hardback edition of Dangerous Visions, the influential anthology which Ellison edited in the 60s, is a hugely inventive and imaginative design, which manages to conflate a diagram of the eye with a stringed musical instrument, also incorporating a portrait of Ellison as some kind of knowing harpie. The image on the front cover, contained within the eye and projected by arrowed lines focussed through the lens, is deliberately slightly out of focus. An indication that what lies within is a projection of reality, and not reality itself – a highlighting of the artifice of art, and its permission therefore to explore what would be taboo in the society in which it operates. The lens itself is rendered so that it appears transparent, with a lighter green limning the white disc making it stand out from the background. The Dillons also produced a series of small woodblock prints which illustrated each story. These were done as a last minute commission, which Ellison insisted upon with the publishers, and as a result have a raw, instinctive immediacy which fits in perfectly with the tone of the book. Unfortunately, they are not terribly well reproduced in the 70s paperback editions which I have, which are also lumbered with hopelessly inappropriate spaceships and aliens covers. All of which makes you appreciate the Dillons even more. Of the Ellison covers, the one for Deathbird Stories is a particular favourite (and the story The Deathbird one of my favourites of Ellison’s). The blending of the elements is done so effortlessly, the composition working as a whole and then drawing in the eye to examine the details, the component parts which go to make up the strange amalgamation of the mourning woman and the crow (a different sort of deathbird to the one which Ellison writes about). The way that the long black hair of the woman morphs into the upward sweep of the crow’s black tailfeathers is superbly done, and the iridescent colours which bloom at the core of the outer darkness reflect the balance of the stories within, which vary from the ‘heart’s blood’ tales of intense introspection and moral interrogation to the demonically comical, carnivalesque stories which delight in loosing chaos upon the world. The mournful, noble profile of the woman at first draws attention away from the two small, red horns spiking up from her brow, an indication that all is not always as it seems. Although in Ellison’s fiction, demons are not necessarily to be considered a force for evil. The way in which the human skull is incorporated into the curve of the crow’s silhouetted cranium is beautifully done, the bird’s cold, dead eye staring out of the shadowy socket, and echoing the upturned, nictating eye of the lizard on the opposite side of the composition. The woman’s veil becomes part of the pattern on the mask, whose upper browns, curved and crooked, echo the claws of the crow, which themselves connect with the semi-organic machineries above. Everything connects with, or emerges from, everything else and it’s all marvellous. The cover of The Beast That Shouted Love At the Heart of the World is also fine, depicting a chthonic beast curled up beneath the earth like a seed waiting to unfurl. It sends its tongue up through the soil, its tip forking into a pink heart which expands into a bubblegum speech bubble, containing the words of the collection and its title story.
The Essential Ellison - front cover
The Dillons included affectionate portraits of Ellison on several of their covers for his books, reflecting the extent to which his personality inhabits his work (not least in the introductions he writes to most of his stories). Some of these take the form of an Ellison warped and transformed by the products of his own imagination. These are variants on Goya’s print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, except that in this case, the author is awake, and the monsters, demons and night creatures are invited in and welcomed. On the back cover of Strange Wine, Ellison (looking alarmingly like a young Prince Charles) is crowned with a Dylanesque thicket of hair comprised of fungi and locusts (suggesting he’s been spending time wandering through the cities of Ambergris and Viriconium in the worlds of Jeff Vandermeer and M.John Harrison). On the cover of the Savoy Books edition of his collection of TV polemics, he is a goat-legged satyr, his curling tail holding up the aerial whilst green imps watch him type, the colourful smoke emerging from the platen bearing up further demons. The cover of the US edition of The Illustrated Ellison has a respectably suited and bow-tied Ellison pestered by his double, a grinning, wild-haired trickster with horned hat and coat with watch-faces and cogs – clearly a version of Harlequin from his renowned story ‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’. A further Harlan peers from a porthole in Harlequin’s hat, the writer as observer, watching this encounter with interest to see how it turns out, and how it can be used. A couple of particularly ingenious covers create portraits of Ellison from elements of landscape, architecture and assorted objects, in the manner of Arcimboldo or Dali. The Essential Ellison has his face composed of a ramshackle assortment of half-timbered houses on a mountainside, with a stream flowing alongside suggesting the lapel of a shirt. The same portrait is repeated on the back cover, but with a night full of stars having fallen, and Harlan’s eyes having shut. From the holes of mine shafts dotting the jagged rocks of his hair, figures fly in dream flight, the imagination taking wing. Ellison has always been effusive in his praise of the Dillons, and has clearly felt privileged to enjoy such a lengthy and fruitful creative relationship with them. He puts it clearly and unequivocally in his short piece on them in the 1978 collection The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, which includes a small portfolio of their work under the title An Ellison Tapestry: ‘Beyond my love for them and my understanding that they have influenced my ethical and moral life almost more than anyone else I’ve ever known, my respect for their artistic intelligence and their incomparable craft is enormous. Leo and Diane Dillon are the best. Simply put: the best’. Amen to that. Thankfully, you can find a large selection of the Dillons’ work over at the blog The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon.
The Essential Ellison - back cover