Kelly Freas signature

Kelly Freas self-portraitfrom:
A Gallery
Kelly Freas (pronounced "freeze") was born in 1922 in New York state. Raised in Canada, he ended up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after stints in college and the Army. He was always more interested in drawing than in Engineering or Medicine, and he got a job at an advertising agency doing just that. And he went back to school at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

In 1950 he was encouraged by a friend to submit an art class assignment to Weird Tales magazine. It sold and Freas decided to pursue a career as a science fiction artist.

Of course, he was wise enough not to give up his "day job" right away.

Kelly Freas - Planet Stories March 1953He did a few covers for Weird Tales and Planet Stories as well as black & white interior illustrations for both pulp magazines. Although the covers were printed on stock with some presumptions and pretensions of quality, the interior paper was the reason for the "pulp" appellation. It was as cheap as could be. Artists like Freas and Finlay and dozens of others struggled mightily against impossible odds to produce beautiful art - of which we, the readers, were able to see only muddy approximations. The image at right was done in 1952 for an early 1953 issue of Planet Stories.

The goal of the sf artist was Astounding Science Fiction. Printed on marginally better stock, it would later become the even more prestigious Analog.

Kelly Freas - Astounding October 1953
Kelly Freas - Analog mid-December 1991
Freas' long association with John W. Campbell and Astounding/Analog began with this poignant and powerful cover in 1953 (at left). He was still painting covers for Analog as recently as June 2001. 48 years is an incredible tenure in any occupation, let alone with one client. A portion of his cover for a December 1991 issue is below left.

It's easy to provide a litany of talents that Freas brings to his art, but besides his consummate abilities to design and render, his obvious love for the genre and his attention to detail - besides all that - are his sense of humor and his skill at depicting individuals in his art. Both of these made his work stand out from the new wave of science fiction artists who were populating the new digest sized magazines and the paperback racks of the 1950's.

Speaking of which, it may have been the cover and interior illustrations for the 1956 humor collection, The Wild Reader, (at right), that initiated the next step of his career.
Kelly Freas - Wild Reader cover
Kelly Freas - Wild Reader interior art

Kelly Freas - Mad #32The humorous aspects of his work landed him a job at Mad Magazine in 1957 (not 1955 as often stated elsewhere). He'd just won his first two Hugo Awards for Best Professional Artist in 1955 and 1956 and, having conquered that market, was apparently ready to branch out. He did a clever but stylistically unrecognizeable feature, "Mad's Ink Blot Test" in issue #31 (Feb. 1957). In #32, he produced a stunning tour de force for the centerspread (click the image at left for a full-size version). Then, his portrait of "Yul Brynner", with and without hair,on the inside front cover of Mad #35, heralded a new look for the magazine. By issue #40 (July of 1958) he was the new cover artist - a position he held through issue #74 - October of 1962.

Kelly Freas - Volatillis ad - Mad #35

Kelly Freas - Presenting the BillIt's been said often that Freas replaced Norman Mingo as the Mad cover artist. While technically true, Mingo had only done eight covers when Freas took over the position. Mingo's main tenure on the job came after Freas, not before him. In addition to covers, Freas also did dozens of advertisement parodies and other humorous paintings that appeared in color on the back cover. One of the most notable was his 'Presenting the Bill - a great moment in medicine' from Mad #48 (July 1959). Click for an enlarged view.

Frank Kelly Freas Portfolio coverKelly Freas - The Mad FrontierHe won the Hugo again in 1958 and 1959 and had a portfolio of his artwork published. The science fiction digests and all types of paperback covers became his venue of choice in the Sixties. These included some of the most memorable Mad collection covers, like Son of Mad, Ides of Mad and Greasy Mad Stuff. One seldom seen example is at right from the first edition of The Mad Frontier which was quickly replaced with a different cover after 1963.

Kelly Freas - We still have a choice
Inspired by the moon landing and after witnessing a launch at Cape Canaveral, Freas designed six posters meant to inspire us to consider, and hopefully continue, our exploration of space.
Sadly, we did neither.

Below is a sampling of more paperback covers by Freas. He was awarded six more Hugos in the Seventies, five of them consecutive: 1970 and 1972-1976. In 1975 he was commissioned by a new paperback company, Laser Books, to paint all of their covers. The main feature of the design was to be a face. The potential for repetition and triteness was rife. Freas carried it off with aplomb for 57 books. Each face was unique and memorable, each cover distinctive within a stringent format. I can't think of another artist who could have managed that.

Kelly Freas - Tonight We Steal the Stars Kelly Freas - Zenya Kelly Freas - Renegades of Time Kelly Freas - Hellquad
Ace 1969 DAW 1974 Laser 1975 DAW 1984

In 1971, he published a selection of his b&w illustrations for Astounding called The Astounding Fifties. In 1977, he wrote Frank Kelly Freas - The Art of Science Fiction, which, despite the broad title was actually a personal memoir of his art. Beautifully and richly illustrated, the text chronicled his career in anecdotal style and was annotated with additional hand-written commentary. Frank Kelly Freas - A Separate Star came out in 1984 with a similar down-to-earth approach. In 1990 he republished The Astounding Fifites in a signed limited edition of 250 on better paper stock.

He was still working when I wrote this in 1999, with an Analog cover on the January 2000 issue, and was approaching the 50th anniversary of his first professional sale in November. Looking back at his career, it's obvious that the art directors of the world liked him (no comment on vice versa), as did the fans. His work is always distinctive, thoughtful, professional and it certainly must have been 'on-time' judging by his prolonged stays at the various positions he's held during his career.

Here's to you, Kelly! It's been fun retracing your steps and I hope to keep following your footprints for a while longer!

We only had another five years. Frank Kelly Freas died January 2, 2005.


To learn more about Frank Kelly Freas, see:

Frank Kelly Freas - The Art of Science Fiction Frank Kelly Freas, Donning 1977
Frank Kelly Freas - A Separate Star Frank Kelly Freas, Greenswamp 1984
A Gallery of Rogues: Cartoonists' Self-Caricatures Robert C. Harvey, *Ohio State University 1998
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 1999

Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page written, designed & © 1999 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

Learn about other ILLUSTRATORS.

Go to top