The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon, with Scattershot Notes on Race, Sex, Science Fiction, Politics, San Francisco, New York, Terror, Wonder, Beauty, and Childhood in the Seventies

“I don’t like movies when they don’t have niggers in them.  I went to see Logan’s Run, right?  They had a movie of the future called Logan’s Run.  There ain’t no niggers in it!  I said, ‘Well, white folks ain’t plannin’ for us to be here!’  That’s why we gotta make movies….”

Richard Pryor  Bicentennial Nigger

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I hadn’t thought of Leo and Diane Dillon in years when Leo Dillon died in May.  I knew some of their art from the covers of Harlan Ellison’s books (the center of my thirteen-year-old literary world), but a lot of these paintings and drawings and woodcuts I’d never seen before, including much of the work for children’s books that made their name (and made them the only illustrators to have won the Caldecott Medal twice in a row.)  Maybe it was the thought of death taking not just a man, and a husband, but half of an artistic partnership of over fifty years that made me go back and look at what I’d missed, or what I hadn’t paid attention to since I was very young.  Regardless of what sent me there, what I came away with was the conviction – beyond the evidence of the Ellison book covers – that the headline “Leo Dillon, Children’s Book Illustrator, Dies at 79” didn’t begin to cover it.  I’ve been digging deep into the underappreciated culture of the seventies for a while now, and I see the Dillons’ stunning body of work as an essential document and reflection of a period that was more revolutionary than is commonly believed.

Leo Dillon met Diane Sorber at Parsons School of Design in 1953.  They were married in 1957, a decade before Loving v. Virginia (the most perfectly named supreme court decision in history) struck down anti-miscegenation laws.  It’s fitting that they became famous illustrating children’s books in the late sixties and seventies, when Dick and Jane stopped being white, middle class, and apolitical.  I wasn’t taken with many children’s books of the period, though; like a lot of kids, I had a sensitive nose for art designed to make me a better citizen and more sensitive person, and I preferred less reputable things designed to thrill and terrify me.

Still, a lot of educators and psychologists and children’s book authors of the era knew that kids needed to be thrilled and terrified, and that they would not be turned into murderers and rapists by Grimm or Gorey; nor, for that matter, by the most disreputable comic books.

What Leo and Diane Dillon did, by design or by instinct, was take multiculturalism out of the realm of tiresome, well-intentioned consciousness-raising for schoolchildren - practically designed to provoke a rebellious “political incorrectness” in adolescence, which was so easily co-opted by right-wing politicians in the eighties and nineties, once those adolescents had reached voting age - and make it sexy.

Film – “the great sensual medium”, according to Pauline Kael, who had no use for art designed to make you a better citizen – is the perfect medium for making multiculturalism sexy, and science fiction the ideal genre for picturing the future imagined by Warren Beatty’s Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, a man desperate, idealistic, and, like the America imagined by Steve Erickson’s Thomas Jefferson in Arc d’X , “halfcrazed by a love of justice”:

“All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin' everybody 'til they're all the same color.”

Is it any wonder Hollywood gave us Logan’s Run instead? 

Kids looking for more adult science fiction – think of how many of us graduated to the grownup section of the bookstore when we went looking for science fiction – would have to look for it on the page, not on screen.  Grownup science fiction on film was dealt a near mortal blow by Star Wars, which set the genre back decades.

So there would have been no place for Leo and Diane Dillon in Hollywood, even if they’d been looking for one.  No problem.  They could dream their dreams on paper.  Take a look at this image of an astronaut:

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A gorgeous African profile inside a helmet that echoes the marriage of technology, sex, and terror H.R. Giger brought to Alien, one of the few successful attempts at making science fiction for grown-ups, smuggled into theaters through the mechanism of a simple horror plot, and at a time when Star Wars had opened the theater door wide enough that, for a moment, even a known associate of Alejandro “El Topo” Jodorowsky could sneak in and put his stamp on the screen.  (When Hollywood produced a sequel to Alien, the job fell to James Cameron, in front of whose camera Leonardo di Caprio could paint a naked Kate Winslet without kindling the faintest spark of eroticism.)

Cameron’s Aliens, good as it was, was about machinery.  In Ridley Scott’s Alien, even the Nostromo looked vaguely organic, and on the Giger-designed planet where the Nostromo’s crew makes its fateful rendezvous, it’s hard to distinguish the fossilized aliens from their spacecraft. 

Leo and Diane Dillon’s science fiction illustrations brought new life, in several senses, to a genre in which the book jackets (and movie posters) traditionally pitted the rational lines and hard angles of a spacecraft against the menacing reptilian and amphibian beasts awaiting its touchdown on a deadly crater.  In the Dillons’ cover art, there were few straight lines or hints of technology; everything was swirling, sensual; warm colors pouring like blood and wine and honey into every crevice.

“I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic.  Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.”

That’s from the legendary opening paragraph of Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street.  Not science fiction, but it might as well have been to most Americans, taking place in an East Village and Lower East Side often described as a moonscape, so many of its buildings lost to arson and neglect, leaving rubble-strewn empty lots in their place.  Not many of the Dillons’ illustrations went that deep and dark, though there were some, like the cover they designed for Jerzy Kosinski’s violent, erotic, disturbing Steps.

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I didn’t make it anywhere near Great Jones Street on my first trip to New York, in 1974, a year after DeLillo’s novel was published.  Though I do remember a long ride down from the Bronx on the Broadway Local, much of it above ground, affording a view of the less touristed heights of Manhattan.  Every station, it seemed, was covered with posters for The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat

Blatantly sexual cartoon images didn’t traumatize this seven-year-old.  I’d seen a lot worse in the loose pages of “adult” newspapers blowing along the sidewalks and through the parking lots of San Francisco.  But San Francisco wasn’t New York.  The city’s decaying Western Addition, where my private school was located, had its shared of decrepit and boarded buildings (though Vertigo’s “McKittrick Hotel” at Eddy and Gough was long since lost to scorched-urban redevelopment), as well as a few empty lots, but its face couldn’t compare to the Berlin 1945 complexion of Loisaida.

Still, San Francisco was an American city, and in the seventies that meant crime, too much of it.  And sex colors everything in San Francisco.  George Sterling called it “The Cool, Grey City of Love”, so it seems that by 1920 even fog meant sex.  Violent crime was about sex.  Drug crime was about sex.  I suppose jaywalking was about sex.  (Somehow the very word suggests a euphemism for the pursuit of rough trade, though I may be drifting way of orbit here, to bring us back to science fiction imagery.)  Food and drink?  Definitely about sex.

One of the most gorgeous Leo and Diane Dillon illustrations I discovered is nearly lost to us.  You’ll have a tough time finding it online (other than here), and “The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon”, edited by Byron Preiss, is sadly out of print.  The book it illustrates – Different: An Anthology of Homosexual Short Stories, edited by Stephen Wright – is way out of print, and almost certainly not coming back.  (You might say it’s a victim of its own success, but it’s a shame to lose the cover, even if its contents - and much, much more - are everywhere.)

Take a look at the two slightly androgynous couples in nineteenth century formal wear.  All four of them look like Oscar Wilde, in case you missed the point.  (Which a lot of people still found easy to miss in 1974.)  All the other figures are women, aside from the utterly androgynous couple, gay or straight, on the verge of a kiss.  The woman in white looks (longingly?) in the direction of the woman at the table, hands drape over shoulders, and on the right a woman wearing only some sort of cutaway jacket and possibly a pair of knee-high boots strikes a pose with hands on hips.

It’s the woman at the café table, just off center, her full face pointedly, and exclusively, illuminated, who really grabs my attention, as she is evidently meant to.  Sitting with a glass of wine (looking like honey) in front of her, her blank face the image of easy boredom or dazed satisfaction.  She turns her surroundings – which don’t evoke a single era, let alone a single place – into a restaurant and wine bar, stained glass and ferns and Maxfield Parrish posters, a standard model for San Francisco in the 1970s.  Bird, butterfly, and plant imagery surround her.  A paradisiacal scene.

Compare this to the poster they designed for Ground Zero, a long gone coffee house from the pre-gentrified Brooklyn of 1969.  Three figures approach a black door with a target painted on it.  All wear robes and gasmasks, one carries a skeletal umbrella, one, bare-chested, has designs of baroque intricacy in the folds of her robe.  “The ‘target’ area is a point of safety,” they write; “people are entering it to escape the dangers of the world.  The umbrella shielding them from the ‘fallout’ has no covering.” 

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Alcohol and caffeine, sex and coffee house talk, each one a retreat from the world, the sort of thing that gave the seventies a bad name, “giving up” on the struggle.  Unlike the sixties, which have provided the right wing with campaign bogeymen for over four decades, the seventies get it from both sides.  The right slams the era for moral and economic decay and supposedly failed social policies, the left slams it for not being the golden sixties, when everything was marmalade skies.  The truth is, if you were a woman, or black, or gay, you were a damn sight better off in 1975 than you were in 1965.  Some people struggled for freedom, and they won.  All the straight young white men of the new left fought to wrest power from straight old white men, and they failed.  So they became straight, bitter, middle aged white men, subsequently know as neoconservatives.

"He was given to fits of rage, Jewish, liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair.  He had complaints about life, but never solutions.  He longed to be an artist, but balked at the necessary sacrifices.  In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights, when, in fact, it was mere narcissism."

That’s how Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is described by his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) in Manhattan.  I think of those lines whenever Network is mentioned.  That essential document of the seventies is loved by many of my left-leaning friends, who consider it a prophetic account of the era of reality television and the steep decline of the American IQ.  What is really is, is the supposedly liberal Chayefsky’s spasm of impotent rage at women, blacks, Arabs, gentiles, and his own declining middle aged libido.  The whole thing might have been penned by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary.

The art of Leo and Diane Dillon may be full of eros and terror, but never bitterness or rage.  It is a perfect mirror of an era that of necessity found beauty in decay, recognized that the revolution begins in our hearts, and embraced the messy reality and possibilities of urban life instead of entertaining pastoral utopian delusions.  My child’s-eye view of the seventies is sometimes derided by those who slid into their “don’t-trust-anyone-over” thirties in the latter half of the decade, but I was alive then as surely as they were, I remember, and I don’t let go.