John Schoenherr (1935-2010)

When I became an avid sf reader in the late 1960s every prozine on the local library shelves was digest-sized and there wasn’t a hint that the case had ever been any different.

Then I met LASFSian Ed Cox and saw his pulp magazine collection, filled with perfectly preserved copies of Thrilling Wonder, the pages inside still looking as white as the day the magazine appeared on the newsstand.

Another friend impressed me even more with the news that my favorite prozine had experimented with a large format during WWII — collectors called them “bedsheet Astoundings” — and had briefly revived the format (as Analog) just a few years before. I found them for sale in used bookstores and soon owned a copy of the most dramatic prozine cover ever, John Schoenherr’s depiction of a sandworm for the March 1965 Analog.

Now the artist has passed away at the age of 74. He died April 8. His son Ian mourned him, saying:

He was a man of many talents and I can’t say what he was best at, but he was, among countless other things, a great artist, a great husband to my mother for almost 50 years, and a great dad to my sister and me.

For science fiction fans the physical passing of John Schoenherr will represent perhaps the third time we’ve mourned his loss, because of the times he’s left the sf magazine field. The first came in the late 1960s when he stopped doing covers for Analog. John W. Campbell said in a 1967 letter: “We’re losing him now; we can’t match Reader’s Digest’s $3000 offers — nor the book illustration rates the big publishing houses give him. The man is good.”

However, following Campbell’s death in 1971, Ben Bova became editor of Analog and Schoenherr resumed working for the magazine. He produced 22 more covers in the next six years. That association ended again when Bova moved to Omni. Also, around that time Schoenherr began to focus on wildlife painting.

He would win a Caldecott Medal in 1988 for his work in Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon.

Schoenherr’s death has prompted some fans to wonder why an artist whose sf work was so esteemed practically never won awards and was never Worldcon guest of honor. John W. Campbell, in that same 1967 letter, bluntly answered: “Jack Schoenherr, probably the best artist science fiction ever had, got one Hugo once. He never attended a convention, never did any artwork for the fan magazines, never made personal friends.”

He did not court fandom, which may be all the answer needed. But he did make personal friends elsewhere as Carl Zimmer testifies in his reminiscence for Discover: “Everyone always joked that Jack was a great bear. It wasn’t just his ursine cast that earned him that name; it was also his combination of grouchiness and loyalty.”

5 thoughts on “John Schoenherr (1935-2010)

  1. There’s no doubt in my mind that, after Freas, Schoenherr was THE cover artist in science fiction, who not only exemplified the honest pictorial tradition of the genre, but also brought to it the gift of contemporary painting.

  2. Oh man, I was discussing him just this Friday with a friend at my local comic shop, Zanadu, in relation to his Analog illos for the Dune novels. A great artist, master of the scratch-board technique, and a very nice fellow.

  3. I was just remembering running into Schoenherr at a Ren Fair in the 1980s, where he was selling his art under another name.

  4. I don’t mean to go too far off topic, but why would a magazine go to a larger format during World War II? Wasn’t paper being rationed, or at least in shorter supply in the U.S., at the time?

  5. @Joshua: From what I’ve read, the “bedsheet” format was the early standard for pulps like Amazing, which downsized in the 30s. In WWII, when Astounding went back to bedsheet size that coincided with a price hike to 25 cents per issue.

    According to the Wikipedia products rationed in the US did not include paper, though there were campaigns to recycle paper.

    When Campbell changed the name from “Astounding” to Analog and revived the bedsheet format in the 1960s, he hoped to improve the magazine’s prestige, make it more suitable for the audience of engineers and scientists he was appealing to, and attract a more lucrative class of advertisers (science/technology compies). The advertising didn’t materialize.

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