May 1, 2015

Virgil Finlay: Pictures of Naked Astronauts

When I was a kid in the 1960s, we were all revved up on space exploration -- Lost in Space, Star Trek, the juvenile novels of Robert Silverberg and Robert Heinlein.  Our games involves outer space.  Even our breakfast cereal was Quisp, starring an alien from outer space.

None of these were very good for beefcake -- astronauts kept their clothes on.

So I was pleasantly surprised, at the age of nine or ten, to find this drawing in The Complete Book of Space Travel, by Albro Gaul.(1956), in the Denkmann Elementary School Library. It illustrates the physical requirements for becoming an astronaut: normal height, blood pressure, and so on.

It was the only picture of a shirtless astronaut that I had ever seen.  I checked out the book over and over again, memorizing the thick, shining muscles of the chest and shoulders, the stalwart expression, the weirdly shaped space helmet, the bulge in his shorts.  I repeated the name the illustrator, Virgil Finlay, like an charm.

Then I moved on to Washington Junior High, which didn't have The Complete Book of Space Travel in its library, and forgot about it.

Recently I looked up this Virgil Finlay (1914-1971), who drew one of the most iconic pictures of my childhood.  He became interested in science fiction while in high school, and published cover and interior illustrations in most of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror pulps of the 1930s and 1940s, winning a Hugo Award in 1953.  As the pulp magazine market faded away, he began to illustrate astrology magazines, reprints of Shakespearean plays, and novels.

Although he drew many muscular, semi-nude male astronauts, barbarian heroes, and gods, Finlay also drew women: there have been two collections of his female illustrations (it may have been a marketing strategy: most of his intended audience wanted to see women).

He was married for most of his life, and there is no evidence of any association with the 1960s gay community, although one of his illustrations, "The Oracle of Victory" (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, 1952) was borrowed to illustrate Growing Up Gay: A Youth Liberation Pamplet (Michigan, 1976).

Still, when you look at the loving detail Finlay extended to the erotic potential of his male illustrations, you can't help but wonder.