Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: The Strange Visages of Burt Shonberg (1933-1977)

(Burt Shonberg, 1964 Ibiza Spain)

Burt Shonberg (1933-1977) produced only one SF cover for the Fantastic Science Fiction Stories (June 1960), ed. Cele Goldsmith. I adore the etched helmet, the lack of a distinct face, the looking backward at a similar form emerging…. I wish more magazines commissioned covers from him–he could have added a nice visual wrinkle to the fair of the day. Here’s the listing for the issue–do you know which story he’s illustrating?

(Fantastic Science Fiction Stories (June 1960), ed. Cele Goldsmith)

So who was he? His biography, which the following paragraph is based on, lays out an intriguing life. Born in 1933, he enlisted in the Army before continuing his art studies in Los Angeles. He met the infamous Forrest J. Ackerman, and became romantically involved with the Majorie Cameron, the widow of the truly bizarre figure of Jack Parsons (the rocket engineer/occultist). A prominent LA muralist, he soon became one of the proprietors (along with George Clayton Johnson — the co-author of Logan’s Run) of the beat and folk-oriented coffee house Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach, California. He participated in LSD research projects under the direction of Dr. Oscar Janiger…. His art was also featured in Roger Corman films–including House of Usher (1960) and The Premature Burial (1962)–and collected by celebrities. He died in 1977 at 44.

(Burt Shonberg, “Earth Child,” 1961)

In the second issue of the briefly existent SF magazine Gamma (1963-1965), the editor Charles E. Fritch includes an art portfolio of Shonberg’s ink art (below). They are fascinating. Portals in human skulls lead to dilapidated landscapes, a space-suited astronaut (?) is surrounded by futuristic technologies, individuals peer through viewscreens at alien landscape-traversing machines and dense cityscapes…. Memorable and evocative.

Here is Burt Shonberg’s artist blurb provided in the issue:

“When Vincent Price portrayed an evil, demented painter whose baroque creations creations figured prominently in American-International’s House of Usher the real man behind the brush was Burt Shonberg, a young (he’s 30) California artist whose unique work has been seen in some of the leading men’s magazines, on Capitol Record covers and in various L.A. restaurants and nightclubs (The Sea Witch, The Purple Onion, etc.). As a muralist, he is in constant demand, and many of his best paintings hang in private collections around the nation. Hailing from Massachusetts, Shonberg studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at Los Anfeles Art Center. He was a radio operator in the Army, and turned to freelance art as a career upon his discharge. The haunting, bizarre Shonberg approach to creative painting is completely original, and we are proud to reproduce a special portfolio of his work, done just for GAMMA 2.”

Having looked through the available Gamma issues on Internet Archive, I must say I’m impressed with how they featured presented their art. They include length bios for both their interior and cover artists. I wish more magazines of the day followed suit. The magazine produced only 5 issues, and, according to SF Encyclopedia, “was of good quality, many stories being by California writers with film connections.” The magazine lacked “finances and direction” which led to its demise.

If you want to explore the full Gamma 2 issue (stories by Ray Bradbury, William F. Temple, Robert Sheckley, etc.), check it out!

For more of his art, here’s a gallery on his webpage.

(Burt Shonberg, Gamma 2, 1963)

(Burt Shonberg, Gamma 2, 1963)

(Burt Shonberg, Gamma 2, 1963)

(Burt Shonberg, Gamma 2, 1963)

(Burt Shonberg, Gamma 2, 1963)

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

8 thoughts on “Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: The Strange Visages of Burt Shonberg (1933-1977)

  1. I never knew his name! Cafe Frankenstein was known to me as a little kid because my father would, when we visited his family, take me on long drives (actually to meet women, but what did I care) and that’s one place we went!
    LOVE that figure at the console with the trapezoidal window/screen looking out onto another figure facing us. How delightful, and thank you for solving an itchy fifty-year-old mystery.

    • Reading about Cafe Frankenstein felt like a trip through a nostalgic past that wasn’t mine — I could imagine the poets and artists and painters….

      I connected immediately to my own experiences as an undergraduate/grad college kid and the coffee shops I used to visit in my various reading groups (from Medieval Latin to fiction).

      But yes, the ink drawing are stunning — what really inspired me put this post together.

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