Frank Kelly Freas, 84; Artist Defined the Look of Pulp Science Fiction

Times Staff Writer

Frank Kelly Freas, an artist and illustrator who earned 11 Hugo awards for his imaginative science fiction illustrations and helped refine the iconic satirical smirk of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, has died. He was 84.

Freas died Sunday in his sleep of natural causes at his West Hills home, according to his wife, Laura.

The versatile artist bridged the worlds of science fiction and science, cartoons and art. He designed astronauts’ crew patches and posters for NASA, and his works were exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution and New York’s American Museum of Natural History. But he was far more at ease -- and greatly revered -- in the world of pop and pulp art.


One of Freas’ most durable illustrations has been a 1953 Astounding Science Fiction magazine cover for Tom Godwin’s science fiction short story “The Gulf Between,” depicting a giant robot holding a dead man in the palm of its hand. In 1977, the artist was asked to repaint the illustration as an album cover for the rock group Queen’s blockbuster “News of the World,” with the robot holding bloodied members of the band.

Freas reprised the original version as the cover of his own well-received 2001 book, “Frank Kelly Freas: As He Sees It.” The artist’s other books include “The Art of Science Fiction” in 1977 and “A Separate Star” in 1985.

As for the little gap-toothed Newman, Freas considered his contribution “giving him a personality.”

“I inherited him,” he told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 2001, “one year after the definitive Alfie was established by Norman Mingo.”

Alfred E. Newman, created by Mingo and based on a smiling dunce popular in 19th century advertisements, was frequently drawn by Freas when he worked as Mad magazine’s cover artist from 1955 through 1962. One of Freas’ most memorable Mad covers was a 1960 painting of a green-tinged Newman bluntly announcing: “This magazine is revolting.”

Born in New York City to parents who were photographers, Freas received his art training at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. During World War II, while serving in the Army Air Forces, he painted beautiful, voluptuous women on the noses of bombers.

He began his professional career somewhat more mundanely, painting realistic internal organs for biomedical textbooks. That didn’t last long.

In 1950, Freas sold a cover painting of a satyr dancing in the moonlight to the pulp magazine Weird Tales.

Over the next half-century, he became the favorite illustrator for about 300 books and magazines, including Planet Stories, Analog Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Freas illustrated stories by such renowned science fiction authors as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.

“All I wanted to do was science fiction illustration,” Freas told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2003. “I’d been reading science fiction since I was 10 years old -- everything I could find. I never wanted to do anything else.”

Freas was married to the former Pauline H. Bussard from 1952 until her death in 1987. He is survived by his wife of 16 years, Laura Brodian Freas; a daughter, Jacqueline; a son, Jeremy; and six grandsons.

A memorial service is scheduled at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre and Manor Hotel, 5930 Franklin Ave., Hollywood.