Interview: Frank Wu
By Terry Hickman
13 May 2002
"Science fiction so often addresses these issues of who's on the inside, who's on the outside." --Frank Wu
Image of Frank Wu
Frank Wu's point of view about the business of being human shines through in his artwork. The instant I saw "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," inspired by the James Tiptree, Jr. story of the same name, I had to have it, so I out-bid everybody in the art auction at WillyCon. The picture fills me with the same sweet melancholy and awe that the story does. Frank's work has graced the covers and interiors of numerous genre publications, including Fantastic Stories, Strange Horizons, Darkling Plain, and Altair, among others, and he did the program art and Con poster for WillyCon III in 2001. He won the Illustrators of the Future Grand Prize Award in 2000, and in 2001 the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists gave him the award for "Best Archival Webpages" for his Web site devoted to the work of Frank R. Paul.
Attending a Con where Frank Wu is present is a little like being dropped into a blender full of joy. He's everywhere, upbeat and friendly to everyone, scarfing chocolates in the opening-night mixer, line-dancing here, whipping up excitement about art in his workshop there, lending his voice to the ubiquitous filk singers next, then asking astute questions in the physics professor's Martian lecture after that. His enthusiasm for art and for science fiction is contagious, and his insight into Con psychology is both penetrating and compassionate.
I met Frank at WillyCon III, at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, in March 2001. Later I got him on the phone for an interview. I did my homework, had questions ready, but it's impossible to prepare for a Frank Wu interview. You just hang on and enjoy the ride.
After getting his B.A. in English, he went on to grad school with something of a subject switch: he earned a Ph.D. in Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He's had a career swerve, too -- now he's working in patent law as a patent agent. His heart still belongs to his true love, though: art.
He is from Philadelphia and was named after Benjamin Franklin.
Terry Hickman: Looking at the themes, symbols, and references in your work, you obviously have a broad background in literature and mythology. What about this subject matter interests you?
Frank Wu: I love that quotation from the Roman playwright Terence that "I am a human being, and nothing human is foreign to me." Sometimes translated as "nothing human is alien to me," which seems appropriate for our circles. Indeed, what are space aliens but tools for examining human foibles? History and mythology boil away all the boring day-to-day crap, leaving these great stories where the good, the bad, and the ugly of being a human being are all blown way out of proportion. Like Leo Buscaglia writing with a fire hose. Example: we've all had days when we had important foresight but couldn't get anyone to believe us. But what if your foresight involved the unfortunate end of a decade-long war, the destruction of your city, the slaughter of the men, the tossing of children over the city walls, and the selling of the women into slavery? Well, that would be a bit frustrating, wouldn't it? Or how about this: Many of us have had meddling, neurotic, possibly clinically insane significant others. What if you had to deal with that nonsense in the public spotlight while you were president? While trying to keep the nation from tearing itself apart in a civil war? Sort of raises the stakes, don't you think?
TH: Is that why you chose to do genre work, which pays less, rather than stay in Madison for your artistic talents?
FW: Yes. I'm not doing art to make money. I already sold my soul to patent law.
TH: So why do art at all?
FW: Not because it's easy! But because I'd rather have a bullet put through my head than NOT do art. It's been my lifelong passion. When I didn't get to do art for a long time, during grad school for example, then I'd have to do diagrams. Graphs. I made the coolest diagrams to go with scientific journal articles.
TH: So how do you do your art? You work in digital, right?
FW: Actually, right now I'm doing almost all acrylic paintings. But when I was doing digital stuff, I was using Photoshop. The two tools I use most are the paintbrush and the smudge tool. I use the mouse, for drawing and for "painting."
TH: What are the advantages to doing digital artwork?
FW: With digital, it always looks exactly like you intend it to. You can send copies to all your friends. You can fix mistakes easily, you can rearrange compositions, change colors and contrast easily. I usually end up increasing the contrast at the end. You can quote me: "Contrast is the meaning of life."
TH: What are the disadvantages?
FW: You can't get as much money for your art. So you only have "prints," no "originals" at $5000 a pop.
TH: Okay, say I do a drawing I think looks as good or better than what I've seen on or in Asimov's at the library? My first one. How do I find a paying home for it? Step by step.
FW: Make a really good color scan, so you'll always have a copy to show. Also to start building up a portfolio. Because you may want to sell the original to . . . buy a sandwich or something.
About that portfolio: I find it interesting that artists get jobs based on old stuff they've done in the past -- contrasted to authors, who are selling stuff that's brand new. It's better to have a portfolio with three really good things in it than five things where three are good and two are sucky. You show those to the editors and art directors. We're in a unique time. More people want to do, and are able to do, and study, art than ever, so there's a lot of competition. At the same time, there are lots of e-zines looking for good art. It may not pay much--$5, $25 for a cover piece, but millions of people might see your work.
TH: So the market for genre art is low-paying, but healthy?
FW: There are a lot of mags out there, but not all are that glossy full-color mags. There are a lot that need black and white interior art. And, lots of e-zines. Low pay, lots of exposure.
TH: While we're talking about exposure: Are Cons important to a struggling genre artist's career? How so? And if so, which Cons have you found most productive for your career? Have you learned any Con-going tips that would make the experience (and expenditure) more worthwhile from a professional standpoint?
FW: Cons are great for all sorts of reasons. The science fiction and fantasy worlds are ghettos, in a way, but you can use this to your advantage. Like a ghetto, everybody knows everybody else.
So in this SF/F ghetto, where everybody knows each other, you can get really easy access to famous artists and writers and editors. I don't think it's like that in any other genre. Frank Kelly Freas must go to a million conventions a year; you see him everywhere. And since he's been in this business fifty years, he's got a lot of stories to share with the young artist. He talks a lot about the business of doing art.
One favorite story of his was that Robert Heinlein had written this new novel, and his book publisher wanted him to suggest five artists to do the cover. So Heinlein picked five, and they were, No. 1, Frank Kelly Freas, No. 2, Frank Kelly Freas, No. 3, Frank Kelly Freas -- but did Freas get the commission? No. Such is the business world of art.
Editors at conventions will often tell you stuff that's very useful, too. A couple useful tidbits come from Warren Lapine, who is the publisher at DNA Publications, which puts out Absolute Magnitude and Fantastic Stories and SF Chronicle and Dreams of Decadence and a couple other magazines. He gave the advice that when you assemble your portfolio, it's better to have a few really good pieces than a few really good pieces surrounded by crap. Quality is more important than quantity, he said. Because if the editor sees the good stuff and the crap, he won't give you an assignment, because he's scared that you'll only make crap for him and not the good stuff. So take the lesser pieces out of your portfolio.
Another thing Warren said, which was very interesting, was that he would always go to the art show at a convention and look for artwork for magazine covers. The hard thing about commissioning people to do artwork for covers is that you never know what you'll get, or if it will be useable. But if he goes to a Con, he can walk around and buy artwork directly for magazine covers. So it also seems to be a good way to get "discovered."
Silence Before Starlight
Convention art shows are great for all sorts of other reasons too. You can see where on the spectrum you fall, between crude pencil sketches of Xena with the eyes not aligned right and looking like pumpkin seeds, and the photorealistic renderings of Boris Vallejo and Todd Lockwood.
You can see how much you can charge for your stuff and still get people to buy it. You can see what's popular -- we will always have cute winged kittens among us -- barf -- and these will always sell out in the first day. Beautiful women sell, tigers and wolves sell. Furry animals tend to sell well, but only if they're painted, not if they're cartooned. Maybe the audience knows that they can do cartoons of furry animals or animal people, too.
Creatures that look like octopi or insects tend not to be popular, except with me or certain writers like Terry Hickman, who seem attracted to bugs. But most people prefer winged kittens. Dragons are huge -- the mostly crudely rendered dragon will always sell. Unicorns are out. Landscapes tend not to sell well. No matter what we might say, somebody will always buy the babe in the steel bikini. James Daugherty -- more power to him -- shows at Cons a lot of images of really large happy women. But they never sell. We don't need to pander to the 13-year-old male adolescents who have never been kissed by a real girl, but if you're going to make a political statement, do that for the sake of doing it. But don't expect to make money doing it. I could make piles of money doing dragons and chicks in steel bikinis, but I won't do it. I really want my art to have a deeper meaning than that. Now, Terry, I have totally ranted and gotten off the subject. Where were we?
TH: Which Cons have you found most productive for your career?
FW: Which Cons have I found most productive? The thing about Cons is that there are so many of them. Every weekend there's a Con somewhere -- but most often in big cities like New York or Chicago or Philadelphia. If you live out in the sticks or boondocks, there probably isn't going to be much going on. But you really need to go for professional development, to see what people are doing, to go listen to editors and artists and writers talk. So go on a road trip with friends. Bribe them. It'll be worth it.
I usually go to two or three Cons a year: my local one, BayCon, which happily is fairly big; I also try to go to one regional Con, like a WesterCon -- for the western part of the U.S., and it usually gets held in Hawaii or Portland or Seattle. And most years I try to get to WorldCon, the big kahuna. I think next year I'll try to go to DragonCon in Atlanta, since it's huge. Might be the largest Con in terms of numbers of folks who go there.
But if you're into comics, there's no question that you have to go to the annual Comic-Con in San Diego. there's just no other way. You have to go. Cons are really important for the new artist. All the people you are trying to impress are going to be there, all in one place. What could be better than that? Of course, keep in mind that if you're not doing cute winged kittens, it's hard to sell stuff at WorldCons because you're up against the Bob Eggletons and Michael Whelans and the best of the best.
TH: Can you give us any dos and/or don'ts?
FW: Make sure you go to all the panels where artists and editors talk. Make sure you really study what's in the art show, but I kinda talked about that already.
I always prepare a few sample portfolios to give away at Cons. Just a collection of three or four sheets from my computer printer, velo-bound together at Kinko's. Nice prints. Each sheet has at the bottom the title of the piece, my name and my contact info. That's all you really need. But at the end, I have a list of my publications, to drive home the fact that I'm a professional. I don't give these to friends; these are designed to be physically put in the hands of magazine editors.
So I go to panel discussions where editors and art directors are going to be. Then after the discussion is over, I will go over to the editor and say, "Hi, I'm Frank Wu, and I do science fiction illustration. I would love to do stuff for your magazine. Here's a copy of my portfolio that you can have. If you'd like me to do stuff for you, please contact me. Contact info's in the portfolio." In an ideal world, the editor will smile and nod and say, "This is good stuff, I'll get ahold of you about an assignment." And then I walk away. That's it. Done. That's all. Been at the Con the whole weekend, and the most important thing is a thirty-second conversation with a science fiction magazine editor.
As for don'ts? I think it's important to dress well. Sorry to say, but if you want to be a professional artist, you're going to have to stop dressing up like a Klingon warrior, much as you might like it. You want these editors to think of you as a professional artist, not as an overgrown fanboy. Eggleton used to wear wild costumes to conventions; now he wears a casual but nice jacket. Also, it's very important to be polite and nice to people, and don't ramble on and on about what you want to do or your ambitions.
Think about it from their side. An editor has people come up to them all day every day and say, "I'm going to make this movie and draw this comic book and write this novel." But they also know, that's crazy talk, you're not actually going to do any of that stuff. Most people talk about doing great things, and wind up doing actually, well, nothing. Or next to nothing. An editor needs to see what you've done, to see the images you've created, not hear you blather and ramble about what you're going to do. Also, editors talk about artists and writers all the time; you want them to say, "Wow, Jerry did some cool art," and not, "Did you hear that really jerkish thing that Jerry said to me?" So don't be a jerk and don't ramble and blather. Nobody wants that.
TH: And the last question: What's your very best Con story?
FW: Not sure I really have a "best" Con story, Terry. I was pretty proud of the fact that I sold six pieces at the last WorldCon. But I think the best Con experience I ever had was WillyCon [III, 2001]. Of course, it's always special to be artist guest of honor, and to have people you don't know recognize you and stammer and introduce themselves. I even had a couple coeds fall at my feet and shout, "We're not worthy!" That was pretty sweet. Almost too much, really. But WillyCon was great, because it was so much fun, just hanging out.
We did our work, talking about the business aspects of doing art, and showing art and buying and selling, and a lot of stuff like that got done. That was the best. Going bowling with author guest of honor Julie Czerneda and her husband Roger, and trying to distract Roger when he was about to heave his ball. That was the best, too. The quiet late night conversations talking about deep emotional issues and longings and hurts. That was the best, too. Because maybe we're mutants on the outside, but we're all human beings deep inside somewhere.
The Good Daughter
TH: Anything interesting to tell us about life since WillyCon?
FW: The big thing I've done is my first two book covers, for Hamlet Dreams and for The Best Known Man in the World, for Aardwolf. Two book covers! Damn, that's exciting. At least for me. And I really like the idea of being the "house artist" where I get to do all the art, and they ask me first, because that means they trust me and like me (aw shucks), and we have a relationship going. This is fun for an artist, since we are such flighty, flaky people in general (just kidding, sort of). The first book they published was a short story collection by Daniel Pearlman called The Best Known Man in the World. The second was a first novel by Jennifer Barlow, called Hamlet Dreams. The latter is pretty cool -- it's about a guy who keeps falling into this dream world, while this evil seductress from the dream world is trying to, well, seduce him, while he is trying (but not that hard) to remain faithful to his girlfriend in the real world. Meanwhile, there's an evil seducer from the dream world who is trying to seduce the girlfriend who is trying (but not that hard) to remain faithful to the dreamer guy. So it's a kind of four-sided triangle. For that illustration, I got to do a wraparound cover, which is always fun, but I also went wild -- absolutely, irresponsibly wild -- with the colors. I wanted a really loud cover.
I've done two pieces for Talebones since WillyCon, too -- well, I'm finishing one now, and I think the thing is with every piece I do, I really want to stretch myself, do something I've never done before. The Hamlet Dreams is by far the most colorful thing I've done; the last Talebones piece (The Good Daughter) was the most maudlin/schmaltzy; and the piece I'm doing for Talebones is by far, hands down, the most erotic thing I've ever done -- which still makes me a little nervous.
Oh -- I did win an award since WillyCon. Not for my art per se, but for a tribute Web site I have for Frank R. Paul, which is, well, huge. Paul, if you don't know, was the first guy to make a living drawing spaceships. He did the first painting of a space station. He was drawing aliens and robots and ships that could flit across the galaxy at a time when most Americans didn't even have a phone, and people were all impressed that one guy could fly solo across the Atlantic. But the thing is that there was no Web site where you could see his work. The Frank R. Paul site is about twenty times bigger than the section for my own art. I mean, the guy did two hundred magazine covers, plus a bazillion back covers and interiors, and most of these are up on my site. Plus a bibliography, reviews, etc. about the guy. So the Association of Science Fiction Artists was kind enough to bless me with an award for that site, which has me totally tickled pink. I hope I can make proud the memory of Paul -- who passed away in 1963 -- and Forrest J. Ackerman, who runs the Frank R. Paul estate and granted me permission to reproduce his work. Anyway, that's the news from Lake . . . uh, Sunnyvale, California, where the artists are wacky, the women are strong, and the children all nerdy.
Terry Hickman, cleverly disguised as a middle-aged woman of Danish-American heritage, writes science fiction and occasionally haunts local indie rock shows. Her aberrations extend to startling unsuspecting moshers in the front rows of Nine Inch Nails concerts with her presence. Other oddments: one husband, two cats.
Frank Wu has been nominated for a 2002 Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist. Visit Frank Wu's Web site.