Longtime fantasy artist Ken Kelly passed away on June 3rd. He was 76 years old. During a career that lasted half a century, Kelly became renowned for his incredible paintings of fiercely heroic warriors, stunningly sexy women and hideously awful monsters. Kelly was also acclaimed for his work illustrating album covers for rock bands.
Kelly was born in New London, Connecticut on May 19, 1946. He had always liked to draw & paint and so, after four years overseas serving in the Marines, in 1968 Kelly returned to the States and decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. Kelly’s uncle by marriage was Frank Frazetta, and he studied under the acclaimed illustrator for the next few years.
Kelly’s first professional sale was the cover painting for Vampirella #6 from Warren Publishing, which was released in July 1970. Kelly would regularly contribute covers to Vampirella, Creepy and Eerie throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, when Warren finally shut down. The work was low-paying, but as Kelly would explain in a 2018 interview, the experience got him used to producing quality work while hitting deadlines:
“Warren was publishing magazines every couple of weeks, so the turnaround [for covers] had to be very fast. You had to come up with a concept, paint it, deliver it, and then you were on to the next one.”
After several years of toiling at Warren, Kelly’s life & career was literally changed almost overnight when he was hired to paint the cover artwork for “Destroyer,” the fourth studio album from hard rock band Kiss. “Destroyer” was released on March 15, 1976 and over the next several months became a hit record. Kelly’s cover painting for the album put him on the map, making him a very much in-demand artist from that point onward.
I certainly cannot say that I’m a huge Kiss fan, but even so I’ll readily acknowledge that Kelly’s dynamic cover painting for “Destroyer” is one of the most iconic images featuring the band.
Kelly was subsequently hired to paint the cover for Kiss’s six studio album “Love Gun” (1977), as well as the Rainbow album “Rising” (1976) and half a dozen album covers for Manowar between 1987 and 2007, among others.
The cover to “Destroyer” also brought Kelly’s work to the attention of paperback publishers, and from the mid 1970s onwards he was regularly hired to paint heroic fantasy covers. Among the authors whose work Kelly was most associated with was the late Robert E. Howard, creator of the barbarian anti-hero Conan.
It was through Howard’s writings that I first became acquainted with Kelly’s artwork. In the mid 1990s Baen Books published seven paperback volumes of The Robert E. Howard Library. Up until that point in time Howard’s Conan stories had been widely released, but much of his other fiction had never been properly collected together. One of the Baen volumes was the first complete collection of Howard’s stories featuring the grim swashbuckling Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I’d heard of Kane in the past, and been intrigued by him, so when Baen released that collection in late 1995 I eagerly snatched it up.
That book had a gorgeous painted cover featuring the climax of REH’s story “The Moon of Skulls.” Looking at the copyright page, there was a credit that read “Cover art by C.W. Kelly.” Well, I had no idea who this C.W Kelly was, but he certainly seemed like a talented artist.
“C.W. Kelly”would provide the other lushly illustrated painted covers for The Robert E. Howard Library. I bought several of those volumes, although in the intervening years, having moved half a dozen times, I misplaced a couple. I still have the Solomon Kane collection as well as a couple others from the series.
I was fortunate enough to meet Kelly on a few occasions, at the Chiller Theatre conventions held in New Jersey in 2007 and 2008, and at one of the I-CON sci-fi conventions held at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Kelly came across as a genuinely decent guy. The first time I met him I purchased a copy of his oversized art book Ken Kelly: Escape. It was a gorgeous collection of his paintings & illustrations. Looking through it I saw several familiar pieces, and I finally realized that the “C.W. Kelly” who had painted those covers for Baen Books was Ken Kelly.
Even though he was best known for his paintings, Kelly also worked in pencil and pen & ink, and when he was at conventions he would sell these types of illustrations, as well as do fairly basic convention sketches, for quite reasonable prices. I thought that was a nice gesture, as he obviously understood that a lot of his fans who would like to own a piece of his art would not be able to afford his paintings.
I got a couple of sketches from Kelly. Due to his aptitude for depicting heroic fantasy, I asked him to do a Thor drawing in my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook. The next time I saw him I had him draw Boba Fett in my Star Wars theme book. He did nice work on both.
Kelly painted literally hundreds of beautiful, striking pieces during his five decade career. There’s no way for me to adequately present an overview of his work within the confines of this blog. So, instead, I’ll merely present a few of my favorite pieces by him.
First we have the dark fantasy armored figure of “Death’s End” which Kelly described as “one of my most popular paintings.” Kelly utilized the central armored figure for the cover to his Escape collection. A limited edition 20” tall resin statue sculpted by Tony Cipriano was later issued.
The beautiful, sensuous “Anastacia’s Lair” appears to have been one of Kelly’s personal favorites. In the Escape collection he described it thus:
“This is a personal concept I wanted to pursue, focusing on an interior setting. It’s always interesting to paint cats to I included one as her protector and pet. I am at any given time working on five or more of these types of paintings, it’s very relaxing for me.”
Stepping outside of the sword & sorcery genre, Kelly produced “Snowtrap” in 1997. As he explained it:
“Scenes like this are most liberating for me. There’s no alternative universe to create, no debating whether the weaponry matches the era or architecture, or whether the plausibility of the creatures detracts from the scene. This is simply a female mammoth desperately struggling to keep her calf from the jaws of death.”
That’s the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kelly’s artwork. I highly recommend visiting his official website to see a wide selection of his paintings.
Kelly was apparently active as an artist up until almost the end of his life. One of his most recent pieces was sci-fi swordmaiden Taarna for the cover of Heavy Metal #308, which was released last year.
Ken Kelly was a very talented artist who had an incredible career, impacting comic books, fantasy and American hard rock. He will definitely be missed by his many fans.
The Book of Boba Fett has come to its conclusion, so I’m going to take a general overview of the seven episode Star Wars series that streamed on Disney+.
As I’ve previously blogged, I’ve been a Star Wars fan since my father took me to see The Empire Strikes Back for my fourth birthday. Truthfully, I never really understood the appeal of Boba Fett, who made his debut in that movie. Yeah, he looks cool, but he doesn’t actually do much. He gives Vader some attitude, he then figures out where the Millennium Falcon is hiding and tracks it to Bespin, he takes a few shots at Luke in Cloud City, and he gets away with Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Then in Return of the Jedi he manages to hold his own against Luke Skywalker for a bit before Han accidentally knocks him into the Sarlaac. And that’s it.
If I had been born just a few years earlier I would have understood that Boba Fett had actually made his debut two years prior to The Empire Strikes Back, appearing in a lot of pre-publicity material, featuring as the antagonist in the animated segment from the Star Wars Holiday Special, and being available as a mail-order action figure. For fans who were older than me it must have felt like Boba Fett was a big deal, and I expect a lot of them built him up to be this incredible figure in their heads long before they ever saw The Empire Strikes Back.
But for myself, having only his two movie appearances to go by, I just didn’t think Boba Fett was anything special. I must have been one of the few fans who was happy when he was dropped into the Sarlac Pit. And it constantly mystified me how over the next two decades the novels and the comic books kept bringing him back, and offering him up as a hugely important, badass character, and how much other fans absolutely ate it up.
Fast forward to 2020 when Boba Fett was brought back from the dead in The Mandalorian; he shows up in the episode “The Tragedy” and single-handedly defeated a platoon of Stormtroopers, and I was thinking to myself “Well, that’s certainly cool, but he was never anywhere near as competent or dangerous as this in the movies.” It felt like director Robert Rodriguez was literally playing with his Star Wars action figures and giving us the Boba Fett that he’d always wanted to see, rather than the one who already existed.
So when it was then revealed in the mid-credits scene in The Mandalorian season two finale that Fett would be getting his own Disney + series, my immediate reaction was “Why?” Honestly, I just didn’t think the character was strong enough or interesting enough to carry his own series.
Having watched The Book of Boba Fett, I actually still sort of feel that way. I don’t think it’s accidental that Jon Favreau & Dave Filoni made the series an ensemble piece. Fett works a lot better with the characters of Fennec Shand and Din Djarin / Mando to bounce off of. Certainly it helps that Fett is played by Temura Morrison, who has an awesome voice, and who gives the character a brooding intensity while nevertheless exuding a certain type of vulnerability. Additionally Ming-Na Wen and Pedro Pascal are both very good actors who help to carry the story.
So, yeah, I do have to say that The Book of Boba Fett is nevertheless the first time I’ve ever been genuinely interested in the character. A major part of this is that the series takes Boba Fett out of the “badass bounty hunter” niche and broadens him.
After barely escaping from the Saarlac, in a scene that reminded me of Star Wars #81 from Marvel Comics, Fett is mugged by a gang of Jawas who strip him of his armor and who leave him for dead out in the brutal Tatooine desert. Fett is eventually “rescued” by a tribe of Tuskens, who make him their slave, but after he defeats a four-armed monstrosity in the desert, the Sand People recognize his strength & bravery and adopt him into their tribe.
A few thoughts on this:
Chronologically Fett is supposed to be in his early 40s at this point. Temura Morrison is 61 years old. Having Fett living out in the harsh deserts of Tatooine for half a decade is a good way to explain why the guy now looks much older than he actually is. Tatooine seems to prematurely age a lot of people. Just ask Obi Wan Kenobi, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.
Following on from The Mandalorian, this series does a good job at developing the Tuskens, the original inhabitants of Tatooine, beyond just brutal savages. It’s explained that in the distant past Tatooine was actually a world covered in water, and that after a catastrophic climate change the Tuskens were forced to adapt to their new, harsh environment, with many of them becoming brutal killers, but others, such as the tribe that takes in Fett, striving to maintain some semblance of honor & civilization.
We see Fett extensively training with the Tuskens, learning to fight with their weapon of choice, the gaffi stick, eventually becoming very proficient. This provides a good in-story explanation for how the guy who didn’t do much of anything in the original movie trilogy is now able to wipe the floor with a squad of Stormtroopers.
Finally, Fett’s adoption by the Tuskens explains why the character has changed so much. He hasn’t had a family since his father Jango was killed decades earlier. (I’m sure that Jango loved his son, but let’s face it, he wasn’t exactly the world’s greatest father, and he eventually got himself killed, leaving his young son to fend for himself.) Fett comes to realize just how empty, how lonely, his existence as a bounty hunter has been. And when the tribe is wiped out, it’s a huge loss for him. It explains why he wants to become “daimyo” of Mos Espa, because it’s a way, however flawed or misguided, for him to try to restore order to his life and establish a new family.
Among the allies Fett and Shand gather in these early episodes are the Mods, a gang of disaffected cyborg teenagers riding around on colorful speeders. Some viewers really didn’t like the Mods, saying they were completely out of place on Tatooine. I thought the Mods were fine, though. The way I figure it, they’re bored teenagers. They are hugely into self-expression and rebelling against the status quo. Getting cybernetic implants is one way they go about that. Having really colorful speeder bikes that totally clash with the whole “beige Tatooine” aesthetic is another way they’re looking to make their own identities.
I also liked Garsa Fwip, the Twi’lek proprietor of the Sanctuary cantina in Mos Espa. Jennifer Beals played Garsa as an intriguing, intelligent character, and costume designer Shawna Trpcic created some amazing, beautiful outfits for her. I was genuinely upset when Garsa and her cantina were blown up by the Pyke Syndicate, but I recognize that it’s important for the drama of a story like this one to occasionally kill characters you like to demonstrate just how dangerous circumstances actually are.
A side note: I felt sooooo bad for the guys who were stuck carrying the Hutt Twins around the streets of Mos Espa. They must have one of the worst jobs in the Star Wars universe!
The structure of The Book of Boba Fett is damn odd. The first four episodes alternate between Fett and Fennec Shand in the present day attempting to establish control of the deceased Jabba the Hutt’s crime empire, and flashbacks showing Fett’s time with the Tuskens and how he saved Shand’s life after her seeming death in The Mandalorian season one.
And then we get to episode five, in which Fett is completely absent from his own series. Din Djarin takes the spotlight in what feels like The Mandalorian season two and a half. Mando still has the Darksaber, but he doesn’t really know how to use it, and in a fight even ends up injuring himself with it. Which, let’s be honest, is actually a realistic thing to happen. Lightsabers are incredibly dangerous weapons, and Mando has had zero training in using one. After fulfilling a bounty on the stunning ringed-shaped space station Glavis, Mando locates the remaining members of his sect, now down to just the Armorer and Paz Vizsla, although he’s soon on the outs when they learn he removed his helmet. With nowhere else to go, he heads off to Tatooine where Pelli Motto (the ever-irreverent Amy Sedaris) has procured him a replacement spaceship. They finish rebuilding it just in time for Fennec Shand to recruit Mando in Fett’s war against the spice-running Pyke Syndicate.
This episode features a brief flashback to the Purge that saw the Empire completely devastate Mandalore. It also helpfully clarifies something that confused a lot of people, myself included. Why couldn’t Bo-Katan just accept the Darksaber from Mando, since she’d already done so years before when Sabine Wren gave it to her in Rebels? As the Armorer explains, Sabine giving Bo-Katan the Darksaber, rather than Bo-Katan winning it in combat the way tradition demanded, led to Mandalore becoming cursed, enabling the Empire to destroy it.
Then we get to episode six, “From the Desert Comes a Stranger,” which I jokingly referred to as “Star Wars Team-Up.” Fett shows up again, but just for one scene, and the action is divided between Marshall Cobb Vanth (Timothy Olyphant) fighting the Pykes in Mos Pelgo, Mando trying to bring a chain mail shirt of beskar to Grogu, and Grogu training with Luke Skywalker (a CGI de-aged Mark Hamill).
“From the Desert Comes a Stranger” was occasionally frustrating, because as cool as it was to see Grogu again, it definitely felt like a diversion from the main plotlines, although it eventually does lead to Grogu deciding to return to his surrogate father Mando rather than train as a Jedi.
The sequel trilogy told us that Luke turned out to be a pretty crappy teacher, so I’m not too surprised to see him doing a subpar job with Grogu here. The guy who literally saved the galaxy because he refused to give up his emotional attachment to his father who everyone else said was beyond redemption and needed to be destroyed is now going “Attachments are forbidden for a Jedi.” Seriously?!?
All of that aside, it was really cool to see Luke and Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) together. I’m sure most of us have been hoping to see that meeting for a while now.
Episode six also brings Cad Bane (voiced by Corey Burton) into live action Star Wars. He’s the “Stranger” who comes out of the desert to seemingly kill Cobb Vanth at the behest of the Pykes. That scene where the character was on the distant horizon slowly striding towards town, I was wondering who the heck it could be. Then as he got closer, and his silhouette with the wide-brimmed hat became clearer, I literally went “Oh shit!” The thing about Cad Bane is that not only is he incredibly dangerous, but he’s also a stone cold killer. Whenever he shows up you know shit’s going to go down.
Bane’s definitely got a distinctive design. He was based off of Lee Van Cleef’s villain Angel Eyes from the movie The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. I was thrilled that not only did Bane look pretty much as he did in The Clone Wars and The Bad Batch, but that he also had that same creepy voice. At least one person complain that the wide-brimmed hat is too “on the nose” in signposting Bane’s inspirations. But I like the hat. It makes the character instantly recognizable. There was even one episode of The Clone Wars where he murdered someone for their hat. That shows how much he likes wide-brimmed hats… as well as how ruthless he actually is.
Anyway, that takes us to the seventh and final episode. “In the Name of Honor” is a big, loud, action-packed spectacle directed by Rodriguez that has Fett, Shand, Djarn and their small group of allies fighting a desperate battle against the overwhelming forces of the Pykes in the streets of Mos Espa.
The climax of sees Fett and Bane facing off, and it’s no accident that it comes down to these two. Bane is exactly who Fett used to be, a remorseless killer who works for the highest bidder, and indeed Bane insists that they are still the same. It’s also deliberate that Bane outdraws Fett, but in the end Fett wins by using his gaffi stick, his legacy from the Tuskens, against Bane, seemingly killing him. So, yes, in a way Bane was correct, Fett is still a killer… however he’s killing not for money, but rather to avenge his fallen family and to protect his new one.
From a critical point of view the final episode (and indeed the whole series) is a bit of a mess, but damned if it wasn’t a huge heap of fun. I mean, Boba Fett riding around on a Rancor would have absolutely blown my seven year old mind, and even at 45 years old I thought it was really cool. Yes, sometimes Star Wars successfully transcends its pulpy roots to tell deep, insightful, nuanced stories. But a lot of the time it’s just an enjoyable mash-up of space opera, Westerns, Saturday morning serials, comic books, Japanese cinema, war movies and mythology.
It occurred to me that this season is structured along the lines of a comic book crossover. The first four episodes are issues of the Boba Fett series. Episode five is a Mandalorian annual, and episode six is a Luke & Grogu special, with episode seven being the big wrap-up as all characters and plotlines converse. And, yeah, there’s even an epilogue in setting up a future storyline.
A number of Star Wars fans were very unhappy with The Book of Boba Fett, claiming that Fett was acting completely out of character. And all I can say is, what character? The guy had four lines of dialogue and about six minutes of screen time in the original trilogy. The most we ever saw of him before now was when he was a teenager in the movie Attack of the Clones and The Clone Wars animated series. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about the show, but “It isn’t being true to Boba Fett’s character” is a load of bullshit because he was practically a blank slate before he was brought back in The Mandalorian.
Some people have argued that there were plenty of novels and comic books over the past several decades featuring Boba Fett. But how much of those is still considered to be canonical? And putting aside the issue of canon, having read some of those books and comics, I never found Boba Fett the unstoppable, faceless, badass killer to be a compelling protagonist. The Book of Boba Fett actually made him into an interesting character that I actually care about.
If you actually watch the entire series, you see the picture of a middle aged man who decides to change his ways, because he looks back on his life and realizes that he’s unhappy with how it has turned out. That’s why the guy who was once warned “No disintegrations” by Darth Vader is now going out of his way to avoid killing people unless he absolutely has to, who now values family & honor far above profit.
There’s a saying on social media: No one hates Star Wars like Star Wars fans. Two different live action Star Wars television series (with more on the way) and all some people can do is complain because it isn’t exactly what they were expecting or hoping for. I swear, some people are never satisfied. Ten year old me would have killed to get all of this great Star Wars content back in the mid 1980s.
So, yeah, I enjoyed The Book of Boba Fett, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Favreau & Filoni have in store for us next.
Welcome to the seventh edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time, to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens, all of the participating bloggers will be writing about various aspects of the Star Wars phenomenon. This ties in very well with what I’ve been doing on my own blog. For the last few months I’ve been writing reviews of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.
For my contribution to SBTU 7 I’m glancing through the Star Wars theme sketchbook that I started in 2003. In the last 12 years I’ve obtained incredible sketches & commissions from a number of very talented artists. There are so many great pieces that I had genuine difficulty deciding which ten I should include here. I would have featured more, but then this post would have been much too long!
1) Princess Leia by June Brigman
June Brigman has a charming style to her work that I have always enjoyed. With her husband Roy Richardson she illustrated the Star Wars miniseries River of Chaos which featured Princess Leia. June also did a cute trading card of Leia with the Ewoks for the first Star Wars Galaxy set from Topps. She’s also drawn illustrations for a few SW young adult novels. It was an obvious choice to ask June to draw Princess Leia in my sketchbook. She did a really wonderful job! The backgrounds on this commission remind me a bit of the SW work of legendary artist Al Williamson.
2) Boba Fett by Tony Salmons
Tony Salmons penciled “Wookiee World,” issue #91 of the original Marvel SW comic book series. At first I was going to ask Salmons if he’d draw Chewbacca. But I thought Salmons might prefer to tackle another character. I asked him who else he’d enjoy drawing. He suggested Boba Fett. That was a great idea. Salmons had a lot of fun drawing the bounty hunter, and it shows. I love that “ZAT” sound effect.
3) Han Solo by Rich Buckler
Rich Buckler has a very bold style, influenced by Kirby. I thought Buckler he’d be perfect to draw either of the action heroes from the first movie, namely Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. I asked Buckler who he’d prefer, and he immediately chose Han. Buckler did an amazing job at capturing Harrison Ford’s likeness. Buckler’s only published Star Wars art was the Lando Calrissian trading card he drew for the Galaxy series two set from Topps. That’s definitely unfortunate. This sketch shows that he’s perfectly suited to the material. I would really enjoy seeing him do further SW work.
4) Admiral Ackbar by Michael William Kaluta
Michael Kaluta previously did an imaginative rendering of Ackbar for the first Star Wars Galaxy trading card set. When I began this sketchbook, I hoped to eventually have Kaluta draw that character. Kaluta was generous enough to agree to it, with impressive results. Note that he rendered Ackbar’s pupils in pencil to convey a watery, “fish-eye” look. It’s that attention to detail that makes Kaluta such an incredible artist.
5) Tusken Raider and Bantha by Michael Lark
I suppose you can lay the “blame” for this one at the feet of fellow Star Wars sketch collector John Higashi. He obtained a nice sketch of Tarkin from Gotham Central artist Michael Lark. When I later met Lark at a convention I asked him if he would be willing to draw that character again. Lark felt it would be more fun to draw one of the Sand People on a Bantha, and asked me if that was okay. I decided to let him go for it, and Lark produced this very impressive illustration. It’s interesting to see Lark, who often works on noir-themed stories, illustrate sci-fi material.
6) Yoda by Guy Dorian
Guy Dorian saw a scan of a Star Wars sketch his brother Ian had done for me, and he e-mailed to say he wanted to contribute one too. Guy told me that he’d worked on a SW coloring book several years earlier, and so had drawn a number of the characters before. A few months later at the next Big Apple Comic Con, I stopped by Guy’s table with my sketchbook. Guy told me he was interested in drawing Yoda. He spent a fair amount of time working on this. As you can see, there’s some very detailed linework to this piece.
7) Emperor Palpatine by Paul Azaceta
Paul Azaceta was at the 2007 New York Comic Con to promote the release of the trade paperback collection of the Grounded miniseries he drew for Image Comics. He was also doing a lot of sketching at the show. An incredible drawing of Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean that was sitting on his table immediately caught my eye. Seeing that, I asked Azaceta if he’d be able to draw something in my SW sketchbook. He agreed, and produce this stunning rendition of the malevolent Emperor.
8) Mace Windu by Jim Webb
When getting SW sketches, some artists are understandably uncertain if they’ll be able to do good likenesses. In his Comic Art Fans gallery Jim Webb has posted a scan of advertising art he did for the board game Stratego that had the characters from the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. I figured if Jim could draw a good likeness of John Lithgow, I might as well ask him if he’d have a go at sketching Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Mace Windu. After Jim agreed to do a commission for me, I said something along the lines of “Maybe you can have him fighting a snake as a nod to Snakes on a Plane.” That’s how we got this epic struggle. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, one very frustrated Jedi Knight is shouting “I have had it with these mother@#&%ing snakes on this mother@#&%ing spaceship!”
9) Aayla Secura by Jan Duursema
I saw Jan Duursema at the November 2002 Big Apple show where she was drawing some amazing convention sketches of Star Wars characters. That was what inspired me to start this theme sketchbook in the first place. One of my goals was to get a sketch by Duursema. Well, it took some time, but I finally met her again at the 2009 New York Comic Con. I asked Duursema to draw Aayla Secura, the very cool character she created with John Ostrander for the Dark Horse comic books. Fortunately, I just managed to get onto Jan’s sketch list, and she drew this on Sunday afternoon. It turned out great. So, yes, it was worth waiting six and a half years for this after all.
10) Shaak Ti by Jodi Tong
Jodi Tong is a talented artist with a really fun style. Every time I get a new sketch from Jodi it’s inevitably better than the last one. She did an amazing job on this drawing of Shaak Ti, one of the Jedi from the prequels who was featured prominently in the Dark Horse comics. There’s so much detail to this piece. I’m hopeful that I’ll have an opportunity to obtain more sketches from Jodi in the near future.
I hope everyone will check out Comic Art Fans to see the rest of my Star Wars sketch collection. There are some really great pieces.
Here are the links to the other Super Blog Team-Up 7 contributors. You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…