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.
In the late 1990s Kelly produced a number stunning covers for Dark Horse Comics for their Star Wars line of comic books. He painted several covers for the ongoing Star Wars series set during the Prequel era, as well as covers for the four issue miniseries Star Wars: Boba Fett – Enemy of the Empire and its collected edition. Kelly created some really great art for George Lucas’ epic space fantasy, and I wish he’d had more opportunities to work on 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.