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August 15, 2012

Harry Harrison, 1925-2012

imageThe comics artist and comic strip writer turned successful and influential fiction author Harry Harrison died earlier today according to news released via his official web site. He was 87 years old.

Harry Harrison was born Henry Maxwell Dempsey in in the mid-1920s in Stamford, Connecticut. He eventually moved to New York as a young man.

Harrison served in the US Army Air Forces during World War II, as a mechanic and gunnery instructor. He joined in 1943. His experience in the military fueled a general pacifism that emerges in a lot of the author's later writing.

In 1946, Harrison used the educational opportunities available to returning veterans to finish his arts education. Harrison was part of the group of young artists taking instruction from the voluble strip artist Burne Hogarth, classes that eventually evolved into the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. Among those he would later identify as classmates were Ross Andru, Tex Blaisdell, Mike Esposito, Roy Krenkel, John Severin, Al Williamson and Wally Wood. Harrison began a partnership with Wood, and the pair -- Harrison remembers initially inking Wood's pencils, and generally passing pages back and forth -- started by selling work to Victor Fox, some through a studio set-up that involved kickbacks being paid for the flow of work to continue. Other Harrison/Wood clients were Quality and Fawcett, and Biro would later mention a gig lettering comics for Charles Biro.

Harry Harrison and Wally Wood started working for EC Comics in 1948, a story he told with great aplomb in an early-'70s interview with the crucial Graphic Story Monthly conducted by Bill Spicer and Pete Serniuk. Harrison describes EC as "a solid outfit" that nonetheless struggled to break even given the sell-through on titles other than MAD. He took credit (shared with Wood) for talking the publisher move into science fiction, where some of the line's best work was realized, but described a lot of what he and Wood were doing as western romances. When the Wood partnership dissolved, Harrison for a time said he inherited the EC part of their one-time shared gig: one of the artists he worked with during that phase was Jules Feiffer; another was Warren Broderick. He also did work for Fawcett.

Harrison shared a studio in that period with artists including Ernie Bache and Frank Frazetta. He was also a member of the briefly-lived Society Of Comic Book Illustrators organized by Bernard Krigstein. The 1950s comics scare and the industry contraction that occurred in the same, rough period, drove Harrison from comic books.

Harrison's career in New York was actually multi-faceted, and involved a great deal of concurrent writing and magazine editing even then. At one time or another Harrison served as editor on magazines ranging from Picture Week to Rocket Stories. One magazine that Harrison edited during this period, SF Impulse, was published in Great Britain. A friendship with artist Dan Barry led to a ten-year gig starting in 1959 writing the Flash Gordon daily and Sunday. He tried to sell a strip with Ric Estrada in the early '60s, and did a few black and white comics for the English market including Rick Random, Space Detective.

In the 1960s, Harrison began the novel series through which he is probably best remembered. The Stainless Steel Rat books focused on the thief/smuggler Slippery Jim DiGriz, the Deathworld books on culture and environmental clashes on the backdrop of a difficult-to-colonize planet, the Bill The Galactic Hero book offered up direct parodies of bad science fiction. Like many of the most popular and well-liked genre authors of the 20th Century, Harrison's work was generally smart but offered multiple entrance points for readers of various ages. They are frequently cited by current writers and fans of science fiction and fantasy as influential books from early on in their discovery of that kind of writing.

His 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for the 1973 science fiction movie Soylent Green, and contains potent elements of social criticism only a few of which made it into the film version. It was dedicated to Harrison's then-young children, which gives poignancy to the novel's strong foreboding nature. In the 1970s, Harrison and the author Brian Aldiss worked as anthology series co-editors and were among the leaders in that corner of publishing in terms of collecting valuable material from decades past.

Like several authors of his generation, Harrison used the relative freedom of being a writer (no doubt in close conjunction that living costs be kept relatively low in an uncertain profession) to live in various places around the world. He would reside at various times in Denmark, England, ireland, Italy and Mexico. For a time he taught a science fiction course at San Diego State University and organized similar courses in university summer programs. He continued his involvement in various fan- and professional-driven science fiction organization and was a presence at a lot of the early conventions.

Three 12-episode adaptation os Stainless Steel Rat stories appeared in 2000 AD in the late '70s to early '80s. "The Stainless Steel Rat" ran in #s 140-151 (1979/80), "The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World" ran in #s 166-177 (1980) and "The Stainless Steel Rat For President" appeared in #s 393-404 (1984/85). Some of this material appeared in 1985 from Eagle Comics under its own cover.

In 2009, Harrison won the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He was involved in advocacy for Esperanto; the language appears in some of his novels. He won a Nebula Award for Best Script and was nominated for multiple Locus Awards.

A last major piece of writing was released two years ago -- another Stainless Steel Rat book -- and Harrison claimed to be working on a secret project.

Harrison was preceded in death by his wife Joan Merkler Harrison, who passed away in 2002 from complications related to cancer. They had married in 1954. Their children were Moira Harrison (born 1959) and Todd Harrison (born 1955), both of whom it is believed survive their father.

Details of the author's passing, any funeral arrangements and directions for memoriala are likely forthcoming and will be added here when made available. A response page for fans has been established here.

posted 8:00 am PST | Permalink

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