I was shocked to read this morning that Glen Orbik, an artist now best known for the exceptional, pulpish fronts he created for the Hard Case Crime line of paperback mysteries and thrillers, died yesterday from cancer. He was in his early 50s.
Although biographical information about Orbik runs rather thin on the Web, it seems he was born in 1963. He moved with his mother to western Nevada in the early 1970s, and graduated in 1981 from Douglas High School in the town of Minden. Orbik went on to study art at the California Art Institute (then located in the Los Angeles County community of Encino), receiving at least part of his instruction from Fred Fixler, an advertising illustrator, movie-poster painter, and book-cover artist who had founded the school. On his Web site, Orbik explained that his original intention had been to draw superheroes for a living, but his horizons were soon expanded. “After a few years,” he writes,” I took over many of Fred’s classes at the school … when he retired from teaching and have continued off and on for over 20 years.”
Orbik eventually did win the opportunity to paint superheroes, working for DC Comics on its Aquaman series in particular, but also contributing to its Detective Comics, Batman, Flash, and American Century lines. In addition, he took on assignments for Marvel Comics. Although Orbik listed among his influences Gil Elvgren and Norman Rockwell, he had a particular interest in vintage crime-fiction paperback covers of the 1950s and ‘60s, especially those created by Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire, and Robert E. Schulz. Not long after the 20th century became the 21st, he got the chance to follow boldly in their footsteps by signing on to paint covers for Hard Case Crime. Founder-editor Charles Ardai sent me a note today, recalling his experience with Orbik:
I met Glen almost exactly when we started Hard Case Crime [in 2004], but I’d known his work before that--his gorgeous, lush, realistic paintings from the covers of comic books had made me salivate many times. I was thrilled when he agreed to paint the cover for Branded Woman, by Wade Miller , which instantly became and still remains perhaps my single favorite cover we’ve ever published.Facebook has been active all day long with Orbik’s former students and his other admirers expressing their regrets at his too-early passing. One of the best characterizations of this artist’s talents, though, comes from a blog called Noir Whale. Chad de Lisle wrote there a few years ago about having discovered Orbik’s artistry “while perusing books on Amazon. I noticed that his soft-edged style was perfectly suited to the foggy morality of noir and pulp capers. Since then, I’ve taken great interest in his work and consider myself a dedicated fan. His femme fatales hover on the dangerous brink of passion, the beautiful bait concealing the deadly hook. The difference between a good noir artist and a great noir artist is narrative. Those artists that can weave a story with acrylic are the masters; Glen Orbik is a master.”
But that one’s got a lot of competition, even just within the two dozen covers he painted for us. Look at the roster--Joyland, by Stephen King , Thieves Fall Out, by Gore Vidal , Money Shot, by Christa Faust , the cheeky Arthur Conan Doyle Valley of Fear we did [in 2009] … not to mention my own novels, Fifty-to-One  and Songs of Innocence . I have the original painting for Fifty-to-One hanging in my home, and I look at it a hundred times every day. Never get tired of it. It’s just gorgeous. Everything Glen did was.
Glen had a unique ability to paint completely realistically--his people are living, breathing, fleshy figures with idiosyncratic features, like someone you might meet on the sidewalk or on a subway--while still bringing in a larger-than-life element through dramatic angles and shadows and colors and other tools of his trade. It was jaw-dropping. Every time I got a new painting from him, it was like Christmas morning.
Plus, he was a pleasure to work with. The ultimate nice guy, easy-going, thoughtful, funny, smart, collaborative, willing to go out on a limb and try something crazy to see if it would work. I loved, loved, loved working with him. And the prospect of not getting to do that anymore hurts maybe even more than the prospect of never seeing another new Glen Orbik painting.
I miss him. Just a couple of months ago, he raced to the rescue and painted a girl for us for the cover of Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, when we needed to replace the one we’d gotten earlier from another artist. He did it in record time, despite being in pain, despite having only one functioning eye. And it came out gorgeous.
Glen was a shooting star, a miracle. Losing him is like losing Jim Henson, like losing Robin Williams. Such talent. Such a cruel fate.
So let’s take a precious moment or two to appreciate his work--his men with their tough-guy façades, his young women with their gravity-defying breasts, his general noirish style. Displayed below are not only some of Orbik’s finest Hard Case book fronts (two of which--Brainquake and Joyland--have been contenders in The Rap Sheet’s annual Best Crime Fiction Covers rivalry), but also an Aquaman cover and a handful of his efforts for American Century.
ADDITIONAL DELIGHTS: The Spanish-language Web site ImagEnArte offers an even more extensive collection of Glen Orbik’s artwork, featuring Batman, Superman, Spiderman, various science-fiction pieces, and so many of his curvilinear young women!