Exhibit / January 8, 2018
Although now best known for his design work on several films that defined the appearance of the future in the imagination of a generation, Ron Cobb was, for many years, a noted countercultural figure whose political cartoons appeared in the pages of influential underground newspaper The Los Angeles Free Press.
After experiencing a childhood epiphany prompted by the work of space artist Chesley Bonestell, who taught him that “art must always be in service to discovery and one’s best grasp of reality,” Los Angeles native Cobb began his career working at the Disney Studios in Burbank, where—despite possessing no formal training—he rose through the ranks to become a breakdown artist on 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. Once the film was finished, Cobb was laid off, and worked a variety of odd jobs before being drafted into the U.S. Army. Upon returning from a stint that included a year working as a draughtsman for the Signal Corps in Vietnam, Cobb’s first cartoons began appearing in the Free Press in 1965, and by the end of the decade they were being syndicated to over eighty counterculture publications worldwide. He remained the Free Press editorial cartoonist for the next five years, moonlighting as a cover artist for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine to make ends meet.
Cobb’s combination of muscular draughtsmanship and scrappy underground sensibilities gives his work a powerfully dramatic quality, even in the context of a small cartoon frame, and underlines his talent for distilling an issue down to its basic paradox. A savant-like ability to evoke credible futuristic realities and an avoidance of relying on caricatures of the day’s politicians (“scapegoating individuals seemed too predictable and far too easy to dismiss”) means that his work has dated far less than many of his contemporaries, as has the fact that many of the issues he tackled—politics, nuclear brinkmanship, industrial culture, gun violence, ecology (Cobb created the well-known ecology symbol for the Free Press in 1969), racism, and fundamentalist religion—remain absurdly pertinent today.
As opposed to pointing fingers, his work often focuses upon on “the plight of the common man caught up in our history of cleverness, belief, creativity and folly,” and the melancholy results of humankind’s inability to foresee the future hells to which its recklessness and arrogance condemn it, be they nuclear wastelands or anodyne police states. The work of an illustrator who had “always been uncomfortable around people who are very certain about their world and their values, no matter how defined,” Cobb’s Free Press cartoons—collected in Mah Fellow Americans (1968) and My Fellow Americans (1971)—manage to be both incisive and thoughtful without ever being shrill.
In addition to his cartooning, Cobb also provided covers for several LPs, including Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 After Bathing at Baxter’s and Doctor Druid’s Haunted Seance, a 1973 album of spooky nonsense recorded by makeup artist Verne Langdon. Increasingly disillusioned with cartooning and with the American counterculture—which he found “too faddish, emotional and self-indulgent (read, American) to really fit the complex mix of world events“—he became involved in the production design of 1974’s Dark Star and, consequently, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune project through acquaintance Dan O’Bannon. He subsequently moved into the field full time, going on to provide enduring work for Star Wars (1977), 1979’s Alien (for which he also devised the idea of the xenomorph’s acid blood), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), Back To The Future (1985), Real Genius (1985), Aliens (1986), and The Abyss (1989).
Like George Lucas—another visionary whose extrapolation of the social realities of the day became the compellingly prescient dystopia of 1971’s THX-1138—Cobb reacted to political disenchantment by throwing himself into science fiction and fantasy. Today, when some of the films he helped shape have metastasized into monolithic franchise industries and lightning rods for reactionary nostalgia, it is strange to reflect that the visual (and sometimes textual) roots of these cultural artifacts spring at least in part from Ron Cobb’s thoughtful, politically engaged aesthetic.