Wednesday, July 27, 2011
If one theme can be seen through Bama's work it might be described as "one man (or woman) in the wilderness", as his covers often featured isolated single figures, some alone against expansive backgrounds; it is a style that can be seen in such diverse Bama illustrations as Freedom Road by Howard Fast and Groupie by Johnny Byrne & Jenny Fabian (both Bantam) and Dell's edition of Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape. It is also a theme that has extended into his fine art work where Bama, using photographs of real mountain men and Native Americans as reference, often isolates the figures to create portraits where wheathered facial features, clothing and body language tell a story. In other paintings, landscapes and animals add location to Bama's evocation of the rugged modern day prairie men.
James E. Bama was born in Manhattan on 28 April 1926, the second son of Benjamin Bama, a Russian-born apron salesman, and his wife Selma, also the daughter of Russian immigrants. Raised in New York City, Bama was inspired to draw by the adventure strips of the time, most notably Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Burne Hogarth's Tarzan and Frank Miller's Barney Baxter. His father died of a stroke when Bama was 13, and his mother suffered a debilitating stroke the following year; Bama had to cook and clean and began earning money, making his first $50 sale, a drawing of Yankee Stadium, to The Sporting News at the age of 15.
He graduated from the High School of Music and Art and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps' Eastern Flying Training Command unit in 1944, where he worked as a mechanic and physical training instructor, as well as painting murals. On his discharge, he used the GI Bill to enrol at the Art Students League, where he was learned drawing and anatomy under Frank J. Reilly.
After freelancing briefly - his first sales including Western paperback covers A Bullet for Billy the Kid by Nelson C. Nye (Avon, 1950) and Dead Sure by Stewart Sterling (Dell, 1950) - he began working for one of New York's leading illustration firms, Charles E. Cooper Studios, in 1951. for the next fifteen years, he produced commercial artwork for a range of clients, including the Baseball Hall of Fame, the New York Giants and the U.S. Air Force.
However, it is for his paperback covers that he became known, especially the 62 covers he painted for Bantam Books' reprints of Doc Savage pulp magazine stories. Clark Savage Jr had been the star of 181 full-length adventures in the pages of Doc Savage Magazine (1933-49), 159 of them written by prolific pulpster Lester Dent. The heroic adventurer and scientist had been trained to almost superhuman physical and mental ability and faced a range of supernatural and superscientific foes. Bama was introduced to the saga when Bantam Books began reprinting the series in 1964 with The Man Of Bronze, Doc's debut adventure.
Bama gave Doc a buzz cut, replacing the kiss-curl of his pulp days, and beefed him up, using Steve Holland, a muscular fashion model who had starred in the Flash Gordon TV series in 1954-55, as the basis for his vision of Doc Savage. The books sold incredibly well and all 182 stories were reprinted between 1964 and 1990.
As well as Doc Savage, Bama painted many other covers for Bantam, including King Kong by Delos W. Lovelace (1965) and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1967). Bama had an affinity for classic horror characters, having been a childhood horror movie fan; in the early 1960s, beginning with Frankenstein, he produced vivid box artwork for a series of model kits based on Universal's movie monsters; Dracula, Wolf Man, The Mummy and others followed as well as Aurora's Monster Hot Rods and Monster Customizing Kits.
Bama then changed tack after first visiting Wyoming in 1966; he and his wife, Lynn, a photographer whom he met in 1963, moved permanently to Cody, Wyoming, in 1968. During this period he transited from illustration to making more personal works, often inspired by his new surroundings. Much of his work was of contemporary Western and Native American subjects; wildlife and mountain men feature against stunning Wyoming backdrops.
Bama is inspired by real inhabitants of the state, visiting reservations and meeting trappers and cowboys; his prices rapidly escalated and, within three years, he was making far more than he had as an illustrator.He also sought inspiration in travel, to China, Mexico, Tibet and Turkey.
Bama was the recipient of the Spectrum Grand Master Award in 1998 and was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in June 2000. His work is to be found in the collections of Clint Eastwood, Nicholas Cage and Malcolm Forbes as well as numerous galleries.
Bama, who has lived in Wapati, Wyoming, since 1971, remains a keen on physical training, regularly doing heavy exercise even in his eighties. He is a keen reader and movie viewer.
The Western Art of James Bama, with an introduction by Ian Ballantine (Scribner, 1975; enlarged, Bantam, 1980)
James Bama: A Wyoming Realist by Warren Adelson (Coe Kerr Gallery, 1985)
The Art of James Bama by Elmer Kelton (Greenwich Workshop, 1993)
James Bama: American Realist, edited by Brian M. Kane, with an introduction by Harlan Ellison (Flesk Publications, 2006)
James Bama Sketchboo: A Seventy-Year Journey, Travelling from the Far East to the Wild West , edited by John Fleskes (Flesk Publications, 2010)
Original prints by James Bama can be found for sale at the Illustration Art Gallery.