Here's a crazy concept for a story: What if a black man became president of the United States? Oh, how absurd! But that's exactly what Irving Wallace proposed back in 1964 with his book, "The Man."
When I discovered this story in a recently acquired volume of Reader's Digest Condensed Books I couldn't resist including it this week. Not only because it just seemed too, too perfect that this should fall into my hands during Black History Month...
... but also because the artist assigned to illustrate this story was one you should definitely know: Bob Abbett.
Born in Hammond, Indiana in 1926, Bob Abbett worked primarily as an illustrator of paperback covers during the mid-century period. In one quote I found he said, "I did cover art for many paperbacks including Ballantine, movie posters and some story illustration for True, Argosy, etc." The gorgeous illustration below is perhaps more typical of the kind of subject matter fans of genre fiction know him for. That piece seems a little out of place in the company of all the other paintings Abbett did for "The Man," but boy is it ever wonderful!
Not to say all of the other pieces in this series aren't magnificent. Bob Abbett really managed to infuse his work with a gloriously rich palette of colours.
As you scroll through this selection of images, notice how deliberately and effectively he assigned each illustration its own unique colour scheme.
Yet viewed as a group, they all relate to each other in a harmonious manner. It must have been deeply satisfying for the artist when he completed the series and could prop them up in his studio and admire them en masse.
To be honest, I have not seen a lot of Abbett's work and am getting to know him only now myself. But one thing I find really engaging about his technique is how textural his colour is. It almost has the appearance of crumpled paper that was flattened out again, then painted on. The effect is so lively, and Abbett's use of colour so creative, that even an otherwise forbidding scene like the one below seems somehow deliciously inviting. (Go on, click the picture and enjoy the larger view)
Returning for a moment to the story portrayed... I didn't do much more than skim through bit and pieces of it while scanning Bob Abbett's illustrations, so I'm not in a position to offer an authoritative synopsis. But it did feel very weird to discover this piece of fiction while living at this time in history. What seems so normal in today's world is proposed in "The Man" back in 1964 as a possibility under only the most unbelievable of circumstances...
From the Wikipedia page on "The Man": "the Vice-Presidency is vacant, because of the incumbent's death. Then, while overseas, the President and the Speaker of the House suffer a freak accident; the President is killed, the Speaker of the House dies in surgery. The Presidency then corresponds to Douglass Dilman, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, a black man earlier elected to that office in deference to racial tokenism."
"President Douglass Dilman's presidency is marked by white racists, black political activists, and an attempted assassination."
"Later, he is impeached on false charges for firing the United States Secretary of State."
"Moreover, racially, one of his children, "passing" for white, also is targeted and harassed."
*Whew!* The kicker was discovering that "The Man" was adapted into a film in 1972 with a screenplay written by Rod Serling -- as if to suggest that the story of an African American becoming President could only happen in the Twilight Zone!
Well, whatever artistic or historical merit "The Man" may (or may not) have, we are certainly fortunate that the editors at Reader's Digest saw in Bob Abbett a capable and inspired artist, one who could illustrate this story with dignity and acuity.
There is, of course, much more to the Bob Abbett story. You can discover it for yourself on his website.
* My Bob Abbett Flickr set.