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Steve Stiles, Hugo Award-winning comic fan artist of ‘Xenozoic Tales,’ dies at 76

Steve Stiles won a Hugo Award after being passed over 15 times.
Steve Stiles won a Hugo Award after being passed over 15 times.(handout / HANDOUT)

Steve Stiles, a Hugo Award-winning comic fan artist best known for his work on the popular post-apocalyptic dinosaur series “Xenozoic Tales," died of lung cancer at his home in Randallstown on Jan. 11, according to his wife. He was 76.

A science-fiction lover with a wry sense of humor, Mr. Stiles mostly freelanced for underground fan magazines such as the Kitchen Sink Press and Last Gasp, but his work was also published by DC Comics and Marvel during a long and renowned career. In a 50-year period from the 1960s to the 2010s, he was nominated for best fan artist at the Hugo Awards, an international recognition of the top science-fiction and fantasy work, more than a dozen times — finally winning the award in 2016.

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Mr. Stiles’ comic artwork, which included the illustrations for Dick Lupoff’s syndicated “Professor Thintwhistle and His Incredible Aether Flyer," ranged from the kid-friendly “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and “Royal Roy” to more adult titles like “Death Rattle,” “Bizarre Sex” and “Anarchy Comics.”

His catch phrase — “Death is nature’s way of telling you when to stop" — had been re-printed, by his count, more than 50 times, including on a fountain in a Los Angeles nightclub, he said in a 2019 interview on the podcast “Eating the Fantastic,” hosted by fellow sci-fi comic artist Scott Edelman.

“That’s my main claim to fame,” Mr. Stiles joked. “That and my ‘Little Orphan Annie’ Tijuana Bible.”

Death is nature’s way of telling you when to stop.


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Stephen Willis Stiles was born in Manhattan, New York, on July 16, 1943. He was the eldest of three sons of Ervin Stiles, a carpenter and New York City building inspector, and the former Norma Stickney, a housekeeper.

Mr. Stiles graduated from the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan in 1961 and earned a degree from the School of Visual Arts, studying with artist Burne Hogarth, who illustrated the original “Tarzan” newspaper comic strip, before being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War.

He did a two-year Army stint in the mid-1960s. A commanding officer told him: “If you can draw my girlfriend, you won’t get orders to go to Vietnam.”

“That’s exactly what happened,” said Elaine Stiles, his wife of 38 years. He was stationed instead at bases in Missouri and Virginia.

Mr. Stiles was tasked with using his artistic talents to liven up the Army manuals for rifles and other equipment — following in the footsteps of one of his idols, the legendary comic artist Will Eisner, who had done similar jobs in the service during World War II.

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More than 20 years later, while they were serving together on a science-fiction panel at a 1988 convention in Florida, Mr. Eisner complimented Mr. Stiles on his art.

“He was talking about it for the rest of his life,” Mrs. Stiles said.

Mr. and Mrs. Stiles were regular invitees to a “Hugo Losers’ Party” hosted by George R.R. Martin, author of the “Game of Thrones” series. When Mr. Stiles finally won, his wife said, Mr. Martin, who was seated at their table, joked: “You can’t come to my party then!” (Mrs. Stiles said Parris Martin interjected: “You can still come. You’ve lost 15 times.")

While in the Army — in the morgue, “next to the bathtub where they soak the stiffs,” Mr. Stiles said on the podcast — he wrote a novel, “Machiavelli Machine,” about a future utopia operated by an artificial intelligence, which was secretly carrying on an intergalactic war, unbeknownst to the inhabitants.

It was rejected by 11 different publishers. But eight wrote back to him.

“Four of those letters said, ‘we really think your plot is great, but we don’t like your writing style,’” Mr. Stiles said. “The other four said, ‘we love your writing style. We think your plot is absurd.’”

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After his Army service, Mr. Stiles returned to New York, where an 18-month marriage to his first wife ended in divorce.

He left a job in the advertising industry to work full-time as a freelance artist and moved to Baltimore in the mid-1970s to help pay rent at a house where a friend of his ex-wife’s was living. He then moved to Arlington, Virginia, and frequently attended meetings of the Washington Science Fiction Association, where he met Mrs. Stiles in 1979.

Mrs. Stiles, who also was raised in New York, remembers being enamored by the handsome artist and music lover — and singing the theme song from the western “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” together by the end of their first conversation.

“We started singing ’50s TV theme songs to each other,” she said. “That was it. ... He was a unique individual, shy and yet outgoing.”

Months later, the two were dating, and they married in October 1981. They bought a house on Ellerslie Avenue in Waverly, where they lived until moving to Randallstown in 1988.

Raised Southern Baptist in a Jewish enclave of New York, Mr. Stiles converted to Judaism after their marriage, and he and Mrs. Stiles were founding members of the Reconstructionist Congregation Beit Tikvah. He designed the Samaritan Peace Medal presented to Shimon Peres by the Samaritan community in Israel.

In addition to several World Science Fiction Conventions, the couple attended countless Washington Science Fiction Association and Baltimore Science Fiction Society meetings and other conventions. Mr. Stiles was invited as a guest of honor to both the Balticon and Capclave conventions, and was part of a three-artist exhibit with The Sun’s political cartoonist, Kevin Kallaugher, known as KAL.

Two of what would’ve been among Mr. Stiles’ highest-profile jobs never materialized.

He won a contract to revive Al Capp’s “Lil Abner” comic series — a favorite of Mr. Stiles’ late father, who had always asked him “Why can’t you do something like ‘Lil Abner’?” — and drew about 10 dailies before permission to revive the strip was withdrawn by the Capp estate.

And he drew an entire “Scrooge McDuck” comic story, for which Disney paid him what he joked must have been the highest per-word fee, when it decided only to use the title of the book and killed the rest.

A three-week trial as a Baltimore Sun illustrator never panned out, either, but it produced some funny illustrations for a series of tongue-in-cheek letters to the editor about the “cruelty” of skeet shooting, said David Ettlin, a former Sun editor and founding member of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society.

“It was a jab at people who had the money to go to the country club,” he said.

Jeff Landaw, a friend and former longtime Sun copy editor, called him “a really good guy and a talented artist.”

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Mr. Edelman, who created the original “Marvel” Doctor Minerva character in 1977, was glad he had the chance to interview Mr. Stiles before his death.

“The hole in the science-fiction community left by his absence is immense,” he said.

Plans for a funeral, to be held at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville, and a burial at the Maryland Veterans’ Cemetery in Crownsville, are incomplete.

Mr. Stiles was preceded in death by his parents and a brother, Jeff Stiles. In addition to Mrs. Stiles, he is survived by another brother, Randy Stiles of New York, and three nephews and a niece.

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