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Pulp Artist, Online Instructor Honored for Work

Academy of Art University online illustration instructor Thomas Gianni has won his second Robert E. Howard Foundation award and joked that he feels like a two-time Oscar winner.

Gianni, who resides in Chicago, won the award for his dust jacket work for a western, pirate and four Fists of Iron books. He also won his first Rankin Award from the foundation last year for his pulp art. 

“The first one was a boxing scene in the ring and some indication of crowd in foreground,” Gianni said, describing the jackets he won the award for. “They’re all from pulp stories of the 1920s and ‘30s and capture the feeling of the era. The art from the pulp magazines was very distinctive and there are many different kinds of titles for pulp magazines: detective, fantasy and science fiction. There’s a very big following for old pulp stories and artists.”

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Thomas Gianni’s Robert E. Howard Foundation award-winning illustrated book cover for 'Fists of Iron.'

Gianni explained that the characters Indiana Jones and Lara Croft are not from the pulp era but they are influenced by it.

“Manny Coto, the producer and writer for Dexter is heavily influenced by pulp. Dexter is kind of modern day pulp fiction,” Gianni said, adding that the next piece he is writing and drawing will include stuff he has gathered from his life experiences.

“Some people that I know, I’m kind of putting characters like them in the stories,” he said. “The character Mechanic Anna is of Italian descent, she lives in Brooklyn during WWII, and is similar to many Rosie the Riveter-type women. Her arm got injured so she gets a mechanical one. I am rewriting history where the East Coast is invaded by Nazis and there will be a lovecraftian element.”

Gianni said he was first introduced to the pulp genre when he read James Steranko’s history of comics, which spent a chapter on the pulps and the character The Shadow.

“I was probably eight or nine and The Shadow was a favorite, with a very mysterious cloak and two massive guns,” he said.

Gianni said he is currently doing covers for Sherlock Holmes books. He also does courtroom sketches for television news in Chicago and just got through a trial where the plaintiff was Michael Jordan and he spent two weeks drawing him.

Chicago illustrator Scott Gustafson has known Gianni for years. His brother and Gustafson went to art school together, and he and Gianni have been friends ever since.

“His work has a lot of energy,” Gustafson said. “He’s really found his niche with pulp-related things, his talents are at their best when he’s doing those kinds of subjects. He is always willing to experiment and try different things. 

Gianni is persistent, hardworking and a real student of the craft, according to colleague Neil Shapiro, whom he has known since 1985.

“I’ve really watched him grow as an illustrator,” Shapiro said.

The Rankin Award is given to selected artists by the Robert E. Howard Foundation and honors artistic achievement in the depiction of Robert E. Howard’s life and work. Three nominees are selected in each category by the Legacy Circle members of the Robert E. Howard Foundation from all of the eligible candidates and then voted on.

The foundation is organized to foster understanding of the life and works of Robert E. Howard, an American author who wrote pulp fiction in a diverse range of genres. Their goal is to honor Howard’s legacy as a skillful, prolific and successful writer of fantasy, regional, horror, action and adventure stories.