Ron Cobb, an underground cartoonist as well as the concept and production designer who helped craft the aesthetics of Total Recall, Alien and Back to the Future, has died. Via The Hollywood Reporter, Cobb’s wife of 48 years, Robin Love, reported that he had passed away of Lewy body dementia on Monday — his 83rd birthday — at his home in Sydney.
A political cartoonist, Cobb’s drawings captured the radical anti-establishment spirit of the 1960s and ’70s. His long and varied career brought him from counterculture cartooning to drawing album covers to designing some of the most iconic starships in film history.
Born in 1937 in Los Angeles, Cobb managed to nab a job as an inbetweener at Disney Studios at the age of 18, despite lacking formal training. After finally getting to work on a feature with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, he was laid off and subsequently drafted for the Vietnam War.
Returning to civilian life in 1965, Cobb began his career as a freelance cartoonist, opting to publish them in more radical outlets like the Los Angeles Free Press. Cobb’s cartoons took the political establishment to task, harshly criticizing the actions and worldviews of both Lyndon B. Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s administrations. His work reached beyond targeting only politicians, taking aim at American consumerism, militarism, racism and pollution.
“I’m fascinated with man in stress situations, I’m fascinated with man at a crisis,” Cobb told a student newspaper in 1972. “I would much prefer to draw someone into a situation where they have to say ‘…Yeah! That could happen!’ or ‘Yeah! …what would I say if that did happen?’ — where they have to react.”
Cobb’s cartoons spread from the Los Angeles Free Press to leftist and radical magazines and papers around the world, appearing in, according to Comiclopedia, the Berkeley Barb, the Chicago Seed, the East Village Other, Lot’s Wife, and Farrago. His designs reached into other outlets as well–he designed the cover for Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 record After Bathing at Baxter’s, and he is credited as the designer of the Ecology symbol.
His cartoons were collected several times, with The Cobb Book in 1974, Cobb Again in 1976, and the full color large format Colorvision in 1981.
Later becoming disillusioned with cartooning, in the mid-1970s Cobb transitioned into a new career in Hollywood, working in the art department of some of the most influential science fiction and fantasy films of the era. His contributions included designs for aliens in the iconic cantina scene in Star Wars; the spaceships in both Alien and Aliens; the initial design for the DeLorean in Back to the Future; the technological world of Total Recall; and the armor, weapons and architecture of Conan the Barbarian. He also designed the planet Rylos, the Starfighter, the Starcar, aliens, costumes and enemy spacecraft in The Last Starfighter.
A frequent collaborator of Steven Spielberg, Cobb provided concept art for the planes in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and designed the opening titles for Spielberg’s ’80s anthology show Amazing Stories. He was handpicked by Spielberg to provide the initial designs for Night Skies, an ultimately abandoned sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind that would later be reworked into E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Eventually working as a director and writer in his own right, Cobb directed the 1992 Australian comedy Garbo, and teamed with his wife, Robin Love, to write an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1981.