When you work with people with great talent, you learn to take a certain amount of forcefulness, or big ego, for granted.
But what artist Michael Whelan remembers about Michael Jackson was how unobtrusive he was.
"He was both very quiet and very charismatic... I've never seen that combination before.''
Whelan, 59, is one of the most acclaimed American science fiction illustrators. He has designed book covers for the genre's very greatest writers -- Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury among them.
In 1984 he got his chance to work with the King of Pop. Whelan's brush with Jackson came in the post-"Thriller'' days, when Jackson reunited with his five brothers to tour as The Jacksons -- the original Jackson Five, plus brother Jermaine.
Epic Records asked artists to send portfolios of their work so it could choose someone to design the cover of the group's "Victory" album, and Whelan submitted his.
"I heard they put all the portfolios in a room, and Michael took a long time to look at them. He chose me.''
Whelan still has the original painting of the cover -- a dark blue sky, a whirling galaxy, and off to the side, a fantastic ruin. In the foreground are the six Jackson brothers.
"Michael asked me to put him behind his brothers, which was really generous,'' Whelan said. "But at the same time, we wanted his glove and socks to glow. That was his trademark.''
What Jackson wanted was the look Whelan used for Isaac Asimov's novel "Foundation's Edge.''
"He liked the universe I painted for the book cover,'' Whelan said.
He also wanted the swirling, light-filled look of the night sky at the end of Steven Spielberg's movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind.''
Working in Danbury, Whelan did the background of the painting and sketched in the singers' figures. Then he and Audrey and their daughter, Alexa, and a baby sitter booked a flight to Los Angeles.
They missed their plane.
"We were on the Hutchinson River Parkway and it was flooded, so it was closed down,'' Whelan said. "How do you get to the airport without being on the Hutchinson?''
The Whelans finally got to the airport just as the doors to their flight shut tight.
"Audrey kept saying 'You don't understand. We have to go meet Michael Jackson.' I don't think any of the airport people believed her.''
The Whelans then flew to San Francisco and got a connecting flight to Los Angeles. Their luggage continued on to Singapore. But in Los Angeles, there was a limo waiting to whisk them to the recording studio to meet the Jacksons.
What the Whelans remember about the studio was just how huge the Jackson empire entourage was. Each of the brothers had a lawyer present. Epic Records had a lawyer on hand. Columbia Records, Epic's parent company, had its own lawyer there.
In this sea of expensive hangers-on, they remembered Jackson as being terrific.
"He treated us warmly and generously and without a bit of phoniness,'' Michael Whelan said.
"He talked to Alexa about her Cabbage Patch doll,'' Audrey Whelan said. "We were all vegetarians, and I remember talking about how hard it is to go to some banquet and get a huge slab of prime rib on your plate.''
The Whelans spent about 10 days in Los Angeles -- long enough for Michael Whelan to capture the look of the Jackson brothers' faces before returning to Connecticut to finish his work.
Michael Jackson was so quiet and decent with them. They also saw how a very rich person, surrounded by yes-men, might have his view of reality severely warped.
"I remember thinking, how can he not feel suffocated?'' Michael Whelan says...