Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Matt Kindt's Super Spy

Yesterday I read a wonderful book: a graphic novel/big comic by Matt Kindt called Super Spy. It consists of some 52 inter-related stories about spies in Europe during World War II, and both the writing and art are excellent, perfectly suiting the subject matter (apart from occasional inappropriate fonts on newspapers and the like seen in a few panels).

But it's not just the contents that make this book wonderful. Matt Kindt has designed the whole thing as a beautiful artifact. The pages are off-white and printed to show old stains and creases, giving the whole thing a patina of age that suits the era of its setting. The images themselves are mostly printed in 2 or at most 3 colours, limited to a palette of subdued greens, blues and browns, with the occasional flash of red blood.

The design of the covers is also lovely (and covers are what we're all about here, after all). The tiny text bubbles and see-through elements of the drawing tell a whole story on their own. The inside covers offer X-rays of the artwork on the outside...

..and the red letters picked out in the text even spell out a secret spy message to the reader ('Get out now!'). The back cover does something similar.

Matt Kindt's website features more of his intriguing work, including a series of prints showing images from several of his favourite books, printed onto pages from those same books. There are also some other clever, non-book bits of design (special cyanide mints!). It's great.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Eve, the Apple & Temptation

Without much in the way of commentary, a number of recentish covers on a theme...

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was one of the greats, a German Romantic artist whose works you probably know even if his name is unfamiliar to you. There's a fine gallery of his works online here.

Some of his more famous paintings are shown here: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (The Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds)

The Abbey in the Oakwood

Moonrise by the Sea

He's also the go-to artist for many books with a Gothic or Romantic atmosphere (especially the classics).

Looking at all of this effective gloom, it's perhaps significant to remember Friedrich's family background. His mother died when he was seven and his sister died of typhoid. Even worse, his brother drowned while trying to save the young Friedrich when the ice on a frozen lake broke up under his weight. His own career was ended by a stroke which left him paralysed and unable to paint. Sadly, not all of his work has survived, some of it destroyed in the fire-bombing of Dresden and the arson attack on the Munich Glaspalast.

UPDATE: The tremendously wise John Self of Asylum points out in the comments that The Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds was also used on the original hardback (and this US paperback) of Patrick McGrath's Dr Haggard's Disease.

UPDATE 2: Stewart of the excellent BookLit blog has kindly donated his scan of the original cover to Dr Haggard's Disease, which also uses this image.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Cover Changes

When you're the sort of sad person who pores over publisher catalogues you sometimes spot interesting changes in cover design between the original announcement and the final book. Sometimes they're improvements; sometimes not. Either way, the original designs disappear from the web and are never seen again. This is a shame when they were good.

Two examples from Penguin are shown here. The first is the rejigging of the cover to Eileen Chang's Lust, Caution (Chang's work having been discussed earlier here and here).

Presumably the idea was to capitalise on Ang Lee's movie with a still from the film on the cover. Though the image itself is fine, and avoids the usual movie tie-in cover pitfalls (ie hideous ugliness and instant datedness), I can't help feeling that the original was more beautiful and eye-catching.

The second example is Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

Part of the reason for this must have been to update the book to fit the new Modern Classics look. The first image was from the classic 1949 movie. The second, very wisely, is not from the widely panned 2006 remake. The new cover is more dynamic, and probably better, though the simplicity of the original image of John Ireland has a certain appeal.

Which versions of these books would you be more likely to pick up?

UPDATE: The original Lust, Caution cover features Anna May Wong--see this post for more.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Black and White (Part 2)

While we're on the subject of the relaunched Vintage Classics, here are a few of the covers that demonstrate the potential of using only black and white illustration (see this post for more).

As always, click on the image to see it in more detail.

All three are quite different, but they're very eye-catching. In a way it's a shame that the same simplicity couldn't extend the the spines (which are a vivid red, in keeping with the rest of the line), but face-on these are lovely to look at.

Nice Pair

Of the repackaging of classics there is no end. The latest outburst is Vintage Classics and its second line-wide overhaul in a couple of years. This time they're obviously aiming to make a dent in Penguin's market dominance by putting out a whole lot of older, public-domain classics like work by Dickens, Melville, James, Austen and the like.

One nice promotional touch is the selling of some of these older classics with well-chosen limited-edition contemporary "classics" from Vintage's line. The pairings are mostly pretty good, and the matching covers are rather nice.

The best may be the combination of Oliver Twist with Trainspotting (both stories of the urban criminal underclass), the covers featuring animals which play minor but memorable parts in the stories (Sykes' dog and the cat which kills Tommy with toxoplasmosis).

I also like the ligature in the text on the Dickens cover.

Some of the other pairings are shown here: 'Crime' (Dostoevsky and Highsmith), 'Lust' (Fielding and Amis) and 'Sin' (Dante and Roth). I think they're all quite effective.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Future Classics, No Titles

Gollancz, Britain's leading publisher of science-fiction, has recently launched the 'Future Classics' series of reprints. These are books from the last decade or so that they claim will be the SF classics of the future (the sort of books that were reprinted in Gollancz's apparently discontinued SF Masterworks series until recently).

They have taken the interesting and unusual option of releasing all of the books in the series without any identifying text on the front cover. No author name, no title, no blurb quotes. This information is relegated to the spine, leaving the covers free for simple, dramatic, 2-colour works of (mostly abstract) illustration.

Some of the titles in the series are shown here:

They are...

1. Fairyland by Paul J. McCauley: the pattern of insect wings is in laser-etched spectral reflecting foil.

2. Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan: a suitable Da Vinci-anatomy cover for a novel full of biological augmentation and subversion.

3. The Separation by Chris Priest: the khaki colours, pattern and rough card cover texture match the parallel-world WWII setting of the book.

4. Blood Music by Greg Bear: the varnished blood pattern suits this story of "intelligent" nanomachine-like engineered blood molecules.

5. Evolution by Stephen Baxter: a novel which tells to story of life on Earth from the start to the finish has a machine-like illustration of an ape on the cover; in something of a first for novel cover design, the darker areas on the cover are actually furry.

6. Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan: a scattering of distant stars matches the vast distances travelled by the heroes of this story of potential universal collapse.

Not all of these books are brilliant: Richard Morgan's debut is surprisingly weak, and the Baxter is far from his best. However, the general standard of the novels is very high, and the designs are fascinating. You really need to see them in the flesh to get the full effect. Hunt them down at your local bookshop.

UPDATE: The great Dave Langford discusses these books in his excellent column in the otherwise dodgy SFX magazine, and on his website. He notes that the stars on the Egan cover glow in the dark. Huzzah!

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Egon Schiele

The short-lived Schiele (1890-1918) was a great expressionist portraitist, whose work shows the strong influence of his mentor and friend, Gustav Klimt. He also had a troubled life...

When they came to his studio to place him under arrest, the police seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered pornographic. Schiele was imprisoned while awaiting his trial. When his case was brought before a judge, the charges of seduction and abduction were dropped, but the artist was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children. In court, the judge burned one of the offending drawings over a candle flame. The twenty-one days he had already spent in custody were taken into account, and he was sentenced to only three days' imprisonment. While in prison, Schiele created a series of 12 paintings depicting the difficulties & discomfort of being locked in a jail-cell.

Schiele was killed by the 1918 flu outbreak. His life is ripe for the novelist's treatment, and as far as I know, this has happened twice in recent years. First was Joanna Scott, with Arrogance.

This features a typically moody, scratchy Schiele self-portrait on the cover.

This year, Lewis Crofts has also published a novel about Schiele, The Pornographer of Vienna, which features one of Schiele's paintings of his wife, Edith Harms, on the wraparound cover.

The cover design has caused a small stir because of the spine (look closely just above the publisher's colophon). One Amazon UK reviewer rants amusingly about the disgusting display of what she calls "ladyparts".

Other novels have used Schiele's artwork to good effect. The wonderful Joseph Roth, by the way, was also a product of turn-of-the-century Austria-Hungary, part of that era's great cultural flowering (Klimt, Schnitzler, Kafka, Zweig, etc) that was eventually destroyed by Hitler.

UPDATE: The Pornographer of Vienna author Lewis Crofts has kindly responded to this post. Please see the comments.

UPDATE 2: Came across another one...

Monday, 8 October 2007

Gifted - Variations on a Theme

I'm halfway through Nikita Lalwani's debut novel, Gifted, which just came out. It's the story of a young Indian girl now living in Wales. She is also a maths prodigy, being driven too hard by her father to succeed. It's sweet and funny and sad, and very good.

It's interesting to look at the cover designs for the UK edition (by design house Pentagram)...

..and the forthcoming US edition (designer unknown)...

..which are obviously variations on a similar idea.

The UK edition is more successful, I think. The colours are bolder and very appealing, and the numbers are well used, being both omnipresent but not obvious. The US edition is attractive, but I've seen covers like it elsewhere (the back view of the girl with pigtails is very reminiscent of the covers of a couple of other novels about growing up as part of a 'minority' group).

By the way, there's a short but interesting interview with Lalwani here.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Penguin Modern Classics En Masse

This is what happens when you start collecting Penguin Modern and Twentieth-Century Classics.

And these are the visions that loom over you in the wee small hours.

And that's just part of the collection. As Dave Langford has said, quoting somebody else, "He who dies with the most books wins." On the other hand, as my wife has said, "Is there going to be room for all these books? There seem to be more coming into the house every day!"