Monday, 31 March 2008

A Quick John Christopher Follow-Up

For anyone here who doesn't also read The Age of Uncertainty (and you really should--it's over there on the links bar, see?), the goodly proprieter has recently posted a series of excellent and thoughtful posts on the three John Christopher novels I discussed here earlier. The specific posts are here, here and here.

He also has a nifty Penguin cover for The Death of Grass which I'd never come across. I hope I can be forgiven for pinching it to show here:

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

More Changed Covers

Here's another look at covers that change between their first announcement by the publishers and their actual appearance on the shelves. In each case here I like all of the before and after covers, although I slightly prefer the unused originals.

This is the paperback of Alan Pauls' The Past, from Vintage. The final version is a slight modification of the original hardback cover, rather than something new.

Here are a couple of books from the great NYRB Classics which I have to have. Stefan Zweig is one of my favourite authors, and so a previously unavailable posthumous novel from him sounds great. If you want to know more about him, I wrote more about Zweig over at Bookslut.

Over at the NYRB Review Books blog, there's an entertaining article about why they had to change another of their forthcoming book covers. Their edition of J. A. Baker's The Peregrine originally featured entirely the wrong bird.

Seth versus Dorothy Parker

As a brief corrective to the last post's whinge, here's a Graphic Classics cover that is, I think, absolutely perfect. It's by the Canadian comics writer and artist Seth (real name Gregory Gallant--what's with these guys and their first-name-only pseudonyms?), and it's for The Portable Dorothy Parker.

And here are the front and back flaps.

As always, click for all the wonderful detail.

So what makes this a success, in contrast with the Jason/Kerouac cover? Without compromising his style, Seth has designed something entirely appropriate to the writer and the era he is covering. It incorporates examples of her work and style, and manages a number of clever, witty flourishes. It has been done with obvious affection for Parker, but with a clear-eyed vision of her flaws as well. It is, quite frankly, one of the best examples of cover design I've seen.

Great Artist, Great Cover, But...

Before getting on to the cover I'm here to post about, a bit of background:

Jason (real name John Arne Sæterøy) is a Norwegian comic writer and artist who has a small but dedicated following in the indie/art comics world. He has published a number of idiosyncratic and enjoyable graphic novels, which are available in English from Fantagraphics. What's most obvious about his work is that he tends to draw everybody as either a bird or a dog-like creature.

Here is the cover for his The Left Bank Gang, a story about Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein as cartoonists and bank-robbers in 1920s Paris.

Here are a couple of pages from the book: the first is Fitzgerald and Hemingway discussing their private lives and their cartooning; the second has Hemingway visiting the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Click on the image for more detail.

And here are the covers of a couple of his other graphic novels. The first is a detective thriller, and the second a science-fiction time travel story.

Now, on to the actual cover I'm here to talk about. It's part of the wonderful Graphic Classics range, where comic artists design covers for various Penguin Classics. Another example is Charles Burns' cover for The Jungle, discussed earlier.

I'm no Kerouac fan. His writing seems both embarassingly earnest and quite clumsy, as well as incredibly self-important and navel-gazing. The front and back flaps Jason has designed for this edition capture that amusingly well, I think.

So, it's a good cover I admire by by a really good artist. Despite this, I can't help feeling it's something of a failure. Jason's decision to render the book's characters as more of his anthropomorphic creatures is (I believe) the wrong one. It will only make sense to his fans, and be bewildering to everybody else. After all, it's not as though he can't draw people: here's his Hemingway.

So in the end, I think this is a cover that's more about the artist than it is about the book. I can't help feeling that means it doesn't really do its job well.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Mordecai Richler & Others

I just read Mordecai Richler's The Street, a collection of short stories about a Montreal Jewish neighbourhood in the 1940s. Fun, if occasionally slight: Richler said in his introduction that short stories were not his forte. For him at his best, try Barney's Version or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Kravitz also appears in The Street).

But we're not here to review the books, but their covers. I like them. I also like the same images on the covers of completely different books. In each case, the twice-used images are appropriate to both books. Witness:

The other book here is John Banville's brilliant The Untouchable, about a Soviet spy in Cold War London. My copy is signed: when I was getting it autographed, I recall Banville said something very witty, to which I replied. "Nrgh. I love your books. Ha ha."

The photo is by Michael Wildsmith, who has a small online portfolio here . In this image, the sole fingure could easily be a side-locked Orthodox Jew striding down a wet Canadian street, or a shady and treacherous member of the English establishment doing a runner through the fog.

The other book here is one of Derek Raymond's nihilistic and enjoyable thrillers, the first in his 'Factory' series. The photo is by Stephan H. Sheffield, about whom I can find no more information.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Nina Chakrabarti

I'm currently reading Submarine by Joe Dunthorne, an unease-inducing but very funny coming-of-age novel set in 1997. It's hard to tell whether the narrator is mildly mentally unhinged, or whether it's just that he's 14. A very good review can be found here if you are interested.

The cover of this book, published by Hamish Hamilton, is by Nina Chakrabarti (self-portrait shown here), and it's an absolute beauty. On her slightly out-of-date website, Chakrabarti says she "was born and spent her early life in Calcutta, India. She moved to the UK in her teens carrying her stamp collection under her arm and little else. She studied illustration at Central St. Martins, and many years later, at The Royal College of Art. Her work is often concerned with collections and the composition of objects. She works using Rotring pens, felt tips, biros, pencils, inks and the Apple Macintosh."

Her cover for Submarine emulates the sort of obsessively detailed drawing/doodling you find on a schoolkid's exercise book. Significantly, every object incorporated into this doodle is relevant to the book's plot. Click on the image to appreciate full-size version--I apologise for the slightly blurry bits, but I had to scan this in 3 bits and stitch it together to get the whole cover into one image, and I didn't want to damage the dustjacket in the process.

What makes this cover even better is that it's printed on a textured cartridge paper, and all of the doodling is slightly indented, as though by the pressure of a biro. It's this sort of attention to detail which can make a book a really satisfying art object as well as a bloody good read.

This also follows through to the book's endpapers, which Chakrabarti has decorated with a selection of the words which Submarine's precocious narrator likes to use and obsess over.

Seek out this book: it's definitely one to have in hardcover.

UPDATE: A slight downwards revision in my feelings for this book as I read on. This is not due to any fault in the writing as such, but because of a protracted, unnecessary and disgusting dog-death scene. At the risk of sounding like a crank, WRITERS SHOULD STOP KILLING DOGS IN THEIR BOOKS BECAUSE IT'S A COMPLETE FUCKING CLICHÉ! In any book (or film) that makes more than a passing reference to a dog, 99 times out of 100 it will be dead by the end: usually killed nastily. The writer either seems to feel that this will be amusing (it isn't), or that it will achieve some sort of poignant death-of-an-innocent effect (usually when said writer hasn't got the balls to kill off a human child character). Writers of the world: you're on fucking notice. Stop it!

UPDATE 2: That little rant aside, it's still a very good book.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Hard Case Crime Revisited

Here's a quick follow-up to the look at Glen Orbik's covers for Hard Case Crime.

Another artist Hard Case use a lot, and who does sterling work, is Gregory Manchess. I've read the two John Lange rediscoveries Manchess has provided the covers for.

Lange was an early pseudonym for Michael Crichton, and he should have stuck with the fast, funny pulp crime rather than the portentous climate-change-denial rubbish he seems more interested in these days.

A close look at the cover of Zero Cool revealed something interesting (besides the bikini babe). What is she reading?

Monday, 17 March 2008

Classic Stripes

There has been an interesting (at least to me, if not to anybody else) common element in most publishers' cover designs for their classics ranges. It's the horizontal band containing the author and title text.


Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics

The about-to-be-launched new look for Oxford World's Classics, and the short-lived redesign of Vintage Classics

Oneworld Classics and the newly launched Capuchin Classics

Perhaps this homogeneity (which still allows for a great variety of cover images) is the reason for Penguin Modern Classics and Vintage Classics recently changing their standard design yet again.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Glen Orbik: New Pulp Art Done Right

A while ago I talked about the problem of trying to do new art for old pulp books, and how easily it is to do it wrong. Well, here's an example of an artist who does it exactly right.

Glen Orbik has done a lot of work for DC Comics (like Phil Hale) and has also recently become one of the most prolific cover artists for Hard Case Crime. This is a relatively small, new publisher specialising in reprints of excellent old pulp novels, and new books in a similar style.

Here are some of Orbik's covers for Hard Case. You'll want to click for a bigger version to get the full glory.

The only criticism that can be made here is that, unlike pulp cover artists of the past, Orbik has obviously actually read the books he's illustrating, as the scenes on the cover do actually match events inside the books. It should also be said that the Axelrod, Miller, Faust and Goodis books in particular are great.

Another great recent work by Orbik is this cover for a new pulp novel called, wonderfully, Space Vulture. It so matches the old science-fiction pulp covers that I at first thought someone had merely repurposed an old cover from the 1930s or 1940s.

This book, which I have not yet read, should be well worth seeking out. First of all, the great Gene Wolfe likes it. Secondly, how often do you see pulp science-fiction co-written by a genuine Catholic archbishop? His other publications (such as Ecclesial Ministries Within the Diocese: Development and Integration and An Examination of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body) are for a very different audience.

Saturday, 15 March 2008


J. G. Ballard is one of the greats, a science-fiction writer who has achieved mainstream success (to the point where critics now pretend he never wrote SF at all), and whose worldview and style are consistent and quite recognisable. Wrecked vehicles, drained swimming pools, creeping sand, designer clothes, spilled blood: these are common elements throughout his work. He's also someone who has been unusually well served by cover artists over the years.

His recent novels have seemed stuck in a rut, repeating the same plot (someone, usually a doctor, moves into an expensive enclave, and gets involved with the rich psychopaths who live there). Look to his earlier work, though, and you'll find some ferocious, bleakly intelligent stuff. We'll look at two of them here as part of the End of the World project.

The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1964, and also known as The Burning World) were Ballard's second and third books--he has disowned his first, The Wind from Nowhere.

Here are the covers to these two books, from the 1974 Penguin reissues designed by David Pelham, most famous for his cover to A Clockwork Orange.

The Drowned World is an early global warming novel. Increased solar radiation has made the equator too hot to live in, and turned the rest of the globe into a lushly tropical nightmare, sinking into the rising seas. What's left of civilisation has fled for the melting poles. A few loners and eccentrics remain behind in London, using research work or military action as an excuse to stay, their behaviour slowly turning reptilian to cope with their changed environment. Slow-moving but very involving, it ends with a hallucinatory journey towards the boiling equator in search of a missing man. The Pelham cover above could only be improved by the use of a London rather than a New York landmark.

The Drought goes to the opposite extreme, positing a world deprived of fresh water, and following one man and his disintegrating family through their struggles to survive. Both books have a certain clinical--perhaps sociopathic--detachment from their characters. It's as though you're watching an extreme experiment that just happens to involve real human beings.

Here are the very different, but also effective, most recent editions, the current Harper Perennial versions.

Compare these with a couple of early US paperback covers.

And finally, here are a range of other covers, which you'll need to click on to view properly.

Here we have the recent Gollancz cover by Jim Burns (appropriately London-y), the original 1960s Gollancz hardback, a surrealist Penguin, and another Harper Perennial cover which was (I believe) never actually used.

And here we have the original Cape hardcover jacket, and three covers from various 1990s and 2000s editions published by the late, lamented Flamingo, who have since been dissolved into the HarperCollins empire.

For more on Ballard covers, and Ballard in general, visit the Ballardian.

UPDATE: Rick McGrath kindly sent more information: "Yes, Ballardian is great for comments about JGB's book covers, but to actually see the covers in question, you have to go to The Terminal Collection."

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

War of the Worlds

Another fine apocalypse.

H. G. Wells will always be one of the great writers, both of science fiction and of social comedies. I've written about him at greater length elsewhere, but here I'm just focusing on The War of the Worlds. from 1898.

One of Wells' best books, this may also be the best book ever written about the invasion of Earth from space. Instead of the bland idealised humans that had been previous writers’ idea of life on other worlds, Wells created truly and horribly alien monsters that require huge war machines to travel around in Earth’s gravity. Armed with what are effectively lasers, and impossible to stop with anything humans can produce, these invaders calmly set about taking over the planet. The first-person narration, spectacular set-pieces and imaginative thoroughness make this a compelling and fresh novel still, so many years after its first appearance: genuinely thrilling stuff. It's even survived Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise; no mean feat.

There's a huge collection--338 at last count--of the various covers this book has been given here. If the images shown her get your interest, you'll love it over there.

First, here are 5 of the covers Penguin has given the book over the years. As always, click for a much bigger version.

Here are a selection of some of the other covers. As you can see, plenty of artists have given themselves the opportunity to let rip with the death, destruction and tripod walking machines.

Finally, here's a cover by the great Edward Gorey. This edition of the book, with Gorey's interior illustrations, has been returned to print by NYRB Classics.