Wednesday 23 November 2011

Mockery, WITH Covers (and, be warned, breasts)

There's a certain appeal for many readers in the Mars/Barsoom tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs was no great writer, but he was prolific and, perhaps more importantly, his Martian princess heroine Dejah Thoris spent her entire time naked (Google Image search her name for some of the excitible art this has prompted.). Burroughs also has the advantage of being out of copyright, so anyone who wants to can cash in with reprints of his books. I came across a series of these from Deodand Publishing (I should note here that unlike many publishers of the out-of-copyright, Deodand do not charge ludicrously high prices for their books). The art reminds me of that drawn by heavy metal fans in early high school--more enthusiastic than talented...

There are more effective ways to cash in, of course. Comics company Dynamite is busy adapting the books for comics, and doing their best to squeeze money from idiots by offering various hard-to-find and thus ridiculously expensive "variant covers" (a common way comics companies have to rip off those most eager to be ripped off)--see six of the eight available versions of the first issue...

..and you will notice what Dynamite is pinning their fiscal hopes on, the subtle and sophisticated "risque nude variants", like so...

There's a truly odd cynicism behind this sales ploy, in that even though the books feature the heroine constantly nude, thus actually justifying this sort of objectification (in terms of source fidelity if not in any other way), the actual comics themselves do not feature nudity on the inside pages. Since this is hardly likely to be due to taste or restraint, I can only imagine it's an attempt to be able to sell the non-nude-covered versions of the comics to kids, without creating the sort of moral panic that occasionally occurs when American parents find nipples in their kids' comic books.

Changing the subject entirely, and going back to book covers for a moment, I was surprised by this cover from Dodo Press. Can anyone suggest why Thorne Smith's second supernatural-comedy about Topper and his two friendly ghost friends should end up with Fyodor Dostoevsky on the cover?

At least it's not a risque nude variant.

Not Covers, Just Mockery

An amusing typo I came across while seeing what is coming out from Oneworld next year. Somebody's not even smart enough to work in data entry at Amazon.

Monday 21 November 2011

"Ideal conditions for interesting covers": An Interview with Alison Forner

In discussing the mystifying Australian cover to Stasiland recently, I saw the much better, and appropriate cover designed by Alison Forner for the current US edition (see left). Alison works full-time for the literary Ecco imprint of HarperCollins US, where she has produced some amazing cover designs, including the much-discussed and rightly praised cover for Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood, of which more below.

Alison was kind enough to agree to an interview about her work.

* * *

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: You were a professional dancer and a poet before becoming a designer. How did this transition happen? And looking back, how planned has your designing career been?

ALISON FORNER: I suppose you could say my design career wasn't planned at all. I had always taken studio art classes from the time I was a young child through high school, but training for a dance career doesn't leave much time for other serious pursuits. So I guess you could say the ability was always there, but never fully explored because I was always dancing.

Ultimately, what led me to design was a gradual falling away of my creative interests. Dancing was getting harder and harder on my knees (ballet and modern dance are not kind to the body) and my writing group was dissolving as everyone left New York to attend MFA programs. I was convinced I could continue writing without my group, and had early encouragement from Gordon Lish, then publisher of The Quarterly literary magazine, when he accepted several poems for publication when I was 22. Sadly, The Quarterly lost funding and folded before I could see them in print (although I think I still have page proofs somewhere!), and I completely lost steam. And so without writing or dancing, I was left with my print production job at Random House, which I loved for different reasons, but which left me without a meaningful creative outlet.

After some serious flailing, I took a "Quark for Production Managers" class given by a colleague, and it was then that I realized I wanted to be a designer. We were creating fake book covers in order to understand the entire production process, and I was so engrossed in designing my fake cover that I completely lost track of what was being taught. I was hooked!  I decided the next day to start taking design classes at Parsons. I continued with night classes for several years until I built a presentable portfolio (with a focus on cover design). I started doing some freelance work for Random House, then eventually landed my current job at Ecco.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Do you work full-time at Ecco now, or do you still do freelance work?

ALISON FORNER: Yes, I'm full-time at Ecco, but I also do freelance work. I love my freelance clients--the process is very different from working with an in-house team, but just as rewarding. I've learned so much from this aspect of my career. Some of my clients don't have in-house art directors, so I end up playing both designer and director (and sometimes even production manager).

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: In a literary-oriented press like Ecco, where covers don't have to match a certain commercial look, how much room is there for making use of unusual design ideas?

ALISON FORNER: At Ecco we're lucky to have an amazing publisher, Dan Halpern [also a successful poet], who encourages and appreciates creative thinking. It's a pleasure designing covers here; we have a fantastic list of books that don't always fit into a perfect mold. Ideal conditions for interesting covers!

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I'm interested in how a cover like yours for The Interrogative Mood comes to be: was it your idea to leave the title and author off the front? And how much of a battle was it to get that idea accepted?

ALISON FORNER: I love how that jacket has inspired so much curiosity--as only a book of questions should! Again, I need to mention our publisher Dan who saw the imagery I created and knew immediately that we should leave it as is. Interrogative Mood is such an unusual and wonderful book--it really did beg for its own unique visual treatment. And it managed to sail through the approval process without a hitch. Strange, but true!

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Have you ever been asked to design/cover/illustrate a book you couldn't stand? I'm not asking you to name names, I'm just interested in the process of aesthetically representing something you don't feel any sympathy for.

ALISON FORNER: I will answer this in very hushed tones... yes, I have. But I won't reveal which ones! It certainly makes the design process harder--I think it's always easier to work on something you feel passionate about. But there are so many things that can inspire visuals--whether it's a really compelling title, subtitle, subject matter, you-name it. So disliking something doesn't always lead to a dearth of ideas. It's really our job and challenge as designers to create something worthwhile despite our personal opinions. 

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Is there any neglected book you'd like to draw to the attention of readers?

ALISON FORNER: Can I recommend a somewhat neglected form of writing? How about giving poetry some love? Poems are perfect for our dwindling attention spans. They're not scary! Just tiny and compact. And they pack a punch. I suggest starting with one per day and seeing where that takes you. I think we're all so programmed now to skim instead of read; poetry forces you to slow down, pay attention, and let your imagination take over. Now doesn't that sound like fun?

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: It definitely does. Thank you, Ms Forner!

Alison's site also includes some beautiful covers that never got used for one reason or another. Here are a few to whet your appetitie. See the rest here.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Books vs Keira Knightley Part III

Here she is again: this time she's playing Sabina Spielrein, and thus yet again a real person is pushed off the front of the cover of a book about them (or in this case, three real people get shafted).

So here's the Keira Knightley library so far. I note that she's also starring in a film version of Anna Karenina coming out next year, so this collection will be expanding soon.

In time, every woman in literature and history will have been played by Keira Knightley.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


A recent book which I've ordered and am impatiently awaiting is Craig Brown's One on One. It's one of those simple ideas that nobody had ever come up with until now: a collection of 101 true stories of often unlikely meetings, where each meeting leads on to the next (thus Adolf Hitler is almost killed when John Scott-Ellis hits him with his car in 1931; Scott-Eliis also met Rudyard Kipling; Kipling met Mark Twain, who had an odd encounter with Helen Keller, and so on, looping all the way round to Hitler again at the end). And just for the hell of it, each encounter is described in 1001 words.

How to create a cover for such a complex cast of characters? Well, why not put them all on it, with their connections?

Click to make readable
Very nice indeed. I don't know who to credit, though, since there is no designer listed on the scan of the dustjacket which I've been able to get hold of. The design is by Jo Walker.

Tuesday 8 November 2011


Yesterday, I finally got around the reading the latest comics world sensation, the near-700-page Habibi, by Craig Thompson. I enjoyed it, though I had some strong reservations about a number of its elements. For a much more thorough discussion of its successes and failings, see this extensive and discursive discussion at The Comics Journal. One area in which the book undoubtedly does succeed is in its design, all Thompson's work, and which I want to show off here (mine is the UK Faber edition, though I believe it's pretty much identical to the US Pantheon edition). Click on any image for a much larger version.

Front endpapers
Chapter title page


A whole mess of internal page spreads

Back endpapers

 I also appreciate the fact that the ISBN, barcode and blurb is on a removable slip of paper, and so don't disfigure the back cover.

Thursday 3 November 2011

If She Could Just Meet the Man by the Fence...

Another case of an image proliferating across all the book covers in the world, much like the man by the fence. This time it's a photo by Lorraine Molina of a woman holding a birdcage (though sometimes her birdcage has been Photoshopped away). Thanks to the sharp-eyed emailer who drew my attention to several of these instances, inspired by my talking about John Crowley.

And this is the original photo...