Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Books: Covers We Like by Joe Kuth

This guest post is brought to us by my good friend Gigantic Joe Kuth. I first got to know Joe via a post he made on the old Comics Journal message board. He was putting together his excellent book Emberley Galaxy: A Tribute to Ed Emberley. He was offering beautiful little promo postcards to anyone who wanted one. I emailed him asking for a postcard and somehow he tracked down my art online and invited me to be a part of the project. I was able to design the endpapers for the book (a galaxy made up of Emberley's trademark fingerprints, triangles, circles and other ships) and to contribute my own Emberley-inspired drawing King Circle. So Joe was actually the very first person to publish my art in a real book, something which I have never forgotten. We became friends after that and share quite a few similar passions, from old Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback book cover art through Krautrock and Roger Dean. Joe is a good guy, a gifted artist, and a great friend. Here is his contribution to "Books: Covers We Like."

Reading is a visual experience for me, so my interests in art and books have always been thoroughly intertwined. The artists I tend to admire the most are picture book artists, cartoonists, comic book artists, book designers, pulp magazine illustrators, and so on. Many of my favorite writers were also visual artists, like Mervyn Peake, William Steig, Russell Hoban, Tove Jansson, and Clark Ashton Smith. There are plenty of exceptions to these generalizations, but a definite pattern has gradually emerged.

So of course book covers have always been important to me, enough so that it has now led me to actively study graphic design with my aims particularly set on designing books (and records). I wasn't surprised when Matt asked me to discuss some of my favorite covers for this feature; Matt and I often get carried away talking about book covers and artists whenever we meet up, and compiling this list felt like a natural extension of some of our conversations. I did decide to make it easier on myself by restricting my picks to books that I like a lot in editions that I own, and unlike Matt's wider-ranging choices, with one exception I shied away from categories that could easily have overtaken my list (comics, kid's books). They aren't in any kind of order because I really can't rank them.

A couple of these covers I now know would not survive the scrutiny of graphic design experts unscathed, particularly in the type department. But my passion for covers was first stoked by viewing them from an illustrator's perspective (which I do maintain), and these picks certainly tend to lean in that direction.

They do also lean heavily in the direction of fantasy and science fiction, but these are generally where I find the bizarre and colorful covers that catch my eye, although I like other categories of books equally. I enjoy plenty of old crime and mystery novels, but the editions I have are usually cheap, unattractive reprints from more recent decades, so I couldn't turn up a even a single title that survived my cuts.

Well anyhow, on to those covers:

--Odd John by Olaf Stapledon, cover by Richard Powers


Richard Powers is one of the essential artists of sf/fantasy/horror, and his unmistakeable covers are ubiquitous in paperbacks from the 1950s-70s. Nearly all of them are memorable, so it's hard to pick just one favorite, but this cover for Olaf Stapledon's great early SF novel of super-intelligence is one I've always liked staring at. I love those great shapes, the stippled white lines, and the overloaded brush strokes in the background. Powers served as the unofficial art director for Ballantine Books for a while so could do as he pleased, which usually meant designing the entire layout of his books, and often even hand-lettering the titles (which I assume is the case here).

--Peace by Gene Wolfe, cover by Gahan Wilson


Gahan Wilson on Gene Wolfe is not a pairing I would expect. Wilson's work is fantastic but extremely cartoonish, which would seem inappropriate for Wolfe's uncompromisingly subtle books. But this low key cover with packed-in ghosts and goblins outlining the title works perfectly, and the visual closure happening here compliments the circumscribed storytelling of Peace, one of Wolfe's best and strangest books. The current edition of Peace actually uses the same design, just updated slightly, and I really think most reprints would look much better if publishers would simply do that instead of using Photoshop to slap mirror shades on a dog or something.

--The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, cover by Jack Gaughan


Jack Gaughan is another cover artist whose work is (fortunately!) inescapable when you go digging through old genre paperbacks, so I could pick any number of his books, but this scorched pink cover for Alan Garner's classic YA fantasy is irresistible to me. Gaughan's art usually has that enviable look of effortlessness, those looming figures (the Mara, if I remember right) look like they were executed with just a few supremely confident brush strokes.

--Henry's Special Delivery by M.C. Delaney, cover by Lisa McCue


There's a two-man cult for this book that consists only of myself and my twin brother. We were lucky enough as kids to stumble upon this otherwise now-forgotten but hilarious young adult novel. Henry sends for a mail-order panda through a magazine ad, intending to impress a panda-crazy girl from his class. But he and Homer, the (talking) panda, become fast friends and get into a heap of trouble trying to cross town to visit Henry's crush, downing scooter pies all the while. This is a book I like to keep propped up in my room, because the cover makes me laugh almost every time I see it, and the interior illustrations are really funny too.

--Blood Sport by Robert F. Jones, cover by Roger Hane


Blood Sport is a strange book: a lurid, macho, American magical-realist hunting tale set along a transcontinental river, and Roger Hane's painted cover is appropriately weird. What pushes this one over the edge for me are the unnamed father and son wielding their tools of survival down front (the father casts a poisoned fishing fly), and especially the savage SOB Ratnose cooling out among the waterfalls (because he's a part of the wilderness).

--The Boats of the Glen Carrig by William Hope Hodgson, cover by Robert LoGrippo


Before researching him for this list, I don't think I'd seen Robert LoGrippo's work outside of the paintings he did for Ballantine's Adult Fantasy paperbacks of William Hope Hodgson and Arthur Machen books. But those few distinctive covers are all among my favorites from that lavish line of fantasy classics. This wraparound cover for Hodgson's sea-faring horror tale The Boats of the Glen Carrig is great, like a pulp spin on Bosch, and the cracked-varnish look gives it a fitting aura of decay (the story is presented as a long-lost manuscript in tortured faux-medieval prose).

--City by Clifford D. Simak, cover by Davis Meltzer


This nearly psychedelic image caught my eye in a reference book long before I ever read Simak's classic centuries-spanning collection of an Earth taken over by intelligent dogs (and eventually, ants). I don't know what to say about this one, except that it has me under a spell such that I have to pull my copy off the shelf all the time for further scrutiny.

--We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, cover by W. Teason


This is one of my favorite books, and there have been several editions with great, creepy covers (like the first edition, and the recent one by T. Ott), but I've always found this image particularly memorable. It's more lurid than the book itself, which achieves its potent black magic by constantly skirting along the supernatural without ever quite crossing over. But I like that Teason's cover gives just a kiss of surrealism to the story that wouldn't sit well within the book, but fits perfectly on a cheap paperback you can slip in your back pocket.

--A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, cover by Ilonka Karasz


There was a line of classics by Time-Life Books in the 60s that all have painted wraparound covers, most of which are really exotic and beautiful, and some of them surprisingly weird. I'm always looking out for these, so it's fortunate that they're so distinctive you can spot them from across a room (although some of the covers are printed on a sadly brittle, waxy material). Despite being a rambunctious book about a group of kids left in the care of pirates, A High Wind In Jamaica has one of the quieter covers, but I've always found the shapes, colors, and motion of this landscape very appealing. Ilonka Karasz also illustrated dozens of beautiful covers for the New Yorker over several decades.

The New Yorker covers by Karasz are here and there are many more Time-Life Books covers in this Flickr set.

--Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman, cover by unknown


Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John is a wandering hillbilly troubadour who encounters ghosts and other horrible things in the North Carolina mountains, sort of like Bound For Glory but with ancient evils awakening at every rest stop. This folk-art looking cover for the first Silver John collection really captures the rustic but sinister tall-tale character of the stories. I couldn't find the artist behind this one, although it does have that great bleeding-ink look that Bob Pepper uses sometimes, so that's a tentative guess (although I could, like Matt, just be overeager to believe that every awesome book cover is by Pepper!). The first edition hardcover from Arkham House has a killer cover too, by Lee Brown Coye.

If you would like to contribute a "Covers We Like" post, I would be honored. Send me an email and we'll sort it out.

10 comments:

  1. These are some really great and interesting choices. I really like the Odd John cover. I love how the image is both flat and textured at the same time, and the delicacy of the white stippling is lovely, especially against the blocky shapes and bright colors. I also really like the simplicity of the Karasz cover you chose. Both of those covers make me want to read the books, even if I have no clue as to what they might really be about. I thought your analysis of the cover for We Have Always Lived in the Castle interesting--at first I wasn't sure I liked the cover, and I personally own the edition with the T. Ott illustration which I think does a really great job of capturing the unsettling otherness of the characters in the book. But you make a great case for the Teason cover. Excellent post!

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  2. This post was a great pleasure to read and an honor to share. I've loved just about everything I've ever seen from Richard Powers so that seemed like a natural, and even though you didn't rank them it was great to lead with that one.

    I've always felt that Wilson's cover for "Peace" was brilliant and criminally underrated. Sadly, my only reading of the book took place when I was far too young to really understand it. I'm anxious to re-explore the book, and Wolfe has yet to let me down.

    Funnily enough, just yesterday Ione and I were in Dark Star Books in Yellow Springs looking at two other covers to "Weirdstone." One was acceptable yet dull, while the other had an awful painting of what looked like Darth Vader on the cover. Ugh.

    I really REALLY love the "Glen Carrig" cover and, really, every cover I've ever seen from LoGrippo. What ever happened to that guy?

    Finally, like you, I'm not sure if that Wellman cover is Pepper. There are similarities in style, but the figures seem too flat for him. Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if it was him experimenting with a more non-representational style.

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  3. Also, to Ione, Ott is a pretty phenomenal scratchboard artist. Fantagraphics has issued a few collections of his work, most of which are short comics. His style is perfectly suited to that kind of eerie, subtle horror so I agree he's a great fit for Jackson.

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  4. That Teason image from the Jackson novel has also been used on the posters, etc. for Mario Bava's film "Shock". Strange how a piece of commercial art can travel like that.

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  5. Ione: Glad that I could sell you on the Shirley Jackson cover!

    Matt: I've seen that Weirdstone cover with the Darth Vader looking dude, I hope that helped them move a couple of books at least, but it sure makes no sense, I have no idea what character that's even supposed to be.

    LoGrippo is still painting, but it looks like he has toned down the evil quite a bit:
    http://www.theartistindex.com/boblogrippo/portfolio.htm

    Thanks for mentioning the Bava poster Jeffrey, that is pretty interesting:
    http://www.benevolentstreet.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/shock.jpg

    I like Bava a lot but I haven't seen that particular film or the poster before.

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  6. Thanks for that Jeffrey, I had no idea but a quick Google image search showed the poster in all its glory. All in all, I prefer to see art and illustration travel like that then to end up on something as ridiculous as mouse pads and coffee mugs, so Teason got treated pretty well, thank God.

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  7. Also, I have not seen "Shock" but it looks worth the time. So thanks for that as well.

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  8. Joe, I'm glad I'm not the only one confused by that Vader cover. I read "Weirdstone" many years ago but I also didn't recall anyone looking anything at all like that armored helmet.

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  9. That Jackson novel is also one of my favorites, but I'd never seen it with that cover before; I was only familiar with it from the Bava film; it's much more suited to the book than the film.

    Teason was amazing... all those beautifully refined still lifes for the Agatha Christie books, etc. Wish there was an authoritative collection of his work.

    As for Bava: Shock may be one of his worst films, in my opinion. I suggest Black Sunday (quintessential B&W gothic), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (a good companion to Repulsion or even some of Lynch's more recent work), Planet of the Vampires (much better than its unofficial, shameless "remake" called Alien), and Kill Baby Kill.

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  10. Thanks Jeffrey, I know (embarrassingly) next to nothing about film so this "Planet of the Vampires" mention has me fascinated. Even based on the moronically simplistic Amazon write-up, it seems like the blueprint for "Alien." Astounding, and disappointing. Where is Bava's "Prometheus"-sized budget? All of the good ones get screwed, it seems.

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