Judging A Book By Its Cover (Art)

The old axiom about not judging a book by its cover notwithstanding, I am going to judge the merits of various book covers that wrapped editions of heroic fiction. This is not a scholarly article, nor do I pretend that it is complete, lest someone accuse me of being reductionist. I just want to take a brief survey of the history and trends that have shown up on the covers of heroic fantasy books.

Much of what is classified as heroic fantasy, specifically, sword and sorcery, was born in the pulp magazines from the early 20th century. The covers of these magazines were often lurid and, in some cases, somewhat clumsily executed. One of the standout artists of this genre, however, was J. Allen St. John. St. John was notable for painting lush and colorful covers for the earliest appearances of the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Another notable artist of the time was Margaret Brundage. Brundage was unusual, not just because she was a woman working in a male dominated industry, but because her artwork, mostly done in pastels, had a beautiful sense of color, Her work seems to glow from the front covers. Given the early state of print technology that is a fair achievement.

Brundage is also notable for being the first artist to depict the works of Robert E. Howard. In this day and age when every fantasy artist depicts images derived either directly or indirectly from Howard’s work, it is easy to forget that at one point he was just another Weird Tales writer and not even one of the magazine’s most popular ones. Howard’s stories rarely were depicted on the covers, but when they were it was Margaret Brundage who brought them to life.

Today we have a different expectation from fantasy artists so it is easy to miss the significance of these early Brundage paintings. They were designed to fit the needs of the magazine, nothing more. They were designed to titillate, to tease the hard-earned, depression-era dimes out of the pockets of readers. They must be forgiven If they do not overwhelm us as subsequent artists from the later decades have done.

After the death of the pulps came the rise of the paperback. Quick and dirty publications, the luridness of the pulp covers easily made the transition to smaller format. In these early days there was not a lot of examples of heroic fiction being published. When Weird Tales folded many writers were faced with the challenge of transitioning away from the genres that put money in their pockets. It seemed that the fledgling genre of heroic fantasy might have died out as well if not for Gnome Press.

Founded in 1948 by Martin Greenberg and David A Kyle, Gnome Press managed to bring Robert E. Howard’s writing back from the obscurity in which the death of the pulps had left it. These new Howard editions needed cover art, naturally, but the results lift a little to be desired. The cover images, although finely executed by Ed “Emsh” Emshwiller, did not have any of the luridness of the old Weird Tales art, nor much of a visceral impact that would be developed by later artists.

Fast forward to the 1970’s. A struggling comic book artists had moved on to painting covers for science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. Frank Frazetta’s interpretation of Howard’s Conan visually redefined the genre and had an enormous impact on succeeding generations of artists. At this time there was an explosion of fantasy paperbacks and an explosion of fantastic cover art. Aside from Fran Frazetta, Howard and other heroic fantasy authors had editions with covers graced by artists such as Jeff Jones.

These mass market editions flooded the public consciousness, fixing forever in the minds of impressionable youths the “flavor” of heroic fantasy. When one thinks of Sword and Sorcery the first images that spring to mind are likely painted by Frank Frazetta. Frazetta’s work had a visceral impact. Many of his paintings seemed to roar to life in front of you, even when reproduced on a tiny paperback cover. Jeff Jones’ work matched that power but also had a lyrical beauty. Other artists like Ken Kelly and Michael Whelan burst on the scene and added to the symphony.

This publishing trend continued into the early 1980’s, then slowly began to fade away. Books still had fantastic cover paintings, but they began to become contained. No longer did the image dominate the covers but were reprinted in smaller and smaller boxes which were dominated by type. New publishing technologies allowed raised lettering and gold foil inks and these elements soon began to dominate the books covers.

Before long cover art began to disappear altogether from fantasy book covers. This trend is not endemic to fantasy books, but is a spillover from mainstream books. Cover art is not the dominant concern of book publishers any more. Minimalism is the watchword and beautiful cover art seems to have been pushed into irrelevancy.

To be certain there still are many wonderful artists producing artwork for many fantasy editions. One only has to visit a bookstore and stand before the fantasy section to see that this is true. For my money, however, something of the wild excitement of cover art in the 1970’s has been lost in today’s market conscious world. With more emphasis on market research the packaging has become more generalized. The artist no longer roams free over the cover, he is only a contained part of a carefully constructed whole.

Take for example a recent edition of George R. R. Martin’s GAME OF THRONES. Earlier editions sported cover art, but as the book crept further into bestseller territory, the cover art was reduced and eventually done away with almost completely. As fantasy books move their way into the public consciousness there is, it seems, a movement by publishers to neuter them of their power. The covers are watered down, excised of any elements that may offend delicate sensibilities or, indeed, any elements that smack of fantasy.

Before I am accused of being absolutist, I know that it isn’t all bad news. There are some wonderful books on the shelves that still sport traditional fantasy paintings. A recent sword and sorcery anthology, SWORDS AND DARK MAGIC sports a cover by Benjamin Carre (although only on the mass market edition. There is a limited edition of the anthology sporting a darker, more lurid and, in some ways, better cover). That seems to point up the problem in publishing. As editions become more widely distributed, the darkness, the wildness and in some cases the magic of the cover art becomes washed and diluted to suit the public taste.

Fortunately the internet has changed all that, as it seems to have done with everything. Fantasy art is on display everywhere online. It is almost as ubiquitous as porn and LOLcats. Computer technologies and programs like Photoshop and Painter have resulted in an explosion of fantasy art that shows up all over the web and very occasionally printed on the cover of a small press edition.

Heroic fiction is no longer the sales leader that it was in the publishing industry, but much of the imagery associated with the genre has moved on and mutated into role-playing games and into movies and television. Indeed, for fans of the genre this is a great time to be alive. With the advent of CGI fantastic images assault us from all sides. The fantastic explosion of our imagination made real has moved from the covers of the pulp magazines and paperbacks onto our theater, television and computer screens. Even a recent commercial for Coca Cola was redolent with heroic fantasy images.

Myself, I am old school. Not exactly a luddite, but I still prefer paper over ipad, printing over pixels. I still hold onto early editions of heroic fantasy paperbacks and they are some of my most treasured possessions. One cannot match the feeling of sitting down with an early ace edition of Howard of other heroic fantasy author, admiring the cover art that should produce an excited anticipation of what awaits me within, then plunging in and being transported elsewhere and elsewhen.

I’ve only made the briefest of overviews of this subject. There is much much more to talk about. If you think I’ve missed some salient fact or you think I’m just plain wrong about something or you just think I talk funny, don’t keep it to yourself. Use the comment box. That’s what it’s for.

Go ahead. Give me a piece of your mind.

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  1. Thanks, MD, for this appreciation of heroic fantasy cover art! It's all too true that the shift from illustrated covers (which I hugely prefer) to minimalist designs seems to be a ongoing trend. Of course, I can appreciate Chris Gerwel's point that there are those who think that cross-genre sales will gain by shedding the imagery that is too strongly associated with "fantasy genre." But I still lament the fact that *anyone* thinks that covers by Frazetta, Jones, Whelan, Kinuko Craft, Lockwood, Donato, etc are somehow not "appealing" to a wider audience. Even though I can honestly say that I rather like the design of the Game of Thrones cover, it only works for me as an ephemeral design. I wouldn't want to hang the original on my wall, would you? But Frazetta's canvases are valued in the millions. I think there is a reason why illustration art is now so collectible…because it reflects the artist's imagination of our modern myths, much like classical art imagined spiritual motifs of earlier times. When design gets too self-absorbed you end up with something like this: https://bookcoverarchive.com/sanda_zahirovic … which strikes me as tragic! Literature is bound to visual art, one way or another, and for my money I want more that paper dolls. Give me Omar Rayyan! Bob Eggleton! and the rest of the hard-working folks at Illuxcon.

  2. I think you raise an excellent point about the shift away from representational covers. If you look at other genres – particularly thrillers – almost all are iconic in their design. And if you look at YA, publishers' lead titles (The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Scorpio Races, etc.) also get that iconic treatment.

    I think this stems from a desire to capitalize on cross-over appeal: representational covers speak to the core genre audience, but they simultaneously tell non-genre readers (who alas have their prejudices and tastes) "this book is not for me."

    Iconic cover design sends a different message, one that admittedly tickles the core audience less (I love great cover art), but quite frankly we'll buy the books anyway. The net result, however, is to expand the readership beyond its core supporters. And more sales in our genre is never bad. 🙂

  3. Interesting point you note about the move away from dramatic or narrative covers, towards more graphic and understated designs. I noticed that about the covers of Robin Hobb's books: the original edition was done by John Howe (the UK one, the American edition had a different illustrator, Michael Whelan I think). For the new series about the Rain Wilds – and the re-edition of the set of trilogies – they've hired Jackie Morris. Both artists work in watercolours, with a lot of fine detail, and both have a medieval, or oriental-miniature feel about them. But whereas John Howe's images burst out of the seams with narrative detail – for each book he'd do not only one main (cover and back) illustration, but several vignettes to go in the corners and spine, AND the decorative border to hold it all together – Jackie Morri's illustrations consist of only one main image in the middle of the cover, the rest is textured background. So even though her work is in itself just as detailed as John's, it doesn't have the same narrative quality, and feels a lot more "minimalistic". Personally I like both versions equally well – John Howe's covers one can get lost in studying them up close, Jackie Morris's are easier to take in at one glance and look more striking on the shelf – but yeah, the move is definitely in line with that tendency you note! I suppose there will always be changing fashions in how a book is presented.

    Also, those fantasy artists I know who do commercial work, seem to do most of their work for the games industry these days – and Alan Lee and John Howe, who used to be prolific illustrators for fantasy covers, seem to have been busy doing concept art for some movies for the last few years, so it might simply be a question of availability. But yes, I think the more dramatic and exuberant and narratively detailed work has probably moved into those realms, and away from paperback covers.

    1. PS: I have not managed to break into commercial work as a cover illustrator myself *just yet* 😉 – but I did participate in a cover design contest held by Penguin a little while back, and it was an explicit part of the brief that the front cover "should read well as a thumbnail image on Amazon". That would also favour the bold, graphic approach over the narratively detailed one! I imagine that a decade ago, this might not have been so much of an requirement just yet.

  4. You’re right! The barrage of e-books has definitely changed how we “look” at books.

    I’m kind of a page-turner traditionalist too, and I’ve noticed a steep decline in art quality with the over saturation of self-publishing in today’s electronic market. It seems more and more writers rely on their own artwork or cover designs – not necessarily a good thing. I understand the desire to remain loyal to their work, but just because a person can write pretty words does not always mean they can make pretty pictures too.

    No matter how hard I try, I still occasionally find myself judging books by their cover.

    1. I often found there is a correlation with self-published works between the quality of the writing and the quality of the cover art. A good author who invests time and energy into his writing is also more likely to invest the money in hiring a good artist to do the cover.

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