We’ve all seen it – the dreaded fantasy cover that looks like…well…an explosion in a confetti shop with humanoid forms in the background. The story behind that cover can be anything – from hard-core military sci-fi to a fairy-tale. What that story does not include, however, are fireworks, half-naked ladies and buff barbarians. But the cover is still there.
The tacky and the funny. First chainmail bikinis and unnaturally buff guys graced paperback covers somewhere in the 50s, becoming more popular by the decade. Simultaneously, in the East, the situation was similar – popular sci-fi journals in the Eastern Block took inspiration from Italian and Soviet futurism and added a tacky note to it.
A lot of sci-fi and fantasy came from cheap journals that became a milieu for experimentation. On the one hand, new artists could test the limits of their creativity in all possible ways together with authors and editors. It was a open field, where everyone was welcome. Thus, we got some great names that have defined the way modern sci-fi looks like with aliens and spaceships – think Paul Lehr. On the others hand, in some cases that rising creativity had nothing to do with the source material, representing a thing of their own.
Among the craziest, most outlandish book covers that I own, my old Russian edition of the Witcher beats everything. I am not certain, what the artist smoked, when he created that, but I sure want to find out.
To be honest, old Russian fantasy covers can compete with old Polish fantasy covers when it comes to crazy illustrations and good translations. This is the Polish edition of the Reflections of Aeterna series by a Russian writer Vera Kamsha. (I like the Polish spelling more). The first three books of the series deliever a brilliant mixture of the Three Musketeers and The Song of Ice and Fire with a lot of politics and great characters. The rest of the series goes downhill. Judging by this cover, the descent begins earlier.
While my collection of bad covers is uniquely rich, it includes almost exclusively genre fiction pieces. I acquired a couple of abysmal designs of classical novels, but they were a rarity. Notably, genre fiction gets a lot of its bad reputation from those tacky covers. It is understandably difficult to explain someone that the book you are reading is a profound excavation of pain and sorrow, when all you see on the cover are fair maidens with boobs the size of balconies. Yep, they still can be very philosophical, even if there is pixie dust in the background. And they are riding a dragon. And there’s some guy with a sword. And a gun.
Many otherwise decent fantasy and sci-fi works suffer from strange covers. In some cases, it is almost impossible to point out where exactly the problem lies. For example, Dragonlance taps into this creative mess, but somehow manages to remain fairy-taleish enough not to rip your brains to shredsa the way old Russian Witcher covers do.
The problem with most of these covers is not the artistry itself (sometimes it is), but the clash between looks and context. The book may look like a middle-grade novel, while it delievers a story about genocide. One of the reasons I never judge books by their cover is my experiences with all these misguiding pieces of art that promised Crime and Punishment on the cover and delivered Cinderella. Or vice-versa.
The troubles with cues. It is standard nowadays to add all possible visual cues when designing book covers. When it’s Slavic fantasy, you’ll have domes. Think Grisha Trilogy, Wicked Saints, etc. For some reason, most Western designers believe that there is nothing inherently more Russian than an onion dome. Even if the said story does not have a single church in it. You’ll still get the dome. Everywhere. If you don’t get domes, you get an icy scenery. Because, apparently, there is no summer in Russia. Ever.
Great covers. Among the few examples of great covers, perhaps, my favourite editions would be German. They match the contents of the novels and manage to look impressive enough while not giving away too much of the plot. One of those is Wedora by Markus Heitz. The novel tells a twisted story of a flying city and its inhabitants with a touch of politics and adventure. While a lot of Heitz’s work is translated, this one is not. For now. It is one of the novels I bought because I could not ignore the design of its cover. It is abstract enough to be intriguing and appropriate enough to be the exact reflection of the book.
The same is true for Cixin Liu’s German translation of the Mirror. It’s one of the most elegant designs that I own. And it’s one of the few sci-fi novels that manages to stand out while not assaulting your eyes.
Perhaps, in genre fiction the only good cover is the one that does not distract you from the world of the story, the one that does not seem jarring. Unfortunately, we all rely on our visual perceptions when making decisions. However much we want to deny the power appearances have over us, we are always under their spell. We buy things because of looks and we find certain people attractive because of looks. More often than not book covers define our perception of fiction. And sometimes they nail it.