I do. I admit it. Let’s face reality, even the most avid reader can’t read all the books, or even their covers. So if you aren’t familiar with an author or series, and don’t have anyone advising you then what do you go by?
Personally, I still enjoy real paper books. I know e books are becoming more popular, but I dislike the notion of the books all vanishing if the device failed. You can’t even back them up, or if you can it doesn’t do you any good if it’s in a one brand format. I like even less the idea that they aren’t transferable to different devices i.e. a Nookbook to Kindle to laptop etc. I grant you, if you could do those things they’d be great and much more portable. But I can’t help but note, online at least, they still have a cover shown.
The most obvious lure I ever got from a book cover was the image of a murdered teddy bear. Yes, a teddy bear, stabbed in the back. I had no time to browse in the late, lamented book store, Borders, and had gone in for one thing only. I was hurrying out when I saw the book cover and froze, mid stride. What the….? I rarely looked in the mystery aisle, being more a sci fi and fantasy fan. But I had to. It turned out to be a robot, but treachery and murder were involved. I ended up with the whole series, all because I was grabbed by that cover. Obviously it helped that it was showing the cover and not just crammed into the bookshelf with only the spine showing. Sadly they’ve since switched to more photographic versions even for this series. I guarantee it wouldn’t have grabbed me the way that illustration did.
I often find myself studying cover illustrations for my favorite books and even the different versions of newer covers. You can sometimes see the changes in the companies preferences right on the front. Pure illustration gives way to photos and adds into digital combinations of the two. Impressive. How do they do that? More importantly, how does one find time to learn that? Once upon a time you just had to learn art skills. Now with digital art so common one not only has to learn the time consuming art skills, one has to keep learning all the changes between programs and the software updates and changes to computers. And money. I wrestle with how to afford the art supplies I already use, never mind the ones I want to learn. And that’s not counting keeping up on the computer which is nearly is demanding on upkeep as a car.
As an artist, I already knew I could learn a lot from book covers. I used to trace and try and copy those old horse book covers like art students did the old masters. At least I got the horses down. Now though if it isn’t a photo cover it’s much, much more.
I stare at the Star Wars books like the Jedi Apprentice series and wonder at Cliff Nielson’s designs mixing models with background art and textures. The cool art of Drew Struzan that first had me salivating at the “Heir to the Empire” heralding the return of Star Wars books and fascinated by the coloring. There are so many artists rotating through the Star Wars books I admire I can’t keep track. The Dinotopia books have me awestruck at their imagination and use of color and light. So much so that I just bought Gurney’s Color and Light, a Guide for the Realist Painter.
I still love the illustrations and wonder why in the world so many people are abandoning it for straight photography. Sure you can Photoshop them in and all but still. There is a creative imagination to illustrated covers I rarely see in the straight photo covers. The same holds true for posters: I have the Star Wars poster book and it’s astounding to see the difference. Some early posters for the original trilogy are unrecognizable as being related to the movie. On the other end the prequels are pretty homogenous. I think that’s sad. I can understand the desire for consistency but the differences in style on those early ones were fascinating.
That’s the advantage of science fiction and fantasy in regard to cover art: they can’t go all photo unless they are made into a movie, TV or a video game. You have to make them up because they aren’t real. You can look at animals and bring them together to make a dragon or an alien. But you can’t just take a photo of a real fire breathing dragon. But while a professional photographer might get some emotion from a scene, I can’t help believe it’s being over used. Part of the joy of books is imagining the characters and scenes in your own mind. When you see a ‘photo cover’ you already have a template in your head before you read a word.
This may seem contrary to my love for, say, Star Wars books. After all, I know what the characters looked like. But then again, knowing what they looked like in the movies isn’t quite the same thing. One has to imagine the whole aging process of Luke, Leia and Han, or how Anakin looked between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. One has to imagine ships and worlds one has never seen. In fact, in the newer Star Wars one is influencing the other. The name ‘Coruscant’ for the city planet came from the books. And some of the latest ‘Clone Wars’ episodes were originally from the Dark Horse comics series. Yes…they were illustrated first. And going backward the whole saga might have been still born were it not for Ralph McQuarrie’s convincing illustrations.
Images Left to Right: Heir to the Empire cover by Drew Struzan – the same artist who did so many movie covers. Jedi Trial cover by Steven D. Anderson – note the creative license with Anakin: though set before he became a full Knight he doesn’t have the short padawan haircut of episode 2, and Ventress bears only superficial resemblance to TV or comic versions. Vector Prime cover by Cliff Nielson – it’s not pretty but Luke is aged and that bizarre alien give a hint of ugly things ahead.
So if a juggernaut like Star Wars needed the art to take off, what gives? Where is the illustration, the artwork or even the photography combined with artwork in modern book covers, posters and the like? I don’t know, but I miss it. Some of it was cheesy. But now I can go online and find modern illustrations that are downright spectacular. Yet they don’t end up on book covers or movie posters. Those just get photos. Some are great, don’t get me wrong. But there is just something missing. Maybe it’s just the sense that if the illustration is that creative, the story must be too.