A Terrible Disease
Let’s take some time away from our ongoing examination of the lunatic fringe of literary culture to examine an affliction that has plagued genre fiction for decades. I am referring, of course, to Terrible Cover Design.
TCD can affect all kinds of books, from classic literature to university textbooks, but statistics have shown that the demographics most profoundly impacted by this condition are Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Countless works of genre fiction have suffered from symptoms that range from poorly executed medieval paintings, common to Fantasy, to terrible CGI, commonly suffered by Sci-Fi books, and the two manifestations common to all genres: failed photorealism and the ubiquitous tramp stamp in leather pants.
Today we are going to look at a recent example of all that is wrong with Fantasy cover art, provided by the latest forthcoming instalment of The Wheel of Time, “The Gathering Storm”.
This image, like all cover art for The Wheel of Time, was perpetrated by Darryl K. Sweet. Remember that name. It is the name that brings suffering to the eyes of Fantasy fans. He works exclusively for Tor, which tells me that either the decision makers at Tor know absolutely nothing about art, or that they simply do not give a fuck. I’m leaning toward the latter, because it’s Tor. They’re pretty much the biggest name in Fantasy publishing, and they know these books would sell if they put Brian Peppers on the cover in a metal bikini.
But we’re not here to examine the motivations of cynical publishing executives. We’re here to examine the many ways in which this latest example of Mr. Sweet’s work is godawful. But first, a disclaimer. I have never read the Wheel of Time books, in large part because I was put off by the terrible covers. As such, I will have to limit commentary on things like character design, as I am unfamiliar with the characters and the setting.
The very first things that jump out at me are the layout and colour scheme. The old artistic cliche of putting the title at the top of a generic medieval painting is deeply aggravating to me. From that image, I learn nothing about the book except that it probably contains a man and a woman, and that the man might only have one hand. Beyond that, the cover says “completely unremarkable medieval Fantasy. Move along.” The colours only make it worse. According to Sweet, no one in Robert Jordan’s Fantasy Universe knows how to colour coordinate their renn faire costumes. On the dashing, constipated gentleman, we see bright red, blue, brown, white and purple. Seriously, pick three and stick with them. And primaries pretty much never match. Anyone working in a visual medium ought to know that. Combining such terrible colours with the generic medieval painting cover layout leaves me with the strong impression that this picture was painted in 1974, rather than 2009.
The next most grievous flaw I can pick out is the people. The gentleman standing front and centre, apparently offering to fist the sky, is presumably the protagonist of the story, or at least one of them. That being the case, these books might actually be interesting, if only because I’ve never read a fantasy novel centred around a hideously deformed hero. The arms are the first problem I notice. I’ve been told that he’s supposed to be missing a hand, so I’ll ignore that. What I cannot ignore is the fact that his forearms apparently stopped developing when he was fourteen years old. His head, meanwhile, kept growing independently of his body until he was twenty-five. According to his facial expression, he is either trying to pass a kidney stone, or wearing a vibrating codpiece. I can’t tell.
As for his lady companion, I can’t help wondering how she hasn’t exploded out of that blouse yet. Frankly, it looks like someone tried to rip it open, but lacked the strength to overcome her girdle. Judging by her messy, straw-like hair and the possibly-eager expression on what I assume was intended to be her face, I can conclude that she was interrupted in the early stages of a vigorous sexual romp.
Actually, everything I’ve listed up to now makes a strange sort of sense if you put it all together. Maybe this cover isn’t the atrocity it appears to be. Maybe it’s a candid tableau, taken from the scene of a moving personal drama. Two medieval detectives, investigating a mysterious Victorian house with a hole in it, are overwhelmed by their desire for one another. Their passionate encounter is interrupted by the young man’s frustration as he realises his underdeveloped arms are unable to rip open her blouse in proper manly fashion. He raises a fist to the heavens, but chronic degeneration of his facial muscles makes it impossible for him to truly show his anger and misery. If only we could hear their conversation in this moment.
“It’s okay, I can just untie it! Your childlike forearms are very sexy. Really!”
“Why, God?! Why can’t I have the arms of a grown man?! Or make proper facial expressions?!”
Being totally honest here, that’s a book I would read.
It is possible that some of these qualms are settled by the content of the book. There could be a perfectly good reason for a medieval setting to contain a house that looks like it was built in the 1800s. I can only assume there’s a reason for said house to have a gaping black hole in place of a front door, even though the windows clearly demonstrate that there are lights on inside. Perhaps the hole is a portal to a dimension of pure darkness. Or maybe they hung a black curtain over it to keep the bugs out until the repair guy shows up. So maybe a few of my complaints are less valid than I purport.
That possibility does not excuse the basic issues of layout, colour and elementary human anatomy. Any professional artist should be well educated in those areas. Hell, I know professional artists and graphic designers who get queasy at the sight of Darryl K. Sweet covers. People who could outdraw him with broken fingers, but don’t make a quarter of what Sweet probably takes home for one of these covers. Why is a guy who would fail a high school art class responsible for the covers of one of the biggest Fantasy series’ of the last twenty years? It’s disheartening, to say the least.
To make me feel better, I will close with an example of cover art that doesn’t suck.
Solid grasp of both human and animal anatomy, inspired combination of negative space and minimal colour, contrasted against a strong splash of red positioned to draw the eye to the title. A simultaneous balance of beautiful symmetry and deep-level creepiness that is as attractive as it is repellant. This, my friends, is a cover.