You are getting nerdy…

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”.

Someone was paid to draw this

Someone was paid to draw this

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.

Objects of Worship, by Claude Lalumiere.  ChiZine Publications.  Image by Erik Mohr

Objects of Worship, by Claude Lalumiere. ChiZine Publications. Image by Erik Mohr

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.


October 22, 2009 Posted by | Art, Books, Rant | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Don’t Ignore the Problem. Call it Out.

Okay, I’ve had a few drinks, I think I’m ready for this one.

Apparently, women are killing science fiction

That link has had a lot of circulation since the article was first posted more than a week ago.  I’m not going to put too much time into commenting on the misogyny that saturates the article, or the obvious delusions of the charmingly nicknamed writer.  Countless bloggers have done that already.  I am instead going to focus on an aspect of the popular reaction to the article, best expressed in John Scalzi’s response.

“I’m not going to link to it, as abject misogynist stupidity should not be rewarded with links. You can track it down on your own if you like.”

I am generally okay with this sentiment.  “Pro-male/Anti-feminist Tech” and the website he represents are surely hoping to gain some attention from this article, among others.  Why should we reward them?  This is a perfectly valid viewpoint.  I am also entirely in agreement with Mr. Scalzi’s “point and laugh” suggestion.  However, I have seen a few bloggers and commenters suggesting that we are making a mistake by posting any links to the article at all, and there I begin to see a problem.

My generation has been raised in an atmosphere where we are taught that those who act out are seeking attention, and that if we ignore them they will go away.  Being the son of a highly experienced behavioural specialist, I know that there is truth in this.  Many people, particularly children, individuals with developmental disabilities, and particularly stupid people who are still considered more valuable than those with developmental disabilities for some reason*, act out in overtly noticeable ways to gain attention.  In many of those cases, it is best not to reward that behaviour with the attention they seek.  And I can see how the writer of the above article might be ranked among children or particularly stupid people.  This, however, is not the whole of the issue.

Our society, in its current iteration, believes that it has progressed far beyond the prejudices of generations past.  In many ways we have.  We are a far more progressive society than that of our grandparents, or even of our parents.  It is a mistake, however, to think we have overcome all of our prejudices, and I have noticed that our modern culture has a tendency to rest on its laurels, indulging in self-congratulation for how much better it is than generations past.  It is far too easy to grow complacent, and assume that all opponents of equality have been vanquished.

Now, I’m not saying that The Spearhead, wonderfully named site that it is, is a significant threat to social progress on its own.  It’s just one site, populated by a fringe group of deluded wingnuts, after all.  It is, however, a symptom of a more serious problem.  There are people in this enlightened first world who believe the things this writer is saying.  Look at the comments section for the article.  People are agreeing with this.  It has been argued that some of those people have positions of power over the literary field being discussed.  Despite what we want to believe, the problem has not gone away.

So what good does it do to ignore it?  Why is that the better option?  Frankly, ignoring them won’t make them go away, and if we leave these sorts of people to their own devices, they’ll keep shouting until someone listens.  Eventually, they might even get some kind of movement.  It’s certainly not likely, but it’s not impossible.  Ignoring them accomplishes nothing.  We’re not really depriving them of attention, because they’re getting it anyway, from the people who agree with and encourage them.

On the other hand, drawing attention to intellectual failures like the article in The Spearhead raises awareness of a problem that isn’t buried as deeply as some people might think.  It’s important, in my opinion, to shine the cold light of day on people like this.  When they exist only on the very edge of our perception, they can appear much larger and more formidable than they really are.  When we pull back the curtain, we can show them for what they are: small, scared men, unwilling to let go of a past that never even existed.

Link to the article.  Link to it in as many places as you can.  The benefit you will give to the site is miniscule compared to the opportunity you’ll give to others to debunk its claims.  Or ridicule them.  Or simply to be aware that such opinions still exist and must be contended with.  Communities like The Spearhead can stew in ignorance all they like.  We don’t have to do the same.

*I have, in my life, known individuals with developmental disabilities who have been valuable contributing members of society, and wonderful people.  The same cannot be said for those who engage in the willful idiocy I refer to in the case of “particularly stupid people”.

October 22, 2009 Posted by | Books, Rant | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment