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 | , , , , , ,


  1. Thank you for this Andrew — great stuff. I too would be interested in reading the story of the anti-Popeye.

    Comment by Mark | October 23, 2009 | Reply

  2. This made me laugh. And actually, as Sweet covers go it’s much better than many of the monstrosities, like the guy riding a horse so small that his feet would drag on the ground. Proportion is not something Sweet ever mastered.

    Although I agree the clothing is generic Renn faire fantasy, and the combs not great, I don’t agree that primary colors can’t go together. Red and blue, blue and yellow, yellow and red, all very find together and could be the fashion of a particular culture or era. But that doesn’t explain the woman’s drab skirt unless she’s just a wench and he the lord that uses her.

    I enjoyed this piece and the second cover is truly awesome.

    Comment by Colleen | October 23, 2009 | Reply

  3. Thanks for the kudos on Claude’s cover, Andrew. You gave Claude, Erik, and the rest of the staff at CZP a hearty laugh this morning. Much appreciated. 🙂


    Brett Savory
    Co-Publisher, ChiZine Publications (CZP)

    Comment by Brett Alexander Savory | October 23, 2009 | Reply

    • And you just made my day, Brett. Claude’s book is next on my to-read pile, and I’m very much looking forward to it!

      Comment by Zenbomb | October 23, 2009 | Reply

  4. You are sparing the field of Romance, where I once saw a cover that managed to suggest that the male protagonist was simultaneously mounted on a horse (sitting on it, I mean) and engaged in sexual congress with a woman standing on the ground. And yes, I agree completely that ray-tracing the human form is Not There Yet.

    Comment by F.J. Bergmann | October 24, 2009 | Reply

  5. Hey Andrew, I couldn’t agree with you more. I write SF and comics and formerly ran my own small press comics publishing house, and I always focussed a lot of attention on my covers. I frankly don’t understand how half the covers in the SF and fantasy field ever get past the art director.

    I’m admittedly biased, since I’m friends with both the author of the and the publishers of Objects of Worship, but yeah, Erik Mohr’s covers for ChiZine are indeed fantastic, state-of-the-art cover design.

    The Gathering Storm cover is a very good example of a very bad cover illustration, but to be fair, I think the most egregious inflicter of bad covers in our field is not Tor (who have, in general, vastly improved their cover designs lately) but Baen. This cover is a bit of anomaly, frankly looking much more Baen-like than Tor-like, down to the chintzy typography in the book title itself.

    I can top you with perhaps the worst-ever cover to grace an SF book in the last 25 years, an abomination foisted on an innocent collection of stories by Spider Robinson, stories that never hurt anyone or even took a sick day they didn’t deserve. Stories no one ever read because their eyes started to bleed as soon as they glanced at the book jacket:

    Where to begin? The atrocious and amateurish typography?
    The computer being burned at the stake because the medieval mob was terrified of the insanity-provoking wrongness of the perspective (Come on! It’s a rectangle! How hard is it to do proper perspective on a rectangle?) Also, given that this was a book published in 1998 by a SCIENCE FICTION publisher, why are we looking at fridge-sized tape drive which would have gone obsolete decades earlier?

    Oh wait. There’s a medieval motif going on, so the computer should be medieval too, right?

    I could go on, and on, and on, but you get the drift.

    Thanks for listening!

    Comment by Mark | October 26, 2009 | Reply

  6. It’s not hard to recognise Mr Sweet’s artwork.

    His cover for Sir Terry’s “Witches Abroad” is almost classic: the only part he didn’t get wrong was the pumpkins. Clearly he was trying to emulate Josh Kirby’s manic UK cover art but without having even the minimal grasp of Sir Pterry’s characters that Josh had.

    I don’t know what to say about his (mis)use of perspective, an eye-watering example being his cover for the first Floyt/Fitzhugh book. The artists who did the jewel-like book illuminations in the 13th and 14th centuries frankly ignored perspective in favor of pattern and space-filling, as have others before and since. I’d like to be charitable and believe Mr Sweet was similarly motivated if not similarly skillful; that he *could* use proper perspective if he wanted to, but is choosing not to for compositional reasons. But if that’s the case, he would do well to be less subtle about it: in most of his work, it only looks as though he assembled pieces painted separately.

    Yet he gets a lot of commissions. Perhaps his fees are low.

    Comment by Margaret | May 9, 2010 | Reply

  7. I certainly do not want to celebrate the passing of Mr. Sweet but I must be frank here and state that he was, without exception, the most godawful cover artist I have ever, and I mean EVER, seen. I burned out on Jordan at book three but remember looking for a quiet corner in a coffee shop to read his books because I was so worried someone would see the cover and cast an immediate and damning judgement of me. There are so many things wrong with Darryls’ artwork I don’t know where to start but let’s address the color schemes first. To say his covers are garishly colored seems an understatement but suffice it to say that Mr. Sweet must have become enamored with his palate of about 5 colors and just ran with it. It is cringe inducing and lacking any nuance whatsoever. As far as the layout of the covers and character depictions he seems to have been inspired by the cover “art” of the romance bodice buster book industry with the notable difference that Mr. sweet seems to have a propensity to draw all of his characters as if they are severely developmentally disabled which, were his books about such individuals, would be perfectly acceptable but, ostensibly, they are not. His character renderings look as if they all have various significant deformities whether it be grossly shortened limbs, bulbous grotesque skulls, individuals with eyes of noticably different sizes, and a general countenance of inbred liabilities. Anyone possesing even a modicum of artistic sensibility will cringe upon viewing such monstrosities. R.I.P. Mr. Sweet. I can only hope the afterlife contains a art teacher who will kindly but emphatically steers your passions in another direction.

    Comment by Peter Solberg | July 26, 2012 | Reply

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