Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cover Reveal: In a Suspect Universe

When I first saw the cover by Bradley Sharp for a book of mine about to be released (it was The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes), I was in the hospital recovering from back surgery performed by three specialist surgeons. The surgery happened after  months of inexplicable neck pains, frightful double vision, and signs of bizarre destructive activity in my spinal column. I was feeling better—the surgery was successful—but also realizing that the recovery would be long.

And then came a sudden gift from the cloud. It was my best moment there in the hospital.

I received, by email on my iPhone, the image of the cover for my upcoming book, which was my very first novel. 

I became sooooo happy!

I had been worried, not knowing what the cover would be like, and having recently seen several books (for a favorite author) with covers I felt were completely inappropriate (not by Brad). 

But Brad’s rendition brought me not only a surge of relief but an uplift of joy. I was thrilled with it--with its suggestive accuracy, its emotional appeal, its symbolic rendition of the protagonist’s longings. 

I showed it to every nurse and physician who came into my room.

I didn’t think a later reveal could match the euphoria felt on seeing the cover to my first novel for the first time (I wrote about it in an earlier blog entry), but when Bradley Sharp is the artist, a second experience is just as exciting. 

See the official cover reveal from Dog Star Books here.  I reprint the cover below, but both covers can be seen in the column to the right of this entry.    

I have only those two examples so far (I saw his other covers but I hadn't read the books), yet I can see in them characteristics that would make both writer and reader mighty grateful for what he can do. 

First, he obviously looks into the manuscript to get ideas. When a cover is commissioned, authors receive questionnaires sent by the publisher that ask for short paragraph descriptions of the protagonist, the antagonist, the setting, and recommendations for what the cover could show, which are then sent to the artist.  Busy artists might use this material exclusively and never look at the actual manuscript at all. But Brad puts ideas into his covers that obviously come from his own examination of the manuscript--he does his homework, and it shows. The first cover included specifics about the jungle setting, its layers of growth, the “underworld” of luminescent vegetation, none of which were included in the description I sent. And the second cover has details in the misty section (see the square-rigger?) that also were not part of my questionnaire and yet do appear in the book. 

Second, he can translate verbal ideas into visual images, making suggestions or even  symbols of more abstract concepts from the story.  In both novels, there’s a deep connection between the protagonist and the alien planets he visits. The spread arms of the figure in the first cover represents this idea perfectly, as does the contemplative stance of the person--the protagonist again--in the second cover. These images convey ideas unconsciously accepted by the viewer:  the first figure “loves” the landscape, and the second is wary but fascinated, sensing a connection between himself and what he’s looking at, which could be threatening.  And the way the whitish mist (with its mysterious objects) is aligned with the head of the person suggests that such a connection might be closer than he expects (which is a major plot point).

Third, the composition.  Both covers use an overall symmetry (with necessary exceptions to it), which provides a sense of stasis or order in the midst of peculiar alien phenomena. The visual balance is like a pause, a moment of poised observation of an object that causes wonder and fear—with a notion that the wonder transcends the fear.  (This kind of symmetry reminds me of the best of Stanley Kubrick, his use of balance in 2001, of course, but even The Shining, to confront obscure and frightening phenomena.)

And fourth, the detail.  I mentioned the minutiae of the jungle in the first cover but also, if you look closely, you can see a ring-shape lurking in the sky (this refers to Annulus, a habitat in space that’s a setting in the novel).  And in the second cover, the “illuminated forest” and its various colors are highlighted with a glowing mist in between the trees—depicting the shape of the boughs, but also suggestive of the strangeness of the growth.  And note how the objects in the white mist—tentacles, arches, undefined structures—are different from the more natural ones around it, the forest and the cliffs.  This contrast is  part of the story.  And the mound behind the mist, even taller than what I imagined in the novel, is appropriately overwhelming for the protagonist.  (And, yes, those oval objects are eyes.)

So, if the point of a cover artist is to convey, in one stark and immediate image, the overall mood and idea of the novel, then both these covers succeed very well. The accuracy of the feelings conveyed might not be noticed on a first viewing (the novel must be read for that), but it’s still conveyed, and it reaches the visual part of the mind if not yet the verbal. But that's exactly what it should do--hit the brain immediately with a memorable impression.

Hey, maybe I write these books just so I can see the cover Brad will produce for them. 

I thank him again. And I thank Dog Star Books for choosing him in the first place.

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