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The Lost Plot

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Raiders of the Lost Art

It was always a dream of mine that once my book was published, and the film deal secured, Drew Struzan and Ralph McQuarrie would step into Bespin’s carbon-freezing chamber and battle for the right to produce the artwork.

Star Wars by Drew Struzan

Admittedly, this is looking increasingly unlikely, given that Mr McQuarrie has departed into the great matte painting in the sky and Mr Struzan has retired.

Also Bespin doesn’t exist.

But the fact that I can immediately picture such a scene, with these two legends entangled in epic battle amid the hissing blue and pink vents, lightsaber-sized pencils in hand, shows you what an impact these artists have had on me.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomMovie concept and poster art can be a thing of beauty. This is especially so in fantasy and science fiction films, where reality is cast into the fires of Mount Doom in favour of the improbable and impossible.

Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Harry Potter, E.T., Lord of the Rings—all have presented us with some truly astounding and exciting art.

For me, book covers are just as important. Perhaps even more so.

Once again, fantasy and science fiction is where this art truly shines, where a single image can capture an entire world, or alien universe, or an emotional beat in an alternate time. These works speak to the basest of our desires, the very same that squeeze our insides whenever we cast our eyes upon a delicious sunset, or stars over an ocean, or distant snow-capped mountains.

Of course, these genres are also infamous for their dragons, glowing magic and near-naked heroes with huge swords (check out Orbit’s 2008 Chart of Fantasy Art), but even these covers can still adhere to the idea of ‘art’. There is some degree of imagination and artistry at work, even if it is entertainingly skewed towards the cliché.

X-men: First ClassYet there is a new trend in town, where art is erased in favour of graphic design.

Recent films such as John Carter, X-Men: First Class, and even The Dark Knight Rises, to name a few, have disappointed with some fairly ordinary visual marketing for such expensive cinematic entertainment. Jarring portraits are manipulated and slapped onto all manner of backgrounds for various merchandise, with seemingly little thought for aesthetics or context.

And with ensemble pieces especially, character posters are now the norm. Clearly studios are pushing their marketing teams to do more with less—and as a result there is precious little artistry to be found (for a laugh, or a cry, see here for Empire’s Top 50 Badly Shopped Movie Posters).

It would be easy to blame Hollywood. They seem to be in a particularly noteworthy phase of churning out rehashed movies. We can hardly be surprised that they care so little for the art that sells it.

Yet the same trend can also be seen in publishing.

The rise of the self-publisher has played its part. It’s never been ‘easier’ to get your written work into print (note: writing a book is still hard!), and due to impatience, and/or cost cutting (given that the author is paying), the cover art might be sacrificed in order to finally ‘be published’.

Of course, there is a wealth of cover templates out there you can pick and choose from yourself. But that’s like working up an appetite, only to eschew a three course meal in favour of your local fast-food joint:

‘Would you like a free sunset with your stock-standard, half-naked main character?’

‘Yes, please. With moody vampire sprinkles, if possible!’

King of Thorns (cover)I know what you’re thinking. We’re going digital. If it’s going to be an ebook, why even bother worrying about the cover? And who cares what the movie poster is like, so long as the movie itself is good. It’s only the content that counts, right?

Well, yes and no. A definite no in fantasy’s case.

Fantasy is a thing of beauty, and so it should be, both inside and out. If the content is King, the art that seduces you should be his Queen, in all her breathtaking glory. It shouldn’t be the buxom serving wench with rotting teeth you can pick up almost anywhere.

Fantasy, by its very nature, is epic and sweeping. Consequently, it has certain responsibilities to paint suitably epic and sweeping pictures for the audience. This is especially important given that these stories usually deal with strange new worlds—it provides a visual touchstone going in.

Until recently, I’ve seen fantasy as the last bastion of artistry in entertainment. Yet even now cracks are appearing in its mighty walls.

Ironically, we may have to apportion some of the blame to the aforementioned Mr Struzan. After all, his work certainly makes full use of the (now) clichéd heroic floating heads and characters looking over their shoulders, interspersed with scenes of action, adventure and romance.

The difference is that he has talent. Whereas many of the rest of us do not. So to save time, effort, and cost, we try to fake his seemingly effortless style with much cutting, pasting and general manipulation of stock photographs through Photoshop.

Twilight (cover)The term Photoshopped has developed quite the negative connotation over the years. But this is unfair. Photoshop is, after all, a design aid. How it is used depends on the user, and for as many people out there with my graphic abilities (nil), there are just as many artists who wield the software like Excalibur itself.

It should also be noted that, for certain genres, those stock-standard covers do their job well and without fuss—such as the shadowy figure set against all manner of urban backdrops (thanks, Da Vinci Code), or the single item metaphor for the writing to follow (thanks Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey).

And, yes, of course, the content is obviously where the work will live and die, regardless of pretty pictures. But still, we’re visual creatures.

George Lucas sold Star Wars to 20th Century Fox on the basis of a few concept paintings by Mr McQuarrie. Can you imagine what history would have been like had he simply slapped some stock photos together, as many do these days?

Fortunately, fantasy and science fiction artistry continues to have its champions.

Some self-published authors are, like me, fans of ‘real cover art’ and have spent hard-earned money on commissions from great artists. And recent movie posters like Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful, or Mondo’s fantastic vision for John Carter (among others), gives us hope there could be a return to form in Hollywood too.

Oz the Great and Powerful (poster)There are also the traditional publishers who still recognise the merit in using talented artists like Stephan Martinière and Greg Bridges for their fantasy book covers. While the advent of astonishingly beautiful, almost photorealistic, video games is also testament to the continued appreciation of such artistry and its growth in the digital age.

So hope is not lost. Not yet at least.

The art of fantasy and science fiction provides a window into the world beyond ours. But like any inter-dimensional portal, we need to remember to protect and cherish it. Not only that, but cherish too the artists that create the magic, as well as the writers, publishers and studios that continue to take pride in framing their work in such spectacular fashion.

Because this art all at once entertains, delights and excites. And ultimately inspires us to journey into those impossible worlds.

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  1. Shack says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with you.

    Movie posters and book covers share the same goal – to get you to buy the product. Once you are in your seat or reading the book, it is then down to the content to do its job successfully. The example of the X-Men First Class poster is a bold design, using a strong graphic image instead of the actors to sell the movie. The Dark Knight Rises posters were portraits but masterly done – confident in their use of the main characters to build anticipation for one of the most anticipated movies of the year. And who can forget the teaser poster of a crumbling Gotham forming the Bat logo? I’d argue that the Sam Raimi Oz poster, while beautiful, harks back to an older age of Hollywood and, as such, the movie will probably struggle to find an audience seeking something contemporary.

    Mondo do great movie posters but I doubt they would sell many tickets – otherwise we’d be seeing them used on a much wider scale

    Fantasy book covers follow certain rules for a reason – they work. People recognize familiar elements and react positively to them. Hooded men don’t appear on covers out of sheer laziness.

    Very talented people work very hard to produce these posters and covers. Sure there are bad examples of photoshop work but probably a far greater number of great successes.

    Its easy to look at the work of Drew Struzan and Ralph McQuarrie or even further back to Saul Bass and think they are works of great beauty (and they are) but one needs to shake off the warm glow of nostalgia and accept that they probably wouldn’t work for modern audiences today.

  2. VictoriaH says:

    I know what you mean by ‘real cover art’ but I don’t think I’d call it that! I reckon that more illustrative style works well for some things, but not for others. And I think there’s some really good stuff going on with SF/F covers at the moment. I’ve been noticing some really interesting and different cover art around lately. The cover of ‘Sharps’ springs to mind because I’m reading it at the moment. It’s unusual because it shows the person on the front from the waist down only, with the focus on the sword and the title. Works really well.

    Benedict Jacka’s ‘Cursed’ caught my attention recently (the one where fantasy imagery is kinda woven around the letters), and ‘Jack Glass’ by Adam Roberts makes me stop every time I see it in a book shop. There are some really eye-catching YA fantasy book covers around at the moment too.

    And pretty much everything that comes out of Angry Robot has an amazing cover.

    I’m looking at it from a British perspective though. There’s often quite an extreme difference between US and UK covers. I bet you could do some interesting comparisons. What are covers like in Australia?

    Interesting and thought-provoking article! 🙂

  3. DanH says:

    Two awesome responses.

    Shack – I actually agree with some of what you’re saying, and perhaps I didn’t articulate my argument as clearly as I could have. Those film examples had some interesting and well put together posters. But they also had some shockers. The X Men posters I was referring to were some of the early actor-centric ones (ie http://www.cinemablend.com/new/New-X-Men-First-Class-Poster-Pushes-The-Limits-Of-7th-Grade-Photoshop-Skills-24262.html or worse: http://stalepopcornau.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/when-bad-posters-strike-x-men-first.html).

    Most of the Dark Knight Rises posters were great (especially Bane breaking the mask), but there were some dodgy Photoshop issues in one or two that should never have been. And the whole John Carter advertising campaign was terrible work by Disney. I definitely think the Mondo poster would’ve sold a lot more tickets (although the film itself was pretty bad, so maybe it was for the best).

    It sounds like you come from an advertising background (so my wife would probably take your side on this), but I don’t think the posters and book covers are necessarily just about getting you to buy the product. Or, at least, they shouldn’t just be about that end goal.

    For me, if the artwork is less about artistic merit and more about hitting the target market then surely it just becomes a business, instead of art? And while I admit it must be a business in order for it to work, I also believe it must continue to adhere to art as much as possible for there to be a point.

    I guess I just see a decline in the artistic side of things these days. In that I’ll disagree with you that people react positively to familiar elements in this situation. Because, more often than not with fantasy, familiar risks being cliche and doesn’t represent or complement what might be fresh and exciting content. I actually think you do modern audiences a disservice by suggesting that the old school style wouldn’t work today.

    Or that could just be me being old and nostalgic. I certainly don’t deny that’s possible. ;o)

    Victoria – Thanks! And yeah, I saw the ‘Jack Glass’ cover a week or so ago and absolutely love it. Breathtaking design. I haven’t actually thought of location having an impact on cover design with books, that’s a fascinating idea. I suppose it must? Perhaps one for a future article… although I promise to bone up on my terminology so I avoid throwing in an admittedly lazy ‘real cover art’!

    • shack says:

      I just did a great interview with Larry Rostant which should be appearing on FF soon. In my opinion, he creates the best covers in fantasy today (including Sharps) and he was very clear about what his role was – to sell books.He actually cited the Batman and Twilight posters as an influence in his work.

      It is a business, a creative one, but a business all the same and that must never be forgotten. If you pursue the artistic too much, you are in danger of becoming niche. (Not to be confused with quality). The Avengers was incredibly commercial and made x billion dollars. 2 Days In Paris was artistic and made $50. There is a place for both but one should not knock one for the other.

      I love the limited edition film posters by Olly Moss (and collect them) but they would never sell the amount of tickets that a standard Hollywood poster would. (Compare his poster for Source Code to the one that went out to mainstream cinemas – far better creatively but it would not work on audiences in Middle America.) The business needs outweigh the artistic choice. And quite rightly. If you don’t sell tickets or sell books, you don’t have a living and you don’t get to make the next one.

      • Dan H says:

        Oh I’d never knock a great commercial product, I love them! I’m just an advocate for not losing touch with style and balls-to-the-wall artistry in the pursuit of those market-tested demographics.

        I’d be interested to know at which point it was decided (or realised) that an Olly Moss wouldn’t work for Middle America. I’m not saying you’re wrong (though it would certainly be a shame), but I’d certainly love to see the data and reasoning behind it.

        All the examples I used in the article blazed the trail for the modern blockbuster and were the very definition of success. So in response to your argument about business needs outweighing the artistic, I’d have to ask: why did we start moving away from that successful style of film poster or novel cover to cater for modern audiences? Is it an evolution of style? Or of audience tastes? Or is it simply that digital software allowed more people to get involved – at which point it became quicker/cheaper to design posters/covers and market the product, with successful covers breeding design templates, and the end result that we see far more stock-standard art than we used to?

        Have to say, I’m going for the latter. But if I’m wrong let me know. ;o)

        BTW Larry Rostant’s style is fantastic and perfect for fantasy book covers, I’m not arguing with you there. I don’t consider anything of his that I’ve seen ‘stock-standard’. Very much looking forward to that interview.

  4. AE Marling says:

    I would like to put in another good word for Photoshop artists. The illustrator for my first book paints exclusively with pixels, to breathtaking results. And I do believe it is the providence of both fantasy and space opera to bring images of beauty and wonder into this world, both through illustrations and through words.

    I’ve heard someone say that fantasy covers drawn in a more realistic style work best as a way to bridge the unreal with the real. The paradox would be that a surreal cover might be more effective for a real-world fiction.

    • Dan H says:

      Again, I’d have to clarify that I’m not against Photoshop artists!! Just badly, perhaps lazily, done artwork using software like Photoshop (by people who admittedly still have far more skill than I do). I think your cover for Brood of Bones is beautiful. Can I ask who that artist is?

      Interesting notion of bridging the real with the unreal… that’s another great way of looking at it.

  5. Dionne says:

    I agree with you Dan. I had an artist draw a scene from my fantasy book for the cover, and the amount of comments I receive, even from non-fantasy readers, about how much they love the cover, is testament to good artwork. Yes, it was done on the computer, but I don’t think you’re saying ‘no’ to photoshop if it’s done by someone who knows what they’re doing. There is a certain romance in telling tales of dragons and magic, and that magic and romance is lost with bad cover art. I don’t particularly like the covers for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The ones where the characters are on the front look ugly and two dimensional. I still bought the book because it’s Robert Jordan, but whenever I see those covers I’m disappointed all over again.

    • Dan H says:

      Thanks, Dionne – yep exactly my point/s!

      Funnily enough, I quite like some of the art for the WoT series. But that could be the nostalgia talking. haha. More recently I have only been able to buy the ‘branded’ black covers (an Australian decision?), but the first few in the series I’ve got in a dusty-old box in the UK are the illustrated versions and I think they’re great fun. That said, if you’re after more epic and sweeping for that series have you checked out the ebook illustrations? Just amazing.

      Mind you, I’m so heavily invested in that story that you could put anything on the cover now and I’d buy it. Can’t wait for AMOL. I think Brandon Sanderson has done masterful things with the finale so far.

  6. […] previously rambled on about the lost art of cover designs here on Fantasy-Faction. Yours is clearly something special, so it was no real surprise to read in […]

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