Below is a small sample of the manic pursuit of creating the perfect cover when neither professional skill nor clear direction are present within THE DESIGNER or ever really discovered by THE DESIGNER during the entire, months-long creative process.
I’d have it no other way.
Feel free to let me know what direction you all prefer in the comments section below or by just kicking me in the nuts. I have a tendency to over-work, skipping what was awesome and sticking with the most recent idea because I’m prone to thinking ALL THAT HAS COME BEFORE pales in comparison to ALL THAT IS HAPPENING NOW or ALL THAT WILL COME. This tendency wrecks self-confidence, b. t. dubs.
So, you know, be happy with whatever you made because, hey, YOU MADE SOMETHIN’, BUDDY, and that should be good enough, he tells himself sobbing over a juice glass half-filled with warm beer.
Below are a few classic SF designs that served as jumping off points for my design.
Above are the first few samples that allowed me to start working with rough ideas of the background and how I might want the title to look like. I was also looking at tons of comic book covers at this time.
My first “jerbus-cripes” moment landed when I was looking into old horror/sci fi publications. I landed on this, a cool monster slug from an old German magazine called Der Orchideengarten, which was sort of like their Weird Tales and, in fact, came about four years prior to the first issue of the much-lauded BIG DUBYA TEE (as we cool guys call it) in 1919. The image is under Creative Commons licensing and open to adaptation, so I was pumped to work with it, and I worked the hell out of it, and then past that, and then probably made all GIANT SLUG GODS avert their gaze from this mere human trying to mess with something that was so intrinsically awesome from the start.
Below are a few of those samples that I loved the shit out of for, like, an hour and a half. During those fleeting hours of intense–let’s admit it–self-love, I truly felt like a CREATIVE HERO OF THE END TIMES, and then ate a raw steak and went outside to howl until my VICTORY brought on the next lunar eclipse…
Okay, maybe not.
I likely ate half a block of cheese and went on Facebook and thought about posting my genius for the masses to fawn over, only to be crippled by my intense suspicion that all my friends are secretly out to get me, you conspirators!
Eventually, I landed on a slug cover I was pleased with. You’ll see that below. This was in the distant past of maybe, like, a year ago, so I still didn’t have a clear idea how to really grunge a cover up. If you notice the BLASTGUN banner up top, you’ll see I’ve figured out a way to do it, but I don’t use Illustrator. I just hop over to Pixlr and throw a high-res JPEG in the ol’ Pixlr-O-Matic and you usually get a pretty good result. Doing it within Illustrator may be more professional, but it makes no goddamn sense, ADOBE CREATORS.
Regardless, being a neo-pulp press with a neo-pulp book, I know you gotta somehow make this thing look like it came from a Dumpster. I liked this version for almost a week and a half, which means it’s a real winner in my book.
Notice how most of my work was involved with tweaking little pieces, trying to dirty one bit or adding a little graphic here or there. Though all this looks minor (mind you, I got 15 other GIANT SLUG drafts in the files), at the time these were major changes–huge changes of UTMOST IMPORTANCE, which sometimes kept me up at night. Because this is the COVER of my FIRST FULL-LENGTH NOVEL. It’s gotta be goddamned right and perfect no matter what the H8Rs (sp?) think.
Very intense stuff stemming from attempts to make a few letters look like somebody ran them over with a garbage truck.
Still, I knew I liked the title. I knew I liked the slug, and I knew I liked the rainbow. I thought that was strange in a cool way, and at the time of this design Minnesota was just about to legalize gay marriage, so I suppose this was subconsciously (or just blatantly) my way of showing my support, most tellingly in that fourth option above where the slug monster is literally retching rainbows onto the city of Minneapolis in the background. As it turns out, gay marriage passed (yay!) while the giant slug was edited out of MokuMan during one of the many unexpected creative purges I’m susceptible to. I really went really anti-slug for a really long while and ended up with a few “more serious” options for my “super serious” pulp fiction work that is laden with curse words, technicolor gore, and sporadic attempts at infusing plot into a book that for the first few drafts was desperately without plot–for reasons I may one day outline in a later post.
These were the results of the ANTI-SLUG THEREFORE HIGH-BROW movement. (The results of the written work will be forthcoming … maybe June … it’s official stance is neither pro- nor anti-slug):
I would say these are two examples in which I overthought the piece. The flaming butterfly came from a place-holder idea where I knew something real special should go there. Then I thought, well, maybe it works. Then I was like, let’s make a MokuMan-graphic-dude, and that was the result on the right. Sad to say, but the MokuMan-graphic-dude looks nothing like nor is in anyway related to the character in the book who ultimately is MokuMan. He’s just this graphic with a flaming butterfly painted across his face that looks Pacific Islander tribal–which, despite the title, also has nothing to do with the book.
In the end, I thought neither cover really represented the story in any regard. It ended up being an exercise in layering graphics to make a somewhat cool-looking texture while also being pretty confusing. The biggest success of either of these pieces was the multicolored back layer that looks like alien fog. The alien fog is about as near to having any direct connection to MokuMan as anything. Regardless, I made this and was REALLY happy with it for a good long time:
I mean look how arty that thing is. Look at the colors. Warhol bold with some of Pollock’s splatter chaos, all of it with Chip Kidd design aspirations. There’s a slight nod to the neo-pulp aesthetic with the distressed title and gritty Banksy-style screen print, hearkening some connection to street art. The city is growing in on itself, suggesting a suffocating mood or a self-devouring tendency that this intense, urban world might evoke. Even looking at the building, there’s almost this Christ-like figure crucified to the side of the building, which might allude to a plot point in the book where a character must make the ULTIMATE SACRIFICE TO SAVE HUMANITY from itself … and so on … and so forth … and I could make this crap up all day.
If there’s anything suffocating about it, I think it’s its pretension–purposeful or not. I think if a more skilled designer made this, they would be blamed for being derivative, but in the world of amateurs who are amazed they have the energy to actually create anything after a long day on the 8-5 grind, being derivative is one of those things you just shrug your shoulders over and say, “Whatever, I’m gonna watch Netflix now, you snooty dink.”
Of course, I’m saying this to the critics in my brain. So.
Thing is: this thing was made during an unhindered creative fit, which I think are the best kinds fits. I was so pissed about the SLUG cover and the FLAMING BUTTERFLY cover that I just did this thing hardly conscious of what I was creating. Flip a thing here. Grab another there. Find a decent color palate. Voila. I liked the no-thinking bit about this design. That may be the best thing going for it. Maybe this is the real winner. I still kind of dig it, even if there are no overt connections to the written work beneath this technicolor moth wing of a cover.
Besides, what covers really have a strong connection to the work beneath its gentle, gentle fold? What covers are really meant to connect to the work vs. connecting with potential buyers?
The good thing with going indie is that the profit margin will always be so low that you can always, always, always error toward risk and creativity. This is why indie- and self-publishing are beautiful things and strongly BLASTGUN recommend. Check out our philosophy, boy-o!
Back to the covers.
Everything was going great for a few months since I had my indie-creative crazy rainbow urban thing going on. Things felt good. I felt sorted. I was laying off the caffeine and trying out herbal teas. I occasionally discussed yoga with my wife. Real healthy, all-around.
Then I remembered I had, like, this serious affection for art deco. Not only art deco, but also art deco propaganda art. Not only art deco propaganda art, but art deco propaganda art with a dark science fiction vibe.
In a word, Batman.
This led me to start trying other things like these two below:
As you can see, I’m still heading in this urban direction with the cityscape and I went in-your-face art deco with the font and the faded out gray on that first one. Then I started thinking again and started adding crap, like those crows (which actually relate to MokuMan) and that weird swirly jiga-ma-bob. I was bopping down a road that felt great at the time, but now with clearer eyes and a less cluttered mind, I’m seeing neither is too successful. Also, that image on which the design was based was a placeholder that I never planned on using. Again, using something to just use it and then going a little too far with it.
Don’t mind me, Ma! Just trying my new roller skates down this mountain here.
Then I started looking for new inspiration because now that my SLUG cover was out, as was the FLAMING BUTTERFLY, as was the SELF-DEVOURING CITY, as was the ART DECO RED HERRING, I was thinking what it was that made me really like art deco in the first place, or the propaganda art, or the dark sci fi Metropolis vibe. I decided may be other, real artists were doing something like this out there in the WORLD. I also wanted the piece to be a little more minimal. Too much WHATEVER-THE-HELL was driving me nuts. Then I found these and other amazing works over at Wired:
And I realized my cover had too little SUPERHERO and not enough RETRO, especially since MokuMan is an superhero origins tale with what I hoped was classic science fiction and old-school monster movie elements. These pieces, however, were made by designers who know what they are doing, which is why they are so amazing. They’re art deco, they’re propaganda, they’re clean, they’re minimal. They’re very Batman, especially the one with Batman.
So I made these (and about 20 others that look very similar to, but not exactly like these):
Now, I’m still not totally pumped with any of these, but I’m at least getting closer to what I’m going for. The cover needs monsters. So now it has monsters. The cover needs at least some scene pulled out of the book, and that’s what you’re seeing with the industrial silhouette there. I got a little art deco spice in there with a minimalist approach while adding some gritty textured graphics that are a solid salute to neo-pulp, even though in my mind nobody does it better than Matthew Revert over at Broken River Books.
I put these two styles up to a vote on Facebook. Most people wanted the one I didn’t–the fourth one there with the red bird. They liked the readability of MokuMan, among a few other things. Though it’s much more in line with the two great superhero posters above and that splash of color is attractive, one of my friends and authority on all things horror-y and pop-culture-y, Todd Wardrope, mentioned some solid points that tipped the 60/40 result in favor of the underdog cover. He said black, gray, white, and red is an overdone thing. I agreed. So what he basically suggested was to go with this one, here:
What I like about it is, of course, the spider monster (I’m currently in the process of line-editing and crying over MokuMan right now, so I know for a fact there is, indeed, a spider monster mentioned). But what I really like is that it reminds me of the opening title sequence to the Twilight Zone, which was like this last second hail mary that the coach didn’t call for, the quarterback didn’t plan, and it just so happened that the guy you least expected was somehow in the end zone wide the hell open, so you just huck it.
I’m saying the Twilight Zone influence was so deep in my bones, I didn’t know it was there until I saw it, and then I realized it held some unexpected emotional weight.
I remember watching the Twilight Zone with my mom and brother growing up. It was a show we all loved–the old ones. The black and white ones. They meant a lot to me and to who we were as a family. They still mean a good deal to me, especially as a work of creative genius that goes unmatched. Even though MokuMan doesn’t expertly deal in the strange like the Twilight Zone, there’s enough weirdness in there to honor my personal history with the show, I think.
The story may also just be weird. And that cover is certainly weird. A mix of a few too many things and not enough of some others.
But I’d have it no other way.