Category Archives: Design

Due to Controversial Success, Penguin Re-Rebrands Its Modern Classics Titles


Due to the controversial success of its redesign of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Penguin has decided to test the waters with a few other modern classic titles.

Taking a cue from rape-culture imagery popularized by such fashion companies as American Apparel, a Penguin representative said, “We want to go all in with our design and really creep our readership out. We want them to feel like they’re tied up in a basement.”

Penguin’s freelance designer added, “They pick the images and I honestly just throw that crap in Illustrator and try to find the money shot.”

Below are a few of its planned re-redesigns.  If successful, Penguin will approach all 500 titles in its modern classic library with a similarly seedy aesthetic.

Baldwin, James, Giovanni's Room-01 Burroughs, Ed, TARZAN-01 Camus, Albert, THE FALL-01 Frank, Anne, DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL-01 Nabokov, Vlad, LOLITA-01 Rand, Ayn, ATLAS SHRUGGED-01 Rapacz, Mark, CITY KAIJU-01Steinbeck, John, Red Pony-01

An Unintentional Defense of Squiggly Lines and Poorly Set Type: Notes on Designing a Dime Novel

Buffalo Bill_FINAL_Facebook CoverCOVER:

Though the heyday of Buffalo Bill Stories was some time around 1910-1920 when there were a number of Buffalo Bill dime novels hitting the stands–with the Buffalo Bill Weekly reigning supreme and which considered all others imitators–I went with a lesser known Dutch design that was put out in 1946.  My main reasons for choosing this design were that

A. It looked cool.

B. I can’t draw so I needed something I could vectorize cleanly so I could work with it (basically, this means few colors with high contrast).

C. it’s under a fairly open creative common licensing, allowing me to manipulate it.

PANTONEThe colors I chose were from a palette more typical to the glory days of Buffalo Bill Stories, but not typical to the colors found on Buffalo Bill Stories themselves or any of the other Street & Smith story papers, the publisher who helped define what American PULP works would be before they were known as PULP.  Rather, I chose a scheme inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement of the first decade of the twentieth century because much of this project felt both “arty” and “crafty.”  This movement was known for earthy tones and rich neutrals. So, you’re looking at Cream Tan, an adaptation of Brittany Blue, and a touch of Leather Brown.  I’m color blind to all hell so the only reason I knew what these colors were was because contrary to my disability (yeah, I called it that) I’m still fascinated by that which I cannot see … or not that well.  So I bought PANTONE: The 20th Century in Color.  It’s a great book–lots of pictures with, well, colors that defined the decades.

You’ll notice there’s a little boxed image on the cover as well. This illustration is, presumably, a tale being spun by Buffalo Bill himself as he sits with his pals around the fire. Typically in this little box image you would see Buffalo doing something heroic, or a Dutch interpretation of what American heroism in the west would look like. I didn’t go too deep in these stories since I couldn’t read them (dunno Flemish), but I presumed that these were translated works from the original Buffalo Bill stories popularized in the US a few decades prior–(Being a fiction writer, I can make facts like this up cause I ain’t going for accuracy, just a historical narrative that makes sense.)

For a collection of digitized dime novels, Villanova University has one of the best.
For a collection of digitized dime novels, Villanova University has one of the best.

What surprised me was how mundane Buffalo’s heroic poses were in some of these images. Actually, on many of these covers Buffalo is just talking to a fella or he’s reared back on his horse, but there’s no clear threat. There’s one issue where there’s a bear the size of a badger that’s spooking his horse and Buffalo looks terrified. Made me wonder if the Dutch illustrators were subtly poking fun at this American Myth, contrasting and maybe even criticizing US dominance so shortly after WWII, especially in that region of the world. Or, heck, maybe they’d never seen pictures of a grizzly bear. They were putting out and celebrating a Western hero no less while being ridiculously far away from that. Either way, I was unclear if there was a deeper message in the images … but then I remembered these works were for eight year olds, so maybe they didn’t want to scare kids.

On the cover for Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines you will not even see the most mundane of Buffalo poses. You will see a building. It’s the storied (“storied” in my Buffalo story) Gallery of the Machines from the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, France, better known to us ‘Mercan speakers as the World’s Fair.


Continuing the hodge-podge nature of this project–both in story and design–the picture is an illustration from 1889. If you look close you’ll see this is one of the early attempts at “photoshopping” an image. Many of the figures standing in this “futuristic cityscape” have been added using whatever scissor-paper techniques they used back then. There’s a boy standing under the “mechanized people mover” near the front who’s in Chinese clothing, while up on the elevated walkway is a woman of African descent. Both look to be pasted into the image somehow and I wondered if this wasn’t an attempt to diversify the fairgoers to better publicize the multiculturalism of the time.

Regardless of intent, my main attraction to the image was the Gallery and the renderer’s expert snipping and clipping. Just look at the perspective of those horses & buggies. Not all (or any?) are from the original image, yet they still work–sized and place appropriately to be passable at first glance. They even have shadows. But, still, their appearance and placement comes off as slightly strange, making the entire composition somewhat alien. And it’s just this territory that makes me love the design of the work, and it’s just this twist of familiarity that inspired the story between the pages of this 21st century attempt to make a late 19th century/early 20th century publication.



Buffalo Bill_FINAL_3

This is the first two pages of Buffalo Bill, the inside the cover and page 1.

Two things to note;

Buffalo Bill Portrait1. The great image of a younger Buffalo in a typical regal backcountry pose on the left-hand page is from an 1877 issue of the German magazine, Die Gartenlaube. Which goes to show that even back then, the mystique if the American West was already taking shape and gaining a worldwide audience. I mean, cowboys had barely just arrived on the scene shortly after the close of the Civil War and already guys like Buffalo were creating the myth that we know so well today. The only figures to capture the world audience on such defining levels, where myth and truth are being created simultaneously, are the astronauts and cosmonauts of the 50s, I’d say … but that’s all just armchair speculation. I think that excitement is healthy though. We need more paradigmatic examples where fiction and historical truth get blurred and lost in the buzz of pushing new boundaries. Where would we be if Star Trek didn’t first imagine handheld communication devices and warp drives? Fiction–and more easily found in genre fiction–is like this challenge to the movers and shakers of the day to get their sh** together and turn their awesome up a few notches. We need another defining modern myth to reinvigorate that sense. It makes the world a better and infinitely more interesting place.

2. The banner on the right-hand page comes directly from the famous Buffalo Bill Weekly, as does the warning on top of the left-hand page.



Buffalo Bill_FINAL_4

Here’s another two-page spread for the BUFFALO BILL REISSUE.

What you’ll see is something pretty unremarkable: four columns of prose fully justified, two pages, a dividing line down the gutter, and a basic header.

What you won’t see, and what I found surprising, is that these pages (and 24 others that look a lot like them) don’t have any pictures. The strange thing is that these DIME NOVELS were precursors to the modern comic, which, you know, are filled with multi-paneled awesomeness.

But in DIME NOVELS, nothing. Unremarkable, plain, boring prose (unless you read it). There were a few issues that did include images, which I found in the Villanova Libraries digital collection of PENNY DREADFULS and DIME NOVELS, but there weren’t enough examples to show that having illustrations accompany the story was the practice of the day. The opposite, in fact, was more often the case.

Then I got to thinkin’ and speculatin’ and I decided–oh, yes, it’s been DECIDED–that there could’ve been a number of reasons for this.

1. Illustrations took time and money. These works needed to be cheap and they needed to be produced weekly. Finding an illustrator and paying this illustrator would add unnecessary costs to what’s supposed to be a ridiculously cheap publication. Also, the illustrations had to be a particular style otherwise they couldn’t run them on their presses.

2. It might’ve been a pain in the ass to layout the publication with pictures. I can’t imagine typesetting even one of these issues, let alone figuring out how to physically put an oddly shaped illustration into the mix. These were dudes who had to physically rearrange the letters to print something, so when you see an illustration where the words are beautifully cascading around Buffalo Bill socking some bad guy, that took extra, painstaking work. Yuck. This might be why we don’t see tons of images in a lot of the cheaper-run, tight-deadline publications of the day, like the dailies and the newspapers.

3. Illustrations might’ve been used as needed. Most of the DIME NOVELS were 32 pages long, which means physical constraints. But what do you, as a typesetter and layout dude do when, say, an author turns in a 20,000 words story that needs to be 25,000 to fill pages? Well, a lot of times they filled those extra pages with ads or wacky marginalia or the first chapter of a serialized story. Or, you could fill the space with pictures. From a design standpoint, it’s a practice still done today.

Peau_de_chagrin_squiggleI had a bunch of other stuff to say about the gutter line, but I think the only thing cool about that is that they used to hand draw that baby. When lines were typeset a little off, the line guy would sorta squiggle around it, so it was rarely straight. Also, only some DIME NOVELS used a gutter line. Some just went straight gutter. If I could, I would make all my gutter lines a little off. I thought they looked great being so unique from one another, and I figure the more imperfection that happens to chance itself into a work, the more beautiful it ultimately is.

I, of course, used a computer program which makes chanced imperfections nearly impossible. So you gotta do all this fancy design work to make it look broken, which in a way completely defeats the purpose because it distorts the natural process of creation and the amazing things that can happen when your wrist slips. The accidental gets contaminated with intention, and that’s entirely backwards when it comes to making something with any lasting aesthetic or creative quality.

Chrome should have rust. A hinge should squeak.

Lines should, at times, squiggle away from poorly set type.

One Fist of Iron. The Other One Steel: 16 TONS Cover Reveal

Burnt Bridge

Tom cover99e Cover artwork by Michael Manuel

Tom Grady could starve to death in a day: the only drawback to strange genetic condition granting him superhuman strength and metabolism. His impressionable and idealistic younger brother, Matthew, idolizes him as a superhero.

After his father’s death, Tom carries the weight of his family, only to have that choice haunt him for the rest of his life, as he sinks further and further into poverty and a world of drugs, prostitution and extreme violence.

All the while back home, his adoring kid brother, now half grown,  still worships him as a god.


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Evolution of Cover Design and the Mania Involved Therewithin


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.

Cover Sample 1 Cover Sample 2 Cover Sample 3 Cover Sample 4 Cover Sample 5




MokuMan_Draft 3 MokuMan_Draft 2





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.

Cover Sample 7My 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!

MokuMan_Draft 4 MokuMan_Draft 7-01







MokuMan_Draft 10_masklayer MokuMan_Draft 13_tattered








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.

MokuMan_Draft 12_cleanbackground

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):

MokuMan_Draft 21 MokuMan_Draft 23








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:

MokuMan_Draft 24

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:

MokuMan_Draft 25 MokuMan_Draft-25B








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:

4_Freedoms_Plaza_660 gotham_660








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):

MokuMan_Draft 31-01 MokuMan_Draft 32-01 MokuMan_Draft 33-01



MokuMan_Draft 35-01












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:

MokuMan_Draft 34-01

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.

I hope.

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.