Cover Story and Cover Art

Artist and current Hugo nominee John Picacio sent along a copy of his upcoming book Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio, which comes out around Memorial Day. It’s a handsome book, naturally enough, with a nice selection of his work both in SF/F and outside the genre as well. Picacio has a style that’s immediately recognizable, both in terms of his near-photo-realistic portraiture and his prismatic use of color (both of which you can clearly see on the cover above), and it’s a style I personally find rather appealing, so it’s nice to have an entire book of it at hand.

I also liked Picacio’s brief commentary on the pieces and how they came together. Book writers as a rule don’t have too much input or insight into the cover art process, so getting some artist perspective. One tenent of Picacio’s process which I can appreciate is “The book is God”; having seen enough books where the cover seems to have nothing in the slightest to do with the content, it’s nice to read an artist saying that the book guides his thinking.

One thing I like about Picacio’s work to some extent is less about him then it is about the people who hire him to do work, which is that it represents a willingness and desire to push the grammar of science fiction and fantasy cover art. In a larger sense this leads to covers that better express their content; in a particular sense it means that as a reasonably socialized adult you can go out on the street with one of these books and not feel like you want to hide the cover of what you’re reading. Covers like Picacio does don’t hide the science fiction or fantasy elements of the work, but they do present them in a way that includes (and entices) non-readers of SF/F rather than excludes them. That’s smart.

This isn’t necessarily a new trend; from my possibly incorrect point of view, I trace it back to Dave McKean’s covers of the Sandman comics, which were absolutely unlike any other comic covers out there and whose collage compositions spoke to the thematic maturity of the work inside. From there it leaked into dark fantasy (China Mieville’s covers are a fine example here), and now seem to be making positive inroads into science fiction as well. What is new, from my point of view, anyway, is that I see cover art like Picacio’s become more frequent — not the exception to the rule, but the rule (or at the very least, a strong guideline).

I can’t say a single thing bad about this. People do judge books by their covers, alas, but what covers like Picacio’s suggest to those who judge is something people who read SF/F already know, which is that what’s inside those covers is material serious adults can read seriously. That’s good for the genre, good for its writers and good for potential new readers. Great cover art doesn’t solve every issue, of course. It just makes for one less. That’s a good start.

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