Images and Influence
A post by ABDA member Peter Long
“But what kind of a cover should go on a book about flying saucers? At the outset, there was no consensus as to what the saucers even actually looked like: they were described as blinking lights, purple blobs, flying wings, boomerangs, shiny metal balls, floating kerosene lamps, pie plates, hubcaps from an old Terraplane; in photos, during the first ten years, the most popular model resembled either the top of a chicken incubator, or part of the casing of a 1937 Electrolux vacuum cleaner.”
According to Jack Womack, the author of a new book titled Flying Saucers Are Real! about early pulp UFO book cover designs, it wasn’t until 1956, when Hollywood released the film Forbidden Planet (a revelatory re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) that the iconic visual idea of a UFO as a spinning silver disk took hold in the popular imagination. Once that quicksilver saucer was locked in our brains, that’s what people saw when they had a close encounter.
When I was very young, I had a favourite book called You Will Go to the Moon, a hand-me-down from my big brother. It was the late sixties (the book was written in 1959) and the Apollo program was in full swing. I loved that book, and the illustrations completely formed my view of how space travel would be. (I sometimes have a sinking feeling that it seems they LIED – I think it is now likely I Will Not Go to the Moon). When the moon landing actually occurred I was in prep and the whole class clustered around a portable telly with a rabbit-ear aerial in the library. But all I actually remember seeing was black and white static. Reality was a big disappointment compared to the visions that were planted in my brain (to quote a lyric which has planted itself in my brain …)
Before Steven Spielberg turned his attention to visitors from outer space his breakthrough blockbuster was Jaws, based on the book by Peter Benchley. The illustration of the looming shark with a small swimming figure, and the strong, single-word title made the book cover such an iconic image that it became the poster for the film. That image, and John Williams’ suspenseful music burrowed their way into my being and filled me and millions of other people with an irrational fear of sharks way before I was old enough and brave enough to see the film.
Very occasionally images have a way of penetrating our rational armour and creating powerful, visceral feelings that stay with us forever. Zillions of words have been written about the plight of refugees, but that one photograph of a dead child lying face down in the sand goes straight to the guts. When I think of the US in Iraq I immediately think of the picture of the cruciform hooded man standing on a box in Abu Ghraib. Nobody had ever heard of Don Dale until we saw those pictures of the hooded boy strapped to the chair. It is not surprising that our politicians fight so hard to keep us from seeing what goes on on Nauru or Manus Island. They know the power of the image.
I was thinking about this after seeing Jon Gray talk about his cover for the Jonathan Safran Foer book Everything is Illuminated. Normally, when I design a book cover, I’m looking for an image that reflects the content or the ideas of the book, something to do with the style of the writing, or the period, or a clever visual pun. Something, anything. We all follow the idea that the cover has to sell the text, we work from the inside out. But Jon Gray’s Everything is Illuminated cover actually doesn’t tell me anything about the book. It doesn’t say anything about any of the characters, or the setting, or the themes, any of it. It doesn’t promise or suggest what is inside. It just is. I can remember seeing it for the first time in a bookshop. It was so unusual, and it stood out so strongly because it didn’t follow any of the rules. It just grabbed us in a visceral way that was not about anything rational. Its refusal to be anything but itself actually spoke of incredible confidence, and gave the book and the writer a kind of integrity. You could argue that the cover made the book. A book by Foer without a Jon Gray cover would not be a book by Foer.