Looking at these old sci-fi covers, with their jewellike colors and cryptic, sinister imagery, made me remember the weird thrill I felt when I was a nerdy sci-fi-reading kid in the seventies.
The so-called golden age of book and magazine illustration had died out some decades earlier, with the advent of color photography and improved print reproduction, but superb illustration was still thriving in the marginal niches of pulp and genre covers.
Although the covers of my favorite books are dear to me by association—even the drab academic cover of Vintage’s “Beyond Good and Evil,” with its scab/lint/mucus palette, carries a kind of dark illicit charge for me, the same way the inert, clunky silhouette of the Fat Man atom bomb holds its quiet kilotons—I can’t remember the last cover that caught my eye in a store and caused me to pick up, read around in, and ultimately buy the book.
Around the same time I was fretting over my cover, my nephew turned thirteen, and, in honor of his entry into this dweebiest and most introverted of life’s stages, I gave him a variety pack/starter kit of science fiction’s greatest hits, all original paperbacks with evocative midcentury cover illustrations.
One is that the illustrated book cover, like painted movie posters or newspaper comics, is pretty much dead.
Fonts, stock photos, and Photoshop are cheaper than commissioning illustrations.
As the adage has it, the golden age of science fiction was twelve.
My youthful capacity for wonder at any form of art may have been permanently deadened by age, education, and one too many competent, forgettable literary novels.
It seems as if sixty-five per cent of all novels’ jackets feature an item of female apparel and/or part of the female anatomy and the name of some foodstuff in the title—the book-cover equivalent of the generic tough-guy-with-gun movie poster with title like “.” There’s clearly some brutally efficient Darwinian process at work here, because certain images—half-faces, napes, piers stretching into the water—spread like successful evolutionary adaptations and quickly become ubiquitous.
Covers of essay collections, to which I paid particular attention, fall into three categories: The single-object-on-white-background cover has become such a recognizable formula that there is now a Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator.