After criticizing the cover work on Gold Throne in Shadow and Swords and Scoundrels in blog posts last week for being just Protagonist Stares Out of Cover (not the first time I’ve expressed my dislike for that) it occurred to me to make clear that I’m aware this is not some crazy new art idea fantasy illustrators just came up with the other day.
For example, this Retief cover from 30 years ago does exactly the same thing: Shows the hero staring out at me with very little indication what’s going on. The image doesn’t even indicate SF really—he might as well be hunting in the Alps or the Himalayas. Or the collection below showing Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter and nothing else.
Neither image screams Buy Me but of course, both collections came out when the characters were established brand names—it’s not like someone’s going to grab up a four-volume omnibus who has no idea who Lord Peter is. The cover probably didn’t need to sell the book.
Then there’s romance. Romance covers like the one below focus a lot on the protagonist or the love interest because that’s part of what they’re selling—boy gets girl so boy and girl (or boy and boy or girl and girl) are important in a way unlike any other fictional field.
Of course there are also tricks than can make a protagonist/key character cover stand out in a way the ones I complain about don’t. Sex is an obvious one. Perry Mason novels were thoroughly G-rated (there might be adultery and trysts in motel rooms, but the messy details kept off-stage) but you wouldn’t know it from this cover.
And that was subtle compared to Robert McGinnis’ covers for the Carter Brown (AKA Alan Yates) books from the 1960s. Which didn’t show much sex happening on the page that I can recall, but there was a lot of nudity and near-nudity and it was clear the hero was going to Do It as soon as the chapter ended (this sort of thing had a big impact on my tween mind, can you tell?)
Of course, Sex Sells cover images tend to be sexist as hell too, so while I won’t deny enjoying the McKnight images, I’d just as soon not see my fantasy covers going that route any more than they do currently. Sexy Woman on Cover has a long tradition in SpecFic but it’s still sexist, which is why it became such a contentious issue a couple of years back.
Then there are covers which have the protagonist staring out at us but give us an interesting image too. For example, Frank Frazetta’s cover for the first of Lancer’s Conan books from around 50 years ago.
Even without the sexism of the girl draped at the Cimmerian’s feet, this would certainly be a gripping cover. Or consider this Retief cover by Richard Martin, which shows a definitely alien SF setting, compared to the earlier cover above.
I’m not sure if my point is “See! I’m not just a grumpy old man who thinks covers were better when he was a kid!” or a more general, if random, reflection on cover imagery. But it did make for a pretty post, didn’t it?
(All rights to covers with current holders. My apologies to any artists I couldn’t identify).