There is a graphomaniac quality to almost all of Basquiat’s work. He liked to scribble, to amend, to footnote, to second-guess and to correct himself. Words jumped out at him, from the back of cereal boxes or subway ads, and he stayed alert to their subversive properties, their double and hidden meaning. His notebooks, recently published in an exquisite facsimile by Princeton, are full of stray phrases, odd combinations. When he began painting, working up to it by way of hand-coloured collaged postcards, it was objects he went for first, drawing and writing on refrigerators, clothes, cabinets and doors, regardless of whether they belonged to him or not…
…A Basquiat alphabet: alchemy, an evil cat, black soap, corpus, cotton, crime, crimée, crown, famous, hotel, king, left paw, liberty, loin, milk, negro, nothing to be gained here, Olympics, Parker, police, PRKR, sangre, soap, sugar, teeth.
These were words he used often, names he returned to turning language into a spell to repel ghosts. The evident use of codes and symbols inspires a sort of interpretation-mania on the part of curators. But surely part of the point of the crossed-out lines and erasing hurricanes of colour is that Basquiat is attesting to the mutability of language, the way it twists and turns according to the power status of the speaker. Crimée is not the same as criminal, negro alters in different mouths, cotton might stand literally for slavery but also for fixed hierarchies of meaning and the way people get caged inside them.
At the New Republic, Jeet Heer looks back at the work of Jack Kirby, the cartoonist who shaped the Marvel Universe and remade popular culture:
The superhero stories Kirby created or inspired have dominated American comic books for nearly 75 years and now hold almost oppressive sway over Hollywood. Kirby’s creations are front and center in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but his fingerprints are all over the DC Cinematic Universe too, where the master plot he created—the cosmic villain Darkseid invading earth—still looms large. It was Kirby who took the superhero genre away from its roots in 1930s vigilante stories and turned it into a canvas for galaxy-spanning space operas, a shift that not only changed comics but also prepared the way for the likes of the Star Wars franchise. Outside of comics, hints of Kirby pop up in unexpected places, such as the narrative approaches of Guillermo del Toro, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem.
If you walk down any city street, it’s hard to get more than fifty feet without coming across images that were created by Kirby or inflected by his work. Yet if you were to ask anyone in that same stretch if they had ever heard of Kirby, they’d probably say, “Who?” A century after his birth, he remains the unknown king.
“Even though we think of reading as something that we do alone in our rooms by ourselves, we talk about books, and we take the ideas that we learn from books and the stories that we have heard about books, the characters that we have fallen in love with in books, and we bring them to our conversations.
They make us more empathetic. They connect us to one another. They make people who are not like us more human.”
When I am at Penguin I design covers for classic literature. When I am at home I write, illustrate and design my own books. With my books I control every aspect, right down to the colour of the thread that binds them together.
On Penguin days I am out of the house and on the bus by 6.50am. I use my travel time to read books I am working on. Speedy morning buses, when the streets are clear, are the best. Starting early means I am at my desk a couple of hours before the office bustle. A quiet time to get some ideas down. I work solidly till 4pm and I jump back on the bus to read.
Each role feeds into the other nicely. I am never without inspiration. Due to my obsessive nature and lack of confidence, I have to read absolutely everything I design a cover for. I worry that people will scream at me for misrepresenting their beloved text. I’m sure many designers are the same. Time-consuming, yes, but the upshot is a stream of amazing ideas pouring into my brain that I can squirrel away for future projects.
We are increasingly being urged to create objects of desire and the cover obviously plays a key role here, especially when a book is aiming for pride of place in a bookshop. Designers visit them regularly, to note the common visual language of related or competing titles. It can be a source of frustration then, when presenting a contrasting or conflicting design aimed at standing out, only to be asked to produce a copycat cover intended to hitch on the success of the latest best-seller. Booksellers often create themed displays dedicated to the latest hot trend, see Hygge for example. Publishers are all-too aware of this and often the pursuit of a like-for-like cover is their priority… Being allowed to use ‘just type’ will always be dependent on what books are blazing a commercial trail… Jon Gray’s cover for Swing Time and John Gall’s for Norwegian Wood, to take two current examples, prove to publishers that the mass market can handle bold, type-driven design and so this approach will be validated for a time.
I always look forward 50 Books | 50 Covers announcement. It feels like the industry standard. It’s the cover design list that really seems to matter to book designers in North America, and it’s the one I always compare my own list to.
There are always great covers among the winners that are new to me, and this year is no exception. But here are a few random observations about this year’s the cover selections: there a lot of typographic/type-only covers; academic publishers are well represented; there are some surprising omissions (although the jury can only judge what is submitted); a couple of the selections are… well, a little problematic; it is a very male list.
I’m interested to hear what other people thought of this year’s winners.