Some months ago, a wise person in Penguin’s design department had the wherewithal to commission a series of book covers by the best comic book artists working today–and with comics being on my mind these days, a cursory glance at the few Penguins on my bookshelf reminded me I had to write about them.
The results of this fine idea have been resting on various bookstore shelves for a while now, but lonely covers get little attention. The books inside are the same, and easily buyable in cheaper editions–yet on the other hand, it’s not every day that truly classic works of literature are given beautiful, contemporary covers like these.
I saw the first Penguin from this set at a bookstore in Europe last year–it was Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy–a work I’d always wanted to read, and like 400 other books, was on my big to-read-one-day list. But the wonderful new cover by Art Spiegelman drew me instantly to it, and the book/cover somehow became more New York, more contemporary, more immediately appealing than ever before.
It made me realize just how much the cover really affected my buying decision–when it was great, it nudged me along towards a purchase like nothing else. We can’t always be reading every book on our shelves, after all, so there’s no point in understating or ignoring the pleasures to be found on the covers, never mind the importance of all that’s in between them.
In the case of these new Penguins, most of the covers use their illustration to marvelously capture the contents inside, often in fresh ways that draw a reader like little else can. Ever experienced that “reader’s dread” that comes along with picking up an old, stuffy copy of a well-worn classic, complete with tiny text and bloated, mundane introduction? It won’t happen with these:
Ken Kesey’s 60s classic gets the Joe Sacco treatment. Not one of the other covers for this book (that I can see on amazon) even comes close.
This understated book of short, sad, masterful Japanese stories gets a cover by a gekiga master (Yoshihiro Tatsumi) skilled in his own visual narratives that often accomplish the very same.
I asked for and received this great yellow/red Tomer Hanuka-designed cover for Christmas, from my Mom, no less. She openly wondered why I wanted a famously obscene book whose cover featured a kind of man/horse ravishing a naked lady. “It’s by a famous comic artist!” I protested. “Well, Merry Christmas all the same,” was all she said.
The best little Cliff Notes version of Candide ever done, and it’s all on the cover. Humour and charming illustration come together in what would normally be a staid and useless back-cover paragraph about Voltaire’s lasting influence and contemporary imporzzzzzz…If only Chris Ware (and maybe Ivan Brunetti) could do covers for every classic book, what a wonderful world it would be.
THE NEW YORK TRILOGY (shown here next to the now-useless, humiliated older edition)
While reading this absolute knock-out book, I must have glanced at the cover more than 100 times. The front part is good enough, but it’s the hand-drawn Manhattan map on the back that does it. To top it off, this edition has an introduction by Luc Sante, one of the most lucid cultural critics and best writers on NYC there is.
Some recent books have once again reaffirmed that the line between high and low culture is blurred beyond definition, if it exists at all. That’s no doubt a terrible oversimplification of a very rich subject for anyone interested in any cultural product at all, but there it is. Penguin has hit on a wonderful idea–taking the best literature around and making its packaging jump for today’s eyes: some beautiful new containers, same old brilliant stuff inside.