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Collapsing Bulkheads: the Covers of Crash

Author: • Mar 12th, 2007 •

Category: advertising, Ballardosphere, David Cronenberg, fashion, features, visual art, William Burroughs

by Rick Poynor

Ballardian: Crash

‘Missing the point’: (detail, Livre de Poche edition, 1973; design: Atelier Pascal Vercken).

NOTE: This is an edited version of an essay published in Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture by Rick Poynor, Laurence King Publishing, 2006. First published in Eye no. 52, Summer 2004. Reproduced with permission.

J. G. BALLARD’S Crash tests the limits of the reader’s taste and sympathies in the most profound ways and it has always provoked strong reactions – positive and negative. British novelist Will Self has said, ‘I only have to look at a few paragraphs of Crash to feel I am in the presence of an extreme mind, a mind at the limits of dark imagination.’ He meant this as a commendation. Even Ballard sometimes seemed ambivalent. ‘How many people are there who’d want to read a book like Crash?’ he once asked. ‘Not many.’

Yet Crash, described by Ballard himself as a ‘psychopathic hymn’, did find a following. Over the years it has appeared in French, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Finnish, and Japanese translations. It became a cult book, appealing to the kind of reader who also liked William Burroughs — the type of novel a post-punk rock band might enthuse about in the music press.

I read the hardback first edition of Crash as a teenager, soon after it came out. I was already a devotee of Ballard’s other books, but I loved Crash’s extremity, its sense of moral danger, its willingness to probe dark areas of the psyche, and the toxic beauty of its prose. Over the years I collected editions of the book, partly to see whether any publisher could ever visualise a piece of writing which is prepared to be, in Ballard’s words, ‘openly pornographic’ as a literary stratagem. On the whole, though, image-makers have been defeated by Crash. A book that ought to have inspired covers to match and reflect its status as an underground classic has often received visual treatments marked by incomprehension and evasion. I was curious to know how Ballard viewed this, as a writer with such a strong sense of the visual. He didn’t wish to be interviewed – reviewing the covers would, he suggested, be ‘rather too close to an autopsy on myself’ – but he was willing to make notes on some of them if I sent him photocopies.

Ballardian: Crash

LEFT: Crash’s first jacket, designed by Bill Botton (Jonathan Cape, 1973).
RIGHT: Chris Foss’s interpretation (Panther, 1975).

The first jacket, published by Jonathan Cape in 1973, shows a jutting gear stick, presumably intended to be phallic, in front of a towering three-dimensional titlepiece that occupies most of the cover. This still rankles with Ballard, who describes it as ‘monstrously bad, one of the worst book jackets ever – for sheer ugliness and crudity, impossible to beat’. Few of the Ballard hardback covers produced by Cape in the 1970s and early 1980s were any good. The first UK paperback edition of Crash, however, illustrated by science fiction artist Chris Foss, retains its power. ‘Superb, in many ways the best ever,’ notes Ballard. ‘Quasi-realistic, but in the right way, like a movie poster of the 1950s – brought into brilliant focus by that line – “A brutal, erotic novel”.’ Foss, an illustrator of The Joy of Sex (1972), treats the image as an opportunity for lurid, pulp-style exploitation. There is nothing quite like this scene in the book. The ruined car smoulders with menace, its twisted bonnet rising above the woman’s naked body like a predator’s gaping maw. This cover established the principle iconographic elements — woman and car — that feature in many interpretations of Crash.

Ballardian: Crash

LEFT: Fashionable flirtations (illustration: James Marsh; Triad, 1985).
RIGHT: ‘Too lipsticky; too neat’. (illustration: Larry Rostant; Flamingo, 1993).

In 1985, the novel was reissued as part of a new, oppressively black-bordered series with an illustration by James Marsh, showing a red-lipped Amazon at the wheel, clad in studded leather. This connected the book with emerging trends in fetish clothing and a fashionable flirtation with S&M, but it had nothing to do with Ballard’s vision. By 1993, the woman was reduced to a pair of pouting red lips framed by a shattered rear view mirror – it resembled the kind of airbrush illustration in vogue 20 years earlier. Ballard dismisses the cover as ‘too lipsticky – too “neat”.’

Ballardian: Crash

LEFT: Livre de Poche again, for your pleasure… (1973; design: Atelier Pascal Vercken).

Ballard’s 1974 introduction, which might have offered additional clues for visual interpretation, is reprinted in both editions. Crash, he writes, is ‘an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis. . . . Will modern technology provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means for tapping our psychopathologies?’ Neither cover shows any hint of these concerns. The tacky Livre de Poche edition, in which a car’s radiator grille metamorphoses into a flesh-licking tongue, once again turns the vehicle itself into the protagonist and misses the point.

Where interpretations of Crash by male image-makers tend to present female sexual personae in the most obvious and unrevealing ways, as victim or vamp, missing the unbridled perversity of the book’s female characters, women designers and image-makers have been inclined to neutralise the book’s violent eroticism.

Ballardian: Crash

LEFT: Crash in the desert (design: Carin Goldberg; Vintage, 1985).
RIGHT: Ecstasy in the fairground (photograph: Clare Godfrey; Vintage, 1995).

A 1985 US paperback, designed by Carin Goldberg, with wide-spaced ‘new wave’ typography, arbitrarily transplants Crash to the American desert, where a faceless female who looks like a misplaced fashion model wanders away from some totemic car parts scattered in the dust. The cover’s Surrealism-lite bears only the most tenuous connection to the novel. Photographer Clare Godfrey’s cover image for the 1995 UK edition treats Crash as a kind of ecstatic fairground ride. The hot neon colours and chaotic superimpositions relate to a scene in which Vaughan and the narrator cruise the expressways while under the influence of LSD, but the image is strangely depopulated and Crash’s relentless sexual content is suppressed.

Crash is peculiarly resistant to attempts to summarise it with a single image. Its synthetic literary method depends on the conjunction within a verbal image of phenomena that are usually discrete. Ballard insistently establishes geometrical relationships between the body parts and postures of his characters and the technology that surrounds them: ‘By entering her vagina among the metal cabinets and white cables of the X-ray department I would somehow conjure back her husband from the dead, from the conjunction of her left armpit and the chromium camera stand, from the marriage of our genitalia and the elegantly tooled lens shroud.’ In the late 1980s, collage and montage became increasingly prevalent means of expressing thematic complexity on book covers. If ever a novel called out for a mode of evocation based on fragments and juxtaposition, it was Crash, but it was 1994 before an American design team explored this possibility.

Ballardian: Crash

‘Both sexes, equally implicated’ (detail, Noonday Press edition, 1994; design: Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden).

Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden’s cover for Noonday Press makes Crash look like the cult novel that it is. ‘I loved the book,’ says Kaye. ‘It was so much about cars and sex that it seemed stupid to hide that. We went to a junkyard. We were both really into this project.’ Hayden’s boyfriend was also involved in the shoot and, for once, both sexes are presented as equally implicated in Ballard’s nightmare marriage of technology and desire. It was Hayden’s photographic concept, but at the junkyard they passed around a Polaroid. The grid of 12 pictures on the cover shows smashed and crumpled bodywork, a hand clutching a roll of film, a man’s jeans open at the fly with the suggestion of an erection and a woman’s hand delving for her crotch. A glimpse of breasts or buttocks can be seen through a broken windshield. ‘They all represent little blips of the experience,’ says Kaye. ‘Using the grid speaks a little more to the futuristic quality without being so literal. It was about lots of little ideas making up the whole.’ The ‘garage font’ title typeface, a sans serif to which serifs have been applied selectively, adds to the mood of unease. With cult-like understatement, Kaye positions the title in the bottom right-hand corner as a kind of full point to the design.

Ballard had never seen this version of Crash until I sent it to him. Publishers do not always provide authors with copies of foreign editions. He found the cinematic treatment ‘a bit too literal – if the novel is a psychotic hymn, this hardly suggests it’. But then no cover has succeeded in fully expressing the delirium of Crash.

Ballardian: Crash LEFT: Another miss (Vintage, 1996; cover photography © Alliance).

The 1996 UK film tie-in version, which Ballard, a supporter of Cronenberg’s interpretation, does admire, was another missed opportunity. The cover is based on a scene showing actress Holly Hunter (Helen Remington) straddling James Spader (James Ballard) in the front seat of a car. While the image conveys nothing of the perversity of either book or film and only hints at the role of the car, it does carry an erotic charge, acknowledging sexual interaction as the book’s subject in a way that few Crash covers have dared.

The cautious handling of Crash, even now, is all the more surprising when one considers the prevalence of pornographic imagery in contemporary culture. As a work of bizarre prophecy, the book was far enough ahead of its time to be truly shocking, though only a fool would imagine that Ballard thought we should crash our cars for sexual thrills. The phenomenon and meaning of the collision has become the subject of cultural criticism in essay collections such as Car Crash Culture (2001) and Crash Cultures (2003), and the spectre of Ballard’s narrative invariably haunts their pages. Crash’s explosive collisions of flesh and metal are, as Ballard says, a metaphor, taking social tendencies and following their trajectories to discover where they might lead. In his introduction, he notes that ‘we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly’. If that was true in 1973, it is even more the case today. At the time, Ballard described the book as ‘cautionary’ and ‘a warning’, but he has wavered on the question of whether Crash is a moral indictment. In 1997, he told cultural critic Mark Dery that the novel illustrates the process by which ‘formerly aberrant or psychopathic behavior is annexed into the area of the acceptable’ and he pointed out how the proliferation of new communications technologies was aiding this process.

In December 2003, GQ ran a story about ‘dogging’, a sexual subculture in which people use the Internet to arrange meetings where they have sex in parked cars while others watch. The item was illustrated by the Hunter and Spader shot used on the cover of Crash.

Rick Poynor


Ballardian: Crash

LEFT: Bruna Dutch edition (1980; design: Kothuis Art-Team).
RIGHT: Minotauro Spanish edition (1980; design uncredited).

Ballardian: Crash

LEFT: 10/18 French edition (1992; detail from Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman in bath).
RIGHT: Noonday Press US edition (1994; design: Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden).

Ballardian: Crash

LEFT: Picador USA edition (2000; design: Henry Sene Yee; painting: Davin Watne).
RIGHT: Vintage Blue UK edition (2004; photograph Scott Wishart; designer uncredited).

Rick Poynor was founding editor of Eye magazine in London from 1990 to 1997. He writes columns for Eye and for Print magazine in New York, and he has covered design, media and visual culture for Blueprint, Frieze, I.D., Icon, Domus, Metropolis, Adbusters, Harvard Design Magazine, The Guardian, Financial Times, and many other publications. His books include No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism (2003) and the essay collections Design Without Boundaries (1998), Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (2001) and Designing Pornotopia (2006). In 2003, he co-founded www.designobserver.com, now a leading weblog for design discussion. He is a research fellow at the Royal College of Art in London, and he lectures widely in Europe, the US, Australia and China.

+ ‘Woefully Underconceptualised’: Rick McGrath on J.G. Ballard Cover Art
+ Rick McGrath’s Terminal Collection
+ Ballardia: Jeremy Dennis’s JGB Cover Art Gallery
+ Mike Holliday’s guide to collecting Ballard

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21 Responses »

  1. As I’ve said before, I’m not a book cover junkie, but even in the face of Rick Poyner’s masterful analysis one has to realize the marketing reality that book cover art rarely represents the book’s contents. There are many reasons for this, including the sad fact that many publishers don’t understand what they’re publishing — Crash being a case in point — but the dynamic duo of economics and marketing “positioning” have the greatest influence on the type of print advertisement the book cover will become. This nasty reality boils down to simple economics: the more money they expect a book to make, the more resources they throw at it. And vice versa.

    Bottom line: the “job” of a book cover is not to represent the contents, but to get you to pick the book off the shelf. How well it does that, alas, is its real raison d’être. Everything else is subjective.

  2. Not to go on and on… but poor Rick Poyner… he moans over the mess they made of JG’s Crash covers, and the cover of his own book, Pornotopia, is a bit of a mish-mash of middling mediocrity. When in doubt, toss in an escalator?

  3. I was always tickled that it was Foss did the Panther pb (still the only copy I own), him being the leading sf illustrator of the period. His Crash cover is far better than the one he did for High Rise; badly-painted woman flashing breasts in front of a burnt-out building that looks like one of his massive, boxy spaceships.

    I’ve got a copy of Penthouse from 1974 (vol. 8, no. 10) with the first chapter of Crash as a story feature. I wonder what the one-handed readers made of that? You can see the opening spread here:


    Illustrator is uncredited but for a barely-discernible signature: Dean Vararecky? Vakarecky? The aviator-style helmet and goggles makes the driver seem connected in some way to Ballard’s dislocated pilots.

  4. Rick, I have to disagree with your claim that the film tie-in cover “conveys nothing of the perversity of either book or film and only hints at the role of the car”. The manner in which the curvature of the roof/windshield juncture mirrors exactly the geometry of Holly Hunter’s shoulder/arm mechanism to me suggests a radical posthumanist semiotics in both book and film — a cyborg future completely mediated by technology.

  5. Simon, that’s extracting quite a hefty message from a fairly slender detail, but you already know the book. I doubt that the idea of “radical posthumanist semiotics” would occur to a viewer who had never read Crash, or seen the film, and didn’t know much about Ballard. It would just look like a couple making out in a car and people have been doing that for decades. The cover doesn’t do nearly as much as it could to evoke Crash’s warped vision of sexuality mediated by technology. Although it has a simple clarity that comes from stacking the visual components in horizontal bands, the elements don’t mesh that well and the shiny chrome titlepiece is a tacky piece of typography.

    If we’re going for subtlety, I prefer the film still of James Spader reaching up and adjusting the rear view mirror, which was used on the cover of the BFI’s book about Cronenberg’s Crash by Iain Sinclair. This image perfectly suggests the character’s voyeurism: there is no one else in the car and all you can see behind him is a hot red glare, leaving you to speculate about what he is looking at and why it fascinates him.

    John, thanks for showing us the Penthouse spread. I hadn’t seen that before.

  6. Fair point, Rick. Yes, I was admiring Cronenberg’s subtle integration of Ballard’s themes far more than I was analysing the book cover — a tactical error on my part. As far as ‘sexuality mediated by technology’ goes, that oft-referenced rear-view pic of Rosanna Arquette draped in calipers, and over a car — her ‘vaginal’ leg wound prominent — might have been an even better bet. Anyway, thanks for a very stimulating article. By the way, did Ballard comment on all the covers you mention/display? I’d be interested to know what he thought of the translations; ‘Woman in bath’ seems a very, very odd choice.

  7. ‘the shiny chrome titlepiece is a tacky piece of typography’
    Don’t know if it comes across on the book cover, but the credits in the film title sequence are in the same ‘chrome’ lettering – but chrome in an increasing dinged and battered condition. I thought that was quite a nice touch.

    I suspect the main reason that image is on the movie tie-in edition is that it was on most of the film posters.

    But I wonder how many people picked up the ‘Now a major motion picture’ edition after seeing that godawful LA ‘Ooh, racial issues!’ film that nicked the title? Wonder how many read it?

  8. Ballard on the French Lichtenstein cover: “New to me – utterly mysterious, I can’t work out what is going on – a woman in a bathroom, squeezing a sponge?”

    On the French licking tongue cover: “New to me – pretty awful, though Crash was a very big publishing success in France, so the artist probably felt free to be playful.”

    On the Dutch shattered windscreen cover: “The woman looks frightened, when she should look aroused.”

    On the American woman-in-the-desert cover: “. . . stylised but weak – the desert landscape appears nowhere in the novel, nor the faceless woman in the vest – it gives no clues to the novel itself.”

    On the Spanish rolling car cover: “Weak.” (No other comment.)

    In the course of two letters about Crash’s cover designs, Ballard made quite a few more dismissive comments about other covers not shown above. His second letter concluded:

    “Looking through this, I see I’ve been rather negative, though probably no more than most writers – Crash is a special case, in the sense that the artist and designer have to decide how explicit they are going to be, how true to the novel, which in many ways is openly pornographic (a key part of the strategem that sustains it) – most of the jackets/covers either compromise or evade the problem, with predictable results.”

  9. Some of the foreign-language covers are decent, but I think the Noonday collage is the best. I’m really surprised Ballard was ambivalent about it. It seems to be the only illustration to get the right mix of sex, technology — and design. I also find its filmic quality very Ballardian.

    Conversely, the fact that Ballard likes the Foss cover — which I find hideous — makes me glad that I’m able to conjure up my own mental images when I read his work. It reminds me of the reason that Flaubert objected very strongly to illustrations in books: they defined too much and thereby limited the ability of the reader to make associations with the words.

    All of which takes me back to the comment I left on the Rick McGrath piece. The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to say that the best Ballard cover is the one with no illustration at all.

  10. Good to see the author’s comments about some of these covers.

    Regarding the remark about pornographic content, Mr. Ballard may like to know that the proposed Savoy Books edition he rejected last year would have been designed by me. Since Savoy likes to take chances and doesn’t operate according to the usual commercial imperatives I was fully intending on foregrounding the explicit nature of the book’s content. Not sure exactly how I would have gone about this since the project was spiked but I was disappointed to miss the opportunity.

  11. I like that James Marsh cover even tho it looks more suited for A Clockwork Orange, a book I’d place right next to Crash, along with Naked Lunch and Lolita. When books are that powerful it almost doesn’t matter what the cover is.

  12. ‘Mr. Ballard may like to know that the proposed Savoy Books edition he rejected last year …’ Ah ha! Anything you can tell us about that, John? Such as why he rejected it … and was there any additional content planned for it?

    Incidentally, I can’t seem to follow that link you gave for the Penthouse spread -I get a ‘this domain name has been registered with easyspace’ message. I can find your home page though … which bit is the Penthouse picture on?

  13. Sorry, my wretched webhost seems to dislike links from this site for some reason. The image is there alright but you’ll have to copy and paste the URL given above.

    Re: JGB’s rejection, I’m afraid I don’t recall the precise reasons as I wasn’t involved in the discussion. It was a surprise, however, since Ballard has known one of Savoy’s directors, Michael Butterworth, since the late 60s when they were both writing for New Worlds. Not only that, he provided a quote on request for the Savoy reprint of The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson, a book he counts as a personal favourite. There may have been some extra material planned since this has been the case with other Savoy editions–the Engelbrecht book included all the illustrations from the original printings of the stories and an extra story of Richardson’s. Not sure what was planned for Crash as it required the permission issue to be sorted out first.

    I suspect some of it may be down to Ballard’s stated dislike of “special editions” of books, which this would have been by default since all Savoy titles are limited runs. But he had no problem with the large format illustrated edition of The Drowned World that Dragon’s Dream produced in 1981 so it’s difficult to say.

  14. “you’ll have to copy and paste the URL given above.” OK, it works now, John! … And thanks for the thoughts on Ballard and Savoy.

  15. Hello Mr. McGrath

    Great site you have here! I just wanted to let you know I included a link to this page in a recent blog post concerning ‘Crash’ and its role in the conception of the Mute record label. I hope you don’t mind, and keep up this wonderful, informative site.


  16. hi rick. this isn’t rick mcgrath’s site. it’s mine, but thanks for the link.

    mr mcgrath is here:

  17. Hi Mr. Sellars

    Sorry about that. I guess I got confused with all the ‘Rick’s here – and I’m not making it any simpler. Well, the compliment still stands!

    I’ll come back to this site, I really like it (took the RSS feed).


  18. no problem, rick — please do come back.

    cheers, simon.

  19. […] references the excellent Chris Foss original (that Ballard himself liked) but fails to be anything other than a bad joke. Other inclusions are […]

  20. I used to have a copy of “Crash” with the grid cover designed by Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden, probably my favorite of the above cover designs. Unfortunately I must have loaned this out years ago and now it seems impossible to find a copy with this cover, looks like Noonday Press changed the cover to a rather boring design (after the film came out?) Hate when publishers do that! If anybody has an idea where I can track down a Noonday Press copy with the original cover I would to have it again.

  21. […] designs inpirados pelo pornô automobilístico da obra. Uma outra boa seleção pode ser vista no Balllardian, um site inteiro dedicado ao escritor […]

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