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‘Woefully Underconceptualised’: Rick McGrath on J.G. Ballard’s Cover ArtAuthor: Simon Sellars • Feb 28th, 2007 •
Interview by Simon Sellars
Rick McGrath is a writer and former adman. He is also the curator of what may be the world’s largest collection of J.G. Ballard first editions; he’s the ‘go-to man’ whenever a TV station or glossy mag does a rare feature on Ballard and needs some book covers. Rick has written analyses of Ballard’s work, which you can find — along with ephemera, scans of Ballard’s cover art, and a sizeable selection of criticism from heavyweight Ballard scholars — over at The Terminal Collection.
Ballard has often pointed to the influence of the visual arts (especially Surrealism) on his work, yet publishers have by and large spectacularly failed to take the hint, endowing his books with the trashiest covers this side of Philip K Dick. His work is slippery — it resists categorisation — and this has caused all sorts of problems for publishers desperate for a marketable image. Despite Rick’s repeated protestations that he was never into Ballard for the covers — skilfully sidestepping any book-nerd associations he might think I might want to throw at him — I asked him for information on the continuing enigma that is JGB book art.
Thanks to Rick for the book scans and Mike Holliday for the collages and ephemera.
:: Two David Pelham-illustrated ‘softcover classics’ (both Penguin, London, 1974).
How did you become interested in Ballard’s writing?
I was turned onto Ballard by Lawrence Russell, a now-retired professor of creative writing in Victoria, Canada. The classic 1974 Penguin softcover reprints had just been published, so I bought them all and went home to read The Wind From Nowhere. The writing style was punchy — fine by me — and the plot zipped along in normal adventure narrative mode — no surprises there — but it was the slow burn of the concept that blew me away. Up to this time the furthest into the SF apocalyptic pool I had ventured was Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice Nine. Hardly deep. By the time I waded through The Drowned World I was hooked. The Terminal Beach, my first foray into the short stuff, basically kicked psycho sand in my eyes. It’s a book you’d create a desert island for. My ardour was finally slaked with The Drought, which I still find a lesser god. When I finished that fab four I went out and bought more. I’m still buying.
What interested me then, as it does today, is Ballard’s bald-faced technique of inversion — it’s the elephant in the character’s room — which I still take as a kind of dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, flatly played out against painterly backgrounds in Ballard’s insular little pop-art worlds. Oh yeah, I’m also drawn to enigma and paradox, darkside fantasies, and free-flowing clever imaginations.
You like Wind from Nowhere, don’t you? Even Ballard can’t bring himself to mention it, these days.
It was, admittedly, the first Ballard I ever read. So it’s a little like a first kiss. I was fascinated with the concept of the increasing wind. It had a sudden newness to it. And you have to admit, tentative prose or not, that Ballard’s imaginative powers are already flexing in his minutely detailed descriptions of the disaster. The plot is well paced, with cutaways to the secondary story, and basically the book only fails at the end when Ballard realises he’s written himself into a corner: either they all die, or the wind abates. So it’s no great surprise when, with only a hundred or so words to go, Ballard has to toss this in: ‘Amazed, they looked up at this incredible defiance, intervening like some act of God to save them.’ At least he had the nerve to call it a deus ex machina before his readers did.
The writing style is lucid and honest; the intricacies of just how such a wind would affect the earth seems plausible and the tension is well maintained. It just doesn’t have that inversion of ‘civilised’ reality for Maitland to ponder, and ultimately accept.
In the rest of the apocalyptic quartet the action takes place after the denouement, much like in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and as such has a lack of tension because the time frame is extended — all the way to infinity in The Crystal World. My position, of course, could prove to be untenable, but I’d still defend Wind as a guilty pleasure on a wild winter night, curled up with a Lagavulin in front of a reassuring fire.
I’m not very good on the archival side of things. I throw away my manuscripts. You’ve got to understand, I can’t take all that stuff. I hate that instant memorialising…frankly it’s of no interest to me whatever. All those things that obsess archivists, like different variants of a paperback published in 1963 (on the first run something is deleted from the artwork, or the Berkeley medallion is not on the spine)…it leaves me cold!”
J.G. Ballard. ‘Interview by A. Juno & Vale’. RE/Search: J.G. Ballard (1984).
You’re known for your huge collection of Ballard first editions, flying in the face of Ballard’s attitude towards archivists and collectors.
Sure. But whaddya gonna do? Ballard seems to have no ego-attachment to specific objects. He even has a fake painting! Is it part of his general aversion to the past? He certainly isn’t nostalgic. And I can understand where he’s coming from — collecting first editions is a totally wacky expenditure of time and energy. The point of a book is the story, not the time it was published or the way it was packaged. I’m sure there’s some unsavoury Freudian explanation for this irrational desire to surround (extend?) yourself with these symbolic cultural objects, but the trip seems fairly harmless.
LEFT: Detail from Vermilion Sands (artist: Peter Jones; Panther, London 1975).
RIGHT: Richard Powers: Surrealism Lite (The Burning World; Berkley, New York 1964).
Actually, the trip is very instructive. Looking at the myriad examples of Ballard cover art on your site, one thing that strikes me is the fact that no publisher has ever really nailed it. Take the Panther cover (see above) for Vermilion Sands — it’s like a futuristic Fantasy Island — ‘De spaceship! De spaceship!’ Surely there’s something to be said here about the difficulties publishers have had in categorising Ballard’s genre-defying work: ‘we can’t work this weirdo out, so we’ll call it science fiction’.
Ballard’s cover art has been woefully under conceptualised. It tells me that either publishers don’t care and/or the artists just used something that was lying around the studio. Stupid. Lazy. Cheap. Choose any two.
The most probable reality is that genre-defying work, ipso facto, makes categorisation difficult. It seems to me Ballard is an intellectually pure writer, one who follows his own instincts and apparently isn’t concerned with hacking up a best-seller. So he doesn’t sit still long enough for a publisher to box him up. I think this happens because of Ballard’s voracious appetite for imagistic input. He devours TV, magazines, oddball scientific journals – invisible literature – and collages it back at us in his never-ending rush of story ideas. His books invariably have topical references, as he basically burrows through the prevailing zeitgeist and projects its imaginative dark side back at us.
JGB at home, showing them how it should be done… (photo: Martyn Goddard).
It’s just about possible to divide Ballard’s career into roughly four periods. What’s the best and worst cover art in each? Let’s start with his early pulp, sci fi period, say from 1956 to 1969…
LEFT: Designer uncredited; The Drowned World; Gollancz, London, 1963.
OK, here Ballard had three publishers: Gollancz, Cape and Berkley. The low points are certainly the Gollancz efforts, which used no art and just two colours on a bilious yellow stock. Most of the press run probably went to libraries. Cheap to do. Garish on the shelf. The Berkleys are almost as bad, as they use the completely irrelevant ‘surrealist’ art pumped out by the prolifically puffy Richard Powers. Low point is his cover art for The Burning World (see above), which shows a scene that is (a) not at all representative of the story, and (b) is antithetical to the book’s theme. My favourite Berkley is a tossup between the Wind From Nowhere cover and the Drowned World effort.
The Capes are by far the best. The Drought (see below) is powerfully minimalist, relying basically on ripped horizontal colour bands; The Crystal World is the first to feature a Max Ernst painting, and the pile of skulls adorning The Disaster Area is also somehow appropriate, with its implication of atrocity. Cape also did wrap-around covers, which extended the effect, and if I have any quarrel with them, it’s their choice of cheesy typeface.
:: Cape’s wraparound Drought (artist: David Fawcett; Jonathan Cape, London, May 1965).
Next up: Ballard’s ‘experimental’ period, lasting approximately from 1970 to 1978…
Here, of the hardcovers, again Cape is the major publisher. Atrocity (below), Crash (see later) and Low-flying Aircraft (see later) are the high points. The Doubleday cover for Atrocity Exhibition is an odd choice, given the other 12 drawings (see later) Mike Foreman did for the book (perhaps it’s the least offensive), and Grove’s Halloween cover for Love & Napalm: USA was obviously developed on bad drugs.
:: The incomparable Dali; a very successful union (artist: Salvador Dali; Jonathan Cape, London, 1970).
Of all the hardcovers, however, I think the best overall is the Farrar, Straus & Giroux cover for Concrete Island (below). It’s just the kind of visual perversion I think Ballard would like. At least it’s clever.
:: The 1970s was a very strange decade.
LEFT: Crash (artist: Lawrence Ratzkin; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY 1973).
RIGHT: Concrete Island (artist: Paul Bacon; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1974).
The soft covers are more varied. Berkley’s Vermilion Sands and Chronopolis editions have dull covers by the still uninspired sub-realist, Richard Powers, and Panther’s Vermilion Sands in 1975 — as you’ve already highlighted — goes deep retro with a busty woman and distracted midget. At least it’s better than the haunted Gregory Peck figure they put on their reprint of Concrete Island in 1976 (below), and the clothing-challenged waif in front of an inappropriately destroyed building in the 1977 reprint of High-Rise (below). What were they thinking? How could they ignore the dead dog in the pool?
:: Gregory Peck meets a bedraggled, semi-naked nubile wandering dreamily around a post-apocalyptic urban war zone.
LEFT: Concrete Island (artist: Richard Clifton-Dey; Panther, London, 1976).
RIGHT: High-Rise (artist: Chris Foss; Panther, London, 1977).
The third major period of Ballard’s writing is a mish-mash — basically mainstream — lasting from 1979 to 1995. A lot of ground is covered, a lot of different styles…
But really, does anything stand out? In hardcovers, Cape starts to sputter a tad with the enigmatic family portrait on the cover (below) of The Unlimited Dream Company (granted, a silly title — but Brit gothic art?) and the oddly understated cover (below) of Hello America, surely a story with more visual treats than a bulbous car slithering over a brown desert. Carrol & Graf’s version of the same title looks like an old set from Planet of the Apes.
:: Detail from The Unlimited Dream Company (artist: Bill Botten; Jonathan Cape, London, 1979).
The Dragon’s Dream 1981 edition of Drowned World is a visual treat — one of very few ‘special editions’ of Ballard’s more visual works — and Cape continues to milk defeat from the breast of victory with a totally inappropriate fantasist illustration adorning Myths of the Near Future (below).
LEFT: Hello America (artist: Bill Botten; Jonathan Cape, London, 1981).
RIGHT: Artist: Paul Wright; The Day Of Creation, Gollancz, London, 1987.
No wonder Ballard switched to Gollancz, who at least got the project done with Empire of the Sun. I thought Gollancz also did a good job with The Day of Forever and The Venus Hunters (illustrated by Mark Foreman, son of Mike Foreman), although their take on The Day of Creation (above) looks like the Little Tugboat Annie that could… more like Daze of Creation. Hutchinson’s oddball art for Running Wild is cool — at least they’re kids — although Farrar’s attempt looks like they thought the book was called Sitting Wild And Out Of Focus.
LEFT: Myths Of The Near Future (artist: Bill Botten; Jonathan Cape, London, 1982).
RIGHT: Running Wild (artists: Chip Kidd and Barbara de Wilde; Hutchinson, London, 1988).
The oddball Arkham entry, Memories of the Space Age (see later), safely offers up another Max Ernst — and ignores the endless possibilities of a wasted Cape Canaveral, and the Collins hodgepodge of War Fever is yet another example of the ‘more is less’ school of cover design. Bore Fever. Although I think they recover nicely with The Kindness of Women (below), even though the timecode has been wound back to the 40s with the hat/lip styles. This period ends with Rushing to Paradise (below), a nicely executed cover on an unfortunate book. It’s like Ballard says: death has the best architects.
:: Two thumbs up from Rick.
LEFT: The Kindness of Women (designer: Neal Stuart; Harper Collins, Toronto, 1991).
RIGHT: Rushing to Paradise (designer: Chris Moore; Flamingo, London, 1994).
LEFT: Myths and Feathers (detail from Myths of the Near Future; designer: Chris Moore; Panther/Paladin, London, 1984).
In softcovers, Panther/Paladin hit a high point with a reissue of the classics using a more conceptual approach during the 1980s, such as the feather-encrusted pilot’s helmet in their 1984 issue of Myths of the Near Future, a nice, fetishishtic image for Crash, and a strong watch-like visual for Low-Flying Aircraft. Paladin reissued a number of new titles in the early 1990s, but, along with a Dent re-issue, these covers didn’t seem to have the on-the-shelf snap of the previous designs.
:: Two flamboyant Flamingos.
LEFT: Cocaine Nights (designer: Jerry Bauer; Flamingo, London, 1996).
RIGHT: Millennium People (designer: Jerry Bauer; Flamingo, London, 2003).
Now we’re into Ballard’s ‘urban detective’ period — from 1996 to the present…
In which it’s hard to argue with Flamingo’s flamboyant covers, starting with the expensive Cocaine Nights, and moving up the marketing budget ladder to Millennium People, with its flagrant metal emboss and Ralph Steadman-inspired cover art of the melting underside of London. Then, splat: Kingdom Come has an atrocious cover, once again presenting an incongruous image, given all the visual opportunities presented in the novel, and a title made more difficult to read by having it split with Ballard’s name.
Patrick Ness wrote that Kingdom Come’s design ‘is so very much more drab than David Hasslehoff’s autobiography’.
It’s a piece of shite. Amateur design and idiot concept. That cover and the suspect title — Ballard’s titles are often hit or miss, too — no doubt hurt sales as much as the crappy reviews. And what a letdown after Millennium People… Bargain basement productions. Any moron could have thought of the St George Cross, or Brooklands…or, given the plot, one of Pearson’s ads!
LEFT: Splat! (image: Getty Images; Kingdom Come; Fourth Estate, London, 2006)
Speaking of reviews, you’re one of the few to defend KC. Cover art aside, why do you think critics have reacted so savagely to Kingdom Come?
I think their reaction is a result of misreading the book. Ballard is complex, and a lot smarter in a philosophic sense than many critics realise. I think he’s been pigeonholed over the last few years as a sort of cranky old iconoclast with a sharp wit and ready opinion, and this — wait for it — media image tends to colour critical reaction, which means the Brits tend to confuse the books with the writer, and dismiss them as the repetitive hyperbole a sort of cranky iconoclast with a sharp wit and ready opinion would write. In contrast, the book received generally positive reviews in Canada, where Ballard is unencumbered with any prevailing public persona.
KC is a densely plotted story, made even more difficult to follow because of the linear Richard Pearson POV. You have to pay attention. Poor JGB. He writes a ‘cry wolf’ story about manipulation of the instincts (the true fascism?) and how easily an ego-damaged adman can carpet bomb a nuclear noir campaign over a suburban sandbox, and how the resultant mental wrench ironically proves deadly for inherently boring consumerism and life enhancing for the survivors. As a bonus, the book is full of clever and funny insights and asides. Critics completely miss the point, blathering about consumerism, fascism, all the links twixt centre and church, sports mobs, characterisation, repetition, etc etc — all the surface noise.
Ballard is not a writer easily digested, as I discovered myself. His modus operandi is to set little creative enigmas for the reader to imaginatively riff on. Mass-media critics have neither the time nor the depth of interest to really think about what The Man is saying, and with KC they focus on the central premise, consumerism and fascism, and entirely miss the ironic criticism of advertising. The entire plot is dependent on Pearson’s campaign. No wonder it generated an army. And Pearson is the great-grandson of Atrocity’s Travers, insofar as his environment is also mediatised, and both seek ‘closure’ in the creation of public, pop symbolism. Pearson’s ad campaign is thematically connected to both the collages and concepts fashioned by Travers.
But critics are part of the media landscape themselves, and their comments about the book have to be expressed in the language of their readers. That’s how you keep your job. In marketing reality, it really doesn’t matter that much if the review is good or bad — what counts is the mention and a picture of the cover. Reviews are, in their own way, just another advertisement for the book. It’s because it doesn’t look like an ad that we confuse it with commentary.
LEFT: J.G. Ballard Quotes (designer: Brian MacKenzie; RE/Search Publications, San Francisco, 2004).
RIGHT: J.G. Ballard Conversations (designers: Brian MacKenzie and Marian Wallace; RE/Search Publications, San Francisco, 2005).
Back to the art, and stepping away into the secondary sources, RE/Search’s covers for their two recent JGB volumes struck me as, in a word, bizarre.
Honestly, I think these reflect more RE/Search’s sense of their design standards. I’m not sure how a pastiche of retro SF images in any way either symbolises Ballard or represents his philosophy. Why not show a pic of The Man himself? Who’s the hero of the book, anyway? And just to show how the publishing industry is in comparison with the guys who really know — Hollywood — check out the sophisticated cover art for the DVDs and CDs of Empire (film; CD) and Crash (film; CD). What is it? Publishers can’t visualise?
LEFT: J.G. Ballard (image: uncredited; Manchester University Press, Manchester & NY, 2005).
However, the cover for academic Andrzej Gasiorek’s Ballard volume utilises the classic Ballardian stereotype: a human-effacing motorway image (a cliché I’m also guilty of using with the banner for this site). It’s clearly the deep cultural resonance of Crash that has generated this widespread visual shorthand — good or bad, do you think?
I’m not surprised… barren roadways have, I think, replaced the empty swimming pool as the modern Ballard image. Academics have tended to focus their attention on Ballard’s more difficult works – Atrocity Exhibition and Crash — and the dominant image of this creative period is the car and its associative images. Good or bad? More like predictable, as some representative image will be chosen, and the car is certainly a Ballardian creation.
What do you think of today’s crop of book covers in general? A number of commentators have bemoaned an over-reliance on computers rather than collage or hand-drawn art, and certainly you can see this in the recent Flamingo Ballard editions: metallic embossing, boxes around the text, and so on.
Funny. I’ve never been a cover-art hound. First editions have dust jackets and the book’s value is 90% determined by the condition of this stupidly fragile piece of paper. What’s on the cover is basically immaterial. As for the production process, I’ve never thought twice about technique — it’s how well the cover draws the eye to itself, and then suggests it might be a good idea to pick me up. Doesn’t matter how it’s done if the idea is on concept.
Is there a computer-generated Ballard cover, say within the last five years, which has caught your fancy?
Not really, as my taste in covers is to either (a) express the mood, or (b) reveal some action. The Flamingos are examples of the triumph of form over content. Do they give you even the slightest idea of the story behind them? Not in the slightest. The tone? OK, Millennium People suggests a breakdown, but the zebra-hipped hottie on Super-Cannes and the fireworks-splayed stab of coke on Cocaine Nights are merely marketing-generated eye candy. Cool, but candy.
Designers have consistently turned a deaf ear to [my] entreaties that someone, please, sit down and draft some original art… Over-reliance on…clinical [computer] technology is estranging in the decorative arts. That’s why, at my wit’s end…I hauled out my coloured pencils. I drew my own damn book cover — luminous, one-of-a-kind, and, like one of Tolstoy’s real beauties, not quite perfect.”
Lionel Shriver. ‘Now that pixels have replaced pencils the art of drawing has vanished. I’m so exasperated I’m designing my own book cover’. The Guardian, 2/8/06.
Should writers — like rock stars — be allowed to design their own covers? Or should they never be allowed near a scanner and a copy of Photoshop for as long as they live?
Ha. That’s good. But perhaps it’ll all be moot in the future anyway, as self-publishing and on-demand publishing increase with the expansion of the digital world. Personally, I can’t see why a writer shouldn’t also design, except in those instances where a lack of any skill or interest would diminish interest. With Ballard’s background in art, I don’t know if he’s ventured any suggestions (perhaps he has), but I think the system has a built-in reticence with agents as intermediaries. One suspects that a lot of writers rarely deal with their publishers.
:: ‘Venus Smiles’: one of five Ballardian ‘ads’ published in Ambit magazine (designer: J.G. Ballard; Ambit, #46, Winter 1970/71).
On the strength of Ballard’s advertiser announcements for Ambit, at least he would have made a good go of it. The Atrocity Exhibition would have especially benefited from this approach, don’t you think?
I have to disagree — I’m afraid Ballard’s concepts are so private that there’s little room for viewer overlap, and without that shared language there’s no understanding. I think those Ambit ads were products of their time, and possibly an in-joke with da boys. Times have changed. I’m not sure how Ballard might have handled Atrocity. Even his pro pal, Michael Foreman, had a tough time, falling back on a predictable collage solution himself.
Appropriating a Blake watercolour, say, or a Durer etching or an Ingres painting for the cover’s pictorial element puts the text in excellent company without diluting its descriptive authority. Nobody confuses these artists’ representations with the author’s, but their validated excellence may rub off.”
John Updike. ‘Deceptively Conceptual’. The New Yorker, 10/10/05.
:: ‘Europe After the Rain’ by Max Ernst: put to good use? (artist: Max Ernst; Memories Of The Space Age; Arkham House, Sauk City, 1988).
Following Updike’s lead, do you think some of the best Ballard covers are the Ernst paintings used for Crystal World and Memories of the Space Age? (Ernst’s usage for the latter was obviously missed on Evelyn C. Leeper, though…).
If Updike’s pissed, he should write a book about the conservation of symbols through disuse. Is that pre-modern? I like Ballard’s Ernst covers, but invariably they’re badly printed and perhaps too dense an image for your eye to easily resolve. The Dali cover on Atrocity was also an odd choice, I thought, with the primary image on the back cover. You can be too subtle. It’s also poorly printed.
What other artists would you like to see adorning a Ballard book?
I can detect Ballard thematic links with artists as disparate as Magritte and Escher, Russian Stalinist posters and almost all outsider art.
LEFT: Low-Flying Foss (artist: Chris Foss; Low-Flying Aircraft Panther; Panther, London, 1978).
RIGHT: That’s more like it — Cape’s first edition. Although the Monty Python-style vehicles and Gilliamesque cartoon font are a worry… (artist: Bill Botten; Low-flying Aircraft; Jonathan Cape, London, 1976).
You mentioned the low point of Richard Powers earlier. But what about Chris Foss? He seemed even more wide of the mark. For Low-Flying Aircraft, he supplied one of his patented starships that had nothing to do with the contents — it seemed that Ballard would be forever burdened by his sci-fi beginnings, even long after he’d maintained escape velocity from it.
Foss’s Low-Flying Aircraft cover is a joke compared with the Cape first edition — but then I grew up on an air-force base when they still had Lancasters.
Superb, in many ways the best ever. 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’.”
J.G. Ballard on Chris Foss’s cover for Crash, quoted in Rick Poynor, ‘Archive: Crash Covers‘. Eye Magazine, 2004.
Monstrously bad, one of the worst book jackets ever — for sheer ugliness and crudity, impossible to beat.”
Ballard on Cape’s Crash cover, quoted in Poynor, 2004.
LEFT: Foss’s Crash (artist: Chris Foss; Panther, London, 1979).
I was very surprised to learn that Ballard praised Foss’s cover for Crash — a lurid, pulpy depiction of a naked woman and a monstrous, Christine-style demon-car. It’s less of a surprise to learn he hates the Cape edition: it’s very 70s, and very crass, although it’s strangely evocative of the poster art for Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and all of the stylised, morally ambivalent violence that signified.
I hate to admit it, but I don’t have Foss’s Crash cover, although if Ballard liked it, that could be part of his proclivity to provoke when possible. If it has sex, I’m going to bet The Man will find something to like about it. The Cape Crash is fine by me as it fits my criteria of selling the book as quickly as possible. The name and a gear stick. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. The colour helps.
Do you agree with Rick Poynor, who after analysing the various covers for Crash, concluded that the novel ‘is peculiarly resistant to attempts to summarise it with a single image. On the whole, image-makers have been defeated by Crash’.
If Poynor thinks Crash is beyond an image, he just hasn’t found one he likes yet. As I’ve said, the DVD cover is brutally erotic. If image-makers have been defeated by Crash, then they’re either not very good or their imagination is better suited to other themes. Half the battle is matching the right artist to the job.
:: Two Capes: Ballard hates one; McGrath can’t stand the other.
LEFT: Crash (artist: Bill Botten; Jonathan Cape, London, June 1973).
RIGHT: Concrete Island (artist: Bill Botten; Jonathan Cape, London, April 1974).
Poynor also wrote with regards to Ballard that ‘few of the hardback covers produced by Cape in the 1970s and 1980s were any good’. I don’t mind Cape’s Concrete Island cover: it’s full of the Pop-Art allusions that Ballard so skilfully assimilated.
I agree with Poynor. Cape’s Concrete Island has been taken to a level of abstraction as to be meaningless. And it’s literal, not descriptive. The island is green, with a concrete shoreline surrounding it. Suffice to say publishing is a business, and there is a balance between projected sales and what you’ll spend on art.
According to Jeremy Dennis, ‘The Drowned World causes endless problems to cover illustrators, provoking some of the most tedious and literalistic of Ballard’s covers’.
LEFT: Drowned Tanguy (artist: Yves Tanguy; The Drowned World; Penguin, London 1965).
History probably proves him right, although Berkley did choose to show Kerans at the end — a bold move. Dick French does a pretty good job showing the Rousseau-like jungle of Ballard’s imagination in the Dragon’s Dream edition, but even then the hotel is hardly the dominant image. A big crocodile has been used, but perhaps the oddest of all is the 1965 Penguin with a detail of Yves Tanguy’s Le Palais aux Rochers. Now, that’s a stretch.
Does book-cover art have an image problem, compared to rock-album art for example?
Interesting question, but it’s a little like comparing car crashes and wall angles. I’d say book-cover art doesn’t have an image problem — it’s always the answer to the simple question of how to attract the eye in a busy visual environment. Do people really buy a book simply because of the cover design? I doubt it. The cover’s job is to ‘get you in the store’ — pick up the book. After that, other purchase decision criteria kick in. Title. Plot summary. Price. Popular book covers are simply print advertisements. In the old days (before CDs) rock albums had an advantage, simply because the size of the product gave you more space for compelling art. Then they invented foldout albums, and you had a bloody poster to play with. And music is less specific than a story in terms of the images you could use. The bigger acts, as well, could retain creative control over their print image and ensure their album art didn’t go off into marketing department mayhem.
LEFT: A Mike Foreman illustration for Doubleday’s edition of The Atrocity Exhibition (Doubleday, NY, 1970).
RIGHT: A Phoebe Gloeckner illustration for the RE/Search reprint (RE/Search, San Francisco, 1990).
Returning to Mike Foreman: you have an extremely rare copy of Doubleday’s pulped Atrocity edition, which featured Foreman’s illustrations inside. In capturing the essence of the work, how do they compare to Phoebe Gloeckner’s gynaecological art in RE/Search’s Atrocity reprint?
Foreman’s 13 illustrations are line-art mini-collages or posters of the book’s major images and themes. There are the expected images of Kennedy and Monroe, but the great bulk of them basically attempt to visualise some of the book’s themes of war, death, sex and politics. There are quite a few lurid illustrations of Karen Novotny in various stages of déshabillé, and a number of freaky landscapes, and one great image of a worker looking out a window under an eye of Marilyn’s projected face. To tell you the truth, I was somewhat disappointed with the illustrations. Given the flamboyant visual atmosphere of Atrocity Exhibition, it’s actually quite amazing that Foreman’s collaboration is as understated as it is. Foreman’s style is reminiscent of the times, which was dominated by quasi-cutesy little creatures bracketed by Yellow Submarine and Peter Max, and you can see influences of this style throughout, although the obsessively fine line art adds a bit of psycho zing in comparison to the bright, flat colours of Max et al.
Gloeckner’s art is, I think, another example of bringing together a set of drawings and the book. In other words, I’m not sure she did her illustrations as a specific commission for this book. Are they erotic without being sexual? Or the other way around? Her drawings are, undoubtedly, strangely evocative, and certainly reinforce the hallucinatory nature of the work.
:: Two more from David Pelham (both Penguin, London, 1974).
What’s your favourite of all Ballard covers?
I’d vote for the 1974 Penguin paperbacks, designed by David Pelham. These little airbrushed minimalist masterpieces somehow seem to catch the singularity of Ballard’s obsessions, and the clarity of the image immediately attracts the eye. The font is well chosen — a strong stencil — and each cover is true to the overall design themes of the project. These I’d like to have as paintings.
Enough about cover art: what’s your key Ballard text?
There are two…
1) The Drowned World: without it, there is no ‘conceptual landscape’, and Ballard would not have staked out the stupendous idea of how to have his protagonists go with the flow, no matter how irrational it appears.
2) Empire of the Sun: JGB’s artistic pinnacle, and a rosetta stone of images. Without it, we wouldn’t be here…and JGB would be just another cult footnote.
+ Richard Powers
+ Chris Foss
+ Phoebe Gloeckner
+ Michael Foreman
+ Rick McGrath’s Terminal Collection
+ Ballardia: Jeremy Dennis’s JGB Cover Art Gallery
+ J.G. Ballard Bibliography at Ballardian
+ Mike Holliday’s guide to collecting Ballard
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