The Life of Book Covers (Part II)

Last week, I wrote about the joys and perils of discovering our first ideas of the world through reading. Drawing on Tolkien, I suggested that there is a primacy to words, that what we read when we’re young can become the bones around which our understanding of things accumulates over time, whether that’s the Hill, the Tree, or Reading itself. Peel the layers back and the skeleton remains. Ligature begets ligament.

What intrigued me in the writing last week is that sometimes that primacy is so great that we retain a wrong idea of a thing for our whole lives.

For instance, when child-me read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I was captivated C.S. Lewis’s description of Turkish Delight, which I envisioned as a sweet, thick, caramel drink in a silver goblet. No matter how many times I’ve encounter Turkish Delight since—diminutive, mildly sweet, agar-like blocks—I still feel a twinge of disappointment that the dessert is not, in fact, a magical drink.

Why is this? Lewis’s description of the “sweet and light” Turkish Delight is clear. But just below his description, I find Pauline Baynes’ delightful drawing of a “jeweled cup” conjured by the book’s evil queen:


And there it is. As a child who looked at the pictures on a page before reading the words, I can tell you that while the word may be primal, the image has a peculiar power over the word. The book cover, then, ought be a particular powerful way that images shape words, being the last barrier between reader and writer.

So how can book covers shape the books they contain? What should a successful Discworld book cover do? This post is about that question, but it also celebrates the art of Discworld. Kirby, Kidby, McLaren, Player—settle in for a tour of the artists who’ve given visual life to Pratchett’s words.

The Luggage and the Suitcase

I remember my first real encounter with Discworld book covers. My then-coworker and current blogging co-conspirator, Anne, set a big bag of trade paperbacks in front of me at work. I remember gazing deeply into the pool of books and feeling a tiny, peevish voice in my head whisper, “Man, those are some ugly books.”

Fortunately, Anne persuaded me to read them, and I was hooked. But had I encountered them first in a bookstore, I might not have.  I mean, look at that cover.


That’s not the Luggage! That’s a suitcase! And the background is the color of cherry Starbursts! Assuming that a good book cover should in some way represent the book, does this cover capture The Colour of Magic? I submit for reference three passages from the bookFirst, this:

At the top of the cellar steps Broadman knelt down and fumbled in his tinderbox. It turned out to be damp.

“I’ll kill that bloody cat,” he muttered, and groped for the spare box that was normally on the ledge by the door. It was missing. Broadman said a bad word. A lighted taper appeared in mid-air, right beside him.


“Thanks,” said Broadman.


Broadman went to throw the taper down the steps. His hand paused in mid-air. He looked at the taper, his brow furrowing. Then he turned around and held the taper up to illuminate the scene. It didn’t shed much light, but it did give the darkness a shape…

“Oh, no” he breathed.

BUT YES, said Death.

And now this:

Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination. In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.

And finally this

“What else is down there? I mean, if you fell off, what would you see?”

Tethis sat down on an outcrop. High over the disc the moon came out from behind a cloud, giving him the appearance of ice.

“My home is down there, perhaps,” he said slowly. “Beyond your silly elephants and that ridiculous turtle. A real world. Sometimes I come out here and look, but somehow I can never bring myself to take that extra step… A real world, with real people. I have wives and little ones, somewhere down there…” He stopped, and blew his nose. “You soon learn what you’re made of, here on the Edge.”

The Colour of Magic may lack the music of later books, but I don’t think that the garish, candy-colored monstrosity above captures its center. It’s a darkly funny book that welds high-fantasy to fleeting moments of existential restlessness and mundanity. It feels like a new thing made of old things.

And so maybe the question becomes not only “What does good Discworld illustration look like?” but “What kind of story is Discworld?”

Shelf-books and Use-Books

To consider that, let’s consider one of Discworld’s most celebrated illustrators. Here’s Josh Kirby’s art for The Light Fantastic


Kirby’s art frustrates me. His vision interbreeds muscular Frazetta heroes with walking potato men. He can be bizarrely literal—bespectacled Twoflower literally has four eyes. And see the woman above, whose clothes occupy only slightly more cubic space than her sword? Consider it against the following passage from the selfsame book:

“Now, there is a tendency at a point like this to look over one’s shoulder at the cover artist and start going on at length about leather, tight boots and naked blades. Words like ‘full’, ‘round’ and even ‘pert’ creep into the narrative, until the writer has to go and have a cold shower and a lie down. Which is all rather silly, because any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn’t about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialized buyer.”

Damn it, Kirby. You had one job! And yet…

If I put on my dispassionate rhetorical glasses, does this cover fit in Pratchett’s world? What is Pratchett’s world? Here’s Kirby’s art for Equal Rites:

Equal Rites 2

First of all, that is not Granny Weatherwax by any possible reading of the book. And yet the luminous yellows, deep oranges, rich brocade reds…are beautiful. The lines are in constant, fantastic motion. The rivers of detail never overwhelm but always suggest that the viewer should go deeper. Even as I want to have harsh words with Kirby…I love this.

I started writing this post intending to critique Kirby harshly but the cover to Equal Rites tells me two things about the book without opening it: first, that this book has heart, vim, heat—it’s a living thing. Second, this book has an intellectual history grounded in a rich pantheon of stories and folklore. And sigh, those lumpy characters suggest a certain irreverence not inappropriate to Pratchett (even if Kirby’s depictions of women are a legitimate problem). This image tells me that Discworld is unpretentious, not overly glossy. To borrow an observation from Tiffany Aching, it’s magicnot Magick.

So whatever I think of Kirby’s characters, his art tells me something about what Pratchett’s novels are: these are use-books, not shelf-books. Dive in, he says. They beg to be worn, thumbed, notated, kicked under the bed, lost in the pillows, broken to the binding. Pratchett writes classics that ask you to enjoy them, not elevate them.

So maybe a reader who starts Discworld with a Kirby cover isn’t in such bad hands. Maybe a good book cover tells you not only about the tone of a work but about its values—to what degree it loves history and motion and storytelling and song—and how to use it well.

The Soul and Center

Much as I expected to tear into Kirby, I expected to praise Paul Kidby. But in writing this, things got complicated. Kidby, who began illustrating Discworld when Kirby died, has generally been my artist of preference—take, for instance, his cover to Going Postal:

Going Postal 1

At first, the image suggests “epic” but the mountains of letters, the characters’ expressions, and over-the-top details like the torn shirt push the piece’s tone away from epic toward…ironic with style? And that’s not an inaccurate statement about the book itself.

However, it has to be said that where Kirby offers lyrical, whimsical visions that would not be out of place in a child’s book of fairy stories, Kidby presents a realist, modernist take on the world. Is that an appropriate ethos for the Disc? Well, the progress of the Disc is toward modernism, but I’m not sure it’s this modernism. Can it be that Kidby’s lines and value are a little too solid, too real, for a world as fluid and narratively driven as the Disc?

Let’s consider the following cover:

The Wee Free Men 4

And then consider the following brief extract from The Wee Free Men:

She opened her eyes and then, somewhere inside, opened her eyes again. She heard the grass growing, and the sound of worms below the turf. She could feel the thousands of little lives around her, smell all the scents on the breeze, and see all the shades of the night. . . The wheels of stars and years, of space and time, locked into place. She knew exactly where she was, and who she was, and what she was. She swung a hand.

The soul and center of this book—to borrow a phrase from Pratchett—is certainly something to do with this young girl, her grandmother, and the land—and I’m not sure that the art catches that center. Kidby is great and I love his work; he catches the aplomb and gravity of Pratchett. But I’m unsure whether I see the book’s beating heart, or its ethos of reading. And maybe a world as frantic and strange as the Disc needs to have that anchor.

Souls and Anchors

I want to offer two examples of artists who, at least for me, capture the soul and center of Pratchett’s work, and to consider why capturing it might be so important for these books in particular.

First, Stephen Player has produced a range of art for Discworld, from maps to fully illustrated books to calendars. What appeals about Player is his ability to make those tonal shifts—consider the soft tones and theatrical forms of a scene from the opera-centered Maskerade:


Against the strong lines and chiaroscuro of his Death:

terry-pratchett-s-discworld-collectors-edition (1)

And his fantastic map of Ankh-Morpork, which I happily own.


What I think Player shows us more than most Pratchett artists is the complexity of illustrating a project as sprawling, as variegated, as simultaneously soulful and irreverent as Discworld—and the need for plurality in approaching it.

And that, to me, is where Joe McLaren comes inhe plays out that plurality in any one piece he creates. His Gollancz Collector’s Library covers remain the bane of Discworld readers because not only are these editions exquisitely produced but Gollancz only has the rights to the first 21 books. This is McLaren’s cover to Feet of Clay, one of my favorite covers ever:


The best part is that you must literally hold the book in your hands to fully appreciate it because the red bits are reflective and, if you’re like me, you’re going to sit there and wiggle the book around and stare at the shifting color and those red eyes are going to nom your very soul. The image is perfectly suggestive of the book itself, which is characterized by noir overtones and lingering fog. It tells you nothing about the book—and everything.

To me, this is a book cover that tells you how to read it—probably, you should be sitting in the dank, damp corner of a dark pub. And it tells you what to value—it has a handmade feeling, from the carefully spidery line-work to the handwritten type. And that is so perfectly Pratchett, lover of all things crafted.

To me, it’s art like McLaren’s playful yet foreboding covers that suggests that he knows how to anchor Pratchett’s complex tonal shifts, and it’s through both Player and McLaren that I can finally return to my earlier questions:

So what is Pratchett’s Discworld, and what should cover art for his books do?

Light on The First Hill

For me, Pratchett will never be short on comedy, bluster, and streetwise irony. What he needs are illustrators who anchor his texts, who put its heart up front, yes, but also the way it has its feet in the dirt and on the cobbles and under guttering lamps and inside valleys where light travels slowly. The greatest character in all of the Disc is perhaps the Disc itself, and no matter what book you read, the land, the city, the nation, will always be a primary character.

It is often through place that Pratchett’s minute knowledge of history, literature, folklore, and science pours in. That ethos is what stops his books from bounding away across the hills, or floating away on the wind. It’s what makes them not gaudy plastic but wax, wood, old beer, and iron. And I maintain that this is important in the visual storytelling, too. The best book covers tell you that there is a story here, and it’s complicated, so you’d better dig in and see what you can make of it—they tell you your role as a reader. They tell you that, with Pratchett, the profane is the sacred.

I will not go so far as to say that Tolkien is wrong—maybe the writer’s words afford more imaginative space than the book cover. However, I might venture that, if it is through prose that we see the first Hill, then it is in the light cast by the book cover that we see it.

And here I am thinking these thoughts having read pretty much everything in the Discworld canon. The only chance I have to experience a new Discworld book through its cover first is now The Shepherd’s Crown, and so at last I circle back to where I began in Part I. The slight weight of the volume in my hand reminds me that Pratchett never finished it. But for now and forever, whatever The Shepherd’s Crown will become for me, whatever Firsts it offers, whenever we get to it, I will read the book through this cover—in flecks of gold on silver, veined foil wings, and a field of black. And that is no poor way to enter a book, and no bad way to leave it when it’s done.


Note: I made some edits to this post after posting because I accidentally switched a near-final draft for a final draft. Sorry!



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