top of page

Discworld and Josh Kirby

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

In a previous post I looked at some of my favourite Discworld covers, the 'Collectors Library'; those clothbound hardbacks illustrated by Joe McClaren and originated as a series style by Gollancz, the owners of the hardback publishing rights to roughly the first half of the series, and completed by Doubleday, who own the hardback rights to the rest.

I wondered if this artwork which serves so beautifully for its current purpose might also, hypothetically, be reworked to serve the commercial needs of the standard paperback too, and I tried out several covers with a paperback-y treatment to see.

I felt like I did prove to my own satisfaction that McLaren's cover artwork could be repurposed to lovely paperback use. However it is totally hypthetical as a proposition: the fact is that the slightly complicated publishing rights situation of Discworld would never allow for McLaren's work to be reused in this form. Gollancz are part of rival publishing giant to the house that owns the paperback publishing rights to the series (Transworld), and so would have very little incentive to liscence their half of the artwork set to a rival company putting out competing editions.

If it strikes me as a shame that we are destined never to see any such paperback resuse, today's topic is a good reminder that there's no actual guarantee such a project would produce something lovely.

We might be missing out on an artful adaptation of gorgeous artwork - or we might be happily dodging seeing good work get butchered with unsympathetic design choices.

Today's subject are the Discworld covers of Josh Kirby.

First, some history.

Josh Kirby was part of Discworld from almost the very start.

The first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, was put out first, in hardback, by small publisher Colin Smythe as a bit of a punt (the first print run being only 500 - so if you ever spot a first edition of the book in a charity shop, do snap it up with all available alacrity). This first book in its first edition features careful and attractive artwork by an artist called Alan Smith.

Corgi bought the rights to publish the book and its sequels in paperback. It was they who attached Josh Kirby to the Discworld project.

Now it seems to me that in more recent years and even decades, the Kirby art has attracted more vocal criticism and dislike than vocal praise from Discworld fans, so I want to assert up front that I am of the second agenda. I think Kirby is a very fine artist whose work has been a credit and a boon to Discworld and that while my appreciation of his work is not uncritical I have little patience with its casual dismissal.

But I should also say that if Kirby's illustration work tends to go underappreciated, there's excellent creative work that goes completely unrecognised - that is, the work of the anonymous designer or design team at early-80s Corgi who not only selected Kirby and zeroed in on one of the many styles of which he was capable, but knew just how to support the work with the other design choices.

No one involved at this early stage had any reason to suspect that The Colour of Magic was the first of what would become a uniquely popular, populous and long-running 'series' of books, and yet the choices laid down in that book's art direction proved so intelligent and sound that they continued to be the face of the Discworld through two decades, twenty-four books and millions of sales.

The hardback publishers (initially Colin Smythe, succeeded by Gollancz from book three onwards) recognised how good a call Kirby was as artist and immediately opted to use his work for the hardbacks too, starting with The Light Fantastic onwards. Yet Discworld hardbacks never quite found their visual groove and the approach changed frequently, with only a few really attractive hardback Discworld books emerging over the years. Meanwhile the Corgi layout remained firmly in place and working perfectly until book twenty-five where it was finally retired.

Those first twenty-four Kirby/Corgi covers stand as a really remarkable achievement in book design, in terms of both longevity and quality.

I've noted that the hardback use of Kirby's work was never as consistent or comfortable as the paperback use. The fact was that the look that Kirby and Corgi had worked out to suit the format and commercial demands of the paperback was so tight that Gollancz et al struggled to rework it for the different format and needs of the hardback.

One aspect that made the work hard to adapt was that Kirby's illustrations were paintings; single pieces created physically. That was standard of course in the eighties, and well into the nineties.

But over the next decades as computers and illustration software became more sophisticated and ubiquitous, it became more and more standard for book cover illustration to be painted digitally which has the advantage of meaning it can come in layers - isolated parts that can be moved around by the designers.

For instance, here's a book cover I quite recently worked on for final adjustments (the original design work having been done by a colleague). On the left is how it looked when I got it, with a request for two small text additions before it went to print, and on the right how it looked afterwards. Illustration is by Katie Kear.

As is normal, the last pieces of information to be settled for this cover before production were the tagline and the exact pull-quote/s chosen to feature. So in this case, I was asked to add a second pull-quote (""I loved it" - Eoin Colfer"), as well as a tagline ("Only kids can save the world").

Not big elements to add then and it might appear at first glance like I didn't have much trouble making space.

But actually if you look closer you'll start to see that elements and areas of the illustration itself have moved around to make space and then to rebalance everything in a way that accomodates these late additions, and that those areas have moved independently of each other. For instance, if you look at where the girl's hand and plait are sitting over the background, you'll see how much she's moved from her first position relative to the boys in the background. If you count the bird silhouettes, you'll see that some have been erased and others moved. Meanwhile there's also been colour/tone/brightness editing of individual layers of the illustration, like those background hills being made less bold.

For really any book using illustration on its cover these days, the artwork will be created using digital tools and supplied to the designer in a file with many layers, each of which is individually editable for placement, size and colour, so I was able to move and resize parts at will.

But if the illustration had been a physical, one-piece painting like one of Josh Kirby's, I would have really struggled to fit everything in without compromising the text, the illustration, or both.

That's the challenge that every Discworld edition that employs Kirby's artwork, outside of the original Corgi paperbacks for which the art was specifically created, has faced.

I mean, this is the painting Kirby created for The Colour of Magic:

Before any of the boxes and text elements have been added by the designer you can already see exactly where they have to go.

Here is how the paperback looked with those text boxes added in - slotting into the layout perectly:

Corgi and Kirby worked out this format together, and Kirby painted his artwork to perfectly suit that intended format - and no other.

As I say, no one involved in the design or illustration at this stage could have foreseen how numerous and well-selling the sequels to the book would be, but it turned out they had made excellent choices here to support that future.

I'm going to talk a little about why I think these choices are so good, if only because they are also, in 2023, admittedly highly dated, using a device - inset boxes - you would never see used on fiction covers today, and so might be an obstacle to seeing how solid the design choices were and remained - right up until inset boxes went completely out of fashion.

The inset box on the cover is clearly practical, creating clear space for the essential text to be placed into. But it's also of weight-bearing aesthetic value, the clean lines and flat colour contrasting smartly with Kirby's rich, baroque scene. The hard contrast between these two vibe sis slightly softened with a few elements of the illustration crossing playfully over the box's border

I always say effective fiction book covers work by asserting two or three clear vibes that are slightly at odds with each other - a thesis and antithesis - in such a way that the viewer arrives at a kind of synthesis in their own mind. This cover asserts the classical pleasures of high fantasy - richness of milieu, adventure, drama - as well as a distinct off-kilter or comic vibe, as well as a kind of classy sharpness via the text box. If the latter seems a lot of credit to give a white oblong, take a look at some of the hardbacks which use the same Kirby artwork but not the box device:

These aren't bad covers by any means, but none of them feel apt for the contents in the way the Corgi covers do by my reckoning. That's because they all lean firmly into a single vibe, which doesn't quite cover it, doesn't quite pique the interest of the brower with a slightly incongruous note. Here the title treatment matches, rather than in any way disrupts, the whimsical, fantastical, and/or grotesque vibes of the illustration.

But sustainable as Corgi's template was, no look can last forever in book design. By 2000 the original Corgi layout had finally started to verge on the dated. Meanwhile the hardbacks had finally settled into a template of their own. For the twenty-fifth book, The Truth, Corgi finally dropped their longstanding box-using layout and instead emulated the layout of those hardbacks.

From now on the layout would be: Terry Pratchett's name big at the top, the book title at the bottom, and the full jacket artwork sandwiched between.

I suspect Corgi initially planned to break with the existing template only temporarily, and just to make the 25th novel, The Truth, look special and different. Kirby's artwork for that book feels like he's been properly briefed with this final layout in mind, and he has produced an illustration that suits the space. Maybe the decision to continue this as a new layout going forward, starting with Thief of Time was last-minute because for that book Kirby has clearly produced artwork to suit the old usage of his work - full wraparound jacket art.

That makes it a really odd looking piece used as it is. All the important action and characters are bunched up in the bottom right-hand corner because that area would be the cover area in its presumably originally intended use, while the rest of the illustration is dominated by relatively inconsequential and repetitive background stuff.

This isn't the only Discworld cover to take artwork intended as wraparound jacket art and place it whole and flat onto a front cover (as I mention, the hardbacks had settled into this formula and Gollancz had even reissued the older books in this new look hardback). But as I say, the hardbacks had always featured rather poor use of Kirby's art for understandable reasons. This was the first book which made poor use across of Kirby's work across all editions. So it's a shame it was Kirby's last.

Presumably if Corgi had indeed decided this was now their standard layout, their brief to Kirby would have shifted going forward to produce art that better suited the new space requirements. Sadly however, in 2001 Josh Kirby's tenure came to an end with his passing.

That left the rough second half of Discworld publication history to fall to another artist who had long been attached to Discworld but not previously as a cover artist, Paul Kidby.

The Paul Kidby covers would continue in the new layout over the remaining years of Discworld publication, and Kidby's style suited the layout better than Kirby's ever did or probably ever would have.

Although, like Kirby, Paul Kidby is an artist somewhat of the old school, producing physical paintings rather than editable digital work, he is more inclined to work in more versatile vignette style illustrations rather than dense scenes - i.e. characters or groups standing in isolation or against fairly empty backgrounds.

So in the early 2000s, insofar as the forthcoming Discworld books were concerned, the publishers were sorted. They had developed a more modern layout and (albeit for a sad reason) acquired a new cover illustrator who better matched the cover format they preferred. In the early 2000s, the publishing rights also shifted, with Transworld (part of Penguin Random House) acquiring papaerback publishing rights for all the Discworld books past and present. They must have been pleased to be able to face into the future of this prize property with their own template for the forthcoming Discworld books, one that suited the sensibilities of the current market as they saw it.

The problem was what to do with those first twenty-six books which had Kirby's art attached. There was little question of dumping the art altogether - for one thing comissioning Paul Kidby to produce twenty-six replacement covers would have a been a huge and expensive project. For another, Josh Kirby's art was still a valuable asset, the instantly recognisable visual identity of the Discworld brand. He still meant a lot to a lot of Pratchett fans. But at the same time the publisher did need to freshen up the look, and they needed to assert some uniformity across all the books. With a sudden hard shift imposed midway through publication and two very differnt styes of illustration now in play across the books, it was all the more important to have other design elements, like layout, assert series-wide continuity.

Another point meaning the old paperbacks would need updating was that in the 2000s there was a big industry shift around the size of standard paperbacks . Whereas previously paperbacks had been published in one of two standard dimensions, the smaller/shorter 'mass-market' oriented a-format and the taller, classier b-format, increasingly the former was being phased out altogether across publishing. These days, b-format is really the only kind of paperback published within fiction (and a lot of other publishing areas). Discworld as culty genre fiction had always been firmly housed in a-format. Now they needed to start transitioning into b-format editions.

We've seen how tightly Kirby's work was created for that original a-format size, so one appreciates the challenge of trying to make those images fitnew dimensions.

Then there was the challenge of how on Earth to get title and bylines onto these busy artworks in any way other than the now dated device on an inset box. The absolute standard coming in at this stage, which is still very much the case today, is to place typography directly over artwork. But for that the artwork needs to leave some natural-feeling space within its composition to allow for the text and Kirby's paitings didn't really do that in their existing form.

The answer that Thief of Time and those reissued hardbacks had come up with was to take the full jacket artwork and placed it in its entirity on the cover, sandwiched between byline and title so there was no need for text and artwork to overlap at all. But as we have seen this wasn't a very satisfactory solution even on the big canvas of a hardback. All that busy art squeezed into a letterbox on the physically small space of a paperback cover was going to look pretty rubbish. So what to do?

That brings us to the real prompt for this post.

Transworld addressed the problems of having one-piece full-bleed art, when what they'd really like to have was spot illustration, by by trying to turn the former into spot illustration. They edited Josh Kirby's artwork to pick out figures and groupings and edited the backgrounds into vague colours and swirls against which these 'spot' groups might be moved around more freely.

Now, I've gone into some detail on the many and sometimes conflicting needs presented by the market, formats, etc, in order to stress the points that so often go unacknowldged when people casually sneer at book covers they don't like: there are challenges here which were really hard, sometimes even impossible, to do a better job with.

With that said, these editions are bad.

Let's look at an example from the series that I find, well, particularly exemplarary of the wider issues with the approach. Let's compare the original and current paperback edition of Lords and Ladies:

As I say, the idea has obviously been to turn the existing artwork into something that functions more like more modern artwork - i.e. isolated elements on layers which can be moved around with a fair amount of impunity. Thus everything that isn't a figure in the original artwork has been replaced with a vague featureless backdrop.

Space has been cleared around the groups too, in theory to make their poses and relative positions clearer. So the Nanny Ogg-and-Casanunda group has been moved away from the Elf King figure, and moved down too. Note how the figures eyelines don't make any sense in the revised version.

Meanwhile because the bottom inch of the cover now houses the book title, anything too detailed or high contrast in the artwork in that area must be removed altogether because it would make the lettering over it unintelligable. So here the twisty tree root is gone.

The biggest motivating factor in 21st century book design trends has been the emerging needs of the online marketplace. Online, covers are browsed at thumbnail size and must be able to grab a brower at that scale for that browser to even click through to find out more. So the demand has grown for cover imagery that's simple and singular in form, clear in shape and pose, that it may be readable even when the cover is at that small size. (Typography has also become hugely important. If a title is going to be so big on a cover that it may be readable at thumbnail size, it's going to have to also be pretty).

So the implicit intent here is to render from Kirby's original art a version which serves that function more - the characters and actions reading clearly even when the cover is viewed at a very small size. And further, that space should be space cleared in the artwork so that the typography will also have space to be big and clear.

You can see how each decision of the new version of the cover is a technical tick on the list of what covers need to do to work better at thumbnail. The byline is huge, the title is also bigger and brighter than it was. The illustration is simplified and 'clarified'.

Yet for my money not a single one of these decisions actually leads to the desired end. I believe that at the very best evaluation, the new cover is about as legible at thumbnail as it ever wal, for which non-achievement it has sacrified all the finesse, atmosphere and storytelling of the original version.

Because the fact is that whoever has editied the artwork has in their efforts to clarify and embolden the work in fact carefully stripped out all of the stuff that made it clear and functional, to say nothing of atmospheric and intriguing.

With Kirby's work, it's not just that he didn't work in layers in the literal sense, he also didn't work on that principle of composition. To explain what I mean, here are a few covers from the fantasy genre that came out around the same time as The Colour of Magic originally did and which also spawned or were part of very sucessful series:

All of these examples operate in distinct planes of illustration. The foreground figure in each example is placed over a background they don't really interact with, like costumed actors posing against a painted theatre backdrop. Though these images, coming from the early 80s as they do, would all have been physicially painted as single-piece artworks, they still operate visually in 'layers'.

Josh Kirby was simply a better artist than this. In fact, 'Josh' was not his real name - it was a nickname awarded him at university by fellow students after Josua Reynolds, in reference to Kirby's Old Master skill and approach.

His work didn't place isolated figures over backgrounds like placing actors against a matte painting; his work intergrated environment and character and objects and atmospheric flourishes wholistically, inseperably.

Cover work does require its composition to be clear, the important elements emerging distinctly from their context. But rather than the easy approach as seen in the above examples, which are clear but also simple and empty, Kirby managed this clarity while also creating images of huge richness and depth, because he was an Old-Master-inspired expert in compositional and tonal management.

That meant he had more tricks available to him than simple, flat, 'layered' clarity which can make only one point. He could tell more of a story, and control the order and pace at which a cover revealed its story to the viewer, knowing how to lead the eye through a picture with the same techniques used by Rennaissance or Romantic painters depicting scenes from the Bible and mythology.

For example, he was particularly fond of using the Golden Ratio to order his pictures into clarity and storytelling, as in these examples:

Taking away the colour for the purposes of that demonstration also helps highlight something else vital in his management of his busy scenes: a masterful management of tonal values.

Tonal value refers to the distribution of lighter and darker spaces. One thing to note is simply that Kirby uses a wide range, including extremes of near-white highlights and near-black shadow. It's a particular hazard of digital art to get a bit too much into the middle area of tonal values where everything is tonally in a narrow sludgy middle range rather than offering crisp distinction of real contrast.

For example, with the work of the artist of the French editions of Discworld, Marc Simonetti, I find that what should be the key areas in his images are often lost in tonal muddiness. His images feel indistinct because outside of some broad strokes, he doesn't use his tonal values to clarify his images or create dramatic contrast.

It's rotten to pick on his work, and honestly it's no worse than a lot of digital illustration - it's just a useful comparison point because of the shared Discworld material. So let's look at some of Simonetti's pieces and show how they look when you take away the relatively superficial layer of distinction that colour adds, and they are reduced to their bare tonal values:

At least three of these images do use a strong light/dark contrast for an overall picture shape (e.g. the bottom right hand example having a light middle area framed by dark.

But the use of tonal values for clarity and drama stops there. The action that the frame is actually framing is muddy and borderline inscrutable because almost everything within it is in the same muddy middle zone of tonal values, and where there are very dark or very bright points they are applied quite haphazardly not helping clearly pick out a shape or an action aginst its environment.

So how do out two Lord and Ladies covers compare to each other, reduced to greyscale to better spot the tonal distribution?

The most obvious thing is just how much of the right-hand version is now the exact same shade of mid-grey. This is particularly noticeable in terms of how the Elf King figure on the left sits against the background: viewed in greyscale you really can't pick him out at all from his environment at all. In the original version he contrasts sharply with the shadowy floor area and the high contrast light of Nanny's torch, that bright spot also attracting out attention to the key point of drama on this cover, the encounter/confrontation between these two characters at face level.

Dark tones remain in the right hand edit, but no longer do very much. Nanny's black clothes remain because they're, well, black. More functionally a little of the shadow at the bottom of the composition is retained, which is so vital for punching the foreground element of the Elf King's giant hand out.

But this area is compromised by another flaw of these covers, which is the insistence on placing the titles at the bottom. In the original composition the Elf King's hand is placed into the foreground to emphasise its giantness and lead us into the picture as we follow this huge hand back to the figures it's attached to. It gives the picture depth and invites us into that depth. It anchors the picture in a big heavy delement to contrast with the middle-ground action of Nanny and Casanunder. On the revised cover, with the text overlaying and interrupting the function of this part of the illustration, and the background turned from suggesting greater depth beyond to flat glowy colour, the whole look collapses into a much duller, less clear mess of flat middle-ground stuff.

The thing about scenes is that, due to the law of gravity, they tend to have more going on at the bottom than the top. In work like Josh Kirby's the ground area is almost vital for achoring and rooting the action, distibuting groups across a fore-, middle- and back-ground coherently. But where you're going to place text over art you need the artwork to be pretty empty of detail and contrast there, and these editions are insistent on placing their titles at the bottom. So these covers do their heaviest clearance just where the work is most dense and most vital for the general function of the pieces.

This conflict has led to some frankly wild decisions in the new editions. In the original Equal Rites cover, the composition has Granny Wetherwax and Esk - the protaongists of the book - in the foreground, feet planted bottom left, facing into the further action of the cover.

But because the new layout can't have anything in the bottom quadrent, and clearly weren't able to get the Granny / Esk group to quite work in any other placement, the female protagonists of this book about sexism and gender discrimination are simply erased from the cover.

The Equal Rites cover is a really good example also of what I'm talking about when I say that in their efforts to tick the boxes that theoretically make a cover more clear and legible, especially for thumbnail views, the updaters of these covers have at times created something truly unintelligable at any scale. Here, the replacement of Esk and Granny not only represents the baffling decision to drop the main characters from the front of their book, but they've been replaced with a piece of illustration that is ugly and hard to make out in itself, and makes no sense in the context into which it has been placed. The original cover has a very clear story that places the female witch party in conflict with the male wizard. Despite the busy-ness and relatively small scale of the figures, the clearly silhouetted pointy hats and the colour story would probably communicate even at thumnail. Meanwhile no one could possibly discenern from the right-hand cover, at any size, just what the hell the book is about.

Since the bottom forground is often where the nearest and most detail objects and figures are, the edits also mean the beauty of Kirby's art tends to have been sumamrily deleted in these edits. See how we've lost the lovely drapery of the wizard's robe from Equal Rites, and the gorgeously twisty tree root from Lords and Ladies.

No wonder a lot of people think Kirby's artwork is ugly and confusing these days. In the current edits, it is.


bottom of page