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The covers of Discworld

Updated: Apr 7

NOTE: I have written more recently and comprehensively about the history of Discworld editions, starting with this post.

This artwork is by the wonderful Joe McLaren, a real favourite of mine, and I don't think they could be more perfectly conceptualised or executed. Though I did come across a reference to James Paul Jones having been considered as the artist to work on reissues, and one can't help but wish those somehow existed too...).

At the time they came out I'd been thinking that Discworld was due some new covers that lived up to the content. I'd been idly sketching out my own thoughts about how that might be approached, and then these came along and answered so many of the questions I had raised in my own thinking of how to best package Discworld for new readers.

I think an illustrative quality works for Pratchett since one of the great attractions is the beautiful and weird imagery within. Discworld books often feature really strong hooks that can be summed up in striking visuals, and great punny/evocative titles to play off strongly. For example, showing a troll, a dwarf and a wolf on the cover of a book called Men At Arms makes the title a joke (or rather, illustrates the joke that is intended in the naming) with the antithesis between the word 'men' and these obvious not-men on the cover.

So illustration is good but for my money the style needs to stay away from traditional oil painting or oil-esque techniques which screams 'dated and dull; fantasy for genre-lovers only'. So Joe McLaren's approach sits in the perfect zone. His work looks rather like woodcut but is in fact a scraperboard technique, and the mix of modern and traditional, unplaceably hand-crafted/digital, conveys the perfect tone.

The use of a strictly limited palette, inherent to this technique, also suits the series very well and is another reason Gollacz were nothing short of inspired to utilise McLaren: Discworld comprises a lot of books and giving each book a single dominating tone gives it an immediately unique identity alongside its neighbours. It makes a shelf full of Pratchetts look like an inviting selection of individual treats rather than a confusing morass of books that are visually - and therefore to be presumed content-wise - very samey.

These covers are printed directly onto the cloth binding (i.e. no dust jackets) and finished with artfully placed foiling on a few details. They are gorgeous and I've had to excercise great willpower not buy them all despite already owning the entire series in other covers and it already taking up two shelves of badly in-demand space. I've just picked out a favourite, oh, 20 to buy.

I'm excited to see Random House completing the series in this reissue style. Some of my favorutie Discworld books fall under their jurisdiction, including Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment) and now that they have done the cool thing and coorperate by one remaining hope is that similar agreements can be made with the publishers owing paperback rights and we might see these Joe McLaren covers adapted for that format too.

Because that would replace these...

The above are of course the original UK paperback editions, illustrated by Josh Kirby. Kirby suffered a bit of a backlash from fans in recent years. I can completely see the point that these covers are no longer really doing Pratchett justice and I certainly think they should be retired as the mass-market paperback editions, but I would stand in staunch defense of Kirby as a great artist and as a really appropriate choice of illustrator in his time and situation.

I think he was an excellent choice. These images communicate so much about the early series that fans today perhaps take for granted but needed to be sold hard on at the time. These days everyone knows that Pratchett is synonymous with fun, rich, witty fantasy, but before he was a household name these covers worked hard to convey that tone and make the books stand out from the po-faced oil-painted sword and sorcery pulp that were Pratchett's shelf-mates.

Kirby was a fine illustrator who handled a busy, frenetic, oversaturated and half-cartoon/half-realistic style expertly. There are some issues which undermine him - especially his inability to draw young women with any character besides 'big boobed and half dressed'. And as Pratchett matured as a writer, the gap between cover and text grew (though some later Kirby covers really step up to the plate; his The Fifth Elephant is lovely).

There are several reasons he now falls short of the mark for what the Discworld covers need to be now. One is that the publisher have really struggled to use his work effectively over the years. Dense full-bleed illustrations have fallen further and out of favour, and thus the publisher has been inclined to start using cropped versions of Kirby's work, picking out parts as a spot illustration and erasing the busy backgrounds to them.

Sometimes they've done this with skill, sometimes not, but it's pretty much always a terrible thing to do to a Kirby painting. It's like using a figure from a Where's Wally picture as a spot illustration. The joy and effect of this artwork is in its over-busy-ness.

Another strike against Kirby, rather unfairly, is that he is dead. His run of covers ends halfway through the series at which point the stylistically different Paul Kidby took over. So the series looks unsatisfyingly disjointed.

(I am a great admirer of Kidby and especially his spot-on depictions of even the most undepictable denizens of Discworld. But his style is too close to traditional for me to think it best serves Discworld, if what we want Discworld covers to do is to attract new readers.)

The thing is that the job that the Josh Kirby covers did so effectively is no longer the job Discworld covers need to do.

They were good for introducing the series to a world with no prior expectations an communicating very effectively what to expect with Discworld. But these days, the world knows what it thinks Pratchett is - and covers have the different job of playing with and against those preconceived ideas. Kirby's imagery reinforces the slightly dismissive idea a lot of people have before reading Pratchett.

Everyone now knows that Pratchett books are comical, dense and fantastical. The priority message now, it seems to me is to tell people what else they are: classy, beautiful and individual. Kirby covers, particularly en masse, look off-putting. Their density and at-first-glance samey-ness makes the books look overwhelming.

The context in which I usually find myself defending Kirby's work is seeing it unfavourably compared to the more recent cover artwork of Marc Simonetti, who features on the French editions and seems a bit of a fan-favourite.

For myself I really don't like these covers. I'm not going to insult the artist; I like his other work fine. But the styling he chose for the Discworld work looks ugly to my eyes.

I find the figures on these covers often vague in definition, and lacking in form. I find the digital painting, the colour- and line-work, muddy.

I don't know about the French market and their book cover tropes, but to my eye these take a similar approach to the vein of the Josh Kirby and Paul Kirby covers and for my money fall short of their forebears' success. They are perhaps more expressive of individual plots and themes that Kirby's images but just aren't as masterfully drawn, and have all the same issues of being confusing and daunting to new readers.

I should mention how much I enjoy his riff on Abbey Road for Soul Music though, and (not pictured above) his Gone-With-The-Wind-esque cover for Moving Pictures.

And his elephant-shaped baggage cart The Fifth Elephant is pretty clever.

Talking of covers I roundly dislike...

These Doubleday covers are right at the other end of the stylistic scale.

I admit I've warmed to them slightly just putting this set together; they do work pretty well as thumbnails. and I quite like the use of sepia/gold highlights to give a fantasy glow to otherwise boring images. But to me they commit a greater crime against the books they house than any of the above sets, which is these look like covers that are embarrassed to be on the books.

I spoke about the need to impress a different idea of Discworld on prospective readers than the well established one that Pratchett is funny and 'zany'. These covers are clearly designed with that in mind - bringing an unexpected seriousness to the tone. They came out during a quite brief trend for fantasy and children's books to get 'adult covers' and in particular are clearly inspired somewhat by the UK 'adult editions' for the Harry Potter series. But new covers shouldn't forsake or deny that whatever else Pratchett's books are, they are also funny and big and colourful.

Many covers from this range also commit the classic book-cover sin of putting-an-apple-on-the-cover-when-apple-is-in-the-title. What does the helmet and badge on the cover of Guards! Guards! tell anyone that the title isn't already saying? What does the elephant on the The Fifth Elephant add?

(To be fair, no cover artist seems to be able to resist popping an elephant on the front of The Fifth Elephant despite is being a. utterly redundant against the title and b. no elephant bar a metaphorical one featuring anywhere in the text.)

Other covers from the photographic series give away twists and plot points. For instance, the existence of a gun in the Discworld is a mid-book reveal in Men At Arms - and yet this cover undermines that reveal by showing the gun clearly.

Still other covers from the set feature imagery that fails to convey anything very evocative of the story at all (the cover of Equal Rites features an anvil and the male and female symbols wrought in metal. If one can infer anything from that it might be to guess the book is about a girl wanting to be a blacksmith).

In fairness some others from the set work better. I like the cover of Reaper Man (not pictured here) which features a single broken ear or corn that evokes the shape of a scythe.

As I say hese editions were born out of a fad in the early 2000s for reissuing genre and YA books in covers grown-ups wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen with, a trend which has been made redundant by two developments in more recent years: that it is more acceptable for adults to be seen enjoying fantasy and YA media these days and that YA (and to a lesser extent genre) publishing has got much more sophisticated sensibilities re. covers across genres and age-groups in recent years. Fantasy covers and children's book covers these days tend already to look so sophisticated that adults wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen with them.

Finally, the US covers.

The US book coverin' business has, of course, very different sensibilities from the UK. Glancing at a table display in Barnes & Noble compared to one in Waterstones makes the former feel like a glimpse back into the 90s. The US market tends to favour busier, more illustrative covers on more-cheaply-produced books, at least for genre fiction. But that isn't to say the quality of work is of a lower standard, just different. For example, the illustrations on the above covers are appropriate, bespoke and beautifully executed. But their placement and treatment is just baffling to a UK designer's eye. The mix of fonts, the drop-shadows, the faux-binding strip of thematic motifs, the colours...

But they do have their points. While they are no where near as visually pleasing as the Joe McLaren editions, they actually succeed in some of the same ways: they are strongly demarked from one another, with a single dominating colour per book and a single illustrative element drawing the eye to highlight the USP of each book.

So coming back to reflect on what approach I have taken myself, and would in future work, there's certainly much that is successful to emulate amid the above, and some things to avoid.

There's just one major issue that I don't see addressed in any range I know of.

It's part of that desire of mine (and presumably any publisher) to make the books accessible. By which I don't mean dumbing them down or pretending they're something that they're not, or trying to hide the 'alienating' aspects of humour and fantasy (like I feel the photographic covers do). What I mean is helping these books call out to the people who would enjoy them but are put off by certain trappings.

Gollancz found a perfect way to say visually that these books are witty and high-concept without accidentily implying they were 'wacky' or farcical.

But the one thing they miss, or didn't think was important, are the visual clues that this collection of 40-plus books is not in fact a single series.

I think the perception that all these books are one series is the single most-off-putting aspect for new readers. Where to start, and is it worth committing to all those hours of reading? Can any series chronicling the same characters for 40 installments be any good? The answer as any Discworld reader knows already, is that while these books share a common world and sometimes cross-polinate, the collection is made up of several separate series as well as many stand-alone novels.

All the examples I have shown here, whether I think they're great or not, share the common quality that they prioritise a house-style for Discworld.

If I were a publisher I'd be looking hard at how to continue to style these books cohesively under the Discworld 'brand' but concentrating on demarking the various series' from one another. As I mentioned, I might take a Puffin Classics approach, by which I mean this generation of Puffin classics:

A strong approach might be to select five or six complementary but distinct illustrators, and give them each a series to work on.

For example, I might give Jim Tierney the Watch books to illustrate in his quirky typography-led style, while Jan Bielecki took charge of the Death books in his dark-with-rainbow-flashes-etching aesthetic.

I'm not an Art Director. And the last thing I need is another project. So naturally of I'm going to think further about this and how these ideas might be translated into something I can produce single-handedly...


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