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The covers of Discworld: first paperbacks

Updated: May 6

In the first post in this series I looked at the Discworld books as they appeared in their first hardback publications. Now it's time to look at the first paperback editions of the full series.

As we have already noted, the original paperback publisher, Corgi, made such good choices in its first approach that not only did the look stick for over two decades but the art was also adopted by the hardback publishers too.

We've also seen that the hardback publishers struggled to make the art work perfectly on those jackets. The early hardback editions were a mismatched set, so I went through them in little mini-eras to talk about the different approaches the several publishers involved in the hardback publishing took over the years.

But I want to present the paperbacks as a single set. Because the paperbacks are fabulously consistent. The work Kirby and the Corgi design team did between The Colour of Magic and The Fifth Elephant ought to be regarded as an incredible achievement in book design. Corgi had no reason to foresee the incredible prolificness and popularity that was to come for Discworld and yet they layed down a template in The Colour of Magic which helped create that popularity, and was strong enough to remain in place more or less unchanged over sixteen years and twenty-four books.

The 'series' finally got a new look with the publication of The Truth, and that departure in style was compounded by the death not long after of first artist Josh Kirby and his succession by Paul Kidby. The sudden disappearing of the handholds that had kept the design work confident and consistent for years might easily have resulted in the design work collapsing into incoherence after this, but in fact the second look that fell into place at this transition period also proved strong enough to stay locked in, with a few minor updates, for many years and until the publication of the final Discworld novel.

(NB. two of the above books are by neither of the aforementioned artists. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Men are illustrated by David Wyatt.)

One thing to spot is that there are a couple of books with have different Kirby artwork than we saw on their hardback editions, namely on Eric, Lord and Ladies and Interesting Times.

Eric here gets different artwork to its hardback edition. Perhaps the painting on the hardcover might have been felt too weak, or just a little too horny, or perhaps the paperback publisher simply wanted to get those fan-favourites Rincewind and the Luggage onto the front.

It’s less clear what might prompt new artwork for Lords and Ladies or Interesting Times, except perhaps simply those hardback paintings not being Kirby’s strongest work.

As seen with the hardbacks, of course, there’s a shift just over halfway through the run, first prompted by shifting trends in books design and more definitively by the death of Josh Kirby in 2000. As with the hardbacks, though, this gear shift doesn’t end up feeling as sudden as it might.

A hint of change first comes on book twenty-four The Fifth Elephant, with bossing and foiling added to the byline; perhaps a hint that the publishers were feeling constrained by the inset-box format and struggling to make the author’s by now very famous name as prominent as they would like. The illustration is also the most ‘modern’ in format of all Kirby’s run, with a single dominant subject which is easy to make out even when the cover is viewed at thumbnail size.

Then book twenty-five, The Truth, dumps the old layout altogether, and instead starts copying the then-current hardback layout, with the title and byline housed on block colour gradient-ing to the artwork sandwiched between them.

I detect a design struggle emerging in what to do with Kirby's artwork. Though as it turned out Kirby wouldn't be alive to paint many more Discworld covers, this struggle didn't die with him because even if the publisher/s were feeling unsure of how to handle - or even whether they really wanted - Kirby's work, they certaintly weren't about to dump it and have a different illustrator create new covers for the first twenty-six books. Apart from the expense and trouble of commissioning for so many books, there would also be brand identity and fan backlash to consider. I've discussed here my feeling on how the publisher went on to handle Kirby's work up to and including its present use.

Talking of branding, I've praised the consistency of this first Discworld paperback styling, but it's actually a tricker challenge they are meeting than mere consistency. The benefits of a strong branded look are fairly obvious, but there are drawbacks too.

Series branding

The fact is, a series being numerous and strongly series-branded doesn't generally speak of high literature, it can very easily feel like ghost-written book-pakager-generated series fiction. A Sweet Valley High or Beast Quest deal

Actually, Sweet Valley High debuted the very same year as Discworld, so I'll use it to highlight what I mean when I say the designer/s at Corgi were walking a difficult line with creating strong consistency and branding without ending up looking just as vacuously commerical.

Looking at the original Sweet Valley High books, there are actually very similar elements in play as we see in Discworld's paperbacks. Just like Discworld, these books feature high-quality bespoke painted artwork on each book. Their title treatments use consistent, restrained typography housed in spaces whose backgrounds are a single, pastel colour which changes for every book.

There are two or three crucial differences that keeps Discworld from looking as cheerily trash-fiction as an example like this. An important one is that the 'series' name 'Discworld' has never been given a logo treatment which is crucial on covers like those of Sweet Valley High in emphasising the importance of the series or brand over that of the individual book. Another element which emphasises the Sweet Valley High books' value being as doses of a series rather than individually is the inclusion of series number in the penant device in the top left.

The third factor in the Sweet Valley High covers which prioritise series branding to cheapening effect is the illustration being contained within a rigidly consistent inset panel.

Corgi used full-bleed artwork, much more an artefact of 'quality' genre publishing.

And not just any full-bleed artwork. I think Josh Kirby gets dismissed as a fairly standard-issue 70s/80s fantasy artist, a time when yu could expect to see competently-rendered imaginative paintings on genre covers.

For more on how Josh Kirny's work stands apart in technique and storytelling from his contemporaries, I have written on that here.

But I just want to finish up here with my opinions around these two main originating illustrators of Discworld covers.

Josh Kirby and Paul Kidby

Paul Kidby seems to be an almost universally popular part of the series' identity; I don't recall ever seeing his work criticised. Meanwhile, I've seen more mixed responses to Josh Kirby's work. Some regard him as unsurpassed in his representation of Discworld, but others dislike the work and have no attatchment. Obviously, feelings about artwork are personal and there are certain common criticisms of Kirby's work which I certainly recognise as valid: his depiction of female characters is certainly frequently objectifying, especially early on, though I would point out that he’s not necessarily doing anything Pratchett himself wasn’t also doing and there’s some value in a ‘warts and all’ representation of a text.

But I think Josh Kirby's work can be underestimated, while Paul Kidby's is meanwhile worthy of a little more of a critical eye.

The most obvious factor at play in how a fan feels about Josh Kirby’s work is generational. If we can presume the most vocally online part of fandom is people in their twenties and thirties, the Josh Kirby covers are simply not their covers. There's some nostalgia, because of course Kirby artwork didn't go away - the standard editions of the books from his era still bear his artwork (though as for how a poor current handing of the work might also inform coolness towards the imagery, see here) - but these aren't a generation that remember the books that bear this art being published and thereby would have the associations of newness and excitement.

Josh Kirby was also unquestionably anachronistic as a cover artist by the time a lot of the current fandom even started reading these books. Kirby was a great choice of illustrator when the books began in the early 80s, both for the books at hand and in ways that would have been less predictable needs. No one at the time, Pratchett included, would have been able to predict how many and how popular the books would become. Yet Kirby's work stayed fresh for a very long time.

Discworld's rise in popularity was quite swift and very steady, and when a 'brand' takes off like that it becomes pretty self-sustaining in terms of its design-choices. For most books it's crucially important to look in-step with the wider publishing going on in that genre. For a bestselling author/series an internal visual continuity is much more of a priority. It can even become a field-leader, setting trends and styles or a wider field or genre that wish to emulate it in content or at least in success.

But eventually the field of cover design was bound to evolve to a place where this direction, devised in 1983, lost step with what young readers expected or really wanted to see on books. So apart from the circumstances, the change from Kirby to Kidby was one that was welcomed.

However, if there was an issue with the Kirby covers starting to look old-fashioned or incongruous to modern publishing, I would not necessarily say that Paul Kidby offered a more 'current' visual direction. Perhaps even the opposite. Where Josh Kirby’s work was so unusual and so iconic of Discworld that it almost stepped outside considerations of trend and modernity, for me the use of Paul Kidby as a cover artist signalled the books more definitively as niche, geeky and not necessarily worth investigating by new readers.

That sounds harsh and like I don’t love Kidby’s work – which I really do – so I should explain.

Paul Kidby’s work was, as I have noted, compatible with viable trends within adolescent and younger-YA publishing and his covers for the Tiffany Aching books stood alongside other books in the fantasy children's market well. But as for adult fiction, including science fiction and fantasy, illustration of Kidby's kidney was very much out of step with the wider field.

Paul Kidby has a style that is extremely well-placed to appeal to fandom priorities. He is an artist who works in a very traditional figurative style with great finesse. He pays very close attention to the letter of Pratchett's descriptions. His style is accomplished and pretty with no very obvious leaps of interpretation or style to challenge fans by getting in the way of their direct relationship with the text. He is fond of parodising famous compositions - the Rembrandt painting known as The Night Watch for the book that shares the name, the photo The Raising of The Flag at Iwo-Jima for Monstrous Regiment, the Star Wars poster or Going Postal etc. That’s the kind of Easter Egg cleverness that geeks – and of course I count myself – enjoy.

But many of the very qualities that make Kidby's work so appealing to fans make it work less well as cover art. A cover's job is to speak to people who don't yet know the book and convey the qualities that would make one want to read it. To me, Kidby's covers are a bit too 'inside' Discworld to really convey those accessible, intriguing points.

The references to famous images feel of mixed value. On the one hand associations with high-culture reference points like Rembrandt are smart and earned by the writer and the text, and might have the function of elevating a general audience’s associations with the Pratchett name. But they might also look a bit try-hard, intellectually insecure, trying to borrow meaning and prestige from elsewhere.

To me the Kidby covers are frequently beautiful but miss the mark as pieces with the purpose of selling the books to potential new readers.

So that's the first paperbacks of Discworld. Next time I'll talk about the editions we've seen since.


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