Sunday 8th March marked the 42nd anniversary of the original broadcast of the first episode of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on Radio 4 in 1978.
I wasn't quite around yet, but still managed to come to Hitchhiker's radio-series-first. One day when I was ten one of the things I borrowed from the mobile library that stopped near my primary school on Thursdays (and where the lovely librarians would let me go behind the counter and scan books and out presumably condemning me to a life of bookselling and bookselling-related activities) was the audio-cassettes of the first series of Hitchhiker's Guide.
My family already knew it. The books were in the house, probably 'belonging' to my brother in the way any book can ever really 'belong' to an older sibling.
Or most of them were. Sometimes I question the dedication to print quality of Pan Books Ltd:
But I discovered the tapes by myself and I fell in love hard, in the way you can only really fall for things when they are brilliant and you are between the ages of nine and fourteen and you've found them all for yourself. The age when things get right into your soul and language centres.
(The other big one for me of this type, you may have gathered from my blog and, y'know, life, is Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. But comedy hijacks your sense of language like nothing else. Every time I revisit Hitchhiker's in some form I realise that yet another perfectly innocent turn of phrase or term I use is in fact originally penned by Adams.)
I would sit in the unused room at the front of the house where the stereo lived listening to the tapes and drawing unicorns (the unicorns were engaged in epic warfare and political intrigue, or would have been if I could have been bothered to draw scenery). I'm not sure why I chose to sit in the slightly cold front room as I definitely had a cassette player of my own, I specifically remember recording Men in Black song and the Titanic song and so on from Southern FM. But perhaps I knew instinctively that Hitchhiker's Guide is a kind of prog rock album and needs a decent sound system.
I did read the books of course (or the books minus their first dozen pages anyway). I didn't read Hitchhiker's itself much as the radio versions were my idea of that material at its perfect ideal. I think I read Mostly Harmless more than anything.
These days I work on Jermyn Street and when I stroll down Lower Regent Street I never fail to glance across at the building that is now a PureGym but was once the BBC's Paris Theatre, and think... that's where Hitchhiker's was recorded. The Beatles and stuff recorded there too but I super don't care.
The point is, I love Hitchhiker's.
So it won't surprise anyone to know that I - uh - have a lot of Opinions about it. One of the thing I have opinions about is the book covers.
The original covers, especially of the earlier books, are perfect.
For Hitchhiker's itself someone at Pan had the profoundly intelligent idea to use the LP artwork, because someone at the album publishing company had already had the profoundly intelligent idea to employ the people who did covers for Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, ELO, Genesis etc etc: Hipgnosis Designs.
(The use of the album artwork and the fact that the original cover is far more relying on the line 'Based on the famous Radio series' than the name 'Douglas Adams' to attract people that this was still thought of as perhaps not a proper novel, more a ie-in to a wildly popular show.Adams had not yet quite become that most anomolous of things, the personally famous comedy writer who isn't also a comedy performer. The celebrity backroom boy).
Hipgnosis treated Hitchhiker's like a prog album and made this:
Not only was it appropriate to recognise Hitchhiker's as akin to what rock-bands were doing, using Hipgnosis also put the design in the hands of people who were used to conveying a sense of fun, cool, epic-ness, beauty and humour all at once.
There's not really a great tradition of cover design for funny books. Book cover designers and artists have a focus on narrative and detail. But album cover artists are used to having to be creative and abstract to get across tone and mood. They knew how to visually express everything that Hitchhiker's made you feel.
For the second and third books there was no album artwork to draw upon. Chris Moore produced the neon sign typography for Restaurant, probably my favourite cover of the series and one which I've snuck into a poster before. Moore has done covers for every bestseller from Frederick Forsyth to Jackie Collins and album artwork for the biggest 70s/80s bands too - Fleetwood Mac, Lindisfarne, Status Quo etc. He's also done a lot of work on the SF Masterworks series from Orion.
And the illustrator of the ring-pull for Life, the Universe and Everything is David Scutt. He also created many Bond, Bernard Cornwell, the art for Goodbye Yellowbrick Road - and this:
I can always link back to Northern Lights.
Anyway after these great starts, design on the series went into a bit of a decline.
I mean that's not to say they got bad. But the first editions really nailed a complicated tone, and subsequent designs have only really been... decent. All pretty solid. but...
Well, as I mentioned before, book cover design seems to struggle with humour, and that's especially true when we're not talking about broad, cheery obvious humour but a tone, for instance, like Hitchhiker's.
The radio series brought you into the headspace with The Eagles Journey of The Sorcerer. The book covers have sought to entice and introduce you to that big, exciting, vastly intelligent, weird universe with... well, let's take a look.
The top left are the original US editions, the typography on the second and third clearly taking a lead from Chris Moore's work on Restaurant. And they're pretty good but I do slightly hate that little grinning ball with hands that has become kind of the icon of the series in the US. What/who is it? It's like a science fiction Slimer.
Then there's the tendency to approach Hitchhiker's with a 'lol random' approach to design. Picturing some of the images and objects memorably mentioned in the texts just kinda... floating about there. Being wacky.
It really isn't bad approach to take. It's just that it takes what in the text is a beautifully executed comedic specificity, with currents and depths of connective intelligence and humourous instinct connecting these images and reduces it to 'A COUCH in SPACE?? That's so WEIRD!'
You've got the obligatory covers which want to move away from that juvenile wacky look into something a little more grown-up but can only think to manage that by doing the same basic thing, but more boringly (second down right).
Discworld got this treatment too for a while. Like the two design settings available are childish or dull.
Third down left we have something a bit more interesting. Neither 'lol random' nor po-faced and generic, these have a lovely typographic approach and look properly bespoke. They're not donning a silly party hat and blowing a sad little party hooter in your face like some previous covers. In fact that Hitchhiker's cover has a little bit of menace to it. They're really good covers.
Personally, though... well they remind me - especially that first - of the Hitchhiker's movie design. Which itself was a lovely design aesthetic and a valid choice, the iMac-like whites and greys and smooth shininess. Everyone knows Adams was a big Apple guy and his invention of the Guide prefigured the smartphone. I just think you lose a lot of personality when you lean into that very modern and slick aesthetic. My thoughts on how modern takes on Hitchhiker's should handle the relationship to period and setting are for another time. But for now I'll say I think you lose more than you gain my erasing the late-70s-ness altogether.
I like the third down right covers too. they're not quite as interesting as they could be, perhaps, but some nice production finishes make them look quite special in the flesh - the letters in metallic foiling on a black matte background.
And the SF Masterworks editions are nice. The photo-montage approach is really the same thing I complained about with other covers, the 'look at all the crazy stuff' approach. But because the technique and execution lend it a more grown-up and subtle look, it works here. It's also balanced out by the stamp of class that the SF Masterworks branding gives it.
Finally, the most recent covers, the 42nd anniversary editions:
These are... they're fine. There's really nothing to fault about them. They're solid covers for Hitchhiker's, but they're just what we've seen again and again. Some pretty anonymous typography, a visual that says 'cricket and planets??'...
They look rather like pop science books. That's not a bad direction for Hitchhiker's. It's pretty dull, though and I think it's a bit of a shame that for this singular anniversary nothing more thoughtful or unique was managed.
As for what I would have done, I'm going to have to make another post for that. I've rambled on long enough for now...