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The covers of His Dark Materials - UK

Updated: Apr 10

I realised documenting my own project to design a cover-type image for Northern Lights I have mentioned previous covers a lot without really getting into the patterns. And it's juuuust possible not everyone has the obsessive relationship with both/either Northern Lights and world of book jacket design that I do...

I find Northern Lights and His Dark Materials a really interesting case study of approaches to covering a book/series. Firstly because they're slightly tricky books for those responsible for marketing to place, and secondly because it's been a very popular and respected series from the start so great trouble has been taken for each reissue.

It has also been out a while - coming up to thirty years since Northern Lights' first publication! - and so has been through a few covers.

To get us started, here's a chronology of the major covers the book has had in the UK. I've included only Northern Lights covers for concision. As we shall see, with exactly one exception in the UK all editions from the very first have come as a matched set for the trilogy, which is not necessarily true of all markets.

Now let's take a closer look at His Dark Materials' journey through these covers.

The new book

Northern Lights was first published in the UK in 1995 by Scholastic, who continue to publish His Dark Materials today.

Being the native, negotiating publisher of the project, Scholastic obviously had a lot of insight and even input into the forthcoming books that foreign publishers would lack. They also clearly knew they had something very special on their hands and took a great deal of care in designing the hardback in which Northern Lights would debut.

They also evidently planned ahead well. If Pullman was contracted for a three-book series, it’s not surprising that the publisher was thinking ahead in terms of the design and using an artist they felt confident of being able to accommodate all three books, but they also seemed to have a clear sense of the trajectory of the series’ scope and overall tone, meaning the visual direction they put on the first book looked every bit as suitable to the third when it eventually came out.

The illustrator they hired was David Scutt, a very successful commercial artist of the old school in that he created almost photo-realistic illustrations with airbrush. His work was - and still is - well known on covers of James Bond and Sharpe novels. He had previously worked on Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart books, but for Northern Lights he surpassed himself, creating a meticulous illustration of the 'alethiometer' device from the novel.

While there is much imagery in the novel that is striking, nothing quite sets the tone of the book like the image of the alethiometer does: it is mysterious and accessible all at once, fantastical and mechanical. Looking at it one can understand a certain amount about what it is and could mean, but only enough to be all the more intrigued.

Other illustrators and even prop-designers for the movie and TV versions have approached the alethiometer, and of course I am biased by Scutt’s version having set the archetype for me – but it’s hard to see any others as being quite as true to the idea in the book. His versions of the symbols perfectly evoke the style of 17th century iconography adding a tantalising feel of historicity to the fantastical image.

Scutt’s illustration would go onto be reused in several further UK covers as we shall see, but also countless international versions both of this book, as well as covering omnibus editions and box-sets, the image not only being the most recognisable icon of the book itself but the whole franchise.

Furthermore, Scholastic trusted to the strength of the image as so conceptually and visually strong that to include any of the conventional cover elements would only weaken it. No title, no by-line.

The only element besides the alethiometer on this original cover is a tagline - still quite an unusual device on 1995 book covers, though these days quite ubiquitous. This adds a helpful note of danger and adventure to those of beauty, novelty, richness and mystery already covered by the alethiometer illustration.

Next, of course, came the paperback publication and this saw a complete change in approach.

The shift in imagery between hardback and paperback isn’t an indication of any failure in the hardback. As we’ve seen, Scholastic stick absolutely to that direction for all the hardbacks and they ended up reusing the illustrations plenty more besides.

In the UK, there is generally a big shift in cover in cover direction between hardback debut and paperback debut, because the paperback launch is seen as a chance to capture a second audience who were not necessarily quite spoken to by the first cover. A paperback also exists in a slightly different context.

A hardback is the version of a book that gets reviewed in papers with a little thumbnail by the column; gets placed on ‘new books shelves’ in shops; gets put in windows prominently. The more striking the better. On a book’s first paperback publication it’s still frontlist – i.e. in the charts, on front-of-store tables etc – but doesn’t quite have the support of that first marketing push. It needs to get across a bit more information on its cover. It also might have accrued some stuff well worth including right on the front cover, like mention of any awards its won, charts it has topped or glowing accolades from respected sources it has attracted.

That’s the stage where this paperback sits. It’s got the title on now, in big shiny letters (and special finishes like this cover’s bossing/foiling was still an unusual level of luxury in 90s childrens’ book covers, though now it’s pretty ubiquitous – the next paperbacks of these books to get foiling wouldn’t be until 2015) and of course the other big shiny thing is the Carnegie Medal. Even more glowing, in metaphorical terms, is the pull-quote: “Rarely if ever have readers been offered such a rich casket of wonders” from a reviewer (Christina Hardyment) at The Independent. The team would have had a hard time choosing just one quote since the paperback setting of this book is able to open with three whole pages of lavish praise from broadsheets and renowned authors.

The cover is clearly revelling in its literary bona fides and as well as the showing of major awards and praise from the top, there’s also a lot of the design choices that help make this cover feel grown up and sophisticated in a way that certainly spoke to me as a young reader. The foiling, the font choices, even the text alignment, are way more sophisticated in feel than your standard 90s Scholastic (it’s also worth noting that the books at this stage bore not Scholastic’s main logo but that of their now-defunct YA imprint, Point).

But it would be very easy to have taken all that into boring territory. Indeed, as we’ll come to discuss below and in posts about international covers, I definitely think these are books that have been respected into absolute dullness at points. This cover looks sophisticated but anything but boring, or embarrassed to be a fantasy adventure.

They commissioned oil painter Stuart Williams. Over in the US, Knopf was around the same time also comissioning a painting of the girl-and-bear pair. They comissioned a painter called Eric Rohmann’s whose resultant image of Lyra rising Iorek towards the viewer became one of 90s adolescents publishing's really iconic covers. In the UK the direction chosen steered less into the feelings of lightness and adventure. Stuart William's work evokes a finer, more adult sensibility than Rohmann's. It has a somewhat Rembrandtish air, with the chiaruscuro lighting and the Night-Watch-esque pose of the bear.

This was the cover that first drew me to the book when I first saw it as a publisher-supplied poster on the wall of the teenage section of my library. It was a cover that accurately promised something much more rich, challenging and rewarding than I was used to encountering.

Stuart Williams' artwork has a deeply atmospheric and mysterious vibe. It works upon the eye the way so much of the early novel works; providing just the right amount of information and opacity to be utterly intriguing.

However, the design didn't last that long as paperback.

The commercial years

Again, that’s not an indication of the previous cover being perceived a failure. This is actually the common final leg of a book’s journey through its first years. Hardback – frontlist paperback – backlist paperback.

After a year or so even a popular paperback is leaving those front-of-store charts, showcase windows and tables. Once again its context and needs changing demands a shift in cover. Any zeitgeist or popular conversation is moving on, leaving a book to stand completely on its own legs, able to sell itself by itself to the browser that happens to pick it up context-free.

In this case, Scholastic decided they already had the right graphic in the bank that could do the job – David Scutt’s alethiometer. In fact by this time The Subtle Knife had also been published with its own Scutt ‘mystical object’ illustration so they were able to approach the paperback for both of these books together. Design studio Black Sheep designed covers that placed Scutt’s illustrations amongst the more conventional cover apparatus – title, byline, pull-quote – and added in some graphic elements to convey a little more information about setting.

The cover direction was intended to last and it did, with these remaining the standard covers from 1998 until 2006 meaning that the Northern Lights cover was on shelves for eight years. These days we get about three new editions of the His Dark Materials books a year so that longevity is striking.

The later nineties and early 2000s was a time when some of the forces that now dominate publishing and steer cover design were just emerging. The children's book trade was emerging as the new powerhouse of publishing in the wake of Harry Potter; digital sales were starting to matter at least as much as physical ones; and idea of author/series branding were getting much more serious.

What Scholastic did was create a really strong visual brand for His Dark Materials. The David Scutt illustrations gave the trilogy a powerful brand, each object a unique and beautiful 'logo' for the book.

The basic design was rejiggered and refigured a few times, with just a few examples shown here

Yet it's still a great cover, and along with its fellows in the trilogy probably one of the most iconic examples of 90s cover design.

The basic design was rejiggered and refigured a few times, as seen just above.

Though this edition had great longevity it wasn't the only edition to come out in these years.

The adult edition

As I have referenced, children's publishing was undergoing huge shifts in the in the late 90s and early 2000s. With the cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter obviously driving a lot of it, children's books were gaining a more widespread adult readership. Harry Potter innovated a way of encouraging this market - by issuing its books as 'adults' editions' to be stocked in the SF & Fantasy sections of shops aongside their standard children's editions in that section the children's section in their original covers.

When The Amber Spyglass came out in 2000, it met with huge critical engagement. The previous books in the trilogy had been richly praised, as we have seen, but it was The Amber Spyglass that really transcended the children's ghetto and earned column-inches of both praise and seriously criticism not normally afforded to kids' lit. The book was longlisted for the Booker and won the Whitbread (now called the Costa) Award - major adult fiction prizes. The National Theatre was soon talking about an adaptation. It was clearly a crossover hit worth encouraging by - like Harry Potter - giving grown-ups editions they could read on the bus without having to be embarrassed by obviously kiddy covers.

In fact His Dark Materials' existing covers, as we have seen, really weren't particularly kiddy. They were however quite obviously fantastical, and it is worth remembering that in the early 2000s it was also still quite embarrassing to be seen enjoying genre material.

Either way, Scholastic clearly appreciated the opportunity to signal the trilogy's intelligentsia creds to customers here and, even better, get the books onto a second location in bookshops.

With the existing covers already pretty sophisticated, 'adult editions' had to go really hard on the worthiness front. It was time to slap some art on the trilogy!

Three pieces of 20th century work were chosen: Jeune Fille en Vert et Rouge by Polish-French artist Balthus (1944) , Melancholy and Mystery of the Street by Italian painter and writer Giorgio de Chirico (1914) and Sophia - the Wisdom of the Almighty by Russian polymath Nicholas Roerich (1932). They’re all artists whose work operated on the edges of Surrealism and Symbolism. The works are clearly relevant at a glance – the eerie empty street for the Subtle Knife, the fiery chariot in the heavens for the Subtle Knife etc – and further context on the artists and the movements they operated within only makes them feel more pertinent.

The choice of the Balthus painting for Northern Lights is the one I’m least convinced of. It’s easy to take the image at a glance for some minor Flemish Renaissance thing chosen more or its respectability than relevance. Actually the themes with which Balthus dealt, sometimes uneasily in his work, do feel pretty linked to Pullman’s, but it’s just not all there to the passing eye.

The time when ‘adults editions’ were warranted is long since past. ‘Cult’ and geek culture and the embrace of juvenile and ‘low-culture’ is these days mainstream. I never would have expected to see a revival of these particular covers, but that’s just what has happened, with refreshed versions of these covers being put out by Scholastic in 2022.

Between the adult edition and the older-skewing standard edition, His Dark Materials was now supremely well catered for in attracting older readers and crossover readers.

Perhaps Scholastic felt that things had skewed too far away from the core market of 11+ readers, because when they reissued the standard paperback editions in 2006, they went younger, These editions, at least in their first iteration, were explicitly referred to 'Junior Editions'.

The artwork is by Dominic Harman, and as we see its use went through a bit of an evolution over their time. They started out very young, with saturated colours and a jaunty approach to type but interestingly, these covers also shifted steadily towards the mature over the course of their reissues. By the final form of these covers, the colours had been way desaturated and the illustration details that most connoted adventure and fantasy had been dropped altogether.

These editions encounter an interesting - well, if not necessarily problem, then challenge: the books deal heavily in animal imagery but it's difficult to use animal imagery on covers without steering into wholly the wrong territory - looking fluffy, sentimental; like conventional juvenile fantasy full of talking animals.

At the time of their issue, I didn't like these covers much at the time but I've warmed a huge amount towards them.

I think what makes me like it more these days is that in recent years His Dark Materials has somewhat suffered from being treated with an over-seriousness, a surfeit of respect, with covers and adaptations drowning the book is so much pompousness they've rather forgotten to be cool and fun. It's just nice to see editions which aren't ashamed to be cracking adventures for juvenile readers, whatever else they may also be.

I have another reason that I'm retrospectively slightly fond of this edition, which is that I really didn't like the covers that eventually replaced them in 2011, or at least the Northern Lights part of the set:

These covers have an unusual origin. For the celebration of World Book Night in 2010, special editions of 25 popular and acclaimed novels were created to be distributed for free, volunteers handing them out. Northern Lights was one of the 25 and this was the cover, designed by Crush Design.

Scholastic liked the cover so much they asked Crush to tweak it for real publication and create matching ones for The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, and launched these as their standard edition.

I think this is the kind of cover that non-designers might be surprised to hear disliked and to be fair that means it's doing it's job; it's working for most people. It’s certainly been popular to adapt to foreign editions.

It achieves an overall glancing impressing of 'pretty' and 'professional'. After the quite old-fashioned and slightly cheesy vibes of the previous paperback I can see how this looks like a breath of fresh air.

The problem/s is best summed up by the word 'clipparty'.

Stock imagery is a wonderful and valid resource. I use it heavily myself. The trick is in selecting and editing stock carefully so it doesn't stick out like something obviously pasted into an environment it doesn't quite fit. It's super obvious at a glance that the animal silhouettes are not bespoke to this design but existing stock. The alethiometer looks pretty good but without its symbols it just looks like a generic compass illustration which isn’t very intriguing.

The The Subtle Knife cover works better. The silhouettes are still very stocky-looking but a few key details forgive that. The way the snake interacts with the swirlies, and how it and the witch shape balance each other well.

The covers aren’t at all bad, they just don’t feel as careful and thoughtful as these particular books seem to merit.

The film tie-in

That takes us up to 2010 by way of standard paperback editions, but we must backtrack by a couple of years, because there was one significant point in the timeline which produced it’s own set of covers: the release of the major film adaptation of Northern Lights (called by the book’s American title The Golden Compass) in 2007.

No one I know really likes film tie-in covers - but they do sell really well. It does help when the poster is good, and The Golden Compass had a poster that looked like a good book cover anyway.

The UK is one of the few markets where Northern Lights doesn't have much history of featuring the Lyra and Iorek pair on its covers. As we have started to see and will continue to, UK covers are far more likely to focus on the alethiometer. But in the US and other markets, girl and bear have been by far the most popular subject - so it was impressive that the marketing department for the film managed to conceive a new arrangement of these much-used elements that was very effective:

The film's title lock-up is pretty and the designer has managed to get on the unwieldy information of the two titles across without it cluttering up the cover, which is impressive. It's a nice touch that someone has rendered their titles in the movie's title style. The film may have bombed but the people working on it, including in the graphics department, cared about what they were making and paid attention to the details.

The Special Edition years

By the mid-2000s we were also hitting significant anniversaries. For Northern Lights' 10th birthday in 2005, Scholastic put out a set of hardbacks that mildly reworked the then-current David Scutt/Black Sheep paperback design to put out as some shiny hardbacks.

Something completely new came in 2007. This wasn't to mark any anniversary. In fact it was a mildly odd time for this 'special edition' style version to come out.

In 2003 Pullman had published the first of his 'little' His Dark Materials books, Lyra's Oxford. It featured the artwork of master woodcutter John Lawrence. There was no wholesale repackaging of His Dark Materials at this time to tie into this new addition. For one thing, the little books actually aren't published by Scholastic but rather Penguin.

In 2008 Pullman was to publish the second of these little accompany books, Once Upon a Time in the North which matched Lyra's Oxford in its styling and use of John Lawrence's work.

So 2007 was an odd year for the trilogy to come out in a style that matched those small books. It was an odd year generally for the trilogy to come out in a set of new expensive sumptuous hardbacks - t wasn't an anniversary year.

One theory might be that these had actually been intended as the 10th anniversary editions in 2005 but delays came up so the previous editions were developed instead and these were put back.

The above designs came out first as hardbacks, then as 'premium paperbacks' (heavy paper stock, foiling and bossing on the cover, french fold jacket, larger dimensions).

Presently the artwork was reworked to fit a more standard paperback size and came out looking like this:

I couldn't swear to it, or find evidence of it, but my memory is that this at least started as a Waterstones exclusive edition. The hardbacks (and possibly the deluxe paperbacks?) were called the 'Lantern Slides Edition' and is the first to include a little appendix of supplementary notes and 'snapshots' that are now standard to UK editions.

The artwork is lovely, but for me didn't quite reach its best use on the covers until 2015 when it was reworked again to grace the 20th anniversary editions of the trilogy:

Like those first David Scutt covers, these centre the objects with such confidence in the strength of the images that title and byline are hardly needed.

It's always bold to use white in cover design - or any graphic design - and while that had worked well on the previous John Lawrence covers somehow here it really works. I brings a freshness and confidence in, eschews a safer dark and sombre palette that is the more conventional way of signaling 'seriousness'. The cover card is watercolour-paper-textured and the lines of the objects are foiled, so the physical editions of these are really gorgeous.

The Book of Dust/HBO years

2017 saw the publication, finally, of the long-promised follow-up novel to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust. Or rather the first volume of what was now announced to be a follow-up trilogy: The Book of Dust: La Bella Sauvage.

As had (kind of) happened with with publication of the 'little books', the publication of a new book prompted a relaunch of all the existing novels in covers to match the new instalment.

Possibly influenced by the success of Lawrence as a choice, Scholastic commissioned another woodcut printmaker, Chris Wormell.

Wormell's style is much more precise and close-lined than Lawrence's, with the aesthetic almost more like lithography or etching sometimes than woodcut.

And Chris Wormell's meticulous, dark-toned work suits the more adult tone of the Book of Dust books well. He has also produced illustrations for Northern Lights itself which I love.

But I’m afraid I find the His Dark Materials covers that use his work very dull, especially Northern Lights.

Once again, these covers place the three objects at the centre of each cover and looking specifically at the cover of Northern Lights, I think we see a problem which has come up before - that the alethiometer is not clearly visually distinguished from being a compass, and so when g;anced as a small object on the cover its power to intrigue is lost. To me the cover is grown-up in a bad way - no atmosphere, no intrigue.

The spyglass suffers even worse, matching more accurately than most depictions the book’s description of the handmade spyglass than most artists’ poetic licence, but looking all the more boring for it. The colours of that cover though do help evoke an atmosphere, whereas to me Northern Lights is entirely lacking in energy or mood.

I think the staid illustration could be brought to life with a lively typographic direction on the title but that too is extremely dull and serious.

This is, as I referenced earlier, the era of people handling His Dark Materials with such respect they kind of kill it.

Talking of which...

In 2019 the second major screen adaptation of His Dark Materials kicked off, this a TV series co-produces by the BBC and HBO. I've gone into my opinions on that adaptation have been covered fairly thoroughly elsewhere on this site. Quick precis: with the greatest respect to brilliant work being done by many people on board, I feel the series is fundamentally let down at the level of scriptwriting storytelling and imagination to be a lifeless and thematically empty rendition of the material.

The promotional material was one of the examples of people doing excellent work on the production, and where the book covers use the poster art they look pretty cool, if a bit muddy and indistinct - a problem that arises when you reduce digital work created to fill billboard down to paperback size. The tie-in cover of Northern Lights is on the face of it an odd choice. It's a visually meh moment which doesn't contain much storytelling or feeling or action, an doesn't suit the portrait book cover format terribly well. But this is probably down to books needing to go to print long before the visuals on a production like this are finalised. There would be limited publicity shots to choose from.

Luckily 2019 also saw the publication of a set of 'Gift Editions' that broke up all this dull self-seriousness, and provided something a child might actually want to pick up and read. A paperback, but again given the 'deluxe-ness' of having an unusually thick and textured French-fold-cover, these were illustrated by Melissa Castrillon.

Just like the ‘Junior Editions’ illustrated by Dominic Harman in 2006, these feel like the publisher realising that the existing covers were looking very grown-up and the core market of children might not be tempted to pick up the books as they currently existed, leading to them commissioning such a colourful and stylised illustrator.

The Castrillon covers go the classic 'objects' route with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, except with Northern Lights breaks the pattern by centring Iorek instead of the alethiometer. I always love Castrillon's work and these are really pretty and fun.

That is only one of several 'special editions' the last few years have seen. Scholastic has been happily capitalising on the particular attention on their star property brought about by both the BBC/HBO adaptation and the ongoing publication of the The Book of Dust sequel trilogy.

In 2020 we saw an illustrated edition of Northern Lights which has been followed up with one of The Subtle Knife. An illustrated The Amber Spyglass is due in November.

Since I've been rude about Wormell's His Dark Materials covers I must stress I love these editions. Not only do I like Wormell's interior illustrations a whole lot, I find they tap into something very close to how I imagined scenes when I first read the book. As an interior illustrator Wormell's careful, technically brilliant style suits the weight and richness of the book extremely well.

And in 2021 we have had another set of Special Editions:

It's hard to say what market opportunity these were prompted by. They seem to have quite directly replaced the Melissa Castrillon editions, but unlike those these definitely clearly don't skew to the junior market.

They might be said to be a return to the idea of 'adult editions'. But just to complicate that idea, the original adult editions, the ones featuring feature selected art, were resissued later the same year.

If these covers had come out ten years ago I wouldn't have quite the same questions, recognising them as a prestige project. But Rankin is hardly the trendy, headline-grabbing name he once was.

So I wonder if maybe the idea is to do a kind of screen tie-in without doing a screen tie-in, as it were:

To produce something photographic, cinematic, prestige-y, but without actually being directly tied to an adaptation - either because this might lend them more longevity, or because it might separate them from a series that Scholastic might feel is underperforming critically - or just for some rights reasons. That's all just a wild stab though.

In any case, I actually really love this Northern Lights cover. I think what works so well is the particularity of the choices Rankin has made. That's a very specific Lyra, and this is a cover with something specific to say, a particular read, an authentic artistic interest in the book. It's visually all the things I felt were so missing from the screen adaptation.

Unlike the current standard paperback edition with the Chris Wormell artwork, this is a cover with bags of atmosphere too. Lyra and Pantalaimon are almost drowned in darkness, and the light falls with high contrast. This chiaroscuro lighting takes us right back to that original paperback, the very one which drew me to Northern Lights in the first place.

It's surprising how little the Lyra/Pantalaimon pair has been picked up on to focus on focus in cover art for Northern Lights. I talked already about the difficulties in depicting animal imagery without slipping intosignals of the cute, young or whimsical which would be unhelpful for this book. But Rankin has found a way to present this most central relationship as freshly striking and suggestive of just the right angles of intrigue - again, quite a feat to be novel in working with a book with 30 years of publication and so many editions across many markets under its belt.

OK but which is the best one

Well, these are my favourites - so far:

Next time I'm going to go through the US editions!


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