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The covers of His Dark Materials - USA

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Previously I looked at the covers that the first volume in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has gone through in its native land, the UK.

Today I'm going to look at how the same book has looked throughout its career in the US.

I won't be able to be quite as thorough in my chronology and historical context around each volume since this isn't my market, but I've shaken the US editions into what I hope is a more or less accurate order!

The new book

The Golden Compass was published in the US by Alfred A. Knopf in 1996, a year after the UK debut.

The reason for the title difference is part miscommunication and part publisher choice: Pullman had submitted his novel with the title The Golden Compasses attached as a working title for the series. Like the final series title, it's a phrase lifted from Paradise Lost where the word refers to measuring compasses rather than a directional compass ("He took the golden compasses, prepared / In God's eternal store, to circumscribe / This universe, and all created things...").

The people handling the book at Knopf mistook this both for the book title, and for a reference to the alethiometer which of course somewhat resembles a navigational compass. They opted to use the title (edited from 'compasses' to 'compass') even when they finally found out that the UK were proceeding with an entirely different title.

(Personally - and slightly inevitably - I prefer the title under which I met the book Northern Lights. I think it's the better book title, more mysterious and layered than the more conventionally whimsical The Golden Compass. But I think both are good titles, and I do enjoy how uniform the US title makes the series' names, As we shall come to presently, my favourite set of editions editions across any market are from the US. Those centre typography and they just wouldn't look as cool if the titles weren't such a matched set.)

And here is the first cover in which they issued The Golden Compass:

The painting is by Eric Rohmann, and this is a real classic, a cover iconic of 90s kids/YA publishing in a way that probably even the original UK hardbacks can't claim. This was probably the most popular illustration to reuse in non-English markets, so it's familiar to readers across many countries.

And even where it wasn't directly used, it set a precedent that many other markets' covers pulled from, with the image of Lyra riding Iorek easily the most popular subject choice and several emulating Rohmann's composition of the scene.

I love this depiction of Iorek. He's cute, but he also expresses some of the off-putting, alienating spirit of the actual character - which depictions both in covers and adaptations don't always manage.

When The Subtle Knife came out in the US in 1997, it got a closely matched cover, with Rohmann again providing illustration whose composition clearly evoked the first, and a continuation of the text choices.

For The Amber Spyglass in 2000, Rohmann again illustrated but this time with quite a different illustration that got a different treatment. Instead of the large figures in close frames, this time Will and Lyra appear tiny, lost in a vast sea of ghosts, the Gallivespians' dragonflies a little more in the foreground to lead our eye towards the children

It's also a fantastic illustration, and I really like how as a final installment it balances matching its counterparts while also feeling like it appropriately represents the tone and scale of this book.

In the hardback publication, this illustration was printed directly onto the book's casing, with a pep-through circle cut in a plain dust jacked to make a vignette of the central subjects, presumably intended to invoke a lens, as of a spyglass.

Knopf opted to directly reproduce the hardback designs when issuing their first paperbacks of the books. At least some of the paperback editions of the Amber Spyglass even continued the peep-through device by cutting a circle allowing a partial view of the full illustration, printed onto a second cover underneath. The top cover was also printed in a gold Pantone, more expensive than standard CMYK printing.

There's no doubt that Knopf were putting impressive investment into the book but I do love a matched set and I can't help but still be diappointed that The Amber Spyglass never quite got a visual treatment that made it totally match the others.

Going back a few years, the Rohmann cover was not the only paperback edition that The Golden Compass got in its first years.

I don't quite understand how US publishing works, but in 1997, before Knopf brought out their own paperback edition of the book using the same artwork, a different imprint of the same publishing house, Randomhouse, called Ballantine, published a whole different paperback with different art. From what I can gather this is a 'library binding' published (exclusively?) for libraries to use.

It got a matching edition of The Subtle Knife in 1998, but no The Amber Spyglass.

US cover art often tends to appear a little old-fashioned measured against UK trends, and to this The Golden Compass looks like it should belong to 1988 rather than 1998, but that's not to say I don't like it - quite the opposite. There's such evident care and attention to the detail of the book and it's just bathing in retro cool. It's like getting to see what the book looked like in an alternate part of the multiverse where it was published a decade earlier than it was here.

(My absolute favourite part of this edition of this book though is that it promises an introduction by Terry Brooks which this edition absolutely does not contain.)

The same care and skill has gone into The Subtle Knife and the detail on the knife is lovely, but obviously the cover is let down by the gruesome creature behind Will clearly being based on a misinterpretation or miscommunication about the text. A misunderstanding around the word 'daemon' maybe. There's at least one edition where the monster is erased, also seen above.

This cover incidentally is unmistakable as from the nineties due to Will's floppy hairstyle!

The next set of editions to come out were mass-market paperbacks from another Randomhouse imprint, Del Rey. 'Mass-market' is a format of smaller, more cheaply-produced paperbacks. The Golden Compass came out in this edition in 1999 and The Subtle Knife in 2000. Sadly when The Amber Spyglass came out in the format it didn't get a matching cover. All three are by UK illustrator Steven Rawlings.

Funnily enough we do know that Rawlings produced a matching illustration for The Amber Spyglass, presumably with the intention at one point of it going on that book, because it's used for on the box-set that this set of editions received (also seen below).

It's a bit of a mystery. The covers are obviously intended to catch a more general and more adult audience, moving away from the clear 'children's' and 'fantasy' signals of the painted illustration and I think manage that well, but perhaps the style was still felt to be too young to fit the final installment.

Whereas though the digital montage look of the above The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife might be firrmly of its time aesthetically, they're very well done and evocative.

One interesting trend we see in these relatively early years at least in the US paperbacks is a harder lean into science fiction stylings that we've ever seen in the UK. I like that, because the book isn't pure fantasy and definitely has a claim on SF too.

This edition, by the way did include that Terry Brooks intro.

The much less interesting cover in which The Amber Spyglass was place was sadly indicative of the treatment the books would get for the next couple of editions - largely personality-free.

The commercial years

The debut of The Amber Spyglass in paperback in 2001 was also a prompt for a new design direction on the (larger, more expensively produced) trade paperbacks so these covers replaced the Eric Rohmann covers.

A recurring problem of imagery across editions from across the globe is relying on an image of an alethiometer that just looks too indistinguishable from a compass at a glance to connote much intrigue or interest - especially felt in the US where the title being The Golden Compass reinforces the idea that the image is literally that instrument, and also makes it feel rather a redundant image. In sets of illustrations that centre the objects, this often leaves the first book feeling the least exciting which is a particular problem as potential readers will need to be interested in the first book to even get to the other books.

Other than that, I feel like there are good ingredients in these covers, they're just lost in the muddiness of palette and detail that digital art can so easily fall into.

I do enjoy the little taglines at the head of each cover which I think are unique to these editions. Respectively: "a truth-telling device in the hands of a liar", "a blade that can open new worlds, in the hands of a murderer" and "a glass that reveals angels in the hands of a temptress". Those are well-written lines which capture some of the central tensions that Pullman is playing with.

In 2002 these were replaced with something a lot better:

THESE. These are my favourites. I love them so much.

These were not just trade paperbacks but particularly sumptuous ones, with bossing and foiling finishes to the front which was printed on expensive watercolour-paper-texture stock.

Two artists worked on these covers, which is unusual and another sign of the care being taken. Ericka O' Rourke created the illustrations of the constellations, and Lilly Lee the lettering.

The illustrations are obviously inspired by antique star maps and pick out constellations with resonance with the book. Ursa Major for Northern Lights, Gemini for The Subtle Knife and Virgo for The Amber Spyglass. O'Rourke's style evokes careful etching.

The bear of The Golden Compass doesn't look much like a bear but does look how bears were drawn in antiquity. I love that, partly because it seems relevant to the theme of animal amorphousness in the book, and partly because here we have a recognition of the kind of imagery that Pullman is tapping into. Not contemporary ideas of real animals and their depictions, but this historical-symbolic-meaningful intersection. I love the respect paid to young readers by putting on a book for them an image that isn't immediately accessible.

Then the contrast between with this antique-like, sombre-toned, fine-lined illustration and the nouveau hand-wrought-ness of the byline/title box is so perfect - the gorgeous gold title lock up with its lines so obviously hand-wrought. This part is bossed out too. And the gold is balanced in the foiling of the series title at the bottom.

They're just perfect. I love them.

Next it was time for the mass-market editions to be replaced. The first of the covers below came out in 2003 and were updated a couple of times between then and 2007.

These designs didn't have any newly created imagery created but rather combined parts of artwork from existing editions. The first and second versions used the constellation map artwork from the above trade paperbacks as background texture. The central objects interestingly changed a few times and used both illustrations from above listed US artwork, as well as sometimes David Scutt's illustrations of the objects from the UK editions.

At least on some of these the circular frame was actually a cut-through as seen previously on the first cover of The Amber Spyglass.

These are pretty boring editions and of course don't have new illustration to discuss, but I do think some of the type treatment is nice. It works best on the final set of editions without the drop shadow, where there's a kind of clean retro stylishness especially with the The Golden Compass cover.

I like how the space left in Pullman's byline made by his having a shorter first name than surname makes room for the roundel. Printed-on roundels are a particular hazard of US book covers and I appreciate this one being incoorporated gracefully.

That takes us up to the mid-late 2000s which is when the movie was released. Obviously like the UK the US had movie tie-in covers, but since they were almost identical to the UK ones I won't bother including them here.

The Special Edition years

In 2006, ten years after The Golden Compass's US debut, Knopf released anniversary 'Deluxe Edition' hardbacks. These also had no new illustration and employed O'Rourke's constellations images:

There's nothing I specifically dislike about this cover but I don't think it stands as a very strong look. The middle band is strangely tall to my eye and the space within it feels cluttered with too many kinds of type treatment. The overall aesthethic is vaguely pirate-treasure-map-y which is pretty irrelevant to the text.

There was also 20th anniversary hardback edition of The Golden Compass in 2015 - odd, because the 20th anniversary of the American publication should have been 2016. After all, the US 10th anniversary editions came out in 2006.

Only The Golden Compass was actually labelled as an Anniversary Edition and only it got the hardback/slipcase (the image on the right above) treatment. But the cover of this edition was also put out as a new trade paperback, and got matching covers in this format.

The illustrator is Iacopo Bruno, and unusually he was also commissioned to design new covers for new editions of the 'small books' of the His Dark Materials world - Lyra's Oxford, Once Upon a Time in The North and The Collectors. Sadly the more recent Serpentine has missed out on a matching edition.

Those books have received hardly any new covers, partly presumably because they're somewhat marginal books compared to the main trilogy with smaller sales, and partly because Lyra's Oxford and Once Upon a Time... are books that are illustrated throughout so it's usually thought to make sense to keep the cover consistant with those interiors by keeping the John Lawrence artwork on the jackets.

For myself I find Bruno's covers for the main trilogy a little underwhelming. The intricate title designs are nice but the illustration feels muddier and with less effective cover than Bruno's usual work. But his covers for the small books are far more like his usual steampunk-gothic approach, and far more effective and handsome

And that wraps it up - as yet - for US editions. It hasn't had quite the number of new editions over the years as in the book's native UK, but from these some covers which can match the best of the UK's have still emerged. And for my money these are the best of the crop:


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