Correspondent’s Course: Covers That Excite

Matt Kish

Matt Kish, the artist behind the remarkable (and holiday ready) Moby-Dick in Pictures, gives us a look at some of the book covers that have burned themselves into his psyche.

Whether we will admit to it or not, we’ve all done it. Standing there in the bookstore, shifting the weight back and forth on our tired feet, we’ve held a book in our hands and scrutinized the cover, deciding whether or not to spend our cash almost entirely on the image and design alone. I’ve done it more times than I care to admit, and although I have been burned on a few occasions, more often than not I am pleasantly surprised by what’s underneath that cover. Here, in what will have to pass for some kind of order, are ten covers that continue to excite my eye and inspire my mind.

Roadmarks—Roger Zelazny
I’m not sure who painted this one, although I suspect it was the recently deceased Darrell K. Sweet. I first saw this as a paperback that my father was reading, and it came into my life soon after my grandparents had taken me on a world-changing month-long drive from Ohio throughout the American West and home again. So much of this cover looked familiar to me, and yet here, delighting my seemingly bottomless childish appetite for wonder and fantasy was a dragon! That juxtaposition of the mundane and the mythological was enough for me and I still experience a thrill when seeing this.

Etidorhpa— John Uri Lloyd
In high school in the mid-1980s, I spent an inordinate amount of time at Elyria, Ohio’s Booksellers, a massive store that carried everything from greeting cards to pornographic videotapes to used books. Their science fiction and fantasy section was a special delight, often containing overlooked gems from the 60s and 70s that were being cast off by their owners in favor of more modern writing. I was always drawn to the covers that promised the most weirdness, so this “underground fantasy of nightmarish horror and devastating beauty” complete with someone who looked like Charles Darwin standing in the midst of a pastel mushroom forest with a faceless hermaphrodite was just what I needed. Perfectly, the story held up and this remains high on my list of favorite tales.

Perhaps I am cheating a bit by including a comic magazine in this list, but to this day this cover images scares the daylights out of me. I remember seeing it first as a very young child and being smitten with absolute terror. Something about that hideous pink sky and the way that the skull-bat-thing seemed to completely surround the poor terrified soul on the ground. There was no way he was going to escape some awful fate! Sadly, I never did learn what “Only one thing left to do…” meant, nor did I ever find out if that man escaped. But even now, as a 42 year old man, this cover really freaks me out.

Motorman—David Ohle
This has since been reprinted with an equally intriguing but vastly different, and much more colorful, cover. I saw the reprint cover first, only recently discovered this original version which is much closer to the surreal, queasy and unsettling nature of the book. Motorman is the story of a man named Moldenke, on the run from someone named Bunce in a world filled with multiple moons, men with multiple sheep hearts beating (sometimes) in their chests, beings known as jellyheads, and so much more I think it’s time you tracked this down yourself. Throughout it all there is the sense of gentle but inescapable decay and a terrible sadness. All of which, somehow, this artist was able to capture in this perfect cover, from the drawing to the font.

At the Mountains of Madness —H.P. Lovecraft
Ian Miller is a British artist who has been creating fantastic imagery since the late 70s. He seemed to be all over the place then, even earning a few collections of his own from the long-defunct Dragon’s Dream imprint. His work has been a huge influence on my own, and I quite simply never tire of letting my eye wander through his lines, textures, and shapes. This Lovecraft cover seems to me a perfect summation of so much of what makes his art unmistakably brilliant. And Lovecraft is often good for a late-night scare, even if there are a few too many “things that should not be” in his tales.

The Inferno— Dante, translated by John Ciardi
Growing up, Hell was always disappointingly realistically depicted. In movies, in comics, in art, in videogames…it always looked just like what you’d expect. Flames. Cyclopean cities. Winged devils tormenting sinners. The works. I had to read this particular translation as an undergrad and was immediately struck by the shifting and vertiginous cover image. My eye couldn’t find anywhere to rest in the piece. It felt, somehow, slippery and in a treacherous way. Staring at this bizarre, almost sloppy, smeared and blurry painting made me feel dizzy, mildly queasy, and completely ill-at-ease. All perfect for what is, read correctly, a deeply unsettling journey through the afterlife.

MULTIFORCE— Mat Brinkman
I really don’t think there are any artists working today, in comics or anywhere else, as consistently challenging, original, or brilliant as Mat Brinkman. So I may be cheating a bit here again since Multiforce is really a giant (11” by 16”), stapled comic book collecting the eponymous story from the pages of Paper Rodeo but it’s one of the few works that seems to burrow deep inside the mind’s eye like a heat-seeking missile and then simply explode. It’s really that wonderful, and this cover image with that title (yes, that really says “Multiforce” down below) is the perfect invitation to a detonation.

A Voyage to Arcturus — David Lindsay
This is one of the three or four books to have had a deep and lasting impact on my own thinking, shaping who I am and who I hope to eventually be. Although slightly marred by an awkward framing story, this surreal story is actually a Gnostic fable exploring the nature of pain and the existence of a Creator. The cover is a brilliant painting by Bob Pepper and thankfully the novel meets every expectation the cover sets forth and then exceeds them.

Moby-Dick, Or, the Whale — Herman Melville
Walk into any bookstore anywhere and you will surely see multiple editions of this great novel, almost all of them with some historically accurate photograph or engraving or other image from the early days of the whaling industry. That’s all well and good, and there needs to be a place for that, but I grew tired of that kind of thing very quickly. This cover though truly spoke to me. As someone who has been obsessed with the novel for most of his life, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been forced to defend it to friends. Cries of “It’s old!” or “It’s boring!” or “It doesn’t make sense!” seem to hound me everywhere. To me this beautiful and brilliant cover, a painting by contemporary artist Claus Hoie titled “The Pursuit of the Great White Whale.” The apparent crudeness and simplicity of the piece is all an illusion and a close inspection reveals a vision and a sensitivity that is almost breathtaking. To me, this cover has always been reassuring proof that Moby-Dick remains vital, important, relevant and ultimately modern, even 160 years after its initial publication.

Gormenghast— Mervyn Peake
Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is perhaps the only work that can compete with Melville’s great novel for my undivided attention. It came to me as a teen and its narrative of a young boy stifled by ritual and nearly strangled by the expectations of adulthood deeply affected me. Most editions of the three novels in the trilogy, Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone include Peake’s own gorgeous, scratchy, densely detailed drawings and studies throughout the text and often on the cover. This illustration is by Peake and, without spoiling too much, is the perfect summation of the awful, terrifying and exhilarating finality of the climax of the second novel. It is so simple and still so deeply moving. It still moves me.

Matt Kish was born in 1969 and lives in the middle of Ohio. After stints as a cafeteria cook, a hospital registrar, a bookstore manager, and an English teacher, he ended up as a librarian. He draws as often as he can, often with whatever he can find. He has tried his hand at 35mm black-and-white photography (with real film and real chemicals), making comics and zines, a bit of collage, and lots of pen and ink.