Saturday, December 3, 2011

Anatomy of a cover: Red Power, a graphic novel

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I spent a couple of months this year working on the first graphic novel that Fifth House Publishers would produce. (Fifth House is one of the companies I work for.) As such, there was a bit of a learning curve, especially when laying out the interiors, but I can easily say this was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. So I thought I’d write a little bit about how I came up with the cover design.

This is something a little different that I felt like sharing. Continue reading, or skip to the bottom for the Song of the Week.

The graphic novel in question is Red Power, by Brian Wright-McLeod. He wrote and illustrated the book, which is a story of resistance and soul-searching by a group of native North Americans, particularly its main man, Billy Moon. This is actually Part 1 of a broader story that involves mystery and a fair bit of old magic. There are spirits about, or didn’t you know?

As I was saying, Brian wrote and illustrated the story. Once complete, I got a file with the text, scans of the illustrations, and it was time to put them all together. I have to skip over that process for the purpose of this post (maybe I’ll write about it another time, because I found it really interesting), and go right to the point where I had to design the cover.

To begin with, I didn’t really know what anyone was looking for. I did some thumbnail sketches, and if I knew where I put them, I’d show them. No matter, though. I had to work with the main black and white illustrations, and I could only add one colour due to printing costs.

1) The first thing I did was pull some images that I thought were striking and mysterious. We needed to show that this was a mature graphic novel, and I was going for something gritty with the mug shots and the fence. I did not nail this on my first attempt.
Concept 1
2) For my next entry, I decided to go with a zoomed-in close-up of the eye of a wolf. The wolf narrates the story, so I thought it was fitting, and he has a connection to Billy. Hence the tiny image of Billy in the eye of the wolf. I kept the fence from earlier, added some barbed wire, and made the red look like spattered blood. Grittiness achieved (so I thought), but it wasn't really as eye-catching as some people wanted, and a lot of them didn't feel it was what they’d had in mind.
Concept 2
3) I tried a combination of the first two entries, but while people loved the barbed wire fence, they were against the framed mug shots. Even the type was an issue. Too crude, and too thin. (Type size is important if you want to be able to read a title on a bookshelf 20-40 feet away.)
Concept 3
4) I scrapped that layout, but kept some of the images and combined them with a few more to make a collage. It was a rough collage, but I wanted to know if anyone even liked the idea. I added a diagonal black stripe behind the title, but some people felt it was too overpowering or jarring.
Concept 4
5) I rearranged the collage so it still featured Billy prominently, giving it more of a loose triangular shape. Billy was the top dog, and everything flowed down from there. I tried it in red as well, but I felt the texture stood out better without added colour. As for the title, it stood out, but the type was too thin again.
Concept 5
It was around this point that I began feeling stressed. There are more cover variations that I haven’t bothered to show, and despite the full backing of the publisher, I was wondering if this project was going to get taken away from me. Sure, I was doing the interiors, but I wanted to get the cover done, dammit! I met with Brian to take his author photo, and when he asked me what I thought of the cover ideas so far, I was honest and said that none of them really impressed me so far.

6) Not long after that, I had a flash of inspiration. A glimmer, at the very least. I’d make a black cover, and the only place that you’d see illustrations would be through the letters of the title. I did it, and I added just a little bit of red seeping down the page. This design garnered some warm praise, but the text alignment felt off, and some people wanted it to look more recognizably native. They suggested I add feathers.
Concept 6
7) So I added four. I re-jigged the type, and I added an image of a native spirit (Thunder, if you must know) to the R and the beginning of the E. We were getting closer, but now the feathers were too much.
Concept 7
8) I changed the position of the author’s name and added some type. Ok, I added a lot of type. I was going for something else, and I didn’t like the outcome. I didn't even show this one.
Concept 8
9) With the recent feedback in mind, I took out the extra type, left Brian’s name in the upper corner, and added a couple of feathers. It was done. Billy and the wolf were gone, but Thunder was holding down that first R. The shooters visible in D, P, and O added a menacing presence, while the feminine eyes* peer out mysteriously though the W. The classic car seemed like a good way to anchor down the last letters, while at the edge of the final R you can see a scheming man looking out at the readers.
Final cover - front and back
*A funny story about those eyes. They were part of a replacement panel that Brian drew that never made it into the final because of space restrictions. It’s too bad, because I really liked that illustration. We had to work it in somewhere, though, and I’m pretty happy it made it on the cover.

At long last, we had a cover. I put together the back, and before I knew it everything was going off to the printer. Within weeks I was holding a fresh copy of Red Power in my hands. I liked the final product. It was time to release it to the world.

Red Power, by Brian Wright-McLeod, is now available in bookstores, and online through retailers such as and (I don't know what Amazon is on about, though. The book is 60 pages, not 96. I've looked into this, and I'm not sure when the correction will take effect.) I recommend you read it.


-   Song of the Week: This week's pick was very, very close. It was between a two-time nominee for SotW and a new entrant, and in the end I gave it to the newbie. I have a feeling the other artist could be the first three-timer on this blog next week, but we'll wait and see. Let's not hog the spotlight from the deserving winner, though. With sparse arrangements, heavy licks, and a voice that could belong to Rivers Cuomo, The Devil Takes Care of His Own by Band of Skulls is for the louder-listening crowd. But look at the video. What starts off as a very quiet telecast becomes anything but. This is why you don't mess with your producer when he's the next Bruce Lee, because even when he's armed with just the shirt off his back, he'll whip you and your rebellious TV crew. And the band will play on.


mel said...

The cover looks great! I love the progression too, thanks for sharing, this is very interesting indeed.

bryesque said...

*Very* cool to see your process here. I think that the final cover is the strongest - keeping things simple lets the title be far more striking, the two small falling feathers at the bottom work great, and I like the choice of imagery you went with inside the letters of the title.

Really nice work. :)

Errant Knave said...

Thanks for the compliments! I was just happy with the result, and I thought it'd be neat to show how we got from A to Z. I'm glad to see that some people found it interesting, too. :)

ibeeeg said...

Very neat to see your progress with the cover. It looks great.
How fantastic to have this experience.

Errant Knave said...

Thanks! I've had a couple of cracks at other covers since then, and if all goes well I'll post about those when the books are out.

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