Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cover Art

When I buy a book, I prefer it to be ancient, musty, compact, and weather-worn. One of my prize possessions is a tiny Everyman’s edition of Marlowe printed in 1912. I found it in an antiquarian bookstore in Archer City, Texas. Its cover is green and it has leaves and tendrils stamped in gold on the spine. The first page is inscribed with a Cambridge address, and there’s an old coupon for the Boston Metropolitan Opera inside it.

But I digress. When it comes to fantasy I have to make do with what I can find. Much as I would love to acquire an early hardcover edition of The Worm Ouroboros like the one I first found at the library, these are invariably bought and sold by collectors and other people with money. But nearly as good are the old Adult Fantasy trade paperbacks from Ballantine.

To begin with, when I read a paperback, I much prefer something yellowed and slightly trashy. The Ballantine books certainly fit this description. But there is more. I genuinely like the cover designs. They are garish and childish. Back when I lived in the city and rode a crowded bus every day, I was a little self-conscious about pulling out a slick reprint with a big, bold, up-to-date design. But a trashy old copy of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn with its unicorn, its harpy, and its woodland scenery that all look as though painted by a junior high student with a six-year-old’s taste in color? That I would display with pride.

In a way it is the childishness of the pictures that I like. For there is something a little immature in reading fantasy; this is tied to its essential seriousness. Yes, the pictures are often laughably crude, the colors horribly garish. Yet they are attractive in a retro sort of way, and there is a certain composite prettiness in a shelf-full of them, like a collage of dried flowers. Many of the paintings wrap around to the back cover, and some are quite beautiful.

A while back I decided to acquire Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the Mabinogion. I ordered the four Adult Fantasy paperbacks on Amazon. One of them, The Children of Llyr, did not match the image shown by the seller; it was an edition from the period after Ballantine was acquired by Del Rey. It features a bold, hirsute, dwarfish character sporting a horn-hat, a shield, and a shirt with those little X’s that they used back before buttons were invented. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual book, of course, and to me it is much more dated than the psychedelic Ballantine covers. And then there were the other three, which come as close to timeless fantasy as the cover of a trashy trade paperback ever could.

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