Monday, October 24, 2011

Crappy romance novels and Lilith's Brood, or Why Book Covers Matter

The first thing I heard about Lilith's Brood was a disclaimer: don't judge this book by its crappy romance novel cover. A naked woman covering her breasts with her hands, under white sheets.

But this is a classic science-fiction trilogy, I thought to myself. I must perservere!

Despite my most valiant efforts, I can't get past this book cover. Covers make a huge first impression on prospective readers, and I've never understood why they go overlooked so often. Why does the moody painting on The Great Gatsby's cover have to have an unnecessary white box around it? Why can't authors stop their great novels with film adaptations from getting the obligatory movie poster cover?

Imagine if the Beatles hadn't had control over the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road. What about Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love or Nirvana's Nevermind or A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders?

Even in today's music market where album sales are bottoming out and everyone buys 99-cent singles on iTunes, album covers make a difference. When Kanye West released his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year, its cover made perhaps more waves than the music itself. A huge controversy ensued, and regardless of what you think of Kanye's music, it's clear he cares about cover art.

Why can't literature be afforded the same artistic integrity? The most successful novels go through dozens of different book covers, hardly any of them with input from the authors themselves. Sometimes a writer like Shel Silverstein will fight tooth and nail to get exactly the artwork he wants, but then again, Silverstein was also the artist. It's tough for writers who just write.

So what about Lilith's Brood? The woman on the cover barely looks like how protagonist Lilith is described in the novel. The top of the photographed woman's head is blurred out--her only distinguishable traits are her curly hair and that ethnically, she's probably black.

The woman appears to be in a very sensual situation, but this is a disservice to the protagonist--Lilith is an empowered female character. The cover insinuates her sexuality should be front and center in the reader's mind.

Does this matter? Octavia E. Butler, the author, is a bit of an anomaly. In an industry full of nerdy white men, she was one of the only prominent African-American female sci-fi authors. Did Grand Central Publishing give Lilith's Brood a romance novel cover because they think men won't read a book written by a woman? Is the woman on the cover black simply because Butler was black?

At the end of the day, despite whatever cliché your teachers and parents may espouse, book covers matter. They're our portal into the world of the story, and it's a shame the publishing industry wants to make these portals as inconsequential as possible.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Violence in We3

I love violence. A list of my all-time favorite movies would undoubtedly include such family-friendly classics as Battle Royale, 28 Days Later, and Kill Bill.

But the violence in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's We3 bothers me. It seems unnecessary. Gore has a place in fiction when it serves a purpose, whether that's furthering the storyline or evoking a mood. We3's blood and guts simply evoke the mood of "gross" to me. It doesn't hook me in, it doesn't make me empathize with the characters or despise the characters. It just comes off as frivolous.

Let's take this scene halfway through the comic, for example (I apologize for the low scan quality). Our protagonists are escaping across a bridge when they get ambushed by a horde of cyborg rats. The two-page panel on top is the establishing shot, showing all the action with all the characters on an identifiable background.

Quitely cleverly conveys depth in the image by silhouetting the rats on the bridge supports in the foreground. We see Tinker and Bandit reacting to the attack, snarling with teeth bared. Pirate escapes off to the right. This panel works. It tells the story and illustrates the emotions of the characters. Now let's look closer.

Two triangular panels follow: a close-up of Bandit viciously chomping a rat in two, and the We3 crossing to the other side of the bridge.

What was the point of that chomp?

It illustrates that Bandit is fighting back. But does the scene evolve into a full-on battle between the rats and the We3? Nope. They continue their escape in the next frame. If the chomping frame were taken out completely, the reader would not have lost any information.

"But comic books are more than just the plot line," you may assert. So what deeper feeling does the chomp convey? That Bandit kicks ass? We see plenty of ass kicking through the rest of the comic. That the rats are stupid and expendable? We definitely see that throughout the rest of the story. This particular panel brings absolutely nothing to the table, except for one thing: violence.

This is violence for violence's sake. It's the wrong way to do gore. Yes, the rat's guts are realistic and detailed, but all this does is satisfy readers' bloodlust. It's The Human Centipede of comic book frames.

Don't get me wrong. Gore can be done right. It's even done right in other parts of We3. The early scene where the scientist is demonstrating the drill-rats to government officials comes to mind; this is a scene where the unsettling violence makes us feel a certain way towards the humans involved and helps deepen our attachment to the story. Unfortunately, this is only a small percentage of We3's violence. The rest is like Bandit chomping a rat in half: bloody filler.