Saturday, August 4, 2012

Covers That Awed Me (and still kinda do)

   One of the reasons I picked up a lot of books when I was a kid was because of their covers.  My dad had hundreds of sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks in the attic.  He rarely recommended anything to me (except for LOTR), leaving me to discover authors on my own.  Often it meant going for the coolest, most exciting cover in the box.  Later when I bought my own books from spinner racks in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal or Barnes & Noble, eye catching covers helped in sorting through the vast selections.

   These covers are among the most vivid from my childhood and teenage readings in swords & sorcery.  Clearly the late Frank Frazetta's talents had a lot to do with shaping the visual presentation of S&S in the era.  It's easy to see why.  It's big and brutal with dark, brooding figures committing or at least contemplating great acts of violence.  Not to get too psychological but the appeal of the powerful characters he painted have a strong pull for the typical teenage guy bursting with energy and testosterone who feels like he's indestructible while feeling at deep odds with the world.  Or maybe teenage boys just like big honking barbarians swinging swords, cleaving monsters and getting the girl 'cause it looks cool.

   These covers still overwhelm my senses in the best possible way when I look at them.  They possess none of the photo realism of so many modern covers, a style I really dislike (they look like bodice-rippers).  Instead, with "Conan the Warrior" we get swirling flames and smoke and flailing Picts caught in mid strike.  There's an impressionism in Frazetta's art that does more to conjure Conan and his ilk than any host of photo shopped book cover models.  
   "Flashing Swords! #2's" second cover (this one replaced a weaker Frazetta cover on the first printing) brings us Frazetta's original "Death Dealer" in all his malefic glory.  His eyes burn as brightly as the fire in the background and are as crimson as the blood dripping from his oversized axe.  Above swoop vultures which surely travel in his wake awaiting in anticipation of their next meal. 

   I find a dream quality in paintings as well a feeling of motion conveyed by the blurred shadows and body contours.  There's none of harsh unreal realness of CGI animation.  "Conan the Warrior" may depict one moment of combat but it doesn't feel like a snapshot but a frame from a film unreeling in my head.

   "Death Angel's Shadow" is minimalist next to the Frazetta pictures.  It was done by an artist named Stan Zagorski who looks like he's mostly done album covers.  In this one picture he captures Karl Edward Wagner's "mystic swordsman" like none of the subsequent covers by Frazetta did.  
   The latter picture a bare-chested barbarian with a red beard.  Zagorski's Kane is a man in full armor in an almost relaxed pose despite looking as if he's in the midst of a fight.  Behind him rises what I'm guessing is his cloak formed into skulls.  Where Kane treads, murder and bloodshed trail him.
   Because of e-books covers don't influence my impulse buying as much and limited shelf space means I won't just get a book to get a book anymore.  I rarely buy books in Barnes & Noble so my eyes aren't caught up by the dazzling colors on the new releases' shelf either.  Sadly, I suspect this is true for a lot of readers.

   Does anyone else have covers stuck in their head or that helped shaped how they thought about S&S or fantasy in general (anybody else still in love with the psychedelic LOTR covers by Barbara Remington for Ballantine?)


  1. Without a doubt, those Frazetta covers worked on me, and heavily influenced my buying choices. I still bought the Conan books with Boris covers, but his work never fired my imagination like the Frazetta covers. Also, I bought every Tarzan book that came out from Ballantine(?) Books back in the '70's. The cover art was split between Boris and Neal Adams, but I always preferred Adams, by far. But the best S&S covers have got to be the Warner editions of KEW's Kane novels, and the Deathdealer novels by James Silke. All art by Frazetta. A close runner-up might be the three Conan books edited by KEW, featuring covers by Ken Kelly. I have always liked Ken's early work better than some of his later Tor Conan covers. And you are right; most modern book cover art sucks, big time!

  2. Nice choices. I have the dissent from thedarkman in regard the the Warner Kane novels. While they're great Frazetta paintings really only the cover to Night Winds seems like it might be Kane to me.

    1. I think Dark Crusade was the inaccurate one. He does seem 'skinny'. I think he looks appropriately muscle-bound on Darkness Weaves, Bloodstone and Night Winds.

      I don't really count Death Angel's Shadow as I don't really think that was Kane - just something generic. (it certainly isn't based on any scene in the book.)

  3. Re Trey; I have to agree with you, the Night Winds cover art looks the most like Kane as written by Karl. Even KEW felt that Frazetta's version of Kane was a little underdeveloped. Kane was supposed to be over 6 feet tall, 300lbs and massive in build. But I still love those Kane covers; very moody and barbaric!

  4. The Frazetta covers are greats, just not KEW's Kane. Is there any artist doing covers that seem to actually shape the perception of a genre the way Frazetta's did?

    Re:darkman - Ken Kelly's work is amazing. His "Marchers of Valhalla" is hands down one of my favorite covers.

  5. This is my second visit to this blog. Resources like the one you mentioned here will be very useful to me! Thanks and have a good day.

    Mr. swords

  6. Thanks for your kind words! Come back anytime.

  7. I had never seen that Death Angels Shadow cover before, magnificent.