How do you create a book cover that really sells the story to its audience? How do you package a book with a badass woman protagonist without relying on bare midriffs and spiky heels? Muddy Colors columnist Lauren Panepinto explains how she approaches cover art in her role as Orbit Books' Creative Director.
A few NSFW images below.
I've been writing a column about the business side of art for over two years. In all that time I have tried my best to give artists a look under the hood, as it were, and see things from an Art Director's point of view. I have tackled many a difficult topic as clearly and fairly as I could, and over those two years I built up a trust between myself and my readers. It wasn't until I felt like that strong relationship had been established that I believed I could start talking about how being a woman affects my experience in art and in geekdom. Because it does. And I think it's valuable to explain exactly how, in the hopes that it will give people a window into understanding these big issues on a more personal level. I believe in empathy, and telling your story so other people can feel your POV.
As I explained in my last post [which was also featured on io9], Women's History Month seemed like a good time to talk about these issues, and I'd like to keep the ball rolling and keep talking, because they aren't going away. Women Artists are speaking out against injustices in the art world. Social Media has been a gender-issue battlefield this year. I really believe we are finally at the watershed moment where female fans of comics, games, and SFF books are not content to sit idly by while their desires and needs are dictated to them. They want a say in the creation of material designed specifically for them. And companies are starting to listen. Artists are learning that they need to take their changing target audiences into account, not just assume they are the same as five, ten years ago. I believe this is an important evolution. Women fans do not want to "ruin" anyone's fun. There are plenty of places for a male POV and enjoyment of sexual objectification. I absolutely do not think those places need to be eliminated. But places that are meant for an audience of women need to consider the desires of those women. This will make art and geek media a better, more inclusive place. I know this, because it is what I have been doing, quietly, at Orbit Books for years.
As I have said before, I grew up a geek. Star Wars, Wonder Woman, Voltron, Thundercats, He-Man—the list goes on and on. I was a typical tomboy, but I was still a girl. And I inserted myself into the geek media primarily made for boys via the female characters. The more badass, the better. I adopted into my identity the snark of Princess Leia and the strength of Wonder Woman. You can trace my entire history as a geek through the strong female characters there—but it was always a beggar's banquet. Though this was way before the Bechdel Test, but almost all the media I consumed would have failed miserably. And as I got to the age that I was noticing—then struggling to understand—male sexual attention and my own sexual identity, all those strong female characters seemed to be sending mixed signals. This is worthy of a post in itself, of course, but lets just say it was confusing to me when a woman character lauded for her strength and intellect and heroism would be dumb enough to fight her enemies in a bathing suit. With her hair down where anyone could grab it. Hell, I think I cheered when Jean Grey got pockets. My problem wasn't with a character being sexy. I had a problem when the things that made them sexy were in direct contradiction to how strong or smart they were. It made them feel less real, and harder for me to fit myself into. So was sex a strength? Did it "distract the guys" as the age-old argument goes? Or was it a punishment? It took a long time for me to understand the difference between sexuality and sexual objectification. (Cliff Notes Version: It's all about agency.) Here's a great video overview for you.Because this is an important distinction (and because I'm tired of hearing the "girls just want to cover everyone up" argument) let me illustrate this delicate point with a master who also happens to have painted a LOT of naked women. Often guys are surprised to hear I love Frazetta. I'm not bothered at all by most of his barely-clad ladies. He understood agency. When he objectified his women, it was by design, and you can clearly see the difference below:
So how does all this affect what I do as a professional Art Director?
Artists know, you cannot make art without bringing a piece of yourself to it. Even if you are illustrating someone else's story, you have to relate to it in some way before you can translate it into a visual. It is critical to what I do that I bring my geek history to my work at Orbit. I have to translate each manuscript not only into a good visual, but a visual that fits itself into the history of all the covers in that genre that have gone before. I need to know the trends in space opera, in science fiction, in epic fantasy—and then decide how much I am going to let the trends dictate, or how much I am going to push at those stylistic boundaries.
Along with knowledge of the genre comes consideration of the target audience, and gender has a huge role to play. Every time I ask myself who the target audience is for a book, I have to know if it's aimed at a predominantly male audience, a predominantly female audience, or equal parts male and female. People ask me if the author's gender plays a large role in how we package the book, and I am proud to say at Orbit, it does not. I am encouraged to create a package that is best for the manuscript and the target audience first and foremost.
Although target audience affects all books, I'm going to dive deeper into one genre where it is absolutely critical—Urban Fantasy. This is the genre where we most frequently show characters on the covers, and the target audience is overwhelmingly women. It's also the genre where the covers get the most abuse for stereotypically having a hot woman on the cover with a gun, a bared midriff, and a bad tramp stamp tribal tattoo. The fans roll their eyes. the authors complain. People even make fun of the covers for charity. So what's going on here? If women are the target audience, how are these books ending up with objectified covers? I think there's a lot of overlap with similar issues in how women are portrayed in comics and gaming. However, as I said, the target audience is primarily women. So it sets aside the whole aspect of comics and gaming historically being a male-dominated media for now.
First, Urban Fantasy is primarily a genre of wish fulfillment. There's a clearly defined hero, and you are following them through an adventure where you insert yourself into their eyes and experience their story, their feelings, their romance...and of course their run-ins with the supernatural. (Hey this is SFF, after all.) The hero should be sexy. But they should be sexual, not sexualized. This is a tough balance to really get a grip on, and I think it's even harder if the character is not your gender. Even though I do not speak for all women, I at least can fall back on my gut instinct of what is right for a female character, as a woman and as a fan of this particular genre. I think many of the tropes of the urban fantasy covers make sense seen through this lens. The checklist (sexy strong woman, weapons, tattoos) is not wrong. In fact, you need that checklist because it's the "genre checkpoints" we have to hit on the covers so that the urban fantasy fans recognize that it is, in fact, an urban fantasy. However, if those checkpoints aren't filtered through the lens of giving the hero agency, you often get an objectified cover by default.Let's flip the gender roles for a second. Urban Fantasy with a male hero is notoriously tricky. As I said, the audience is predominantly women, and women will read a book with a male hero, but the tightrope becomes even thinner and harder to walk. If you fall off the rope, you land into an endless pile of Fabio-lookalikes with bare chests. If I won't stand for cheesy for the ladies, I'm not allowing cheesy for the guys, either. Even though the male urban fantasy readership is smaller, I still want to create a cover that also speaks to their wish fulfillment.
It was while working on these covers specifically (and yes, watching Supernatural doing research) when it all clicked for me. A hero character on the cover needs to be both "sexy I want to be" for the fans of that gender and also "sexy I want to $%^!#" for the fans of that sexual orientation. And the key, again, is agency. I kid about being a big Supernatural fan but that show hits this balance perfectly. Women are the dominant fanbase, but there's a lot of men who are fans as well. The main characters are cool enough for the guys, but hot enough for the ladies.I'm not here to make enemies, and I'm not here to call out colleagues and artists. So I'm only showing covers I've worked on, not trotting out the bad examples. I try to design all my cover characters with agency. The one cover above that has an objectified character is Blood Rights - and she starts the book as a blood slave to a vampire, so I portrayed her that way by choice. Even though I won't shame bad covers here, I will share the list I have developed of rules about portraying women on my covers, whether they be photography or illustration:
1—No Stilettos. (Also, No Strapless Anything) Sorry, I know SFF is all about suspension of disbelief, but the thought of fighting in anything strapless or balancing on teeny heels is ridiculous. I have made a compromise and allow boots (chunky heels only). I mean, this IS fantasy, right?
2—No Fashion Poses. If possible, no fashion models. Fashion models are beautiful, and they are paid to look and pose a certain way. I try not to judge or body-shame either side of the weight scale, but I like my heroes to look like they can kick some ass. Also, if you look at a lot of the most awkward-looking urban fantasy covers, then look at a copy of Vogue, you'll see the models are throwing standard fashion poses, elbows akimbo. They just look out of place on a book cover. If possible, I use only fitness models and book-experienced models.
3—Pose Weapons Properly. There's nothing worse than the sword-as-baseball-bat poses, amirite? And the random (and dangerous-looking) aiming of guns. I have an author friend, Myke Cole, who checks my trigger discipline for me. Recently I had an actual historical fencing expert, Tristan Zukowski, come to a shoot and advise on proper dueling poses. This really gets the models in the mood, and the accuracy makes our shoots so much more bad-ass.
There have always been women fans in geek media, way back to the first conventions. Hell, the first science fiction book was written by a woman! So it is disheartening when women feel excluded over and over again in geek media. For a genre that has always accepted the weird, the awkward, the outcast, it's counterintuitive to me that geeks would want to exclude anyone. I know what it's like to feel as if your safe space is threatened, and your worth as a specialist with insider knowledge to be challenged. Heck I am a New York City native. If I can put up with the hipster invasion, then geeks can put up with women fans.
I hope this little tour through my brain and process was eye-opening. I hope you can start to feel the difference between sexual and sexualization, because I think the way through this issue of representation is to really know the difference, and know the proper time and place to use both. Remember, the key is to make sure your characters have agency. Agency brings narrative, and the more narrative you bring to your art, the better it will be.
CREDITS! (anything not specifically mentioned is me)
Best Served Cold - photo-illustration by Gene Mollica
Love Minus Eighty - photo by Erin Mulvehill, Design by Kirk Benshoff
Black Ships - Illustration by John Jude Palencar
House of the Rising Sun - illustration by Mélanie Delon
Shambling Guide - Illustration by Jamie McKelvie, Design by Nina Tara
Hot Blooded - Photo by Shirley Green, Illustration by Rob Shields, Type by Chad Roberts
Ancillary Justice - Illustration by John Harris, Design by Kirk Benshoff
Falcon Throne - Illustration by Raphael Lacosté, design by Kirk Benshoff
Black Wolves - illustration by Larry Rostant, Tattoo by Stephanie Tamez
Dirty Magic - photo by Shirley Green, illustration by Don Sipley, type by Chad Roberts
Blood Rights - illustration by Nekro
The Queen is Dead - photo by Stewart Noack, illustration by Don Sipley
Business of Death - Illustration by Dave Seidman
Charming - photo by Shirley Green, illustration & design by Wendy Chan
Trailer Park Fae - illustration by Dan Dos Santos
Duelists photos by Gene Mollica
This post originally appeared on Muddy Colors, a blog run for artists by artists working mostly in scifi/fantasy illustration. It was started in 2009 by Dan Dos Santos, who is probably best known as Patricia Briggs' cover artist. This post is republished with permission.