A couple years ago, I stumbled upon a new edition of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon with an unusual cover: a Pollock-inspired smattering of black-and-white droplets and smears. The book’s title and author’s name was rendered sideways atop a silhouette of a German V2 rocket, a central motif in the novel. Frank Miller, the artist, graphic novelist, and screenwriter, had created the painting, and the cover design was by Paul Buckley, Penguin’s art director extraordinaire.
The project was one of the early installments in the ongoing, Buckley-curated Penguin Classic Deluxe Editions, a series of masterworks whose covers have been reinterpreted by the world’s best-known graphic novelists and artists: Art Spiegelman, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Chris Ware, Roz Chast, Julie Doucet, Joe Sacco, and others.
To commemorate the publisher’s 75th anniversary, Buckley edited Penguin 75, which collects a cherished Penguin cover design for every year of business, including many Classic Deluxe Editions. “To me,” Buckley says, “often more interesting than the covers themselves are the stories, and the psychology that created all the variables that led to one cover over the 20 others proposed.” To evoke these back histories, the anthology includes recollections from both the cover artists and the authors on the process of arriving at the final image for each book.
A good example of the process is captured in the tale for the William T. Vollmann novel The Royal Family (below), which is one of Buckley’s favorite covers. “Vollmann asked if he could take his own cover photo,” Buckley explains, “Why not? I thought. Then he hired local prostitutes and photographed them in some horrifying $10-a-night crack hotel in San Francisco and submitted the craziest bill—which we reprinted in the book—where I had to pay for the expenses of the ladies Mercedes, Patricia, and Pussy Cat.”
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