When I first started to read Terry Pratchett’s books I really wasn’t impressed by the cover art. They were too, I don’t know, noisy. So much seemed to be going on, and more than a few seemed to have women with enormous breasts and very little clothes on. But back then I was more concerned with devouring the stories as quickly as possible and so didn’t pay too much attention to the design. I then stopped reading Pratchett for a number of years, and when I came back to them I made the discovery that the covers were fantastic. Just take a look at this one for Reaper Man:
Isn’t it fantastic?
Yes, there is a lot to take in, but if you actually look at it, instead of having a quick scan as I used to, you can see much detail. And unlike many fantasy covers. this actually depicts a scene from the book.
In Reaper Man, Death, that’s him in the dungarees, takes a break from the whole reaping souls business. And what job could be more perfect for this expert with a scythe than helping to bring in the harvest?
You may spot a smaller skeleton on Death’s knee? That’d be the Death of Rats, he may only say SQUEEK, but he gets his point across.
What I love about Josh Kirby’s work is the sense of fun. Look at Death’s eyes, and the fact that he is having tea with a little child. The scene is totally incongruous, and yet at the same time could be viewed as pastoral and restful. These covers fit Pratchett’s books perfectly. Pratchett after all writes humorous fantasy novels, set on a world that sits on top of four elephants, who in turn stand on the shell of the great turtle who swims through space. And yet, despite the seeming light and frothiness of his books, Pratchett writes more about what it is to be human than many more “literary” novelists. Kirby’s covers do a similar job. They have a sense of whimsy and comedy about them, yet if you look a little closer you can see how much detail and effort has gone into producing them. Pratchett and Kirby really had a perfect mix, and up until his death in 2001 Kirby created the covers for all the Discworld novels published in the UK. If you get a chance you should take a look at some of them.
Recently a number of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have been reissued in the UK, and so Corgi, the publishers, have given them all a brand new look. Gone is the wonderful clutter and comic magic of Kirby’s art, and instead we are a given a much more sober cover. For the most part, these new versions are all in black, with one or two items across the front. No doubt to appeal to the same sort of people who buy children’s fantasy book only when they have “adult” covers. If I am totally honest I do like these plain designs. But they don’t fit the books the way the Kirby ones do. Here is the new version of Reaper Man:
All very grown up looking, I think you might agree. Serious even.
As I already mentioned, in general, I do like this more simple cover design, I’m a fan of the plain, and these are very well done. Plain, but with just enough decoration to attract your attention. I’m sure that having all forty odd Discworld books on your shelves with this cover would look impressive. So I like the design. But, then again,I don’t like it. Not for Pratchett’s work. Not when I can compare it with Kirby’s art.
So I’m conflicted by them. They should work for me. And yet, they just don’t.
Kirby’s designs gave an indication of what was between the covers while these tell nothing. If anything, they lie. They hint at the serious. They are even slightly pretentious. They call attention to themselves by pretending to be serious and simple. Minimalist, but somehow, in all the wrong ways.
If given the choice I’ll take the glorious art of Kirby in preference to these over-designed exercises in simplicity. Yes, I am being harsh, especially considering that since Kirby passed on he couldn’t very well have come up with new designs, but, you know what, I’ll complain if I want to.