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Under the cover: Judgment Day & Other White Lies

Under the cover of Judgment Day & Other White Lies
guest post by Mike Hilbig

Shortly after my short story collection Judgment Day & Other White Lies was picked up by Madville Publishing, I read “Under the Cover – Mistakes by the Lake” on Madville’s blog where author Brian Petkash describes his process of coming to the stunning book cover design for his debut short story collection Mistakes by the Lake, a collection that is coincidentally my favorite book I’ve read from the Madville catalog. Since my own short story collection is, like Petkash’s, a linked collection with several shared themes, I reached out to Kim Davis, press director for Madville, and asked if it would be possible to have a local artist and graphic designer I knew design the cover for me.

Kim informed me, in fact, that it is the intention of Madville to offer author’s more creative control in the publication process, that she believes collaboration makes for better titles. Especially on an element like the cover design, she thinks writers can offer much help in selecting pointed images that direct readers’ eyes to books they will enjoy reading.

Collaborating with Crowcrumbs

In my own case, I knew right away I wanted to ask Crowcrumbs to design the cover. She is an old friend of mine and local artist in Houston, TX who studied design at the University of Houston and does compelling illustrations and graphic design. I also have always sensed a lot of similarity between her work and my own in terms of its thematic nature. In particular, two images spoke to me and told me she would be the best person to ask. 

You see, my collection is centered around retellings of Greco-Roman and Christian myths that challenge foundational truths in American society like patriarchy, capitalism, and in particular, white supremacy. The above images jumped off the page to me as ones that were both blasphemous and reverent at the same time, images that could reflect my own technique of using meta-narratives that both reify and problematize traditional culture. Additionally, two of the more prominent stories in the collection in terms of their imagery are the opening alternative telling of Genesis “Para(Fa)ble of the Stoned Ape,” where violent sex-crazed stoned monkeys create western civilization by hallucinating and then telling stories of their hallucinations, and also, “‘Per-C and ‘Dusa: A Narrative Representation of a Graphic Epic’ by Angela Ames, PhD,” which is an ekphrastic retelling of the Perseus and Medusa myth in the form of a fake scholarly article. Therefore, the monkey and the mysterious woman adorned in religious imagery felt like they could be synthesized in some form that would make for a great cover to Judgment Day & Other White Lies.

Not to mention, most of the collection takes place in Houston, TX, where Crowcrumbs and I both live. In fact, one of Crowcrumbs’ most sought after images is her sketch of the famous rock music club Fitzgerald’s (RIP) which was once home to many of our favorite local punk bands over the years (buy a print of the below image here!). I figured between the ominous religious imagery, the evolutionary and creationist themes, and her photorealistic interpretations of local landmarks that we would surely find a cover design that was perfect for the book (and I believe the one we eventually came to is, in fact, perfect). 

One of Crowcrumbs’ most sought after images is her sketch of the famous rock music club Fitzgerald’s (RIP) which was once home to many of our favorite local punk bands over the years (buy a print of the below image here!)

Setting out with a few images I picked out of Crowcrumbs’ catalog to give her direction on what kind of design I would like, we discussed the possibility of synthesizing local haunts, religious imagery, and also some imagery from the stories themselves. We also discussed doing a black-and-white color scheme that would align with the discussions on racial identity that are interspersed throughout the collection. Crowcrumbs went to work sketching some rough images that we might use on the cover. 

Orestes attacked by the crowd, white on black.
First, we talked about using an image from the story “Fury, Or a Matricide in Sound,” which is a retelling of the Oresteia that involves the heavy metal musician Orestes helping his mother commit suicide to escape from her questionably terminal illness. The image at left comes from later in the night after he has left his mother to die when he stands in judgment of the crowd, who we discussed having a religious component, perhaps like a group of monks. Here, one of those members is stage diving into the waiting arms of that judgment.
'Dusa cover
We also discussed just doing a direct image from the “Per-C and ‘Dusa” story, one where Per-C paints the decapitated Gorgon head in the sky above the First City Tower in Houston, TX in a graffiti type style. 
Fractal Monkey
Then, there was the fractal monkey mind explosion, which again, references “Para(Fa)ble of the Stoned Ape” and also introduces one of the recurrent themes in the collection, the idea that narrative is a fractal process grown out of control where we establish the parameters and influence of time and space on our own psyches by simultaneously imagining ourselves in the contexts of the characters we love and hate in stories, the genres those stories belong to, the tradition those genres emerge from, and the place of those traditions within the process of narrative altogether, finding meaning by noticing self-affine structures that contain symmetry across scales.
Vase cover
Finally, we discussed a Greek style ancient vase with elements from each story spilling out of it, showing the neoclassical mode of critique this collection looks to subvert.
While Crowcrumbs’ initial sketches all had elements that I wanted on the cover, none of them had fully struck me as encompassing the thematic quality of the full-breadth of the collection. So, we discussed perhaps synthesizing some of those cover designs and having a monkey come out of a vase that maybe had a medusa head in the artwork. She sent me back one more initial sketch of that idea. 
She also explained to me that drafting is her first and true love as an artist. She also uses this skill most frequently, since she has been the primary illustrator for George Covington’s biweekly opinion column in the Big Bend Sentinel, a paper covering the region of West Texas where Crowcrumbs used to live and work as a librarian. Her illustrations in the Big Bend Sentinel include similar aesthetics to mine too, like this illustration of a Gorgon head she did for a Covington column about the nefarious nature of Amazon’s Alexa.

She also told me she liked the process because while “it relates to the text, it is also not necessarily true to life, something that makes it both an interpretation and its own creation, and I get to use my other skills at my day job too where I focus on user experience of software design. It forces me to consider the audience and what they will imagine as they read the words and process my artwork.”

Judgement Day And Other White Lies--preliminary cover
The British spelling of the title aside, this was the sketch that finally spoke to me. I gave her the okay to precede bringing that image to completion for the cover design, which ended up being far more detailed and elaborate. Later, when asking Crowcrumbs about her process, she explained to me, “I start on paper, since it is more gestural, it gives me space to play around and is less committal. It can get messy, basically. Then, once I find an image I like, I take a photo and drop it into ProCreate, which is the poor man’s Photoshop. I use the stylus feature there to redraw the image, I add color and definition. Finally, I transfer it to Photoshop, which I use a limited version of to add the finishing touches, since it allows more layering of the design features than does ProCreate.”
Crowcrumbs emphasized that she used a similar, albeit more lengthy process, for coming to a book cover design for Judgment Day & Other White Lies. She read a manuscript copy of the book I sent her and really tried to process not just what images came from the book itself but how those images might be combined in a way so as to evoke a similar theme. This was why, in the end, that even though I asked for a mostly black-and-white cover with perhaps a little color around the edges that she decided for a full-color cover design. 
“I just didn’t think the black-and-white version,” Crowcrumbs explained, “or the later version I made, where the monkey was a traditional brown, were fully hitting on the surrealism I encountered in the book. Your stories pop off the page by flaunting expectations, and I wanted a color scheme that did the same. This was why I went with a traditional orange for the vase and used it on the monkey too while using the more surreal greens and blues and starry sky elements in the background.”

I was thrilled with it when she sent me the initial proof and believed this was where she really came through in taking ownership of the image, as I told her she had free rein to do, since she was the artist and I was the writer. I trusted her skill and trusted her as a person, us being friends for years and all (and in the same online book club together to protect our sanity during the pandemic). 

I just love how the image is both threatening and playful, evocative in the color scheme, and how with the presence of Greek history, a revolver, an egg timer, and a wild monkey, that it creates a true sense of urgency, along with mystery, something that I hope this collection does in terms of engaging white people in their own interest in dismantling white supremacy.

So that’s the story of how the book cover came into being. If you like the cover design, please consider commissioning Crowcrumbs for your own artistic needs. Again, this cover perfectly captures my literary aesthetic in a visual form. Also, you can purchase copies of her prints, as well as t-shirts and stickers with her artwork on it here. Lastly, for those of you local to Texas, be on the lookout for combined readings and art show collabs between Crowcrumbs and me to promote the book release, and to promote Crowcrumbs as the incredible artist and designer that she is.

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Under the Cover—Mistakes by the Lake

Mistakes by the Lake cover

Book covers are amazing things. They can lure readers in, jolt their imaginations, prod them to, perhaps, pick up a book and read it. And during the reading of a book, its cover can be revisited, prompt additional exploration as to what the cover means vis a vis the contents, the characters, the story.

So, I’m not sure Bo Diddley (and Kelly Bell) are right (although their music sure isn’t wrong): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnWvPZXLDUU

While any best-of lists will inherently miss some great book covers, when I reflect on covers that stuck with me, these are a few that come to mind:

The Great Gatsby: The painting by Francis Cugat is haunting and captures so much of the book’s vibe.

Jaws: Yeah, that image says it all.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: The image is arresting and creepy. The extra warning—“YOU TELL ON ME YOU’RE DEAD”—when the book’s held at a certain angle, heightens the creepy.

1Q84: I probably could’ve posted only Chip Kidd covers—he’s that good. I just happen to be reading this particular book now.

The Nickel Boys: Its stark design captures devastating heartbreak and loss.

When I signed with Madville Publishing to publish Mistakes by the Lake, Kim Davis, Madville’s Publisher/Director, sent over her first cover idea:

Initially, I liked it. It has the skyline of Cleveland in the background. And the viewfinder symbolically captures the many and varied views of the city that my stories themselves attempt to capture. I liked how the full image would serve as a nice wraparound cover, too:

We discussed playing with the font; I thought, perhaps, it’d be cool to mimic the font used on the Cleveland script signs (https://clevelandtraveler.com/cleveland-script-signs-guide/) that populate the city. But that didn’t look as cool as I thought it would:

And then I decided I wasn’t in love with it. You know, this might be—I hope not, of course!—but this might be the only book I ever publish. I wanted to love the cover.

One thing I appreciate about Madville is how involved their authors can be. So, with Madville’s blessing1, I went a little nuts.

From April through September 2019, I tried out different ideas. A ton of different ideas. I played with different Cleveland skylines, I played with various Cleveland maps, I played with overhead shots of the city, I played with iconic landmarks, I looked at (and even emailed) a few well-regarded Cleveland artists and photographers (Paul Duda [http://www.pauldudagallery.com/] and Jim Lanza [https://www.foundrywoodprints.com/], both of whom were kind enough to work with me should I find a piece of art I liked). As I stated, a little nuts.

One of the challenges, in my mind: Since my collection spans numerous decades of the city’s history, how could we get a cover to capture that timespan?

Here’s just a smattering of what I did. As you can see, I am in no way a designer, but it was exciting when, later on, I learned how to knock out a picture within the title (see the last two). You’ll also see a few early versions of what, ultimately, became the cover.

Madville patiently waited for me to work through my issues. And, finally, I sent six or so for their review.

They really liked the last one. (I liked that one a lot, too. I love how the old 1796 map explodes into the modern skyline. But, it was mildly problematic: as near as I could tell, the Western Reserve Historical Society owned the rights to that map and I had not yet worked out if we could use it or not. But after some back and forth, WRHS kindly agreed to let us incorporate the map in the cover. Also, it was an old map. The best reproduction of it I could find had elements that were roughed up and lost to wear or folds or both. So, I spent far too many hours digitally touching up and redrawing portions of the map to make it whole.)

Then it was in the capable hands of Jacqui Davis, Madville’s graphic designer: “I take the images and fonts the author likes, then, from the images, I establish a color palette. Ideally, this palette contains no more than six colors … three is better. For Brian’s book, the pinks came from a sunset picture he sent—then there’s the black, beige, and white from the map.”

Jacqui sent this back:

I liked it. A lot. And I loved what Jacqui did with the sky and the words and the overall composition. We thought my name might get lost in the busyness of the map, so that was one element to change. Plus, none of us were sure about the sky. We tried it in blue:

We all agreed the surreal pink was a better choice. (I should note that both sky pieces were photographs I took while living in Costa Rica. To not only have such a big say in my cover’s design, but to also use artwork of mine was all very cool.)

A few more tweaks: Could we see more of the map (so “Cuyahoga” was visible)? How would the map look using a parchment color? Could we try a different font? How would “by the” look in a slightly different and subordinated arrangement? From there, Jacqui made additional tweaks. “I chose this font because the letters are imperfect with a slightly organic feel that matches the lettering on the map and the splotchy ink blot textures of the skyline.”

Yes, I loved it. My publisher loved it. And, nearly a year later, I still love it.

1“Madville handles the cover design process a little differently from most traditional and indie publishers in that we involve our authors in the cover design process. This collaboration happens in different ways. We always ask our authors right up front to give us some idea of what they imagine for the cover. Their responses run the gamut from no idea what they want to some who have the artwork picked out and rights secured to use it. From there, the design process goes back and forth with the author allowed to give their input all the way up to the point where I step in and make the final decision, and I’m never going to pick a design the author doesn’t like!” —Kim Davis, Director, Madville Publishing


Brian Petkash Headshot

Brian Petkash was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Tampa and his stories have appeared in Midwestern Gothic and Southword, among other publications. He currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where he remains an avid fan of Cleveland sports.