21 July 2009

[graphic design] Harlan Ellison, The 70s, The Dillons, and Classic Paperback Cover Design

2162.The 1970s stood at a peculiar place in style and design. The sensibility of the Summer of Love was coming right up against the comparative Sobriety of the Nixon years. It was a curious time for design; as I remember it, if you wanted a certain worldview, all you had to do was find a suitable graphic treatment, one which appealed to your aesthetic sense, and it led you right into you wanted to know.

Harlan Ellison was one of the hottest members of what some critics call science fiction's New Wave, and had a reputation for taking on things in his stories in a very unafraid way. I think people regarded him as iconoclastic and some of the covers to his books seemed to be designed to take advantage of that (I have some training in marketing. Yeah, it kind of messes you up for life).

During this period, Pyramid Books released a series called the Pyramid Uniform series, which was designed to take advantage of the author's "brand" perception. This is one from Harlan's Memos From Purgatory:

This became a template for other designs. Notable here is the author's name in a distinctive, designed type which, in it's curves, evokes Hobo, and seems to echo psychedelia style. Each book in the series was numbered as part of the series, and featured the volume number as a numeral replacing the counter in the O in ELLISON.

The illustrations were created by a famous American illustrative partnership, Leo & Diane Dillon. Two-time winners of the Caldecott Medal, they produced many SF Cover illustrations during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and are still active in children's book illustrating to this day. The artists, personal favorites of Ellison, had a talent for distilling the mix of wonder, hope, disquiet and dread as well as delight that one typically finds in reading Ellison's stories into a illustration that represents the essence of the work in ways both indirect and obvious. The perception that must be involved to do this kind of staggers the mind.

Another feature of the Pyramid series is that the illustration has a hidden picture of the author embedded. In the one above, it's probably obvious. In this one, for the collection Partners in Wonder:

There appears to be a face in the middle of the amazingly-layered and evocative illustration, which doesn't really look like Harlan, although the hair-part is on the correct side. The use of the word "dyn-O-mite" in the cover blurb is charmingly dated, but the design sense overall remains timeless because it's such a strong one.

The last one I have here isn't from the Pyramid series; it was published by Signet in 1974. Harlan Ellison's Approaching Oblivion is, withought a doubt, one of my favorite books by anyone anywhere. It even includes a witty foreward by Michael Crichton (this was back when he still had something to say and wasn't guaranteed eighty gazillion dollars just for getting out of bed and turning on his computer). The illustration, again by the Dillons, captures the sense of wonder, hope, apprehension, and dark joy I got from reading it. It opened up this big wide lens on the world to me that showed both the good and the bad, and somehow, the cover illo displays this emotionally to me:

It evokes the cover of the original SF Book club edition, but is in brilliant color rather than monochome, with this neat, meaty type that I rather enjoy. I dont know per se if Harlan's face is hidden in there: there's several faces, and at least two of them might be him, but pareidolia is a tricky, tricky thing (just ask anyone who still thinks there's a face on Mars).

All for now …

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