Judging the Book By Its Cover is a column where we, you guessed it, judge books by their covers. Or more accurately, we judge the covers of books, examining the different aesthetics they’ve had through the years (and in some cases titles) to determine which are the most and least effective.
As a teenager, I used to come across Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love constantly in used book stores before I realized what it was. I’d see its strange, nearly dayglo orange spine and the title and think it had something to do with geek culture then be baffled by the intimdatingly minimalist cover and walk away. Years later, longer after I read the book, I would discover that its first edition design, the one that always scared me off in bookstores, was by rockstar book designer Chip Kidd and that many of the best elements of the cover flew completely over my head.
Kidd is of course legendary for his approach to book design and is responsible for a lot of the trends we now see in modern cover design. But even if you know Kidd’s work, his cover for the original 1989 release, when he was brand new to the industry, is a bit of an outlier. Initially, it seems there are no flourishes to the cover, its only eye catching trait that vivid orange and the more muted blue text. If you look closely, though, you see that every element of the cover is “mutated,” from the misshapen letters in the font to the addition of an extra leg to the Knopf dog on the spine.
In her essay at Wired for the book’s 25th anniversary, Caitlin Roper singled out the book’s “idea of a character’s strangeness as the source of her strength,” comparing it to the weirdos in comic books and arguing that “the book inverted the cold adolescent truth that what makes you different curses you.” What makes Kidd’s subtle design so powerful is how it channels this, commenting on it through font layout and visual jokes rather than through more obvious carnival imagery or exploitative illustrations. It’s a simple cover that nonetheless contains immense depth, only really making sense once you’ve finished the book, masterfully revealing nothing on a first glance. And it’s important to keep in mind that this flew completely in the face of what book design was like in the era that Geek Love was released.
The first copy of Geek Love I acquired was not this edition. I ended up with a battered copy of the Warner Bros. softcover edition, loaned to me by a teacher who insisted I read Dunn’s novel, and it serves as a handy antithesis of the Kidd cover. Featuring a Bill Plympton-esque illustration framed by an earthy green, the Warner Bros softcover edition of Geek Love perhaps gives you a quick idea of what the book will contain, but it lacks the thoughtful insight of Kidd’s work, prepping you for a pulpier, more blunt story than what Dunn’s breakout novel actually is. Yes, it made it easier for me to realize Dunn’s use of “geek” was of the sideshow performer biting the heads off animals sense rather than the term my friends and I associated with ourselves, but it also tricked me into thinking I’d be reading something more lighthearted and quirky.
Sadly, most editions of Geek Love follow this style rather than Kidd’s. There’s David Hughes’ hideous, Ralph Steadman knock off, with its rancid salmon pinks and sloppy layout:
And then there’s Jeffrey Fisher’s ’90s tastic cover, also for Warner Bros., which seemed to be an attempt to connect with the crowd that started learning about Dunn’s book via its endorsement by seemingly every band on the Lollapalooza circuit, from Nirvana and Hole to the Red Hot Chili Peppers:
These designs are ugly in the worst kind of way, trying too hard to capture the “freak” element of Dunn’s novel while missing out on the book’s real intention, showcasing that strong strangeness Roper honed in on and the intense alienation that can only come from being attacked by your own peers. So it’s not too surprising that redesigning Geek Love’s cover has become a favorite project for fans and freelance designers and that this community has churned out better covers than the publishers actually in charge of the book’s release.
Maro Beauchamp’s striking and fetchingly modern twist on the cover recalls the work Rodrigo Corrall has done for Dunn’s former student and devotee Chuck Palahniuk, making the title more literal but also subtly nodding to the brutal violence that shapes much of Geek Love’s narrative:
Likewise, Claire Buchanan’s student project redesigning Geek Love takes a modern approach, but also nods to the unexpected colors of Chip Kidd’s original work and ties in that mutation motif in a more obvious way through a family tree:
Both of these fan redesigns show a deeper appreciation and love for Dunn’s text, emphasizing the elements of the book that stuck with their designers and presenting a clear expression of what the book will contain in a much more artful way than the lumpy, overcrowded efforts of Hughes and Fisher.
Given that Geek Love is ultimately a work about rejecting society and forming your own outcast world (and the dangers of that), it’s fitting that the outcasts who have embraced it would be better suited to illustrating it than the traditional illustrators and designers who work for publishing companies. But there’s also something poetic about so many of the Geek Love covers hilarious misrepresenting what’s actually inside– Geek Love’s mutant, damaged cast notably embraced the mistaken beliefs people had about them, twisting it into an asset and eventually a bonafide cult. You have to wonder, is it better for a book about the misunderstood to have a cover accurately representing it, or to immediately lead the uninitiated reader astray so that they begin with a misunderstanding?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover