In my last blog (Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: A Portrait of the Project as a Young Book) I indicated that I might tell the story of the various book covers that have been used for Signs of Life in the U.S.A. over the years, and, given the importance of visual imagery to cultural semiotics, I think that offering an insider view of how book covers get created might be useful to instructors of popular culture. So here goes.
Anyone who has followed the cover history of Signs of Life knows that Sonia and I have always eschewed the use of celebrity images—a common cover strategy that suggests that popular culture is all about entertainment icons. Since one of the main theses of Signs of Life is that popular culture is a matter of everyday life, of the ordinary along with the extraordinary, we wanted to find a cover image for our first edition that would semiotically convey this message even before its readers opened the book to see what was inside. At the same time, Sonia and I liked the practice of using established works of art for book covers, and figured that there would be a wealth of Pop Art choices to choose from.
Well, there certainly was a lot of Pop Art to consider, but we were rather dismayed to find that just about all of it was—at least to our tastes—off putting (“repulsive” would be a better word for the often garish, erotic, and/or just plain ugly works we found), and we didn’t want such stuff on the cover of our book. But then we found a perfect image from a well-known Pop Art painter named Tom Wesselmann, whose Still Life #31—featuring an image of a kitchen table with some apples, pears, a TV set, a view of an open countryside outside a window, and a portrait of George Washington—seemed just right for our purposes. So discovered, so done. We had our first cover.
Thus, things were easy when it came to the second edition: we simply looked for more Wesselmann, and this time we found Still Life #28, a painting that is quite similar to Still Life #31, though the color scheme is different, and Abraham Lincoln takes the place of George Washington. There’s even a cat on the cover. Cover number 2 was in the bag.
Between the first and second editions of Signs of Life, however, Sonia and I also published the first edition of California Dreams and Realities, for which we used one of David Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway paintings (#2). This ruled out using something from Hockney for the third edition of Signs of Life (we wanted Hockney again for the second edition of California Dreams), so when it came time to create the new cover we suggested another Wesselmann. Our editor disagreed: it was time for something new—which made sense because we did not want to give the impression that the third edition was the same as the first two. Each edition is much revised. So this time the art staff at Bedford designed a cover that featured a montage of images that included a white limousine, a yellow taxi, a cow, a highway, images from the southwestern desert, an electric guitar (a Parker Fly, by the way), the San Francisco skyline, the Capitol Dome in Washington D.C., the Statue of Liberty, two skyscrapers standing together, a giant football, a giant hamburger, a Las Vegas casino sign, and a blue-sky background with billowing white clouds. A bit too cluttered for my taste, but good enough, though it was upsetting to realize, after the September 11 attacks, that those two skyscrapers were the World Trade Center.
By the time the fourth edition came around, Bedford had chosen a motif that would be repeated, in variations, for the next five editions: this would be linear arrangements of individual images displayed in a single Rubic’s-cube-like block (edition #4), in rows with brightly colored dots interspersed (edition #5), in rows without dots (edition #6), in an art work by Liz West featuring a brightly colored square filled with squares (edition #7), and in rows of tiny images of the artist's (Simon Evans) personal possessions (edition #8). Everyday life in boxes, so to speak.
Which takes us to the ninth edition. When Sonia and I were shown the cover art for the first time, we could see that the Bedford art department had abandoned the images-in-rows motif to go, as it were, back to the future with an image reminiscent not of the first two covers but to a less cluttered revival of the third. It’s nice to see Lincoln back, along with a Route 66 sign that echoes Hockney’s Route 138 highway marker in the Pearblossom series. And there is a lot of blue sky to add a measure of natural serenity to the scene. I'm quite fond of natural serenity.
So, you see, a lot of thought goes into cover design (and I haven't even mentioned the two proposed covers that Sonia and I flat out rejected). For while, as the old saying has it, you can't judge a book by its cover, you can use the cover of Signs of Life as a teaching tool, something to hold up in class and ask students to interpret, image by image, the way one would interpret a package. Because, in the end, a book cover is a kind of package, something that is at once functional (it holds the book together and protects its pages) and informational (it presents a sense of what is inside), while striving (at least in our case) to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. It wraps the whole project up, and is something I will miss if hard-copy books should ever disappear in a wave of e-texts.