War (What Is It Good For?)

A couple of days ago I went for a pipe with a fellow pipe smoker and while in the tube I had a look around to see what people were reading. As these last 3 months I ended up not leaving my neighborhood that much, apart from away matches, practices and the odd exhibition, I was a bit curious and thinking I might bring one of those books to this blog, have a comment on the cover, etc.

But there was not much reading going on, apart from newspapers and kindles – maybe it was the first time that I’ve seen the tube so stripped of reading. Well, it was not even crowded. However I did spot this one in the return trip:

Sorry, no bigger size than this.

Which is the new cover, as these ones were the previous (not sure if the same publisher but not really important):

I like Pen & Sword books a lot and own a few of them. Maybe because of this show I am seeing more people mentioning books on WWI throughout facebook and twitter. Which I think it is good, and this is the centenary of the beginning of the war. P&S have done a great job redesigning their covers and making new ones that are really cool. Of course there is only so much that can be done with a cover for a war book. Or can we do more? Honestly, I think we can always do more. War themed covers are a fantastic canvas to explore different languages, even if the book is about a particular era of conflicts. I must confess I would love to work for P&S – however, I am aware that having the opportunity to work for a publisher like P&S is a great chance, however not enough – if tomorrow I actually have an email from them asking me to do a commission, I will be proud! But after the initial joy, I will be quite aware of the fact that the creativity of war covers is always connected with the typical triumvirate:

I – The publisher’s design style;

II – The author + editor vision;

III – The commercial aspect of the book

While some publishers or editors are clear in their brief and I know I can’t go much further than a certain artistic liberty, there are also briefs where an experienced designer recognizes a gap that might, just might, get you the chance to suggest a cover that is more out of the box, or with your own creative views. Then it would be wise to ask if you can go that way – not all editors are aware that you are plotting a surprise cover or that you might have an eye on those blank spots in the instructions.

Never start that email with “Dear Editor X, I have a cunning plan”

I have designed a few  war-related books. Upon careful reflection, I will post none of them here. And I will say why – because I don’t consider some of my work good enough to illustrate a post. I am sorry, but this is the crude truth. I felt most of the time that I could do a better job than the end result and I have actually sent better proposals.

And most of the cases I expressed my opinion and tried my best to show that an author does not gain anything by asking me (or any other artist) to copy a certain book or a certain style. I won’t even go as far as saying it is disrespectful. I am too professional for that. I would say in turn it is disrespectful for the book they took so long to write. It is disrespectful for their work, above all. As far as I am concerned, my work is to deliver the best work possible, fully responding to the brief, understanding the concept of the book and respect the deadlines and wishes of both author and publisher. To be passionate about book covers is one thing, being difficult and nosy is another. Well, back to our books.

I own around 20 1st and 2nd editions of books on war published in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Many have that very Constructivist look, but others are very stripped of anything else than name and author. My other war books (around 40) are relatively recent, perhaps the oldest being from the 70s about the cold war and the wall. The jewel in the crown is The Total War, by General Erich Ludendorff. The cover below is exactly the edition I have. You can check the original here.

Overall, I don’t find this a good cover. The line on the top that reads “Documents and ideas for history” looks like it belongs to kids books. The publisher´s name, Editora Inquerito, is awkwardly placed in the bottom, so is the name of the general. All this at the time made me wonder if they could do better. And above all, how can YOU do better.

WWI is somewhat easy to work with. Either because of the gas masks (here is the one I own) or because of the strange tanks, there are loads of great pictures or conceptual references to it. I guess the hard part is to do something other than a bleak landscape or any of those elements mentioned above. Established author Max Hastings released in 2013 the book ‘Catastrophe 1914’, with the following covers:

(the one above appears to be the kindle edition) 

(the one above appears to be the audio edition)

(the one above is the spanish edition)

As we can see, #1 has a touch of period posters (however in my opinion roughly done – good colors, good grid, bad type), #2 has what appears to be a good picture, attacking soldiers in full charge, but you can see a tad of bad Photoshop in the foreground soldiers – however, the cover works pretty well for the naked eye – and #3 has a reference to ruins, trenches, the “over the top” moment and a certain bleakness to it. Type wise, apart from the #1 which I already mention what bothers me, the other ones are expected yet quite functional types – serif for the author’s name + / or book and sans-serif, full caps type for the title. Really, what could the designers do? Use a Germanic font?  It connects only to one side of the fighting countries. Comic sans and papyrus are a no-no. Use an army stencil type? Usually works better for WWII and has an American feel to it.

I have tried a different serif font for one of my war covers and although I thought it worked nice, the editor ended up changing it – in a very rare case if not the only one that ever happened to me – to a more “metallic” type.

I have used the stencil one for a Portuguese colonial war book, which the type works as many army vehicles and equipment had effectively stencils.

I have used the sans-serif boldy-capsy one too. It IS tricky to do something with different types – unless your book is a personal account / diaries or on Napoleonic wars where you can use perhaps a cursive or a script.

All in all I am not trying to stand a case against the use of this types, I am saying that in order to step away from the looks-the-same-as-all-the-other-ones-in-the-shelve perhaps the construction of the cover and the image or lack of one are the key for a more original cover. In this list of must-reads which ones stand out? In my opinion, it would be “The 33 Strategies of War” by Robert Greene, and “Company K” by William March. Not because they are genius but because they are different enough yet they DO have a war feel to it. the “33” book even has a graphical element that could either be seen as an arrow pointing down or referring a suit – as the book can be an inspiration in all walks of life.

…and while looking for the cover I liked for “Company K” I found this other version, also quite nice:

(the one I referred in the text is below)

 and the 33 is below

To end the post in glory, one of the main challenges of designing books for specific periods of history is that it will be hard to “make” the author or editor to gamble on a totally new design or approach. Not that they are all square or resistant to chance, but this is a genre that has a very specific reader and that is something to think wisely.

I long for the time that I could produce covers for my favorite books, both as an exercise and as a challenge. My copy of Remarke’s “All quiet in the western front” is this one:

Again, sorry for the small image. While there are countless covers for this book, a classic, there are very interesting approaches and a few funny ones, in my very humble opinion: some have the same drawing redone or with filters and many feature a WWII helmet 😀

Pro tip: while working with war themed books, do your research and your homework. For the cover of  a book I have designed about a possible Nazi invasion to the US , I used an image of the right type of U-boat, build in the same year as the one in the book would have. This took me time, maybe it is a small detail, but everything counts, I think. Ah, I should say that the best source were images from a computer game Silent Hunter 😀



  1. Something I’ve always thought really efficiently expressed the bleakness of war is women’s clothes, particularly modest floral prints, wadded up in the mud. I wonder if you could sell an author on that?

    1. Good point! Artist Anselm Kiefer explored the clothes in this work:

      I would be hard to sell because the first thought of the author would be “victims” or nurses. It would depend on the war as well – WWII had a different impact on civilians. It would work for historical romances for sure! I can see another issue there, and it would be the image itself. I have a feeling that one would have to produce the photo as I think it will be hard to find one with commercial use allowed 🙂

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