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 authors 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.
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).
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.
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 below 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.
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.
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.
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.
This was starting to look closer to the cover design I wanted. I then asked if we could include a revolver and an egg timer on the cover, a central image in the title story “Judgment Day,” and if it could be set against the backdrop of a hyperspace garden of Eden, also a compelling image from the collection. This was what she produced.
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.”
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.
Interestingly enough, Crowcrumbs told me that it was learning to sketch drawings from reading an opinion column where she really honed her skill at recreating a visual form from a literary aesthetic. Additionally, she told me that Covington’s column has made her even more sensitive to getting it right, as Covington is blind, and he has to use assistants to recommend and disapprove illustrations she suggests for the column. Crowcrumbs said, “It’s a different kind of feedback, as both his assistants and I will describe the image to him separately, and then they will discuss the elements they like and don’t like. In a way, it’s more honest because it is based on the discussion of multiple opinions.”
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.”
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.