The Art of Art

I just finished a very good book.

Being a Middle Grade author, I read a lot of Middle Grade fiction, and I just finished the MG adventure The Zodiac Legacy, Book One: Convergence by Stan Lee and Stuart Moore, with illustrations by Andie Tong. I enjoyed it, found myself driven to finish it (and I don’t finish every book these days–just too many books to read to waste time on something that doesn’t hold my interest).

The book comes with a ton of illustrations, and as you might guess from the name Stan Lee, they are very much illustrations in the ‘comic book super hero’ style of art. It’s good art, and the illustrator is obviously talented.

But the book would be better without them.


I have nothing against illustrations in a book. My own, forthcoming novel Doctor Fell and the Playground of Doom (have you pre-ordered your copy yet?) has over a dozen very cool illustrations within its pages, and plenty of great books have great art that adds to the overall experience.

The art in Zodiac, however, didn’t add anything. In fact, it detracted. There is a disconnect, for me, between the story and the art. And I think this falls into the larger issue of how and why you add illustrations to a book in the first place.

The first question to ask is, do you need illustrations? In the MG genre, they are quite common. You’re dealing with readers who haven’t been reading chapter books for all that long and you’re weening them from picture books to the wonderful world of text. Good art can really help the reader solidify the images he or she is creating in their head, particularly if there’s a visual picture the author/illustrator team is trying to convey.

Also, in this particular case, it’s Stan Lee. He’s kinda known for comic books. So you sort of expect there to be illustrations. But I question the art direction. Many of the images are chaotic, confused jumbles that make it difficult to place oneself in the story. Also, the themes played with in the book were much cooler in my head than they were in the pictures. In some ways, the illustration limited the scope of the adventure by showing me things I was imagining. A number of times my response to the art was:

“Oh. That’s what it looks like? Huh. I thought it was way cooler than that. Bummer.”

As a general rule, you should never have anything in your book that makes people think “Bummer” to themselves.

Also, I question the choice of which scenes to illustrate. There were a number of set pieces that sounded very cool and I would have liked to see them, but instead we’re given image after image of the characters fighting each other as if standing in an all-white studio with nothing around them. There’s little sense of place in many of the drawings, and for me, that’s important.

I don’t mean to bash on the book. As I said up front, I really liked it and would highly recommend it. And the artist is certainly talented. But they looked to be illustrating a comic book, not a novel. You could almost see thought bubbles above the characters’ heads.  In a comic book, the art is fluid, moving from one frame to the next to tell the story. You don’t need a single frame to capture a moment as much because it is only part of a sequence of images.

But in a book, we get snapshots of time. The single image has to convey a lot more, has a lot more responsibility. And as we all know, with great responsibility comes great… I screwed that up, didn’t I? Oh well.


The Feel of a Book in Your Hands

I started a new book the other day, The Zodiac Legacy by Stan Lee, Stuart Moore, and Andie Tong. I like it fine so far, but have found myself drawn to it with a need to pick it up and just feel it in my hands.

It’s a thick, trade market-sized paperback and I bought it new. It just feels so good. Concrete. Solid. My rather disturbing fetish for the physicality of this particular book got me thinking. First, I’m wondering if they, like, coated the cover with some sort of opiate you absorb through your pores. But second, how much less I would enjoy this book on a Kindle or other e-Reader.

I don’t for this post to be a book review on this one title, because my revelations herein are more global in scale. However, this is the book I’m reading right now. As you might guess from the name of one of the authors (Stan Lee), there is a lot of art in the book–pages and pages of beautiful, comic book-style art interspersed between the pages of text. I don’t think the art would have as great an impact on me were I seeing it on a screen.

Having a book in my hands is a freeing experience. It signifies I’m about to set off on an adventure, journey to another land or another time or another world. Sitting down with a device does none of that, because it could just as well mean I’m about to read an email or pay my bills online. Not quite as freeing.

When I started writing and selling short stories, I sold them wherever I could find them a home. This included a number of online publications, some of whom pay just as much or more as print publications. But it was never as satisfying as when I’d sell to a print anthology. The story felt temporary online. I’d link to it, read it, then the page gathers electrical dust on some long-forgotten server in the bowels of some long-forgotten server farm. An anthology exists in a state of permanence. It’s on my shelf. I can point to it. Take it down. Open it up. So now I only submit to print publications. And every time one of those anthologies shows up in my mail box, I relish ripping the collection out of the package and feeling the weight in my hands, smelling that wonderful New Book Smell, seeing my story right there on the page.

A couple of months ago, I got the ARC (Advanced Reader Copies) of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (have you pre-ordered your copy yet?) and my heart did backflips while wearing those freaky leg-extenders the Cirque Du Soleil guys were wearing on The Wiz. Glorious paperback copies of my book, with my name right there on the cover. For the first time, it hit home. This was happening. My book was being published. I had the proof in my hands.

I don’t own a Nook or a Kindle or anything like that. I don’t tend to read books on my iPhone or computer. Reading a book is an escape. An escape from technology, an escape from the pressures of the day, an escape from the everyday stress of life. I want to hold it in my hands, feel the pages beneath my fingers.

I’m weird that way.