Book Cover Studies

I’ve been thinking about graphic design a lot recently, especially as a tool to help writers promote their work. Contemporary mainstream social media is extremely image-oriented, which puts writers at a disadvantage. I therefore think it’s worthwhile to figure out how to create graphic images that focus on text but are still visually striking and easily shared.

Since book covers serve the same purpose, I decided to launch this project by thinking about how certain compositions are used to convey specific moods, and I’ve been drawing quick studies along the way. Silja Götz’s online class Book Cover Illustration has been an incredible resource!

It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that I love horror novel covers. “Modern gothic” is one of my favorite genres, and I could sketch these types of covers all day (and night).

My Husbando

A true story from These Trying Times™

The song my husband is singing is (this one) from Azumanga Daioh.

“I would have just moved to another apartment,” someone commented when I posted this on Instagram. And I totally agree, but at the same time, moving during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy, and I don’t want to do it again. My illustrated piece of flash fiction “Apartment Hunting” (here) is actually about how strange and unpleasant this experience was. It’s been difficult to try to navigate my professional life without a stable internet connection, but at least I have a large library of anime to help me make it through.

The Demon King, Chapter 8

This illustration of Ceres is by Sali (@salisillustrations on Instagram and @saliechelon255 on Tumblr), who creates beautiful digital paintings based on books and anime, including Studio Ghibli movies and the Harry Potter novels, alongside her original work. Her characters are fashionable and expressive, and they always fit perfectly into their richly detailed environments. Sali has a talent for drawing fancy wizards, and it was a pleasure to be able to work with her on this illustration for The Demon King.

The eighth chapter of The Demon King is the culmination of Ceres’s first character arc. It echoes her introduction, in which she glibly treats murder as the only viable option to a tricky political problem, but now the reader is able to see the deliberation that leads to her decisions.

I’m interested in female political leadership, especially at high levels, when an executive’s position is just as symbolic as it is practical. It’s my impression that, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or Tsai Ing-wen or Angela Merkel, there’s an expectation that a woman needs to be perfectly competent and capable while still being both “rational” and having all the charm and charisma of a male politician. This is impossible in real life, of course, but it’s fun to exaggerate these pressures and expectations in fiction to see where they lead.

In any case, the prompt I gave the artist was “a beautiful fairytale princess quietly plotting murder.”

Although it’s still rough around the edges, I’m posting the first draft of The Demon King on AO3, and you can find it (here).

Apartment Hunting

I moved to Philadelphia earlier this year. The circumstances weren’t ideal, and I only had a few days to find an apartment. I went on a few tours of large buildings and fancy condos, all of which were way out of my budget. Besides, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that anyway.

I decided to pursue a different strategy. Instead of looking for listings online, I drove through several neighborhoods and took photos of places with For Rent signs outside. I sat in my car, made a list of phone numbers, and agreed to meet with anyone who picked up when I called.

This was how I found myself standing on the sagging porch of an old townhouse in West Philly with ornamental spires above the windows and a historic registry plaque beside the front entryway. A woman with a colorless suit and a severe haircut met me at the door and handed me a blank application form. Just in case, she said.

The interior was much larger than I expected. I’d never been inside a townhouse before, and I wasn’t prepared for how far back the hallway would stretch. The doors were strangely small, and the ceiling seemed far too high. This must be the building’s historic character, I told myself. Local color. The realtor wasn’t interested in conversation, so I stopped to take a picture of the crown molding, which was ornamented with carvings of infinitely spiraling vines.

When I looked up from my phone, I realized that I was alone. The hallway in front of me was dark, so I turned around and began walking back the way I came.

There were more turns and staircases than I remembered. As I walked, the floor grew spongy underneath my feet. My shoes made unpleasant squelching noises with every step. I started to notice that there were small mushrooms crouching in the corners of the walls and creeping up the support beams between doors.

I swallowed my embarrassment and called out to the realtor, but no one answered. I tried dialing the number printed on the For Rent sign, but no one picked up. I was lost, I realized. I’d somehow lost my way outside. At least I still had the application form.

It’s not so bad, all things considered. I was alarmed at first, but I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s not as if there’s anything I can do. I guess I live here now.

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This was my submission to the 2020 Philly Zine Fest Anthology. You can download a free PDF copy of the anthology (here). The Philly Zine Fest is held in West Philadelphia every November, and you can stay updated on Twitter (here).

Emotional Support Photo

Embarrassingly enough, this actually happened to me in 2018.

The one thing I didn’t miss in 2020 was having to go to academic conferences. I’m not crazy about infinite Zoom meetings, but flying across the country to spend two nights in an expensive conference hotel so that I could work sixteen hours in one day wasn’t fun either. I used to love flying when I was younger, but I eventually got to a point where it started to stress me out. If nothing else, it’s nice to be able to take a break from conference travel.

I still use (this photo) to help myself cope with Zoom meetings, though.

The Demon King, Chapter 7

This illustration is by the brilliant Yura Krokodil (@KrokodilYura on Twitter and @krokodilov on Tumblr). She also posts original comics on DeviantArt (here). This artist is a genius when it comes to environmental painting, and she’s magnificently talented at creature and costume design.

This is a scene from the seventh chapter of The Demon King, in which Balthazar ventures into a creepy mushroom forest and has a meandering conversation with a giant spider named Uniagoliantia. You can read the chapter on AO3 starting (here).

In Return of the King, Frodo and Sam cross through Cirith Ungol (“the pass of the spider”) on their way to Mordor, and along the way they encounter a giant spider named Shelob. The Silmarilion mentions that Shelob’s mother was Ungoliant (“dark spider”), a primordial spirit who took the form of an even larger spider. I think “Ungoliant” is a cool name, but it’s a shame it doesn’t have eight syllables, so I expanded it while making it sound more feminine.

Although there are definitely weird and creepy spiders in the world – just as there are weird and creepy fish and weird and creepy mammals – most spiders are just minding their own business, and I think their big bright eyes and round fuzzy bodies and short little legs are kind of cute.

When it comes to creepy things, I tend to think that mushrooms are much creepier than spiders. Still, they’re very cool-looking. I was talking with the artist about this, and about how the “evil forest” area that always seems to be one of the first dungeons in a lot of RPGs inevitably looks really interesting and beautiful, and she told me that she was inspired by the opening dungeon of Final Fantasy IX, which is called, appropriately enough, Evil Forest. It feels a bit anthropocentric to refer to a place that humans aren’t comfortable as “evil,” and I imagine that the creatures who live in any given “evil forest” are probably quite happy there.

The Demon King, Chapter Five

The Bridges Under the Mountains
https://archiveofourown.org/works/26956795/chapters/67408192

This chapter was partially inspired by the Mines of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s also a response to the part of Stephen King’s postapocalyptic fantasy novel The Gunslinger in which the hero Roland responds to the “slow mutants” who live in a tunnel through the mountains by shooting them. I always thought that was rude, even when I read the book as a kid. Couldn’t he have just, you know, tried talking to them?

The Demon King is, in many ways, my response to how upsetting I find the violence that’s taken for granted in a lot of science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s nice to be a hero, of course, but what might that type of world look like if you’re the sort of person who’s considered to be a monster?

Balthazar from The Demon King

I’m working on creating a character design for Balthazar, the main character of The Demon King.

The visual aspects of his magic are based on the Twilight magic from Twilight Princess, which is a lot of fun to draw. Unfortunately for me, the reader isn’t going to see him casting the magic he specializes in until much later in the story, although other characters will occasionally allude to the fact that he’s able to do something they can’t fully perceive or understand. A large part of the story’s broader narrative arc therefore involves a lead-up to the revelation of what type of magic Balthazar is using, as well as how he’s using it – and why. The Demon King begins as something like a high fantasy sitcom, but (hopefully) it will gradually get deeper into worldbuilding and character backstories as it progresses.

Anyway, I’m still trying to settle on Balthazar’s face model, but I’m moving in the direction of Ranveer Singh, who has interesting and expressive features.

I’m also still trying to figure out his clothing. Specifically, I can’t decide whether his outer robe is the robe of a Roman Catholic priest or a Japanese Buddhist priest, or whether he just threw a blanket over his shoulders.

And please don’t think too hard about how his horns are attached to his head. It’s… magic?

The Sun Also Sets

This is an illustration of Ceres, one of the main characters in an original story I’m working on called The Demon King. (If you’re interested, I’m posting my first draft on AO3, but it’s still very much a work in progress.)

The idea behind this character is that “pure-hearted” video game princesses like Peach and Zelda always seem to rule their kingdoms mainly by themselves, which is a bit disturbing if you think about it. The Demon King has a larger narrative arc, but for now it’s mainly a play on video game tropes, and Ceres is a way for me to explore questions relating to how “legitimate” power and authority are often presented as “feminine” in many fantasy-themed games.

In any case, I’m writing Ceres as a horrible dramatic bitch, and I love her.