Monday, October 24, 2011

Interview with Snubnose Press Art Director Boden Steiner

When Speedloader was first published I conducted this interview with Snubnose Press Art Director Boden Steiner. I wanted some answers on hand to use in some press opportunities that had presented themselves. With the publication of Monkey Justice by Patti Abbott, Boden's third cover for Snubnose, I wanted to take the opportunity to run the interview in full.

Brian Lindenmuth: What is your design background?

Boden Steiner: It's been a varied path, but mostly I come from a film and animation background. After a lot of creative writing at The University of Iowa, I spent some time in film school, and then served as a traditional animator for some WB shows like Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain in the late '90s. There have been jobs doing storyboards and conceptual art for a handful of unproduced films, some commercials. It's the freelance work that brought me to poster design, allowed me to expand on my skills while exploring styles of imagery for bands, night clubs and now, in line with my personal interests, books and publishing.

What is your design philosophy?

That's an interesting question for me to consider because I rarely think about design philosophy in any specific terms. I mostly believe the main concepts for text, color, and style, are mapped out. It's the artists job to recognize those maps and add their own jazz, see if they can make it their own, bend it into something appropriate and interesting. That's really what influence and style is all about-- observing and submerging everything into your own process.

As content goes, I think a good image should tell a story, or at least sell the sensibility of what is behind it. With regard to books, it's all about finding a visual shorthand, or a simile to the story, getting the writing noticed, picked up, clicked. Sometimes that requires a shout, even some static, sometimes just a whisper. I think everyone agrees that there are visual cues that help inform a potential reader, whether it calls back to a familiar time or feeling, or maybe aims directly to genre. The hope is to use those cues and try your best to bend them into something that feels new and interesting. That's the goal anyway.

Stylized, realistic, photographed, or strict design, if I can, I'm going to be flexible and let the story tell me what to do. The highest (maybe impossible) objective is to transmogrify into a different artist with every project. In an independent capacity, this is easier said than done, but maybe my varied background has provided a good cardboard box, something with some interesting choices on the transmogrifier dial.

What covers have you designed?

I'm still punching my way into this, but I've been fortunate to work on some cool books. I recently did a cover for a crime novella, Old Ghosts (Brown Paper Publishing), written by one of the authors featured in Speedloader, Nik Korpon. Nik is writing some great stuff, punching holes into neo noir, and I guess that one worked out okay because I'll be starting the cover for his upcoming novella, By the Nails of the Warpriest (OWP) in a few weeks. Can't wait. Another author, Axel Taiari, hooked up with me to put a cover on his excellent Parisian novella, A Light to Starve By, which features some dark emotion and a carefully realized world of blood junkies in Paris.

Plus some others in the hopper, including the possibility of something awesome that I've got my fingers crossed about.

Does a show poster for Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen Graham Jones to promote a reading they did count? Authors like that deserve show posters.

How important is a good cover? Is a good cover still important in the e-book age?

If things continue in the current trend, the back covers will be gone and the blurbs are going to be lost to the blogs and promotional articles. That is problematic, and I mention this because now the cover must pull more weight, has transitioned into the wider responsibility of harnessing the attention of potential readers over to the promotional blurbs, interviews, and excerpts, the things that ultimately sell the book. The cover essentially becomes the doorway that needs to be opened, and you need that doorway to be inviting, something that promises good things, monsters, laughs, magic, blood, romance---plus maybe a girl and a shark. Whatever it is, it better look sturdy, like it's holding in something valuable, or maybe it's holding back something that is going to rip your head open. If I'm curious, I'm going to click through to find out what is behind that door, to hell with consequence.

What makes a great cover?

I've already mixed this with other answers, but I'll add that outside of the function of selling the book, ideally, I believe a cover should look good up on a wall. If it can work in that capacity, it's probably working as a cover. Plus, uncluttered text balance, a spine that has no fear.

What are some of your favorite covers?

I was almost hoping there would be some aspect that unifies my taste, but it appears to be all over the map. In a round about way, I just brought up Peter Benchley's Jaws, and that might fit. It seems so simple: an upside down smile, a girl, impending doom. If you can get away with it, that formula might not be a bad way to market any book: shark, girl, impending doom. The first book that features a cover with a girl running away from a bi-ped landshark will be a bestseller. I'm sure of this. Sharkopocalypse? If she is strapped with a speargun, it's top ten.

I'll paint things in a variety of styles, but as an appreciation, I love the retro stuff. Anything Robert McGinnis illustrated, those Mike Shayne and Carter Brown pulps, anything you are going to see on blogs like Killer Covers. I guess this includes the modern updates too, covers that capture that aesthetic and brings it forward will always appeal to me. Hard Case Crime does a great job with this, going the extra mile to make the covers right, and it really shows. The Penguin reissues of the Ian Fleming Bond books do this well. I'm especially fond of the series designed by Michael Gillette. It had me hunting for a set of the books just to own the covers. In the same vein, I have an affinity for the old Italian film posters, Anselmo Ballester, Sandro Simeoni. If every book went after that vibe, it would be impossible for me to scroll through a bookseller list without opening twenty tabs.

It's not all about illustration though, so there are plenty of covers in all styles that turn me on. Here's a list of mixed genre favorites worth checking out:

Dope (Sara Gran)
It Came from Del Rio (Stephen Graham Jones)
The Sisters Brothers (Patrick deWitt)
The Driftless Area (Tom Drury)
The Manual of Detection (Jedediah Berry)
Handling the Undead (John Ajvide Lindqvist)
Dreadnought (Cherie Priest)
The Electric Church (Jeff Somers)
Queenpin (Megan Abbott)
Villain (Shuichi Yoshida) My vote in the 2010 Spinetingler Awards

How can the cover artist in the e-book age gain more recognition?

A sly, meta question, yeah? I should note right here that working with Snubnose Press and Speedloader has been a great opportunity for me, and you are awesome for asking these questions in the hope that I can answer them in any manner of interest. Hat tips and beer, Sir.

A more direct answer, and an easy one: artists need to sell the writers and the stories, help the writing to gain attention, let it bounce back in a circular effect. If the cover is attractive, people will likely take notice, and hopefully find the appropriate information with the book.

A bigger concern, and maybe a hitched issue, regards the display of the cover. Ideally, I'd personally like to see the cover art remain properly attached to the e-book beyond the little thumbnail click, which means, I hope that e-reader presentation considers this and allows for the art to be visible and shine, rather than be compressed or (as is the case) automatically skipped over as an irrelevant part of the book's primary presentation.

I miss album covers--those beautiful store displays--and now CD covers are all but lost to history. The same thing is happening with books and I hope it gets pinched before we forget what is missing. As it stands,the art presentation of an e-book is mostly left to the web, and that is sometimes frustrating because certain browsers have color correction issues. As example, Chrome will destroy anything with bright colors. All this tech, and the visual experience is like listening to music in mono. Maybe I'm just hypersensitive to these things, but it hints to the constant erosion of visual art from our changing world. Everyone deserves better.

What's the story behind the Speedloader cover? What inspired it?

From my end, I think any project such as Speedloader involves a feeling out period, where I try to discern and unveil the goals and visual attitude required. Sometimes this involves a little trial show and tell, a process that hopefully illuminates thoughts from both parties. This was true of Speedloader, almost a process of elimination to discover what we didn't want it to be.

In that early exchange, there was an idea--graphic, iconic--and I think we found a baseline or safety net with that image. Knowing that, it gave me the confidence to riff from the stories themselves, thinking that maybe we might include some illustration with the stories if time allowed. Along that path, I became pretty taken by an image from W.D. County's intense and heartbreaking story, "Plastic Soldiers". The horrific emotion of that moment affected me and I needed to see it, see if I could match County's imagery with the film in my head. A sketch wouldn't accomplish that, so I played it out, thought it could make an unusual cover. Ultimately however, as much as I dig that illustration and that moment, I knew it was a hard sell for a debut edition of a crime collection like Speedloader, so I did another quick paint based on one of the early ideas, something that was also a close-up, loosely based on a character from Jonathan Woods' pastiche story, "Crash and Burn". Of course, if it were depicting a scene from that story, she'd be holding a smoking frying pan, so... some artistic license came into play, and we ended up with something hopefully iconic that delivers the message fairly on point: "This is Speedloader. Recognize!" I hope people like it and are intrigued enough to pick up these six amazing crime stories.

[Thanks to Boden for taking the time to answer these questions and for doing such a great job on the Snubnose Press covers.]


Chris Rhatigan said...

Those are some gorgeous covers.

David Cranmer said...

Superb covers.

Boden Steiner said...

Thanks guys!
I forgot all about doing this, and I think the answers are from late May or early June, which dates things a bit. A lot changes in a few months time-- i.e. Facebook finally upgrading their image sizing and resolutions. Hope it's not too late to edit things a bit.

Thanks again for the interview! I've been lucky to work with so many talented authors in the relatively short time I've been doing covers. Makes it exciting and fun work, and I hope it serves the material well. Still trying to improve with every effort.

John Kenyon said...

An Iowa guy, huh? Should have known given the quality of your work. When were you there, Boden?

Boden Steiner said...

Graduated with something in '89. Does that date me? Can I lie and say I was a ten year-old prodigy? Go Hawks!

Also, here's a link to my Facebook page, where I've started posting more work, although no storyboards or sketches at this point. Recently, I've added some concept art from the cover to Nik Korpon's By the Nails of the Warpriest. Hope people check it out.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Brilliant covers all. And interesting how this is evolving as we speak.

John Kenyon said...

Just missed you Boden. I graduated in 92. Still in IC doing journalism. Always glad to see a Hawkeye doing well.

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