Good Show Sir: "only the worst Sci-Fi/Fantasy book covers"

camelot1.jpgWhat is it about the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre that seems to make perfectly sensible publishers lose their minds and stamp "APPROVED" on cover proofs that would give a sane person nightmares? I'm not talking about every cover in the genre, of course. You know the ones I mean. The ones that look like something you might see in a long night of fever dreams after a Tuborg bender. The ones that look like this one on the right. Gosh, but there's a lot going on in it, isn't there? It isn't just that it violates any precept of sensible design; it's also that it obliterates any rational notion of narrative discipline. What I'm saying is, sure you could infer a story from the cover, and that story might even be Art, but that Art would be, in Shelby Lynne's words, the killin' kind. What you want to do with art like this is gather it up and wall it off where it can't hurt anybody. Which is, in a way, what a British site called Good Show Sir has done. Its motto is brisk and direct -- Only the worst Sci-Fi/Fantasy book covers -- and the criteria for inclusion are blessedly clear:
Some of the things to look for in a cover:

1. So much going on it burns your eyes. We want covers with elves, dragons, space ships and large busty women, all on the same glorious cover!

2. Terrible art. Awful... just awful. Crazed monsters that are congenital disorders with no skeletal support, brush strokes that display a hilariously misinformed understanding of anatomical proportions, unreadable and/or multiple horrible fonts, magical light orbs that lack even the most basic digital imaging techniques. That sort of thing.

3. Epic things happening. Look for people doing crazy things, such as holding a staff to a dragons eye, firing a laser pistol with one hand whilst doing stunts on a a hover bike with the other, or summoning interdimensional beasts whilst surrounded by improbably-clad warrior priestesses who are fighting off invisible fairies on top of a mountain made of crystal and sand.
This is a valuable public service. Visit the site if you dare. Just don't blame me if you end up sobbing in a corner.


  1. Hey, I loved that cover from way back. This ain’t a Penguin book after all. There is a fine and ancient tradition of pulp novels breaking all kinds of design rules, magnificently, and I heartily approve. :-)

  2. Great Caesar’s Ghost! Despite being the slowest-loading website of my week, this is a source of purest joy! THIS is the stuff I grew up reading, and the ones listed that I haven’t read, I intend to acquire at earliest opportunity!

    I DO judge books by their covers, and I say with all seriousness that I somehow end up *loving* books with appallingly eye-searing covers like these.

    You have done me a solid, Mr. Barol. I am in your debt!

  3. I take no shame in saying that I have always _loved_ covers like this. It reflects almost nothing of the story, but is interesting in its own right. I am slightly more shamed in saying that the more ignorant of good design you are, the less “bad” the bad designs are. Beyond a certain level, most people don’t look closely enough to form an opinion.

    The really sad thing is that some of these “eye-searing, over-the-top” covers are remarkably faithful to scenes in the book (Apprentice Adept, hardcover Nine Princes in Amber), while some deviate from the book to actually make them tamer!

      1. Unwittingly? Mark, I hate to break it to you, but odds are very good that either (s)he was really into the hilarious bondage art, or (s)he thought that you would be.

  4. I’m not sure whether I should be proud or ashamed that I have no less than eleven of the books shown on the first two pages of the site.

    Perhaps this explains my continuing desire to risk being escorted from the premises by large, uniformed persons because I chose to wear orange socks with a conservative charcoal suit to certain business meetings.

  5. The opening title sequence of Gentlemen Broncos is a genius homage to this style of book cover.

  6. Like yri, I too like that cover. I don’t have time to peruse the gallery right now, but if there are no covers by Darrell K. Sweet, I will be outraged. That guy has slaughtered the main characters of many a good book with foreshortened, stubby arms and overlarge heads. Truly awful.

  7. This reminds of a story that was in one of the biographies of Tolkien — the good professor was annoyed by the cover of an early paperback edition of “The Hobbit” — which featured some elk-like animals grazing near a tree with multicolored fruits. Apparently the artist hadn’t bothered to read the book and but knew that it was fantasy so figured any old weird crap would be relevant.

    1. That would be illustrator Barbara Remington; the first US edition of The Hobbit had to be rushed into print to beat a pirate’s edition (and possible to retain copyright?); Barbara was never given the book to read, and had to rely on a friend’s hazy recollection.

      I grew up staring at those Remington covers…. weird centipede dragons, multicolored sky, stylized mountains and the pumpkin-fruit-trees. They were so fascinating, well before I read the books.

      So, yeah, the covers failed to be a spot-on, literal representation of the contents.

      But they were spot-on representations of the contents nevertheless.

      So weird that I would end up meeting Barbara years later, in Northeastern PA. I knew her for a bout 10 years before I ever found out about the Hobbit and LOTR covers…. was shocked walking into an exhibition at the local gallery and seeing the Wilderness print on the wall. Even weirder, I had known her mother’s house, which was two houses down from my college-girlfriend in St. Paul, MN.

      (NB: I started the article above; thankfully, others have made it into a real, if sketchy, page)

      1. I’m with you, I liked those Tolkien covers, though yes, it’s true they didn’t make a damn bit of sense in the context of the story. If you were a kid and you started reading those books…you weren’t sure what to expect.

        I’m with everyone else, I love these campy, over-the-top covers. If nothing else, it set these books apart from any others. No, they’re not classy, but I remember being a kid stuck in a used book store–these books were endlessly fascinating. I’m talking about those mid-70’s pulp style ones. You’d try to figure out what kind of story could warrant such a cover…

        If anything, it was the story that disappointed. I *still* have some of those images burned somewhere deep in my brain.

  8. The only thing that would make this better would be insisting on calling these books by the pompously insecure name, “speculative fiction.” (“This isn’t fantasy! It’s speculative fiction! It’s speculating on what life would be like where dragons were real and lived on another planet, and lasers and robots, and big busted women in metal bikinis roamed the countryside and had sex with every many that asked for it! This is SERIOUS!” )

  9. I will summit for group approval the old historical tidbit that the paperback trade was stimulated by the need to have novels one could slip into ones back pocket and be… well, sat upon. As it were. If I remember right.

  10. These are the best book covers, not the worst! Today must be backwards day. I buy books like this all the time just for the covers.

  11. wow, I actually own that series–

    dont forget
    A world Called Camalot

    who could refuse a fur covered princess and her pet talking koala astride a 6 legged horse (dottle). flinging firebolts everywhere…

    the books are a campy as the covers, its true breain bubblegum

    hooray for The Collin!!!

  12. You do know that the pulp fantasy extruder machine is powered by the anguished tears of design students, right?

    The more they rage about the terrible covers, the stronger it becomes…

  13. Mr. Barol, if you think this cover is bad, then you are not the target audience for this kind of book. I love this cover, and I have read hundreds of books with covers like this. The only thing that could make this cover better would be a chain mail bikini.

  14. Huh? I checked the website and admittedly, there are some BAD book covers but the example in this boingboing article ain’t one of them. The illustration is actually really well executed (at least at this resolution) and of COURSE it’s campy. I think it’s great and this is the exactly the sort of thing I like about old sci-fi/fantasy books.

    When they updated the covers of the Thomas Covenant books from this ( to this ( I was bummed.

    And when they switched cover art on Edward Eager books from NM Bodecker ( to Quentin Blake ( I lost my s–t. What is this? Roald Dahl? I won’t even buy the new versions for my niece and nephew.

    So anyway, I get being critical of covers, but good design is relative and book covers should reflect the period they came out of. Getting all design-snobby on pulp fiction? I don’t get it. Is it melodramatic and busy? Yeah. That’s kind of the point.

  15. George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series…

    Arguably a very, very well written (and entertaining) series of stories.

    Without a doubt…some of the most craptastic book covers!

  16. I for one was really disappointed when Terry Pratchet’s books stopped being printed with the Kirby covers. They were a great tribute to/parody of this sort of thing.

  17. For some reason North American publishers seem content to put utter crap on their SF & F books. In Britain they seem to understand that maybe using a cover artist who can actually draw would be a good thing: even if the artist does cost more than minimum wage. Take a look at Panther Books covers and compare them to the covers for the same books that D.A.W. and Ace dumped out.

    Anyone remember the Heavy Metal magazine ad for the Heavy Metal t-shirts: an tall, muscular Alien chick making a fighting retreat from a dragon with her wimpy boyfriend under one arm and a broadsword in her other? Now that would have been a Great Cover!

    1. For some reason North American publishers seem content to put utter crap on their SF & F books.

      The same publishers who changed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone or Ascent of Everest to Conquest of Everest? How else could they communicate with the filmmakers who changed The Madness of George III to The Madness of King George so that US viewers wouldn’t think that it was the third in a series?

    2. Nadreck scribbled: “For some reason North American publishers seem content to put utter crap on their SF & F books. In Britain they seem to understand that maybe using a cover artist who can actually draw would be a good thing”

      Er … not really. UK publishers can produce some stunning covers. Try this:

      Bad cover art does not recognize borders.

  18. Uhg. I hate a bad cover. When in doubt, I wish they would just leave it blank. I have actually not bought a book because of its cover on multiple occasions. There are basically two types of cover I just can’t stomach. First, is the random half-naked chick. Bonus points if she is looks like a screen shot from a 1990s video game. Second, fucking movie book cover. Call me shallow, but I just can’t bring myself to buy I, Robot with Will Smith on the cover.

    I personally don’t care what is in the cover, but I read this shit in public. I don’t want someone thinking that I am reading I, Robot because I saw it in the theater and wanted to relive the experience in written form. Nor do I want to perpetuate the stereotype that sci-fi is for unwashed nerds who can’t get laid by having a half-naked woman (or topless burly man for that matter) on the cover.

    Hrm, maybe I need a paper back book cover for books with stupid covers…

  19. Bah, without his kind of art I would have never fallen in love with John Carter of Mars. May Woola find you in the thin air of night!

  20. This is an AMAZINGLY good link/site!
    I’m a lifetime Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan and IMO could probably contribute a few suggestions of my own, like the non Bob Pepper cover of “A voyage to Arcturus”. Oh, yeah, “Clark Ashton Smith; Emperor of dreams” just showing a guy’s head that I don’t think was CAS… ANY cover of the proto-heroic fantasy “Sallammbo”. (IMO, pass a law that even for the traditional version, Druillet’s art MUST be used) The current run of the “Gor” books…

    The real problem is, the illustrators esp. pro ones aren’t really paid enough to read the book and do a “Tribute” to it, they are lucky to get a synopsis or plot outline. I’m going by traditional “Big Publisher” stuff.

    The coolest (and true!!!) story on that issue was how popular Frazetta got/is… He was cranking out pictures fast, but it was out of the question to make him read every “Modern Penny Dreadful” and many were quite awful. So, some publishers said “Just send us your pictures! We prefer the sci-fi/fantasy stuff of course. Just send us the pictures, Fraz! We’ll have one of our hacks hammer out a story based on it!”

    My favorite from that era is the very “Gay Looking” cover for one of Lin Carter’s works, “The black Star” I think… I love Lin Carter. He’s a hack, but without his enthusiasm a lot of authors I love would have faded to obscurity and I like his stories, “hackworthy and very tribute like” aside:-)

    What also freaks me is the multiple use of the same artwork on different stories, though I’ve seen it a-plenty and at the same time stuff published on different shores (USA versus UK) having different covers. Notably the “Fighting Fantasy” game books, to name one example out of many.

  21. Hey, getting nailed on GSS is something I *had* to respond to personally. It’s like getting a Razzie Award—when you deserve it, you HAVE to show up in person to pick it up!

    And heavens, what a wonderful bunch of folks at that site responded when I sent in some comments. I wound up exchanging long emails with them about kooky art direction, vague guidelines, horrific deadlines, mid-painting changeups, bizarre typography/logo choices and “Wait, they embossed WHAT?”

    The GSS crew truly do love our weird, wild genres, and the jabs come from warm hearts.

    It is terrific to see BB cover Good Show Sir. Cheers!

  22. So much of Philip K Dick’s work used to end up with rockets and monsters on the covers – I suppose that was easier than trying to paint a Kafkaesque dystopian nightmare. ;)

  23. I was always mystified as to why my (now ex) wife thought my taste in books was appalling. To me, they were books I had carefully chosen – based on author, series, or a simple perusal at the book shop – so whenever I saw the covers, I recalled the stories.

    However, looking at this web site – at all of the covers of books I hadn’t read (and a distressingly large number that I had – but with different covers), I think I understand now what someone suddenly faced with a collection of covers like this might think.

    I fear I could populate 25% of this website with pictures of book covers I still have – and that’s after donating at least half of my collection to the local public library for their book sales.

    And – to be fair – she didn’t divorce me for my taste in books. Or at least, that wasn’t what she said.

  24. While I enjoyed looking at the covers, I get the feeling that the person running the site must either hate SF or have only a very superficial knowledge of the genre.

    For example, there is a cover of a John Carter novel that, yes, is a bad painting. But, instead of just criticizing the painting, Mr. Barol makes fun of the 6-legged horse/rhino thing galloping over a red desert with a loincloth wearing guy on it. Uh, isn’t that fairly accurately describing what’s in the book? Ditto for Heinlein’s Star Beast cover (with a note of “I just have to read this book sometime” in the tones of, “this cover is so bad, the book must really suck”).

    Yes, there are some bad art there, but the real criteria just seems to be “Send in pictures of the covers of any SF paperback and I’ll make fun of them.”

    I would like to see some counterexamples from Mr. Barol of what he considers to be “good” SF cover art and design. Otherwise, this just seems snooty and snarky.

    To me, the only inexcusable covers are the ones that have art that has nothing to do with the contents of the book or that drastically misrepresent the subject.

  25. I never had much interest in pulp fantasy novels, but the little interest I did have came only from covers like Camelot In Orbit. Not unlike metal albums from the same era, my disappointment was that the content was never as good as the packaging promised.

  26. Ugh – some really, genuinely awful SF/fantasy art there . . . .

    I agree that many of the comments seem to be more directed at the book’s content than the actual artistic interpretation thereof. I think it’s interesting that a little “caveat” appears in the “About” section stating that the stories themselves are probably great, but then the covers are bashed for representing silly things that appear IN those stories – verbatim, in many cases.

    In addition, there appears to be a tendency on the site to hold artists responsible for cover designs – so that when an excellent painting is ruined by poor color reproduction, cropping, and typography, it’s the artist’s fault.

    What’s really bad is that the covers that truly just have “bad art” – and there are plenty of those – give the entire field of fantastic illustration a black eye. The best work in the field is as good as anything being painted anywhere. If anyone is interested in really seeing the very best the field has to offer – in person – check out the IlluXCon fantastic art symposium, where dozens of the best artists in the field and hundreds of original paintings are on display every year –

    (Honesty alert – I run the IlluXCon symposium – but it really IS a valuable counterpoint to Mr. Barol’s “showcase.”)

  27. They’re like the art equivalent of Nerds-Rope: no nutritive value whatsoever and eventually will make you sick and rot your teeth (and/or mind) but colorful and fun. Anyone else want candy?

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