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Crystal Spires

The author says:

Crystal Spires by J. Wagner (YA) The story follows the adventures of a young police officer named Frizz(-ina), mysterious power sources, crystal mansions, and villains with covetous agendas in a massive, underground city. Sci-Fi Fantasy. (Hello Cover Critics. As you can see, I am trying to work out a composition for this book cover. It was very crowded in the first version and I had to cut a lot of things out. I have yet to add color but I would like to get the composition shredded before I commit to any painting. How can I make this a compelling cover you would want to pick up and read? Thank you for your time!)



Nathan says:

You got a lot of artistic skill.  I have complete confidence that you’ll be able to do this cover justice.

First: I would say, NEVER leave color to the end.  Unless the prospective reader is colorblind,the first thing they’ll notice — before line quality or title — is the color (and even if they’re colorblind, they’ll see the dynamics of light and dark first). How is the central figure going to “pop?” Murky colors for the ruins behind her, dusty pastels for the crystals, primary colors for the figure?  Whatever it is, you should go into the line drawing knowing what the end color layout is going to be; otherwise you’ll be there at the end, pulling your hair out over how to make the crystals distinct from the ruins without taking away from the figure.

Second: Is this a graphic novel?  Your description implies that it’s not, and if so, you might want to make the figure’s face less manga-ish to avoid a false impression.  Otherwise, you might get the perfect reader for the book ignoring it because they don’t want to read a manga right now, and manga readers who flip through it feeling gypped.

Third: I think you can let the type take up more space.  If the title were on two lines — say, with “Crystal” flush left and “Spires” flush right — it wouldn’t feel like it’s been pushed out of the way to make room for the artwork.  (That’s another thing that makes it feel like a comic book, because in a comic book the masthead is designed to be relatively out of the way to that it doesn’t intrude on future, as yet undesigned covers.)  Similarly, let the byline take up more space.

Other thoughts?


  1. This art looks like it’s going in a really good direction, but some quibbles:

    -Nathan is right that you want the art to look realistic enough that it’s clear it’s not a graphic novel.
    -Her pose looks kind of “pose-y,” with the concave spine and the flowing hair (why? Is she twirling or something?). If this were manga I wouldn’t complain, but on a YA cover a girl ought to look like she’s actively doing something rather than just posing.
    -Similarly, I’m not sure what her facial expression is supposed to convey. Is she supposed to be angry, frightened, decisive…
    -Both her upper arms look significantly shorter than her forearms.
    -Those batons or whatever they are don’t look like they’re at the right angles to be in her hands.

  2. Well, if you’re looking for praise, I’ll say this right now: “Like wow!” That is an amazing rough; I’d love to see how it’ll look with coloring.

    While an unfinished cover does leave us somewhat uncertain of whether the final cover will measure up to professional standards, having it be unfinished for this critique is somewhat fitting to our situation, because how you should finish it depends on what kind of book this is. I’m also going to say this right now: if this isn’t a manga-ish graphic novel, it ought to be! If you’re starting with a written novel, then you should save this cover for later when you do a graphic novel adaptation of that novel.

    That’s not to say if you’re doing a written novel that you can’t model a revised cover on this one. The two main questions to answer here are:

    1) Is this a written or a graphic novel?
    2) Are you going for a Western or an Eastern style?

    If this is a graphic novel, you’d probably do best to fill in the various areas between the lines with mostly solid colors. Some use of shading and gradients is fine, but don’t overdo it; let the quality of the art on the cover match the art on the pages inside, the way the art on the cover of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen did. Go especially easy on the shading and gradients if the artwork inside is going to be in black and white or gray-scale.

    If this is a written novel… well, your finished cover art had better be at least as good as that of the graphic novel artist Alex Ross or even better. The art doesn’t have to be photo-realistic, but the overlaid colors should completely blot out the outlines, leaving everything looking more like a freeze-frame from a 3D animation than a 2D illustration. As for the shading and gradients, you should use as much of both as you can to make everything look as substantial and “real” as possible. That’s what the professional science fiction and fantasy artists do, and what you want to do too.

    Concerning the differences in style, if you wish to appeal to enthusiasts for Eastern works such as anime and manga (and to an extent, other Asian styles such as those of Chinese and Korean manhua), the cover’s just right for that the way it is now. Everything from the quasi-religious crystal architecture in the background to the big-eyed big-haired lady cop in the form-fitting uniform with the weird rod-shaped thingies in her hand looks so Eastern that if not for your name on the cover, no one would ever guess you were at all Western. In short, this is the Eastern-style cover.

    If you’re aiming for a more generally Western style for a more Western audience, you can still keep everything in the background the way it is, and the female police officer can still have her form-fitting uniform and equipment. All you’ll need to redraw is her proportions. To Western eyes, anime and manga characters all appear to be about one age bracket younger than they’re supposed to be: twenty-something adults look like teenagers, teenagers look like preteens, preteens look like 8-year-olds, and 8-year-olds look like preschoolers.

    To the Eastern eyes of this anime enthusiast, your protagonist looks to be a twenty-something woman; which means that to my Western eyes (which grew up on a steady diet of DC and Marvel comics and Disney animated features), she looks like a teenager. If you want to go Western style, therefore, you’ll have to shrink those eyes a bit, detail her nose and cheekbones and eyebrows more thoroughly, and elongate her face. You’ll also want to have her stand just a little bit straighter and taller; even if your heroine is actually supposed to be only five feet high, Western illustration typically proportions all of its heroes and heroines to a six-foot-high anatomy or greater.

    Everything else you can keep exactly the same, although I should mention that to both of my perspectives, your protagonist’s uniform with its goggles (or is that a domino mask?), bandolier, and padded armor looks more like paramilitary equipment than police gear. If her police unit has been militarized because she’s living in a somewhat grimmer and more repressive future, that’s fine; otherwise, I’d recommend giving her a plainer and more contemporary uniform with a hat, a badge, and a holster.

    Finally, concerning your fonts: they might be good right now as they are, but if you’re going for the graphic novel look, you should illustrate the letters to make them look like cut crystals. Conversely, if you’re going for the written novel look, I’d recommend filling them in and embossing them to give them a metallic gradient and appearance. Either way, they should be a little more ornate.

    In short, which way you take the cover from here depends on which effects you’re attempting to achieve. You’ve got an awesome cover illustration here; you need only to determine whether it’s the right cover illustration for your book and its target audience.

    1. By the way, to demonstrate the difference between how illustrations should be colored for a graphic novel and a written novel, I have located two illustrations of a scenario as it appeared in the original silver-age comic book, and as it was later remade for the cover of a written book several decades later. Here is the original illustration of the Legion of Superheroes rejecting Superboy for being “too ordinary” on the cover of Adventure Comics #247; note the simplicity of the coloring and illustration to make the artwork more immediately accessible to its callow young readers. Here is the same illustration redone by Alex Ross for the cover of the Overstreet Price Guide, 29th Edition; note the complete erasure of the outlines and the far more complicated coloring and shading to give the picture a more “realistic” feel for its older and more sophisticated readers.

    2. I think “eastern-style” is the same thing as (or at least strongly overlaps with) “graphic novel-style,” because as you describe it, “eastern-style” is just “manga style.” No amount of shading and lighting will make it stop looking like manga; it’ll just look like the Astro Boy movie.

      Of course manga is a perfectly fine art style, but I’ve never seen it on the cover of a YA novel, and I’ve seen a lot of YA novels.

      1. Yes, but Eastern-style manga can still be colored and inked in a more solid “realistic” manner the same way Alex Ross does, though. Take this 3D sci-fi manga wallpaper for just one example. Coloring and inking this rough cover the same way might be appropriate for a written novel’s cover, if the story within is distinctly Eastern in some way (e.g. takes place exclusively in Tokyo, involves giant mecha suits, etc.).

        1. That’s Western style (the eyes and face shape), and anyway, that’s a edition a 13-year-old edition of a 30-year-old novel. Here’s a contemporary Ender’s Game cover, and here are some recent YA sci-fi covers with people on them. You’d be hard pressed to find a current YA book with a manga cover that wasn’t actually from Japan.

          I’m not arguing just because I want to be right — I’m really not sure this book’s audience would realize it was for them.

  3. I would integrate the type into the cover further. At the moment both the title and the author’s name are crowded into the top and bottom. Neither seems to have any relation graphically with anything else on the cover. When working out a cover layout, you need to consider these things as part of the overall composition from the very beginning.

    I have a dislike for anime/manga-inspired art appearing on books that are not graphic novels—in particular, on books that are not manga specifically. If this is a traditional novel I would not use this style of art (which is most evident in the stereotypical depiction of the character’s face).

  4. Alrighty:

    Good things:
    1. I like how the sketch leaves lots of opportunity for bold colors and contrast against the background. Smart.
    2. Nice job with the hair. I’ve seen lots of crappy hair, and this looks like it will work nicely, in the long run (yeah, yeah, bad pun). I should add, however, that when I first glanced at it, the hair being layered close to/around the face made me think that the long locks flowing behind were actually branches/foliage of a shrub/bush/tree. Just FYI. I’m sure that won’t occur once the hair is colored-in.
    3. I like Nathan’s comments about relocating the title and byline. The title might work well with the alignment that Nathan’s suggested; put Crystal on the left, Spires flush right, a line below, with different fonts, and you have something that might be fun.
    4. Byline: I’m a big believer now in doling out some nice space to the byline, set in a simple sans-serif font, across the bottom. No matter what you do with the title, a nice sans-serif will work with it. If you find the right one, it adds sophistication as well.

    Things I’m not nuts about:

    1. This definitely shrieks “MANGA!” to me. If it’s not, then I think that what RK’s said, about the “Eastern-style” versus “Western-style” is worth reading and taking to heart. I instantly thought it was anime of some kind. Yes, I know, before anyone jumps down my throat, anime, manga, all have different illos types and rules, but it still looks like “Eastern Animation” to me.
    2. I concur the the shoulder-to-elbow ratio seems foreshortened. It’s exacerbated by the pumped-bicep.
    3. I’m female. I say that so that you can weigh what I’m about to say accurately. I don’t dig the whole “big booby” Manga-ness. Honestly–and maybe this is tied-in to what RK said about what Western eyes see, versus what Eastern eyes see–the whole “sell tweens as sex symbols” thing that goes on with the Sailor Moon-esque characters makes me cringe. I am inferring from the character and the description that this woman is in law enforcement, or the military, and thus is not a tween (thank you Jesus) but she looks REALLY young to me. It’s the no-cheekbones, tiny-mouth look, I think.
    4. The bandolier SEEMS to be tipping off the front of her right boob, rather than laying between the two. If her right boob is going to be the size of her left (presumably), then the bandolier may need to disappear for a moment, between the two and re-emerge at the ribcage.

    Overall, I think that the artwork looks like it will be impressive. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for the book/genre. I do think that the woman’s figure needs some tweaking, all over. Foreshortened arms, the boob-age, etc. And the face, if she’s in her 20’s and this is Western-style. I agree with RK on that. Otherwise, she looks silly-young. to adult eyes, of course. If this is a YA book, it may well be perfect.

    Good luck! I’d love to see the next draft round. 😉 And the eventual final, of course.

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