Kingdom of the Wicked: cover & art

A few short years ago one of my friends asked if I would be interested in doing some book cover art. Fast forward to October 2017, and I have a signed copy of Kingdom Of The Wicked on my bookshelf…

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I met Helen Dale via Edinburgh Skeptics where we both attended and gave talks from time to time (I also design their posters and flyers, in between other arty endeavours). Just after New Year in 2014 she asked if I did book covers (I’d done a handful up to that point, including a few for work), and we spent a great few hours in a cafe talking about the story she’d just written.

Kingdom Of The Wicked is set in an alternate-history Roman Empire which has experienced industrialisation, and has most of the trappings of modern technology. How would such an Empire react to religious fanaticism? How would Jesus fare after being put on trial after attacking the moneylenders in the temple? (The modern-day equivalent would be a terrorist attack driving a van at the queue in a bank.) The idea of Jesus in an orange Guantanamo Bay jumpsuit came to mind.

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It all begins with rough scribbles. VERY rough scribbles…

I began sketching and doodling the most vivid imagery: principally ‘Gitmo Jesus’ and a lawyer with a ton of work on his desk. Later, as I read the book, more ideas popped out from the detailed descriptions (Helen also shared some of the historical inspirations with me).

There were several ways of depicting Gitmo Jesus: I could try to make him look fairly realistic and put him into a detailed background; or I could make him look more like a Banksy-style spray painting or I could try something else. I figured it would make sense to turn him into a mosaic – that way, potential readers would know as much as possible about the story and the setting at a glance.

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Yeah, it’s for the best that I changed squatting to kneeling in this image…

For reference, I took a photo of myself under the living room light in the pose I had in mind, and based the art on that. I also wondered if any of this might need to be blown up in size for publicity purposes, so I made sure to design it at as high a resolution as I could before my shiny new computer fell over.

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The first draft cover

About a month after that first meeting, I had a first draft for Helen and her (then-) publisher, and got some valuable feedback – lightening the background, altering the posture of Gitmo Jesus, that sort of thing – and there were changes I wanted to make too, starting with better mosaic effects on the characters.

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I made sure to add sand grains between the mosaic tiles, just in case…

Helen also asked if I could do black and white maps, and chapter illustrations. I quickly came up with ideas for the first seven chapters, but for the final chapter I was torn. There was a character’s point-of-view image that was quite vivid when I read it, but I wasn’t sure it would translate well to a line drawing (and in any case, it might spoil the end of the story). I came up with a more attention-grabbing idea; one that would raise the stakes a bit.

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Find out what happens next in Book Two…

To put all these together, I gathered my inspirations and put them onto a ‘mood board’ (I cast my net far and wide, but for the artwork I used a ton of photos I’d taken of walls, classical architecture, building and demolition sites, and scrap metal (I’d originally intended these for some science fictiony photoshopping; I take the weirdest holiday photos), along with various patterns and sketches. (As Helen said, I was having far too much fun with it!)

Again, it was an iterative process. Helen wanted the industrialised centurions to look a bit more like the Wehrmacht and not quite so classically-inspired (“…stop channelling George Lucas!”) – which fit in with the idea that an industrialised Roman Empire would share a number of similarities with 1930s Germany (among other cultures; the book is crammed with little details that show just how how widely she gathered her own inspirations).

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I had to take the black and white sketch and add colour to it
(after several attempts, I decided less red worked better).

At this point, mid-2014, the idea came up to split the book into two. The cover I’d designed so far (originally as a dust jacket for a hardcover) would be used for a cardboard sleeve, and two new covers designed for Part One and Part Two.

I’d have to revisit a couple of the black and white chapter illustrations and redo them. The chapter illustrations were originally made as quick and scrappy greyscale sketches before having a graphic pen filter applied, and then converted to outlines in Adobe Illustrator (so they could be scaled up/down more easily).

I settled on the centurion for Part One, and a biomechanical ornithopter that features in Part Two. Helen’s idea for this was inspired by HR Giger, but my thoughts came from a mashup of birds-of-prey, bats, old jet fighters, and a dash of Heath Robinson.

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You wouldn’t want to see one of these coming at you out of the blue…

The project was put on hiatus for a bit (Helen’s work took her around the world, and she also had to find a new publisher), but things swung back into action over 2017.

In making tweaks and adjustments for the new publisher, and with the benefit of three years’ hindsight, I could see how I’d have made the images more efficiently (by now I was using Adobe CC, and not an ageing copy of CS2 which would also have made things easier). Among the tweaks: resizing the imagery to accommodate text on the cover, and adding blood spatters to help the publisher logos to stand out better. (I did improve the black and white chapter illustrations, but the publisher preferred the originals.)

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The final cover

After that, it was just a case of waiting for the book launch and enjoying hearing about its success. Between the legal analysis of Jesus, the steampunk Rome setting, a ton of vivid characters, a Wicked sense of humour, and all the references and inspirations, I loved reading it, and I’m glad many others are too.

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