January 20, 2012
MAKING THE COVER: The Pepe Carvalho series
by Christopher King
Last week saw the release of The Angst-Ridden Executive, the first in a series of capers by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán starring the freewheeling, food-loving, and hard-living Spanish detective Pepe Carvalho. As Carvalho’s adventures take him all over the Latin world, he takes time away from solving crimes to discuss politics, burn books, and, most importantly, eat the finest meals imaginable. So how to design covers that reflect all these disparate elements while fitting together as a series? In this slideshow, I’ll take you through the design process from start to finish. As you’ll see, my first idea was very different from the final result…
Initially, I was inspired by the work of Spanish painters like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, whose whimsical, amorphous shapes seemed like an interesting backdrop for Pepe Carvalho’s antics. Red and yellow aren’t just prominent colors in Spanish culture, they’re also known to stimulate the viewer’s appetite (just picture the logo of any fast-food restaurant that comes to mind). Unfortunately, the reaction to these covers was a little flat; while they might make you hungry, they probably wouldn’t make you pick up the books and buy them.
I went back to the drawing board, starting with The Buenos Aires Quintet. I thought the cover should still reflect the music and dance of Argentina, which is a frequent topic of discussion in the book, but it needed to do a better job of signaling crime and mystery. As I struggled to come up with something new, what began as a procrastinatory Google search for “how to do the tango” quickly became a new idea…
On this cover, the jumbled footprints of the tango dancer become the clues that help Pepe Carvalho in the search for his missing cousin. This version retains the same bold colors, but now it includes elements of adventure, mystery, and danger.
Now that I’d found a footing for the series, it was time to revisit the other covers and make them all fit together. In Murder in the Central Committee, a prominent Communist leader is killed and Pepe Carvalho, himself a former Communist, is called in to investigate. Considering the book’s title and plot, treating the sickle of the party logo as the murder weapon was simply irresistible, but my first attempts didn’t go over so well.
I quickly discovered the importance of striking the right balance between action and violence. Although the books are action-packed, they’re never gory; this cover, meanwhile, looks like a Communist parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Time to dial back the blood a bit.
Now the blood is still prominent but much more stylized, more like the action in the book. The star in the corner adds a bit of much needed visual weight and balance to the cover, and the staggered type heightens the excitement.
Two down, one to go. My first cover for The Angst-Ridden Executive highlighted one of Pepe Carvalho’s favorite pastimes: burning books. For the second incarnation, I felt the illustration should be more specific to the novel’s plot, which concerns a wealthy businessman found murdered by the side of a road.
One foolproof way to get past a creative block is to focus on the words in the book’s title, searching for related concepts and (more importantly) images to work with. In this case, I listed words often associated with executives: briefcase, office, towncar, and so on. When I got to “suit and tie,” I saw an opportunity.
With a few tweaks, the cover was finished. As with the star on the Central Committee cover, the white shirt pocket here adds some weight for the type and illustration to stand against, and I toned down the blood a bit so the bullet holes would feel more stylized and less gory.
In the end, the finished covers reflect the tone and spirit of Montalbán’s novels much better than my first sketches, and it’s my hope that they make a cohesive and collectible set while still allowing each title to retain its own identity. In the meantime, with more Carvalho capers in the pipeline, the next challenge will be to continue to expand the series without rehashing ideas or relying on clichés. First, though, time for a snack; working on a Pepe Carvalho book, you’re likely to work up a fierce appetite as well.
Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.