Wed
Aug 27 2008 6:53pm

SF/F Book Cover Review: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible

by Austin Grossman
Design by Chip Kidd

The story centers around two characters: Doctor Impossible and Fatale. Doctor Impossible—evil genius, diabolical scientist, wannabe world dominator—languishes in a federal detention facility. He’s lost his freedom, his girlfriend, and his hidden island fortress. Fatale is a rookie superhero on her first day with the Champions, the world’s most famous superteam. She’s a patchwork woman of skin and chrome, a gleaming technological marvel built to be the next generation of warfare. (Source)

This cover could have been a disaster. Speaking as someone who cringes every time he sees a comics-related headline prefaced by the word ‘holy’ and/or bearing onomatopoeic elements (sorry Irene), the concept of yet another campy superhero send-up is not one of my favorite design tropes. That being said, never underestimate the power of a lame idea executed beautifully. Or by frakkin’ Chip Kidd. Despite my knee-jerk reaction, this cover is a knockout.

The layout is sparse, but complete. Simple typography over a single, centered image. The jacket photography depicts iconic elements of superhero fashion, if you will: big leather gloves and a Thor-esque helmet. The images are duotones1, giving the overall layout a slight pop-art sensibility, which helps ground it in campier times. As a nice contrast, the photography is rich in tone and value, giving the images a preternatural sheen, and offsetting a bit the old-fashioned impression one gets from the vintage-feeling objects depicted. This is best exemplified in the background of the cover photograph, actually, as opposed to on the image of the helmet and gloves. Seen in person, the blue background blends and shifts into darker, purple areas towards the corners (particularly the top left corner, visible in the main picture). It gives an impression of a slightly more organic surface than a straight gradient would (the back cover photograph, for instance, has a solid color background, and doesn’t feel as evocative). This treatment as a whole subtly communicates the intellectual premise of the book quite effectively: it’s a novel that uses the clichés and tropes of a bygone time, but with a modern sensibility.

The typeface used on the cover (and throughout the book for running reads, chapter titles, etc.) is Gotham, which when tracked out, colored yellow to complete the four-color aesthetic, and coupled with the imagery, is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s use of Futura in the titles for The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Seeing as Gotham is a direct descendant of Futura, it makes sense that it serves a similar purpose here: it reinforces the ‘deliberately bland/sophisticated vintage’ feel that the imagery so deftly conveys.

Underneath the jacket, the case is bound in paper, and the photography used is a pleasant surprise. It depicts superhero attire of a silkier, more intimate nature, as if discarded at the end of a day—or in the midst of passion. This reflects the female lead in the novel, whereas the imagery on the jacket depicts more traditionally masculine objects (adding a twist of irony is the fact that in the novel it’s the woman who is the hard-ass cyborg, and the man who is the soft super scientist, although he is super powered). The clothes form a brightly colored texture which is an engaging counterpoint to the straightforward, solid-color palette and layout of the jacket. Almost lost in this cacophony of textures and color on the cover is the title and author, subtly set in a little black cape clasp if some sort.

The interior is expressive, but in keeping with the subdued tone set by the cover. The photography throughout the book, on the title page and section title pages, depicts other sartorial elements associated with superheroes, specifically masks and a glove.

Each chapter begins with a small clip art element, either a ray gun or what looks like a cyborg eye, depending on who is narrating the chapter: Doctor Impossible chapters sport the former, and Fatale chapters, the latter. These little touches help reinforce the tone of the book, as well as inform the reader in subtle ways, without getting in the way of the reading experience.

In all, a very successful design that elegantly communicates the tone of this book. The thought process behind the design has been applied consistently throughout the book, which lends a solid sense of coherence and unity to the whole thing. This might have been lacking had the interior not received the same amount of attention that the cover and jacket did. Despite my general aversion to this kind of aesthetic as a rule, it’s always fantastic to discover new approaches that make you question your assumptions and re-evaluate your own convictions. The design for Soon I Will Be Invincible has certainly done that, in my case.

1 in four-color printing, a duotone is an image that is composed of only two colors, usually black and one of the other three process colors: Cyan, Magenta, or Yellow

12 comments
eric orchard
1. orchard
Love hearing you break down this cover, it's a beautiful cover but I feel like i get it in greater depth.
Dawn OBryan Lamb
2. Dawno
The bookstore clerk at Hudson's at Denver International, after a brief chat about the convention, as I was wearing my Denvention badge, brought out a trade paperback copy of Soon I Will Be Invincible and suggested I might enjoy it. I did, indeed, but how I wish now it had been the hardcover edition! I hope it's still available somewhere.
postmodernclown
3. postmodernclown
Nice article for a striking, yet justified cover. I hope this book gets more great coverage.
Jamie Grove
4. jamiegrove
This book makes me smile every time I see it.
Tara Chang
5. tlchang
Ah! I love this kind of design - where it is applied very consciously and holistically throughout. Visual attention to detail SO increases my reading enjoyment and makes the entire experience satisfying on a level that the text alone can't do for me.

Thanks for reviewing this one. I probably wouldn't have looked inside a superhero hardback otherwise.
Sandi Kallas
6. Sandikal
I didn't realize I missed out on so much by buying it in paperback. I did buy it because the cover really caught my eye. Fortunately, it's a good, fun book and it's one I could pass to my teen in good conscience. It's nice when a good cover goes with a good book.
postmodernclown
7. Dschnapp
The UK edition has some comic-style covers on the inside which look great but put me off reading it for a while because I thought it should have been a graphic novel and they ran out of money for printing (LoL).

It shouldn't and it's a great read, and I hope that it makes a big splash on both sides of the Atlantic.
Alexandra Popescu
8. Alexutza
Your enthusiasm for the cover makes me want to track down this book and read it :) thanks for the cool analysis!
Avram Grumer
9. avram
Gotham is also the font being used by Barack Obama's design team for most of their signage. Perhaps they're hoping he'll also be invincible.
Pablo Defendini
10. pablodefendini
@avram #9
It is. I could talk about Gotham till the cows come home, I love it so much. By virtue of being the typeface of the Obama campaign, it's been plastered all over the graphics at this week's DNC, and it makes for a wonderful breath of fresh air within the confines of political campaign design, which tend towards more staid approaches, particularly typographically. Much has been made of the type treatments on presidential campaigns recently, and all I can add is: "Optima for McCain, really? Talk about phoning it in."

Despite Gotham being a relatively new typeface (or perhaps because if it, since it breathes new life into geometric faces), it's been very well received by the design community. Check out H&FJ's product site for Gotham for more info on the inspiration behind it and its additional weights and cuts. It's a very versatile typeface.
jamie stafford-hill
11. seamus
Great review Pablo.

@#10: i'm quite partial to H&FJ's visual commentary on the McCain campaign's type choices. Gotham is actually more in the American Gothic (gothic/gotham, ha) tradition, and isn't really a geometric face. I agree that when tracked out the caps have a similar feel to Futura used in The Royal Tannenbaums, but they have pretty distinct geneologies. Futura has a whole German bauhaus really hard to read in the lower case thing going on that thankfully Gotham doesn't.

Anyway, i think that makes its choice for this book really appropriate, actually, considering the fundamental american-ness of comic book superheroes. Like other commenters i especially appreciate the interior/exterior design integration, though the interior photographs seem pretty dull compared to the vibrant color contrasts on the jacket. And that case! i think i like it better than the jacket.
Pablo Defendini
12. pablodefendini
@seamus #11

Thanks for the clarification. Gotham's pedigree is fascinating. And double thanks, that's the link I was looking for in my earlier comment, but the memory of where I saw the McCain/shaving lotion graphic failed me. For some reason I was looking for it over on typophile.com. Silly rabbit.

The interior photography is what it is: printed on book-weight stock in grayscale. While it does lack that sheen of the coating that the jacket images wear so well, upon close inspection it does show off the velvety texture of the objects depicted very nicely, which does reinforce the contrast between the cover and jacket photography.

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