Designing the covers for Dan Wells’ John Wayne Cleaver trilogy

As much as I appreciate the convenience of digital layout tools, I do often miss the short time I spent with an X-Acto, T-square, and can of Spray Mount before making the switch. This series by Dan Wells, about a teenage boy trying to stop serial killers in his town while struggling to control his own tendencies in that direction, presented a good opportunity to step away from the computer, if only briefly. These jackets could’ve been created purely digitally, but it wouldn’t have necessarily been any easier, and certainly not as personally satisfying.

With the jagged cuts of the first book’s clawed killer in mind, I tore and scanned printouts of the title and set them over various images I’d collected as I was reading the manuscript.

I Am Not a Serial Killer covers

But I wanted to somehow suggest the protagonist’s age, which I’d felt added another dimension to the story. In the books, his extraordinary problems are compounded with the more typical trials of adolescence. So I set the type over a standard school notebook, and then spent some time digging a trench with an X-Acto knife to give the tear some depth.

I Am Not a Serial Killer cover

The second book offered quite a bit of disturbing imagery for inspiration, but one harrowing scene in particular—involving a pocket knife—had stuck with me. An idea came fairly quickly—simple image, simple type, a few slashes with that X-Acto. I wasn’t sure if I could get away with something so stark, but fortunately it went over well.

Mr. Monster cover

The three methods of death from the third book inspired the experiments for the final jacket. My first idea involved type sitting at the bottom of a tub. I thought that holding a printout under a faucet would give me the wet look I wanted, but after a minute or two of doing just that in the Tor men’s room I realized that our high quality laserjet prints don’t run. An inexpensive inkjet printer at home gave me the look I wanted.

I Don’t Want to Kill You cover

I set up a makeshift studio in my living room to get a shot of a hatchet coming through the title.

I Don’t Want to Kill You cover process

And I temporarily disabled the smoke detector for the piece that was ultimately selected for the jacket.

I Don’t Want to Kill You cover process

Peter Lutjen is a senior designer at Tor Books.


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