I first learned about this book series back in the fall of 2012. Jon had just come up with the idea and was tossing ideas around. I worked up some sketches (seen below), and the next thing I knew, there was a contract and a deadline. As Jon wrote the first book over most of 2013, I completed work on Everything Goes and some other books, checking in every now and then and producing the odd sketch here and there.
I’d never worked on a book where the author had not yet finished the manuscript. This created a very different kind of process, where I was sketching covers that included characters that did not even end up in the final script, for example. We didn’t know what the characters should look like, and we didn’t know what personalities the robots had. At some points, the tall robot would be the erudite, smart guy, and the short robot would be the emotional goofball. Jon felt that this overlapped C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars a bit much, so he went with the reverse in the end. In some ways, my early sketches influenced some of the characters and scenes in the book and it was pretty interesting to be part of the process so early. For this reason, these early sketches I’m posting here are different from early sketches of most of my projects. Interesting to note that on the cover sketch, the name of the book didn’t even exist yet. Jon went through several possible titles, some of which you’ll see in later sketches here.
We tried various directions as we contemplated the cover art. One of the suggestions from former teenage heart-throb Charlie Kochman, the editor of the series, was to consider an invention of some kind on the cover. Like something Rube Goldberg would design. I love Goldberg and this made a lot of sense to me immediately, but I had no idea how we’d pull it off, and the idea of “inventing” my own Goldberg was pretty daunting. Here are a few that show the invention idea just kind of dummied in, and then a batch of sketches that show a more action-packed cover that I thought was reminiscent of a movie poster.
We liked aspects of these, but I was having a hard time making them work. I really liked the movie-poster ones, but apparently no one else did!
Jon had suggested in various ways that the books might look like journals. Like something a scientist would carry around in their pocket to make notes and record observations. I knocked off this field-guide-looking version at some point, and Jon and I both loved it. There was no way that we’d ever get this to be “the cover” but it was an interesting place to start.
Not knowing then that this was eventually going to be a dead-end street, I started digging up reference and inspiration for this kind of thing. Journals, science-fiction manuals, and especially old text books had such a great look to them. I felt that with the older crowd that we were shooting for here (as opposed to 3-5 year olds as we might be for a picture book) that we might be able to do something with this that had a retro-sophisticated spin.
Several directions came from this exploration. I loved the idea of breaking up the cover into these panels, where we could show various characters and scenes from the book, but also symbolize various scientific principles and ideas. They reminded me of comic-book panels, which I thought was perfect. I imagined they would be in three-color printing: black and two other colors. You can see that when the two colors overlap, they create a third.
Amazingly, we got a preliminary go-ahead on this direction with the caveat that there was one more meeting coming up where the concept had to pass muster. I kept my fingers crossed. Alas, it was a no-go. One never knows exactly who said what or how things went, but the general consensus that I understood was something along the lines of “oh my god, everyone hated this.” It was too subtle and esoteric for the kind of audience they were aiming at, and it was just too weird and busy. The problem now is that we were late late late with the cover, and marketing really needed something to work with. Chad, the art director of the project, went back to some early concepts that were more straightforward, more direct, simpler to understand, and simpler to execute. Sounds like a plan.
I’d designed this type treatment for the Frank Einstein title, which was a nice anchor.
Chad’s direction was something like “let’s just get the three main characters in the middle, doing something, and let’s put the type on the top.” It worked!
Here’s a cleaner furthering of this idea.
Everybody loved it! They had no choice! We had to get this done! But everyone loved it anyway!
Ironically, there were some issues with the title typography which Chad solved with the sleek sophisticated logotype below. As a small aside, this is the first book I’ve ever illustrated that I didn’t hand-letter the title. Just a little trivia for you there.
I designed this atomic-themed background pattern to replace the graph paper,
Chad put everything together into a crazy complicated Photoshop file, and voila! We have a cover.
Now that was easy, wasn’t it?
One of the cool, more subtle things about this cover (and the five remaining as well) is that it’s not just a scene of the characters “doing something.” We kept the Rube Goldberg-inspired riff, where the mechanics of the illustration are explained with text on the back cover. Here’s an example of a Goldberg cartoon:
And here is the text as it was placed on the back cover of Frank Einstein.
I’m also posting a few interior illustrations and some of the early earliest sketches of the same scenes. Certain aspects of the book Jon had locked in from the beginning. Like the climactic confrontation at an old industrial site/factory/power plant. And the Frankenstein riff at the beginning. It’s weird to see the drawings here, created more than a year apart.
Again, the book is out now now now and you can go get it at your favorite bookseller or, if you must, a big chain store or online retailer.
Read the book? Like the book? Leave a comment…
Thanks and please enjoy!