Tuesday 14 May, 2013

Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines, and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on the verge of taking over a powerful cartel, and Tochtli is growing up in a luxury hideout that he shares with hit men, prostitutes, dealers, servants, and the odd corrupt politician or two.

This latest book from AHAB by Mexican Author Juan Pablo Vilalobos (entitled Down the Rabbit Hole in English) is described as a 'masterful and darkly comic first novel... a chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish'. 

An interesting challenge then for a book cover. And where to start? Well, in the usual place – looking at what other covers exist of the same book by other publishers. And this time there were quite a few – varying in approach and visual language.

Some (top row below) choose to use Mexican (style) iconography – decorative and pictorial.


Others (second row) chose to use one of the story's principle icons – the Hippo (also incorporated in the third cover of the top row), and one cover creates a heraldic 'Coat of Arms' incorporating gold machine guns as well as the beast. Another 'group' uses the boy as a central image. The bottom row examples are more disperse, with Tochtli's hat obsession being featured in the second example, and, in what looks like an Asian edition (difficult to see on the low-res image), an unexpected detail from a Hieronymus Bosch painting is used.

Never ignore the obvious I often say – usually a pretty good place to start. And so I went for the Hippo – who could resist! And it's only when you start looking at photos of Hippos that you realise that one's pre-imagined idea of a Hippo – the archetypal Hippo – is not that easy to find. What makes a Hippo a Hippo? From certain angles it becomes indistinctive. Trust me I've looked. Certain things need to be prominant – the big mouth (open), the teeth, the nostrils, the short legs. None of this really works from the front. And so I came up with my Hippo based on a cartoon I found. The cartoon was useful because cartoons are already graphic simplifications, and because it's the story of a child, with humour, albeit dark.

But after the Hippo I needed more. I needed lettering – of a particular kind – and some other visual references. I included a hat, some pistols, a cactus or two. And finally the colour scheme – simple but bright. It was my intention that the process of building the aesthetic would not stop here. The idea was to give the final design a rougher, almost lino-cut feel. I even went to the trouble of having a lino sheet laser cut so I could make prints which might have texture, which would then serve as the final artwork. But my old foe – time – defeated me again. Next time perhaps.