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224: Diane & Leo Dillon

December 7, 2015

Much of what I focus on in these Judging Books blog posts is cover design that is quite rare, either because the politics are marginal (anarchism! communism! socialism! oh my!), or the books are from regions that themselves are marginalized (anyone from the U.S., how much did you learn about Africa in high school?). But I’m not interested in these things because of their marginality. It’s actually really exciting when cool stuff breaks into the mainstream, which happened in so many ways in the 1960s and 70s.
 
One of the most interesting experiments in book cover design at the time was in the world of science fiction, on the covers of Ace Science Fiction Specials. While Sci-fi is genre fiction, and was looked down upon by the mainstream literary world, this didn’t mean it was unpopular. Mass market sci-fi novels regularly sold in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Into the early 1960s most of the covers of these books were outer-space versions of pulp novels, with lurid aliens and silvery space discs shooting laser beams at each other across craggy lunar landscapes. Quite funny when you look at them today, but also pretty conservative. By the late 60s all of this changes, and at the forefront are the husband and wife team of Leo and Diane Dillon.
 
Leo was born and raised by Trinidadian parents in Brooklyn (East New York) in the 1930s. He passed away in 2012. Diane (who is white) was born and raised on the opposite coast, in Los Angeles. They met in 1953 while both attending Parsons, and the story goes that they were inseparable from then on out. Their work appears to be a true collaboration, with no clear style attributed to one over the other, and an amazing range of imagery and aesthetics. I became conscious of their work when I found an Ace Science Fiction Special copy of Michael Moorcock’s The Black Corridor accidentally shelved in the “Black Studies” section of a bookstore in Pittsburgh. The cover, below, is extremely powerful—a demented and demonic stained glass window of anguished faces and hands alternately piled on top of each other and collapsing into one another. It’s terrifying and fabulous. Only after doing some research did I realize I had also loved the Dillons as a kid, in particular their 1975 children’s book Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (turns out it’s only one of dozens of kid’s books the couple illustrated).
 

Davidson_Pheonix_Ace
Moorcock_BlackCorridor_Ace69
Lafferty_FourthMansions_Ace

 
Anyway, to get back to the thread, after finding the initial Moorcock book I stumbled on a couple other cheap Ace Science Fiction Specials (ASFS) bearing their work, and then about six months ago a large collection of mass market sci-fi showed up at Book Thug Nation, including a nice collection of ASFS Dillon covers. I don’t know the whole story, but it appears that when Ace moved from doing double-sided specials into standard single-titled sci-fi mass markets in 1968–1971, they tapped Terry Carr to be the editor and the Dillons to do most (if not all) of the thirty-nine covers. And these weren’t second rate books, but heavy hitters, with award-winning novels and books from Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, Roger Zelazny, and more. The initial design featured a white box in the top 1/4 of the cover, with the title and author in a bold gothic-style sans serif font. The color of the title fluctuates with the primary colors in the illustration, which takes up the bottom 3/4 of the cover. The images are clearly of a single set, yet individually range across diverse landscapes of colors, shapes, and textures.
 

Shaw_Palace_Ace
Goulart_AfterThings_Ace
Brunner_JaggedOrbit_Ace

 

zelazny_isleofdead_ace2
LeGuin_Earthsea_Ace69

 
The Dillons have completely plundered many of the great artists of the 20th century, reworking bits and pieces of their styles into a new pop-modernist visual language drawing from psychedelia, art deco, gothic, montage, and surrealism. They’re like chameleons, drawing from wide swaths of the history of art, political imagery, and pop culture to render new forms of expression. This is an engaged post-modernism that sits beside the work of design firms like Push Pin Studios, and pre-dates the much more vacuous post-modernism that comes to dominate book cover design in the 1980s and 90s.
 

Roberts_Pavane_Ace
davidson_theisland_ace

 

Lafferty_NineHundred_Ace
Dick_Preserving_Ace_Dillons

 
Avram Davidson’s The Phoenix and the Mirror has clear shadows of Salvador Dali, while John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit reads as somewhere between a militarist Duchamp and a Goya tossed through a fractured window. Roger Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead has echoes of Gustav Klimt, while Philp K. Dick’s The Preserving Machine is a sci-fi rip on a Joseph Cornell box. Somehow they manage to marshal all these different influences while creating covers for which there is no doubt that they were designedby Leo and Diane Dillon.
 

Compton_SilentMultitude_ASFS
Compton_SteelCrocodile_ASFS

 

sladek_machasm_asfs
Tucker_YearOfQuiet_Ace

 
It’s difficult to sort out the exact order that designs on the ASFS covers rolled out. Like many old paperbacks, the dates are wonky, with the book insides staying static (with a single original publishing date) while the covers are changed. The core Dillon illustration stays the same, but the framework it is placed within evolves and changes. One evolution of the Specials is the split cover, with a geometric pattern/maze on the top half of the book, the title and author in the middle, and an inset illustration by the Dillons on the bottom half. I have no idea if the Dillons designed the top geometric patterns, but it seems unlikely. I can’t imagine how stupid someone would have to be to think it was a good idea to shrink the Dillon image into a small square and bury it under a maze and in a solid sea of color, but who knows how these decisions were made.
 

Blish_Torrent_Ace_Dillons
Compton_Synthajoy_Ace_Dillons

 

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simak_whycallthem_ace

 
Here are some other cover evolutions. These are more traditional, with the hard white box at the top of the original design giving way to more integration of the title and author information. The Brunner and Le Guin covers are the closest to the initial design, with slight variations on the type. The Left Hand of Darkness has a dazzling Klimt cum Hunderwasser quilted frame encroaching on two central faces, while the hood of The Traveler in Black breaks out of what would have been a fixed illustration box in the original design schema. (Never mind the amazing rainbow landscape/creature creeping out from the bottom left hand corner.) The Compton cover builds on that, getting more experimental with the type, with the illustration refusing traditional shape and boundaries.
 

Brunner_Treveler_Ace
LeGuin_LeftHandDarkness_ASFS

 

Shaw_OneMillion_Ace1200
Compton_Chronocules_Ace_Dillons
Schmitz_Witches_Ace1200

 

eklund_eclipseofdawn_ace
Elgin_Furthest_Ace

 
Just to show some range, here are some additional books the Dillons have done that happen to be in my collection. They show even a greater breadth in style and skill, each one completely different than the next.Forst the additional sci-fi covers, including Partners in Wonder, one in a series of covers they designed for their friend Harlan Ellison. Each one features their rendition of his name in dark psychedelic grandeur, with inset images in dark washes that are reminiscent of Aaron Douglas murals from the Harlem Renaissance. And I absolutely love the image they created for Aldiss’ Barefoot In the Head, total insane genius.
 
Next are a series of covers for James Baldwin mass markets that Dell was putting out in the 1980s. I know there are more of these, but I haven’t stumbled across them yet. The cover for dem I previously shared when I was featuring the Collier Af/Am library (see HERE), and is a personal favorite. Back then I labeled this cubism channeled through Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence, but now I can see this is straight Robert Gwathmey. And finally the cover for Carlene Hatcher Polite’s 1975 novel Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play is something else entirely. Here they mutate again, merging Black Power imagery with 17th century European block prints. At first glance you would never think this is one of their covers, but the closer you look the more some of their signatures are visible like color overprinting and heavy yet highly detailed outlining. And then two very different designs for the Time-Life novel series, the McCuller’s cover warm, yet strange, the de Poncins design about as chilly as you can get.
 

Ellison_Partners_Pyramid

 

 

MelvinKelley_dem_Collier
Polite_SisterX_FSG

 

 
Alec tells me there are websites dedicated to the work of the Dillons, but I’ve actually purposefully avoided them. Most of the fun is finding the books in person, and then getting to share the little collections I’ve been able to cobble together here on Justseeds, and it doesn’t really matter much what other people think or are up to. But, if this handful of covers peaks your interest, you should definitely look the Dillons up further, as there is a huge world of their work to explore!
 
Bibliography for this week’s books—Ace Science Fiction Specials:

  • James Blish & Norman L. Knight, A Torrent of Faces (New York: Ace, 1967). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special A-29]
  • John Brunner, The Jagged Orbit (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 38120]
  • John Brunner, The Traveler in Black (New York: Ace, 1971). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 82210]
  • D.G. Compton, Chronocules (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 10480]
  • D.G. Compton, The Silent Multitude (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 76385]
  • D.G. Compton, The Steel Crocodile (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 78575]
  • D.G. Compton, Synthajoy (New York: Ace, 1968). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special H-86]
  • Avram Davidson, The Phoenix and the Mirror (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 66100]
  • Avram Davidson, The Island Under the Erth (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 37425]
  • Phillip K. Dick, The Preserving Machine (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 67800]
  • Gordon Eklund, The Eclipse of Dawn (New York: Ace, 1971). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 18630]
  • Suzette Haden Elgin, Furthest (New York: Ace, 1971). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 25950]
  • Ron Goulart, After Things Fell Apart (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 00950]
  • R.A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 24590]
  • R.A. Lafferty, Nine Hundred Grandmothers (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 58050]
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 47800]
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 90075]
  • Michael Moorcock, The Black Corridor (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 06530]
  • Keith Roberts, Pavane (New York: Ace, 1968). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 65430]
  • Joanna Russ, And Chaos Died (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 02268]
  • Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (New York: Ace, 1968). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special H-72]
  • James H. Schmitz, The Witches of Karres (New York: Ace, 1966). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 89851]
  • Bob Shaw, One Million Tomorrows (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 62938]
  • Bob Shaw, Palace of Eternity (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 65050]
  • Bob Shaw, The Two-Timers (New York: Ace, 1968). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special H-79]
  • Clifford D. Simak, Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (New York: Ace, 1967). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special H-42]
  • John T. Sladek, Mechasm (New York: Ace, 1968). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 71435]
  • Wilson Tucker, The Year of the Quiet Sun (New York: Ace, 1970). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 94200]
  • Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead (New York: Ace, 1969). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon. [Science Fiction Special 37465]
  •  
    Non-ASFS:

  • James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie (Dell, 1980 [3rd Laurel printing]). Cover design by the Dillons.
  • Harlan Ellison, Partners in Wonder (New York: Pyramid, 1975). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon.
  • William Melvin Kelley, dem (New York: Collier Books, 1969). Cover illustration by Leo & Diane Dillon.
  • Carlene Hatcher Polite, Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975). Cover design by Leo & Diane Dillon.
  •  
     
    For those interested in science fiction book covers, I’ve written a handful of related posts: One on the UK Science Fiction Book Club covers of the 60s and 70s (HERE); two on the covers of Zamyatin’s We (HERE and HERE); one on abstraction and sci-fi cover design (HERE); and another on covers that engage with contemporary political themes (HERE).

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