The Lighter Side of Apocalypse

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O Captain, my Captain.

Today’s post will be quick, as I’m in the middle of conference mania, and also of a major overhaul of my thesis focus and methodology. Because I’m a bit tired of both monsters and the Victorian at the moment (hard to believe, I know), this week I decided to briefly share a couple of somethings related to my other great research love, the post-apocalyptic. Romantically Apocalyptic and Gone with the Blastwave are two webcomics that I’ve followed for a while. They’ve both got a lot in common, at least on the surface: masked protagonists, post-apocalyptic setting, black humour, and a gruesomely whimsical attitude towards war, death, and destruction. Both don’t have much of an overarching storyline, preferring to focus on snippets and vignettes. And honestly, I think they’re both beautiful.

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Gone with the Blastwave was created by Kimmo Lemetti, and follows a group of (largely) unnamed red soldiers fighting groups of blue and yellow soldiers in a ruined city. Why? They can’t really remember. They spend a lot of the webcomic killing time in grimly humorous ways.

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Romantically Apocalyptic started up (on DeviantArt) at around the same time, though I actually discovered it long before I came across Gone with the Blastwave. Its creator, Vitaly S Alexius, has suggested that both are indirectly inspired by the comic ‘Goodbye, Soldier!’ by Juan Gimenez from Heavy Metal. Romantically Apocalyptic follows the exploits of The Captain, Pilot, Snippy, and a supplementary cast of survivors, after what seems like a nuclear winter.

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Unlike Gone With the Blastwave, Romantically Apocalyptic is made using Alexius’s own photographs, which are painted over in Photoshop.

Each has its own aesthetic, and its own brand of dark humour. In Gone With the Blastwave, this darkness (and its corresponding humour) often comes in the form of actions, as the backgrounds are quite spare:

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In Romantically Apocalyptic, on the other hand, it’s often the contrast between the darkly rich backgrounds and the inane action in the panels that creates the humour:

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Really, both Romantically Apocalyptic and Gone with the Blastwave are fully worth your time and scrutiny. I can’t promise you won’t become addicted in the process, though.

Anatomy of a Cover

0ec06a8b4e7a3c88a15b846bf68cbb5dWe’re always told that we should never judge a book by its cover, but the truth is that a lot of work goes into making sure we do. A cover generally gives us an immediate idea of the genre, register, and target audience of a book. A good cover will also generate excitement and interest, and make a book stand out from the texts around it. Book design may even save the independent publishing industry, where according to The Independent publishers are ‘springing up to provide a certain kind of reader with what they want, more than ever: the book as beautiful, covetable, keep-able object’.

Because the cover is such an important part of selling books, often the same book will have multiple different covers for various countries and age groups. Take the ever-increasing variety of Harry Potter covers as an example. Book covers also generally get an update when they’re reprinted many years later, as was the case with the subject of today’s blog post: Kim Newman’s series of alternate-history vampire novels, Anno Dracula. You may recall that I posted a few weeks ago about the second book in this series, The Bloody Red Baron, and how it deals with the balance between entertainment and ethics in its reproduction of WWI.

These books were originally released in the ’90s, when they were marketed to a very different audience. As you can see below, the original cover for Anno Dracula (the first book in the series; 1992) has a distinct Anne Rice feel to it:
Anno Dracula

The reprinting from Titan Books, however, has a very contemporary feel, and taps into the growing neo-Victorian market. In a blog post on Titan Books, illustrator Martin Stiff of Amazing 15 talks about how they arrived at the new cover, and what was discarded along the way. Martin was kind enough to let me reprint the post for you here:


For a series of books where the characters and plot span the entire twentieth century it was always going to be tough to come up with a series design which could evoke the period while also being consistent across the range.

We tried some more traditional approaches to begin with, a half-and-half style cover with a lady vampire and an image which suggests the particular decade the book is set but these felt a little boring, like we’d seen them a million times before.


Mulling it over we struck upon the idea of a continuing series of posters, with each designed in the style of the period. The first, Anno Dracula, is set in the 1880s, so I mocked up a faux Victorian music-hall poster. This sat nicely with the adult nature and looked quite sophisticated – and the central idea of the poster fashion changing with each title was a great concept. But for some reason the idea never struck home with everyone and it got shot down. But like any good vampire it was soon to rise from the dead…

Our next round of covers used a simple framing device and an ‘object’ – a blood-stained locket on Anno Dracula, an Iron Cross on The Bloody Red Baron and so forth. For a while this was the cover Titan used for sales purposes and it seemed for a while it was going to be the final cover too. Never completely comfortable with the concept we continued to fiddle with the cover and tried some versions which combined the ‘object’ idea and the ‘poster’ idea but again, nothing really worked as well as we wanted it too.





It’s very easy, after producing so many different ideas, to get a little bogged down with the approaches you’ve already tried so we went back to the drawing board and tried some entirely new directions. The concept with these were to use a well-known building which could illustrate the plot of each book (hence Buckingham Palace for Anno Dracula). We kicked about the illustrated church cover for a while, with different logo treatments and different colour ways, but again it fell at the final fence.


Finally – and as frustrating as this may seem – we went right back to the beginning! The original music-hall poster concept seemed to have lodged into people’s imaginations and more we deviated from it with the other ideas the more we all realised how much we liked it. We brought it back to the table and continued working on it (we rejigged some of the text, added new quotes, etc. – and we actually made it look like a real poster on a wall) and suddenly we had our final cover!

Part of designing a series of book covers is ensuring any ideas you might have will work across the entire range. So, using the principle concept for Anno Dracula, we worked up the second book – The Bloody Red Baron. We were lucky enough to find an evocative (and out of copyright) WWI German propaganda poster and with a little twist (the black clouds turning into bats) we hit upon a really eye-catching cover!


As you can see below, the final cover for The Bloody Red Baron ended up being slightly different, though the overall idea is the same:

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The next two books in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) and Johnny Alucard (2013), follow a similar pattern:

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What do you think? Do these covers make you want to pick up a copy?

If you’re interested in learning more about book cover design, BBC Radio 4 has a 30-minute podcast on The Art of Book Cover Design, with John Wilson. There’s also a nice TED Talks on the subject with Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, and a video from Random House where they interview some of their designers. You may also want to check out Lousy Book Covers, a Tumblr account dedicated to sharing some of the best of the worst.

On the Front Lines Between ‘Funny’ and ‘Offensive’

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

Seeing as today is April Fool’s Day (or April Fools’ Day, as Wikipedia pointedly suggests I should be apostrophising it), and most of the commentary on the day’s festivities seems to border on despair and desperation, I thought it might be fun to post something about the uses and limits of humour.

The line between what’s funny and what isn’t is a fine one, and is often purely a matter of context. Even when successful, humour is always a question of morality, politics, and aesthetics. One need only look at the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings and controversy to confirm this assertion. Humour can be used to point to both serious and trivial issues, and whether it is productive is always a question of perspective.

In the introduction to their 2005 essay collection Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering have the following to say about the distinction between what is considered funny and what is offensive:

It is generally regarded as being beneficial to laugh about things, including ourselves; to get problems off our chests and ‘see their funny side’; to look back on what was previously regarded as very serious, maybe even tragic, and ‘have a good laugh about it’. There are clearly many cases where this is so, but equally there are others when it is inappropriate to laugh, when humour does not sit happily with the general tenor of an event or situation, and when a joke is regarded as overstepping the mark, as being beyond a joke.
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In this definition of the border between humour and harm, the focus is on whether the object of ridicule is the person laughing, or some unspecified other. A few pages later Lockyer and Pickering use the example of a female Muslim comedian, who tells a joke about being felt up during a pilgrimage to Mecca. Were a Christian man to tell this joke, they argue, it would ‘shift from being a joke at the teller’s expense to a joke told at someone else’s’ (p. 9).

From the cover of Beyond a Joke
From the cover of Beyond a Joke

Nazi jokes and humour are often the target of these kinds of questions. Is the Japanese ‘Nazi chic’ trend excused by the fact that the perpetrators aren’t German, and weren’t even alive during World War II? At what point are we responsible for the images and ideas we appropriate?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the borders of the humorous. I recently finished a first draft of a chapter on humour in the novel-as-masup (Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, etc.), which is also under review as part of an upcoming book collection. In these mashups, the question of humour is mainly one of triviality. The very idea of combining Jane Austen and zombies or sea monsters is so silly it almost crosses the border of humour in the other direction to become boring. Even for those inclined to be disturbed by the potential defacement of a literary classic, is it really worth getting upset over fiction? Because I’ve been working on it so much I’m a bit tired of the whole genre at the moment, but I’m also writing on a tangential paper for the upcoming Material Traces of the Past in Contemporary Literature conference in Málaga, Spain (naturally the location had nothing to do with my decision to attend).

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

For this paper I’ll be looking at how the creation and inversion of ironic distance complicates readings of historical fiction in the twenty-first century. Rather than looking at the nineteenth century as I do in my chapter, I’ll be covering some texts set during the two World Wars. The first is Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron (1995 | 2012), an alternate history novel that imagines Count Dracula leading the German forces during WWI. The second is Billy Ludwig’s manipulations of old photos from WWII, modified to include iconic images from Star Wars.

The Bloody Red Baron was a largely uncontroversial novel, both at its original 1995 release and at its reprinting in 2012. Ludwig’s photomanipulations have seen some moderate internet blowback, however, as has the similar If Star Wars Was Real photo series. This comes despite the fact that the two sets of images clearly mesh well aesthetically, partially due to the fact that George Lucas drew liberal inspiration from both World Wars when creating the Star Wars universe, as fan and historian Cole Horton demonstrates. When you get down to it, both texts are technically doing the same thing: inserting fantastical characters and images into historical contexts. What makes the one potentially upsetting, while the other is accepted as harmless?

The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.
The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.

One answer might be the visualness of photography. It’s inherently more confrontational than text. With a novel we have the right not to read, or to ‘look away’, as it were. In her 1968 article ‘The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception’, Mary Douglas argues that humour needs to be permitted as well as understood in order to be perceived as a joke. There is nothing particularly offensive about any version of The Bloody Red Baron’s cover art, or the book’s title. You never know where Ludwig’s photomanipulations might pop up, though, confronting you with something you have no chance to opt out of.

A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.
A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.

Another answer might lie in the question of celebrity. In The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman mainly hijacks famous historical figures. By stepping into the public spotlight, these figures have abdicated their right to privacy – at least to a certain degree. Additionally, many of these famous figures remained far from the front lines during the war. The same cannot be said for the lowly foot-soldiers and everyday citizens featured in many of the Star Wars photomanipulations.

What do you think – are these images offensive? If so, where do they cross the line?