Cover Story: In Search of an Image from New York to Miami to Paris

The following is a guest post from UPM author José Alaniz. We’ve had the pleasure of working with José now on two books. Below, he writes about the process of choosing a book cover. While many authors have a dream cover in mind, securing rights and permissions, as Alaniz quickly discovered, is a separate and entirely different endeavor.

If one shouldn’t trust a book by its cover, we can say too that every book cover has its own unique story. Having published two books with UPM, I can attest to that fact.

For my first, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia , I simply sent in several color reproductions by the artists I was examining in the text, and the press’ production staff took it from there. They delivered a colorful, striking design.

For my second, Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Ageand Beyond, things started more straightforward but wound up much more convoluted. The study, as clear from the title, scrutinizes the representation of death and disability in mainstream superhero comics from the late 1950s to 1993, a period when numerous series, characters and storylines reflected egalitarian post-war social change in the USA, including the death with dignity movement, the rise of hospice, and the emergence of disability as a civil rights issue.    

I knew right off the bat I wanted an image of the French artist Gilles Barbier’s installation Nursing Home (L’hospice, 2002) for the cover. The study begins with a discussion of that piece, with its aged costumed figures wasting away in an institution, as a wonderful example of the metaphorical use of the superhero body for a national critique. As my University of Washington colleague Kathleen Woodward puts it in an upcoming article, Nursing Home “brilliantly captures this view of America as an exhausted power, its once famed superheroes now old and tired and incapacitated.” Though not a work of comics, the installation struck me as one of the most remarkable pieces I’d found in my research, and the perfect entry point for the very questions regarding mortality, debility and ideology which I wanted to explore.

Nursing Home
So, when the time came to decide on a cover image, I explored the possibility of getting the rights to reproduce Nursing Home. Barbier’s work had made a splashy debut on these shores as part of “The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States: 1990-2003,” a 2003 exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of international artists’ responses to the USA after 9/11. Since then, I discovered, Barbier had sold the piece to the Collection Martin Z. Margulies in Miami. I reached them, and they agreed to my use of the piece, though they also informed me they did not own the copyright; I would have to contact the artist.

Thereupon I wrote the Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois in Paris, which represents Barbier. When they seemed to be taking too long to respond, I asked an old friend in Paris to call them up. That did they trick: they apologized for misplacing my e-mails and in short order let me know that Barbier agreed to let me reproduce a photograph of the installation. His and the gallery’s only price: copies of the book once it came out. Great news!

But then, another snag: the images the gallery sent me all seemed inadequate in one way or another: too far away, uninteresting angles. After all, they had used these pictures to document the piece, not to fashion attractive visuals that would hold their own in and of themselves. I needed something like the photograph I had seen in “American Cheese,” a 2003 review of the Whitney show by Mark Stevens, published in New York magazine. That article listed the photographer’s name: Tim McAfee.

Nursing Home
One pretty easy internet search later, I had McAfee’s phone number but no e-mail address. So I just cold-called him. I no longer recall if he answered right away or I left a message, but in any case we soon got in touch. He graciously agreed to let me have the rights to reproduce his image of Nursing Home for free.

Voila! I had my dream cover.

Sadly, despite that success, I do need to end this post on a sour note. Due a production error, readers of both the hardcover and paperback versions of Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond will find nowhere a credit as it should have appeared: “Copyright Gilles Barbier. Thanks to Collection Martin Z. Margulies. Photo by Tim McAfee.”

These very accommodating, generous people deserve that credit; this post, I hope, at least sets the record straight. After all, many still compliment my second book’s cover to this day. These generous folks made it happen.

P.S. Instead of Nursing Home, I did at one point muse on Sacha Newley’s portrait of Christopher Reeve (2004), a discussion of which close Death, Disability and the Superhero, for the cover. Those reproduction rights, owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I obtained very easily, quickly and for free.