Kyril Bonfiglioli’s series of comic novels featuring notorious art dealer Charlie Mortdecai are to be republished by Penguin, with covers by cartoonist and illustrator, Luke Pearson…
Bonfiglioli’s triology of Mortdecai books – plus a historical prequel, All the Tea in China – originally came out in the 1970s, while another title, The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery, was completed after the author died in 1985 by the satirist Craig Brown (and published in 1999). The first in the reprinted Mortdecai editions, Don’t Point That Thing at Me, is published this week.
As a character, Mortdecai has been compared to an unscrupulous version of Bertie Wooster from PG Wodehouse’s series of stories and novels – his own servant, Jock Strapp, functioning as a kind of Jeevesian figure.
Comics artist and illustrator Luke Pearson was approach by Penguin designer Richard Bravery to work on the series of five books, having previously drawn the cover for the publisher’s Essentials edition of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (here on Pearson’s website).
“I was really excited by the prospect of designing a series in one go,” says Pearson. “My gut feeling was for them to be tightly consistent, the same type treatment, a distinct colour scheme, maybe a shared overall design etc. However, the brief required me to do the first cover in its entirety and for that to be approved before I moved onto the rest.
“So I quickly read the first book [Don’t Point That Thing at Me] and designed a cover that I felt suited the tone of it, something that described the character and felt comic, with various hints of violence and a nasty edge. I assumed that the books would continue in a similar vein and that the covers could follow this one’s lead somehow.”
This proved to be the case until Pearson came to work on the cover for Something Nasty in The Woodshed, which he says, “turned out to be a bit of a spanner in the works – as although the character is the same, it’s a completely different kind of book, weirdly out of step with the others and way, way darker.
“It felt like it would be wrong if it didn’t look distinctly different to the first book so I tried to design it in the same way I did the first, more or less thinking about it in isolation. I figured that if I could make the rest of them feel tied to both of these somehow, then they’d feel like a set.
“The challenge shifted from how to make them feel uniform, to how to make each cover totally different but still connected,” he continues. “Richard was really helpful with this, introducing the strip along the bottom, helping enforce a logic to the colour choices that carries all the way through, so that it feels like they share a palette when they actually don’t entirely.
“I’m actually really happy with the way it worked out. I think they look shambolically connected which feels right for a character like Mortdecai.”
Pearson’s comic book style suits these novels perfectly – and the palette of red, pale blue and yellow neatly connects them together without feeling too forced as a set. The other link, of course, is Mortdecai himself – whose face Pearson decided not to show in any of the covers.
“The decision to not show his face was actually kind of a reflection on the Lucky Jim cover,” he says. “My one hang-up about that was always the fact that his face and those of other characters are so prominent. I’m very happy with it as a design, but I know that reading it for the first time with that cover, those faces are going to be in your mind from the start and I don’t know if I like that.
“I feel like it’s kind of stepping on the author’s toes and possibly also tampering with the likelihood of the reader connecting with the book. I think having a hazy, uncertain view of what the protagonist looks like allows you to subconsciously put yourself in their shoes more easily, or at least come to conclusions that are more personal.”