-By Greg Ruth

Almost none of you have seen me dance, (and those six or seven who have? Shut up about it). When I was a kid I accidentally ran over a Texas-sized toad just trying to hop across the street, all too slowly as it turns out. I was rocking my indigo black Schwinn Roving Roller with the banana set and I only found about the toad as I was actively rolling across it, and it was terrible. I must have hit some weird part of its nervous system so after I skidded to a halt and looked back at the sin I had visited upon this toad, it flopped across the pavement arms flailing, and bouncing like it was being hit by lightening every half second. That is me, dancing. For those of us of the Undanciful Clans, we have learned to truly experiment only in opportunities of great privacy. This way no one gets hurt when it goes bad- which it can more often than not.

So when I was approached by Andreas from Cross Cult in Germany about a cover gig, it felt like a place to do some private dancing. They had just acquired the rights to translate Nnedi Okorafor’s LAGOON into their native language, and needed something special and unusual for the cover. There had been a previously illustrated version and some stock photo AD built one as well… but they wanted something more suited to the book they had in mind. I was unfamiliar with her work and devoured the novel like a maniac when it arrived. I owed my best effort to Andreas- (which is true of any job no matter where it is people. Seriously), but he was also hiring me to be let loose upon it. This my fellow Muddy Coloraisians, is a dream opportunity that if you’re supremely lucky, only comes around once every few years. It’s a weird book with inky aliens in water possessing sharks. It’s deeply unnerving and marvelous to read, and this rich source, the lack of leash, and frankly to be honest, knowing it was going to be all the way over in Germany so if I face-planted this dance it could be kept relatively quiet… all of these factors led me to chase the wildest idea I could and run for it.

The first trick was to think about how to make aliens visible on the cover without showing “aliens”, and then meant teaching myself how or if I could draw flowing ink as if dropped in water on paper with a pencil and convince the eye it was liquid captured in a single image. I brought a few clear glasses to the studio, filled them with water, and dropped small portions of heavy cream in, and watched what happened. I did it a few times to get a sense of how the physics of that moment worked and then started sketching. It took days. This drawing above was the most time eating drawing I have ever done before… until I did the next one.

Having felt like I got it right enough to hit the full one, I did, and screwed it up by drawing in eyes and a face within the inky cloud… and it came off looking like a bad 1980’s promo to a prime time David Copperfiled magic showcase. The problem was letting the technique get in front of the character- and the woman in this novel was the entire axis of the story- so I decided to lean on one of my more recent tropes of “ghosting” the alien murk into the face of this strong woman and see where that went. It went pretty well actually. Sharyn November managed to get it in front of Nnedi at this stage and based only upon one of my obscured instagram WIP pics, she expressed a level of enthusiasm rare to this world. We began communicating and coordinating in a way also rare and fantastic. You have to understand, it is the common practice in our thing to keep the writer and the artist away from each other. There are a number of reasons for this and most of them are good, and really you only need one or two of em to justify it. This was the exception to prove that rule. I finished the piece adding some color and some spaceu-starlike dots to further the sci-fi angle a good bit, scrapped the necklace, designed the type and Andreas crafted the final layout and we were done and ecstatic about how it turned out. Nnedi and I shared this images as they came all over the usual social media thunderdomes, and the reception was wildly fun and enthusiastic. And experiment in private from a safe distance suddenly became an international confab spanning three continents. I had run across the toad int he street with my Rover and it hopped up and started break-dancing like Michael Jackson and Fed Astair had a baby, and it was a total surprise.

Then I got to do it again, and then again again. This time it was a two punch assignment both books, WHO FEARS DEATH and THE BOOK OF THE PHOENIX together. Given this and the few weeks duration since LAGUNE, (the German word for LAGOON), carrying through a theme seemed in order to us both. Nnedi had already teed up one by resting her novels almost unilaterally upon the shoulders of mighty women protagonists, and so repeating the magic of Lagune in a series seemed  a likewise delicious thing to chase down. Nnedi was a little hesitant about the idea of corralling all these very different women under a team banner of sorts- and for good reason. We worked through ways in which we could individualize each, but still make them of a piece, even if these two novels were so vastly separate from Lagoon. Luckily of the many tools you have when doing a cover and especially a series, design can do a lot for your team. The real need was to make each different, but related and these latest two even more so. Twins with a much younger sister.

While I worked on these two simultaneously, the first one I finished was THE BOOK OF THE PHOENIX. The flames took on a quality like the inky water, but needed to be sharper and more vivid at their ends. Some wiggling was done to make this a certainty and it came together fairly quickly.

Feeling overconfident I raced into the second piece thinking I could nail it down in the same day as its sister, which of course is always a recipe to get exactly its opposite just to teach you a lesson about humility. But also sometimes you get it right the first time and you don’t see it. This is why I like to get up early and work in the earliest part of the day, and leave the less vigorously mindful activities like, emails, paperwork, contract stuff, website maintenance and hugging/scaring the kids. Not the time to think you have become God’s sweet index finger of infinite power. So that night I went to bed in a panic thinking I had lost my way. I’d like to irresponsibly misquote Alan Moore in expressing the selfsame pit for families of creatives: we are obnoxiously excited and over joyous when things are going well at work, and contemptible weeping angry snapping turtles when not. We are entitled children whose ice cream keeps getting taken away and then returned, and then stolen again. I was on the dark end of this sad narcissistic cycle, and so fretting all night shot up in bed like a whip with a NEW idea that was even BETTER than the other one. See? I was still awesome at my job, and thus, awesome amidst this undeserving universe.

But not really. It started off fine and as I focused on the drawing… and forgot to illustrate the story in just about every way. It was a fine piece as far as it went, I suppose, but lacking the narrative that sharpened and focused the other pieces, it seemed feckless and honestly style without even being in the same school district as substance. This wasn’t her, this wasn’t the right symbolic language to use for the story… other than it being another african woman staring you down, there was no place for this sideline tour. Lucky for me just as I was about to fall into the insaniac spiral of panicked self doubt, Nnedi got back with her read on the two pieces and loved the first one after all. This is the time when you stop listening to the voices in your head hollering ten different contradictory things at your weakest parts and you grab the life raft tossed by the lifeguard. The rescue worked. The original got back on track and I took this portrait of Onyesonwu to its final end place. Sometimes you gotta get lost to find yourself, but I think it’d be better for everyone to avoid getting lost in the first place.

And all of it for a thing that was never meant to be more than the one thing that no one ever saw. Sometimes you think you’re out there dancing alone, but more often than not- especially these days, you’re dancing on Wonder Woman’s invisible jet instead. Even better… Irene Gallo over at Tor got in touch to do a short reveal of these altogether for the website and the excellent Natalie Zutter wrote it up, leaving me speechless again.

You can see it right HERE:

The second part of this post? I can’t say just yet, but it is likewise a tale of discovery despite a secret dance… so that will have to wait for the next time. See you then!