Cover Artists are the real heroes of the publishing world. Without a captivating front cover, how many books and graphic novels would go undiscovered? They’re a reader’s first impression of a work, drawing us in for a closer look, encouraging us to give the well-crafted story inside the binding a chance. If a good cover is a one page summary of the work on the shelf, then writer Molly Tanzer struck gold with Dalton Rose’s cover for her book Vermillion. Darby Pops Off guest writer Donna Ebbs would never have read Vermillion, nor would this review of the book exist, without Rose’s work. It’s true, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Until next time,
Knife fights, a chick in a duster, talking bears, sexy highwaymen, reanimated corpses and a giant mechanical … oh wait. No Spoilers. Anyway – “Vermillion,” as they say, had me at hello.
Something weird happened before the holidays. I bought a book. Like…a book book. With paper and that great smell ’n stuff. A real, honest-to-goodness BOOK. How did I pick it? With eyes trained like Pavlov’s pups to respond to pretty pictures, I poked around the jacket art and what grabbed me was Dalton Rose’s amazing cover for Molly Tanzer’s Vermillion. The read itself was such a pleasure that it just had to be my first Darby Pop post.
The book is violent, weird and wickedly fun. A steampunk Western led by what can most simply be described as a lady ghost-hunter on a very personal quest, Vermillion is a rich tale set in a cleverly realized Alt American West – where racial tensions extend way beyond bloodlines, spirits violently act on grudges, and where bears talk during long train rides (take THAT John Irving). The bears, by the way, have a lot to say about their bad reputation, much of which is probably well-earned, even as they are disrespected and treated like fourth class citizens in our own early/mid-century American South.
At the center of this world of guns and magic is 19-year-old “Lou” Merriweather – a half-Chinese “psychopomp” who (for some pretty smart reasons) hides both her gender and frequently her profession as she navigates the realllllly mean streets of San Francisco as a kind of exorcist for hire, taking jobs too dangerous or too distasteful for others in her profession. Hey, a girl’s gotta grow her business, right? Lou’s a loner who has girded herself emotionally and physically (this girl can take a PUNCH) even as she refines her always-dangerous craft, risking possession and grievous injury at every turn.
The plot kicks in when Lou follows-up on the disappearances of way too many local Chinese men who went East in search of promised work, and were never heard from again. One of these is someone she loves, even if she doesn’t quite know what to DO with that love; is he a brother to her or are they destined to be lovers? The road to the answers is as dusty, bullet-ridden, and bloody as it is populated with terrific characters of unknown and/or suspect motives. Together with Shai, a traveling mystery man who will either be her soulmate or betrayer, she finds herself at a curiously populated mountaintop sanitarium (How’s that for cowboy gothic?) where all the revelations smolder just below the snowy surface. Will Lou find her friend or is he just another body along the way to greater danger? And if she does find him, will he have been forever changed by the seriously-suspect goings on at this isolated mad house, run by the twisted Dr. Panacea? Speaking of the good doctor…what the hell is he doing and what’s with his female companion?
The dialogue is crisp and crackling and Tanzer has a real knack for clever character names, even as her words paint terrific images of the story’s settings. It’s feminist without being man-hating, emotional but not maudlin, grounded and yet still batsh*t crazy. The last quarter of the book, as it sped to resolution, felt a bit like swords and bunnies in a blender (carnage so hopelessly extreme it strained the credibility so carefully crafted in the rest of the book) but in the end it all played out to one inevitable (we can only hope) conclusion – Lou Merriweather’s adventures are far from over.
On a personal note: Writers, by and large, work alone, and by both their nature and craft embark on a journey of hurling art into the world and waiting for reviews or sales to let them know how they are doing. I read once that if you like a piece of work, go out of your way to tell the creator. It means something. So I did. Ms. Tanzer wrote back and lo and behold we found common ground, a shared humor and what is starting to feel like a lovely acquaintance. I recommend you do the same, be it with this author or anyone else whose art you are touched by. Tell them. Your appreciation may be the thing that keeps them typing one more paragraph, drawing one more panel, releasing one more chord into the universe.
As to me? I made a new friend thanks to cover art that caught my eye and imagination. Think about that the next time you’re poking around your favorite comic book shop.
About the Author
Donna Ebbs has worked at various TV networks, has produced some fun stuff and some real junk. Lately she’s been getting paid to write scripts and is giddy that the checks keep clearing. She once tried mailing herself to Elton John (it didn’t work) and last year accidentally donated her entire collection of erotica to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Burbank. She is too embarrassed to apologize but has since adopted the mantra, “Look in the box before donating the box.” She lives in Los Angeles but her heart remains in Boston.