How do you design the cover of an unquestionably depressing novel published, of all times, during the Great Depression? Especially if you want people to actually buy it? You skirt all potentially provocative imagery by using a strong type treatment against a bright, art deco pattern. Not that Johnny Got his Gun by author Dalton Trumbo wouldn’t have won the 1939 National Book Award if the cover art had depicted what the book was actually about—a young American World War I soldier who lost his appendages and all of his face, but whose mind remains sharp, rendering him a prisoner in his own body—but we’re pretty sure it helped.
(Spoiler alert: the soldier learns to communicate through Morse code by banging his head against his pillow. Then, after contemplating suicide, he asks to be placed in a glass box and toured around the country to show others the horrors of war, which is denied, leaving him to live out his life in his condition.)
Trumbo was also a screenwriter of note, including Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He was later blacklisted as a member of the “Hollywood Ten” after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. However, under the nom de plume Robert Rich he won another Oscar for The Brave One (1956). Then, after the blacklist ended in 1960, Trumbo wrote and directed the film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun in 1971, starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, and Donald Sutherland.
The poster for the film was designed by Don Record, a film title designer who worked on Doctor Dolittle (1967), Planet of the Apes (1968), and Downhill Racer (1969). At the height of the Vietnam War, Record set the image of a WWI doughboy, rifle and bayonet in hand, in a large peace-hand sign, effectively relating the decades-old story to an entirely new generation in stark black and white. The informal typewriter type conveyed an air of newsroom immediacy that he also used in the film titles.
When a movie tie-in paperback edition was published in 1970, Record was commissioned to adapt his poster for the cover, which held sway over two decades. Later, in 1987, after the publishing company had changed hands more than once, the title landed with editor Dan Levy, who started the Citadel Underground imprint to reintroduce a new generation to earlier counter-culture works. I happened to be working there as an art director at the time, and hired James Victore to design the series.
The president of the company, a former Wall Street accountant who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this article, approached reprints by weighing the book by hand to determine whether publishing it would be cost effective. In all fairness, he rarely got involved in aesthetic matters, but “Johnny” was an exception. Arguing the Record cover was iconic, he steadfastly refused to allow a redesign. I argued that in 1993 we were reinventing the book for yet another generation. The arguments continued.
In the meantime, Victore delivered in spades. Somehow he managed to do the impossible: to replace one iconic cover with another.
Featuring a Vietnam-era photo that divides a soldier into a butcher’s diagram, also in stark black and white, James’ cover is at once provocative and memorable. Moreover, he convinced the publisher it was right. Spoiler alert: shortly after I left the company in 1995, the president reverted to the original Don Record cover.