Eye of the Beholder

What was behind that cover image anyway?

One of my favorite parts of my job as editor the Bohemian is working with artists and photographers to create each week’s cover. The cover almost always relates to our feature story and is designed to be eye-grabbing from up to 10 feet away and make readers say, “hey, that looks interesting. I better pick that up and read it.”

For our fall literature issue last month, I wanted an artist to illustrate the winning entry in our annual fiction contest, “The God’s Eye” by Jeff Cox. I reached out to Brooklyn illustrator extraordinaire Danny Hellman. He’s inked work for dozens of magazines and newspapers. I sent him the winning story, an Agatha Christie-esque story about a stolen jewel, and asked him render a scene. I thought the illustration he sent me was spot-on. It showed a woman on her knees looking for the missing jewel while a sinister man with a gun loomed in a doorway behind her. A big eyeball floated between them. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the story: the thief stashed the jewel in the empty socket behind his glass eye, hence the floating eyeball on the cover). But that’s not what a few readers saw.

I got angry calls and letters complaining that the image was “sexist,” “salacious” and “detestable.” One writer said the image portrayed an impending rape. Does a woman on the floor automatically signify sex or rape? Could there be another connotation? Not in the mind of these readers. Sexist and disgusting. Case closed. Never mind they didn’t actually read the short story to which the illustration referred.

Alternative weeklies are known for publishing some pretty provocative stuff and by that measure I think the cover was rather tame. I’ve seen more sex and violence on the cover of magazines in the supermarket checkout line.

Violence against women is real and is not something I take lightly. The cover image drew on the tradition of pulp fiction and was intended to be visually striking, but puzzling enough to get readers to open the paper to find out what was going on. What is she doing on the ground? What’s up with that eyeball? To readers who were offended and saw nothing but sex and violence, consider the possibility that your interpretation was wrong.