The Crash Aesthetic: The Cover Art of J.G. Ballard’s Notorious Novel

In his 2007 essay, ‘Collapsing Bulkheads’, design critic Rick Poynor argues that in terms of book cover design, JG Ballard’s darkly dystopian 1973 novel, Crash, ‘has been peculiarly resistant to attempts to summarise it with a single image’. For him, the efforts of successive designers and illustrators down the years, such as Chris Foss, James Marsh, Carin Goldberg and others, have failed to fully encapsulate the true ‘delirium’ of the author’s ‘psychopathic hymn’ to the erotic potential of the automobile accident.

Instead, Poynor points to Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden’s montage approach for the cover of the 1994 Noonday Press edition of the book (above) as having succeeded where many others have failed, in effectively visualising the novel’s twin themes of sex and twisted metal.

Yet while this may well be so, Poynor’s essay fails to address the commercial imperatives that may have been brought to bear in the creation of many of these covers. After all, it’s a sad fact that some publishers are less concerned with sensitively and accurately reflecting subtle themes within a book than with shifting units. And with this in mind – and with particular regard to an unreservedly ‘cult’ novel such as Crash – it may be more profitable to misrepresent a book to the buying public than to provide a more honest graphic portrayal.

Such is the case with Chris Foss’s sexploitative ‘pulp’ treatment for the cover of the first UK paperback edition of Crash, for mass market publisher, Panther (below). Indeed, the work, with its naked, legs-akimbo, unconsciously submissive female in the foreground together with the words ‘a brutal erotic novel’, plays up the sexual aspect of the story – though, admittedly, not wholly at the expense of the violence.

The cover was, reportedly, a favourite of Ballard himself who compared it to a movie poster from the 1950s. But to draw out this filmic analogy a little further, anyone who may have furtively purchased this edition – say from a newsstand at railway station – could be forgiven their disappointment on discovering that the sexy blockbuster they thought they’d bought was much more of an arthouse experience.

Likewise, though Poynor certainly brings something of himself to his essay in terms of outlining his own personal relationship to the novels of Ballard (a teenage devotee and a collector of different international editions of Crash), the essay concerns itself with a largely dispassionate analysis of whether any publisher would ever produce, for the cover of Crash, a visual interpretation that came anywhere close to achieving ‘the concentrated power’ of much of the prose within it. And although he nominates Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden’s 1994 effort as coming closest to doing so, does that necessarily mean it’s his personal favourite? In other words, can Poynor’s carefully considered concerns as a designer and design critic be in any way separated from more impulsive and, perhaps, emotional, attachments to the work in question?

For instance, my own personal favourite Crash cover is that produced by James Marsh for Paladin in 1985 (below): not because I believe it to be the best solution to the problem of representing the themes of the novel visually, but largely because it happened to be the specific edition of the book that I purchased at the time.

However, Poynor dismisses Marsh’s cover as merely a ‘fashionable flirtation with S&M’ which ‘had nothing to do with Ballard’s vision’. But while I accept that are no leather-clad amazons within the pages of Crash, and that Marsh’s lurid cover illustration can hardly be described as nuanced, it does nevertheless pick up on the theme of fetishism within the novel. Simply replace the leather and studs with (warm) leatherette and handbrake mountings and you’re there.

But regardless of such points of thematic contention, on a purely personal level – and perhaps appealing to my youthful desire to transgress both political correctness and bourgeois notions of good taste in one fell swoop – Marsh’s 1985 cover for Crash succeeded in beckoning me into a radical bookshop in Liverpool one Autumnal Saturday in 1986. And the book I subsequently bought because of it, subsequently served as a portal into the darkly surrealistic imaginative universe of JG Ballard ­– an author whom I have since gone on to read more books by than any other.

And so, for me – without necessarily wishing to equate them on an artistic level – Marsh’s 1985 cover of Crash, is Crash, in the same way that David Pelham’s 1972 cover for A Clockwork Orange is A Clockwork Orange and Marshall Arisman’s 1991 cover for American Psycho is American Psycho, and so on…

Rick Poynor’s essay, ‘Collapsing Bulkheads’ was published in Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (Laurence King / 2006)