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The Chart of Fantasy Art Part 2: Urban Fantasy

Every year we ask our summer intern to do a survey of cover art elements for the top US fantasy novels published in the previous year. This year we looked at covers from 2009, and compared them against 2008′s findings.

In our post yesterday we mentioned that we will probably retire the “damsel in distress” category next year.  That’s because while we counted fewer than 10 distressed damsels, we found more than 70 bad ass women —  and that’s with a really strict definition of “bad ass” (must be either armed, in a fighting stance, or riding a motorcycle). Thanks to  to the rise of urban fantasy (also known as paranormal fantasy) 2009’s covers were dominated by tough, well-armed women who are more likely to glower than cower.

Some key observations:

1) Abs are in: Fantasy’s heroines are spending less time at the tattoo parlor and more time at the gym, as toned midriffs overtook tattoos as the favored accessory.

2) Stilettos are out: We observed a steep decline in stilettos in 2009, which just proves that fantasy readers can suspend their disbelief only so far. Romantic encounters between vampires, werewolves, elves, and humans are totally plausible, but believing that a professional demon-hunter would wear stilettos to kick demon ass isn’t. In another symptom of the same trend, corsets seems to be in decline. But fear not — cleavage, even if encased in pseudo-military tactical gear, isn’t going anywhere.

3) Compact Weaponry: It makes sense that our urban heroines would find it easier to maneuver through modern cities inconspicuously with small firearms and knives rather than bows and arrows strapped to their backs.

4) More ready-for-action, less ready-for-“action”: Fighting stances over sexy posturing all the way.


  1. Sewicked

    August 17, 2010
    at 11:16 am

    What about hairstyles?

  2. Sabrina @ about happy books

    August 17, 2010
    at 11:21 am

    Thank goodness that Stilettos are out.

  3. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 17, 2010
    at 12:57 pm

    well although I ran out of room in the chart, i feel there was a slight uptick in hair tied back or tucked behind ears rather than in-your-face and impractical for battle situations.

  4. Veronica

    August 17, 2010
    at 2:11 pm

    They may be impractical for chasing werewolves, but a wooden stiletto could be the only way to get a stake into a posh vampire shindig.

  5. msmlska

    August 17, 2010
    at 3:41 pm

    awesome concept to tackle! i’d love to see more of this chart/what didn’t make the cut. or maybe a retrospective covering a longer period of analysis on the heroine’s image evolution

  6. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 17, 2010
    at 6:12 pm

    we’ve got a few more charts to post this week, so keep checking back!

  7. Terry Spear

    August 17, 2010
    at 9:27 pm

    As a werewolf author, I have to say I can’t wait to share this with my fans, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I’m off to share your link with my post for tomorrow.

  8. blodeuedd

    August 18, 2010
    at 2:57 am

    Glad about the stilettos, cos you can’t run away from bloodthisty demons in those, or fight them

  9. Not Hard Enough

    August 18, 2010
    at 5:45 am

    They’re still too slim, too clean and too “pretty” to be believable, even in a fantasy setting. I know exactly who I’d put on the cover of a fantasy novel if I was looking for a genuine bad-ass woman—a motorbike mechanic I knew a few years ago.

    M was about 5ft 6in, size 12-14, and muscular without being too butch. She used to wear steel-toed biker boots, genuine ex-army combat trousers (from her days as an MP), grungy T-shirts, and a black combat waistcoat (in which she kept commonly used small tools). M had short, electric pink hair. She was a kickboxer and part-time stuntman. She really did manage to pull off being sexy and bad ass at the same time. Downsides? She was happily married. Sigh.

    Put her on the cover of an urban fantasy novel and I really would believe she was capable of staking vampires, dropping werewolves and taking out half a dozen punks in the blink of an eye. Before going home to her husband and children! :D

  10. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 18, 2010
    at 10:22 am

    @ not hard enough: have her call me! im always looking for great models!

    You give me an opportunity to bring up a point i often roll around in my mind when we’re doing these covers. I’m going to make generalizations here especially about urban fantasy but let me run with it for a minute. We read these books an an entertainment and as an escape. Wish-fulfillment, pure and simple, whether we’re men, women, various sexual alignments included.

    When I am working on designing the cover I want the woman to be hot, sexy, and bad-ass because I think of myself, when reading the book, as hot, sexy, and bad-ass. Then there are people, lets say men for now (generalization alert again), who read these books that aren’t identifying with the character on the cover as much as enjoying the character as perhaps a fantasy romantic interest and want her to be hot, sexy, and bad-ass as well. Are they automatically objectifying her because they want to be attracted to her? No.

    So cover designers walk a fine line between creating a character who women want to BE and people who are attracted to women want to be WITH. That line is different for everyone and thats when the trouble sneaks in. I am a tall woman who is, shall we say, well-endowed, and yes, I have worn a corset from time to time. So when I see a tall, booby woman in a corset on a cover it doesnt automatically scream OBJECTIFICATION at me. But then there are covers that do go a little far into the “tramp” category and as the creative director of orbit US i make sure we don’t head into that territory. But trust me, no one is trying to sell covers to women by purposely degrading women, just doesnt make sense.

  11. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 18, 2010
    at 10:29 am

    In addition, people not involved in cover design need to look at it this way – models for hire tend to be super skinny idealized women – thats why they’re making a living as models. Now while i’d love to start dragging women off the street to model for covers its not really professional. Models do a lot more work at a shoot than people realize. In the case that the character in a book is purposely described in a non-amazon way I try to be true to the character and tackle the cover in a different way. Nicole Peeler’s Jane True series (the Tempest books) are a perfect example of that. Jane True describes herself as anti-glam and anti-amazon again and again. So it would be wrong for the book to have her be an amazon warrior babe on the cover. In addition Nicole’s writing is different from the average urban fantasy and her voice is quirky and wonderful, so I tried to show that in the choice of cover art…

  12. Nicole Peeler

    Nicole Peeler

    August 18, 2010
    at 10:57 am


    It’s funny how you said the things about models being…well, models. When people ask me “which actress could you see playing Jane?” my automatic reaction is “none of them.” Because actresses, like models, are freaks. Beautiful, hot, sexy freaks, but freaks.

    “Real” women don’t exist in modeling or acting. Even the “plus size” models are just slightly heavier freaks–still tall, freakishly long-limbed and symmetrical, etc.

    Which is why I was very happy to have Jane as a cartoon. I think we can get closer to reality drawing women then we can picking them out from the catalogues of modeling agencies.

  13. Doc

    August 18, 2010
    at 3:09 pm

    Good to see that a more practical yet still hot, sexy and bad-ass “model” has usurped the “chick in chainmail”. It’s funny but the more real the characters and situations the easier it is for me to “suspend” my disbelief (making silver bullets in an iron skillet over an electric range? WTF!).
    Funny too that we used to have a female co-worker who objected to a snap-on tools calendar but used to carry a romance “novel” with a semi-nude female on the cover everywhere she went.

  14. NelC

    August 19, 2010
    at 9:56 am

    About the silhouette on the right: isn’t the torso a bit higher than that? Shouldn’t that be “bare abdomen”? A bare torso would imply something totally different.

  15. Sharon

    August 19, 2010
    at 10:14 am

    I prefer the kick-ass female to the sexpot one. The new heroine is a better match for the alpha-male they tend to go after.

  16. ColleenFL

    August 19, 2010
    at 12:45 pm

    Great post! I like the 2009 version much better than the 2008.

  17. Craig Oxbrow

    August 19, 2010
    at 2:11 pm

    What about the menfolk? Is the goatee making a comeback?

  18. dwndrgn

    August 23, 2010
    at 10:34 am

    Does that mean that if I found a ‘real women’ modeling agency we’ll get tons of work???

  19. Peggy

    August 23, 2010
    at 2:12 pm

    Just wanted to say that all of these charts are awesome! Great work & commentary. My fav: “More ready-for-action, less ready-for-‘action'”

  20. Erin

    August 25, 2010
    at 9:14 am

    I have to say, the silhouette of the 2009 heroine reminds me of Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.

  21. HT

    August 27, 2010
    at 4:54 pm

    It’s a good thing heroines have changed so much! None of that outfit is at all practical, though I would probably admire someone who could run from super-fast supernatural creatures in stilettos and come out nearly unscathed! Great idea to create a chart on this…I can’t wait to see the others!

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