About the Cover: Crime

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you. An interview with the creator of Topic’s very suspicious March 2019 cover art.

Daniel Zender has always had an affinity for the shadowy and strange. So much so that in fall 2017, the Brooklyn-based artist and illustrator decided to visit perhaps the most iconic of earth’s mysterious places: Easter Island. He had always been fascinated by it, he explains, and the real thing delivered: “I went hours without seeing another person,” he says. “I just started drawing everything as a way of sort of like remembering it—when you sit and draw a sculpture, you get the eccentricities and little subtle pieces about each one.”

He stayed closer to home for the creation of the cover for Topic’s March 2019 Crime issue, opting for a cinematic exploration instead. To conjure up a mood of paranoia and pursuit, Zender—an avowed X-Files fan—drew inspiration from the lighting and cinematography of 1940s and ’50s film noir; recent viewings of 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1958’s A Touch of Evil were especially influential.

Zender grew up in Springfield, Missouri, where he studied graphic design before moving to New York to pursue a master’s in illustration at the School of Visual Arts. Since graduating in 2014, Zender has worked with clients such as Nike, The Intercept, and the New York Times, in addition to making zines (including one about Easter Island, naturally!) and pursuing his own fine art practice. Right now, he’s working on a book of new block prints, to be released at New York’s MoCCA Arts Festival in April.

Zender spoke to Topic about the overlap and divide between his client and personal work and the enduring appeal of ambiguity in art.


You work with everything from Photoshop to linocut prints to oil painting. When you were doing your graphic design degree, were you already getting started with all these different mediums?

I really liked working with my hands when I was a graphic design student. But I realized—if not in school, then right after I graduated—that doing graphic design wasn't necessarily going to allow me to draw a lot and be experimental with my process. It took me about two years after school to figure out that illustration and fine art were more of what I wanted to be doing. The graphic design education was actually a really good primer for that, because it got me thinking conceptually and intellectually about image making.

In one of Zender’s preliminary sketches, of a crime scene, layers of tape alluded to the idea of multiple crimes in the issue.
This peering face pointed toward the ambiguity of the final cover: it could be somebody committing a crime, or watching one.
“This was meant to represent figures approaching and appearing in fog,” says Zender. “Very film noir, so not conceptually very heavy, but more atmospheric.”
Zender’s idea of a two-way mirror was rejected because it skewed more toward law enforcement, rather than crime itself.

I'm always interested in how artists who do client work and their personal work divide—or blend—the two. Do your painting and printmaking feel radically separated from your illustration, or do they feed into each other?

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They definitely both feed into each other, because I think that for an illustration—like the cover art for Topic—I still try to incorporate things that interest me into the solution for the problem. But I would say with my paintings and printmaking, I've kind of allowed myself to become more intuitive and less concerned about what the final project, what the final image, is going to convey or what I'm trying to ultimately say, and just be a little bit more about process and discovery.


When I saw the image you made for our March cover, what struck me was how ambiguous it was. The figure could be a rubbernecker, watching something going on outside, or it could be someone who knows the cops are coming for him.

Right, right, right. I think ambiguity is really important to me and my work. Not quite knowing what’s going on allows the viewer to be a part of the bigger story.

The person on the right was initially supposed to be some sort of positive figure. But as we went back and forth, I really liked the idea of him being sort of maybe a villain, and we're not aware of it. So when all is said and done, I think that maybe the one on the right is the villain.

A sketch that was more similar to the final product.

I noticed that in your illustration work, you often incorporate this theme of someone being watched or being the watcher—these shadowy figures observing each other.

I like incorporating a lot of visual tension, and I think there's maybe even an element of paranoia or something in that. The shadowy-figures-observing thing is a visual trick that I've been developing over time. It can serve a bunch of different purposes in my illustration work: it can give the impression that there are other people in the scenario who aren't physically there, or it can give the aspect of like someone being a ghost.


What kinds of materials did you use to make Topic’s cover image?

It was done fully digitally. I've found that I've been able to mimic my physical painting style pretty accurately just using Photoshop. Before I would spend 12 hours or half a day working on some sort of painting for a client, and then mess one thing up—it would just take a lot of work to fix it, or it just wouldn't be as clean as I wanted it to be. And the other reason is that if I do like six or seven illustrations a month or more, it just starts to fill up physical space.

It also allows me, when I go to my painting studio, to have a different experience with my art than I do when I do illustration. I don't have a computer at all at my painting studio. So when I go there, it's no internet, no distractions. It's just a messy place to make a bigger mess.

Zender originally depicted a solid mirror image outside the window (top), but eventually decided to put more focus on the figure at right (bottom)—heightening the tension of whether there is another person outside, or whether it’s merely a reflection.

I wanted to ask you about your self-publishing projects, including that Easter Island zine. When did you start making these little books?

It’s one of those things that carried over from a long time ago. I was really into punk rock in high school and college, and I was into that handmade zine scene, and I had a lot of friends that were, too. So even before I had a degree in design, we were making little publications and stuff. Obviously, school helped with the process of making it better-looking and streamlining it.

It serves a couple of different functions for me: I really like when an artist makes something that's affordable and accessible to just any old person. It kind of bums me out when I want to buy something from an artist, but I can’t get it for less than a grand or something. But then when they make a zine or print that’s maybe 20 bucks and handmade, then I still feel like that's owning a piece of their art in a way.

But I also just like the process of making them, because it's the one thing that I still kind of attach design to in my career on a regular basis, where I get to lay everything out and do the typography and make a structure for the whole thing. It allows me to work with a different side of my brain.

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