Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Comic Book Covers 101: Uncovering The Basics

It’s not the most important part of the comic you buy, most of the time it doesn’t even have anything to do with the story you are reading, yet the cover still stands alone as one of the more important aspects of a comic as it sits on the shelf. It’s only one page but it’s that first page, the hook, the sell. It’s the pledge that we offer every fan in the hopes that it will turn for them. Sometimes it works, and this can depend on what it sets out to do, and sometimes it stays the hand from investigating further. Ultimately, it’s interesting to see what covers work, and which most certainly do not.

A cover can tell you so much about the issue you look at in the store or, as it is now, read about in Previews in the store or scope out online. There are many different tactics for a cover to use and here we’ll cover the different types that abound across the four colour world. It is also fun to note which covers work on different tastes. Much as we all have our favourite characters, or writers, or artists, many of us, even unconsciously, will have our favourite cover styles. Let’s investigate.

The Story In The Cover

It’s an old tactic, the artist drops massive bombs on the cover like it’s a hot zone and hopes that at least one of them takes out an insurgent of interest. This was more of a Golden Age tactic where the funny books would sit in the spinner racks of local chemists and newsagents and anything that might sing out to the audience was ensured to be cranked up to 11. Young eyes were wandering eyes and you only had one moment to make it count so you swung for the bleachers every time.

This has yielded classic covers that promise much, even though the interiors rarely matched the premise laid out for the poor and unsuspecting reader. While a marriage was heralded they didn’t tell you that it would be a one page dream sequence. While a fight to the death was ensured, it never played out to that grim finality. Once the story was read that was no longer the cover’s concern. The cover had done its job, money had been exchanged, now the writer and artist were on their own to make the reader forget the promise and look for a love of the story anyway.

As time progressed this style became mixed with a bunch of hyperbole that was spruiking the publisher as much as the character. And while it was fun to see how many adjectives Stan Lee could sneak into a cover it’s a style that wasn’t going to last forever. Now we view it as kitsch much like drilling skulls open to relieve headaches, it fascinating to see how it used to be done but no one wants it still in practise today.

In more recent times, comics have strayed from this tell all approach and I can’t help but wonder that we’re all suffering for it. Text has disappeared from most covers and an idea of what the inside pages may contain has all but been forgotten in favour of other opportunities to grab reader attention. Promises are no longer given and imaginations aren’t so expressly held.

Spider-Man gave us an insight into what current covers would like if they continued the trend. We got some crazy text pieces as Parker started to push through the dreck with his One More Day banner, and I guess it only went to explain why we’ve steered away from this path. With the way art now pops so crisply from the page, to put words into the mix does seem highly anachronous. I know this isn’t my preferred style of cover, yet there is no denying the pull of a good golden oldie singing all sorts of adventure and hi-jinks within the pages it holds is a pleasure to behold.

Masters like Gil Kane and Steve Ditko are a pleasure to watch as they trap readers with their turns of phrase and quality images that pack as much as possible onto the one page to gain a reader's interest.

The Pin Up Cover

This cover doesn’t mean anything to the issue. It’s not part of the story, and usually it’s completely unrelated except for the characters depicted. It could be seen by some out there as a complete waste of time. Others will see it as an awesome slice of art that stands alone. This style of cover seems to have come out of the footless mire of the 90’s. Heroes and villains pose and we’re supposed to care.

There’s not much more to say about this type of cover. It’s just a slab of art. I hate to report with bias but there is no other way to say that the cover is just a character, or set of characters, standing around, usually with smoke or mountains around their feet, or jumping inexplicably through the air. Sometimes they can be cool, but most of the time they do nothing for me. You can have an entire arc, or run even, and not know which issue each cover refers to.

That this style of cover still gets used today pretty much annoys me. There are some really good cover artists out there who use the one cover page to give the reader something new. Then there’s the other artist who just wants us to know they can do a kick ass Wolverine. I guess it’s still around as a style because it works, and we’ll only ever get what we praise and pay for.

Looking at the work of David Finch or Rob Liefeld,I'm simply not impressed. They're some pretty posters, perhaps, but they are not what get me interested to look into the pages of a comic. When you add a tracer like Greg Land into the mix then it's completely disappointing. The cover offers us not much, or at least it certainly doesn't appeal to me.

The Homage Cover

There has been a trend more lately than in the past, especially now comics have such a dense foundation and history, for comics to feature a cover that is an homage to a previous cover. It's a tricky path to skip down because it depends on what sort of outcome you are looking for as to the effectiveness of the homage usage.

Deadpool is a character who spoofs the comic medium in general, nothing about him really should be taken all that seriously. Many of his covers will often play up expectations of famous film posters or other comic covers. I find this is generally agreeable because the use is for parody.

Deadpool is a character who talks to us readers, through the fourth wall, so he can pretty much get away with anything. Sadly, this rule has become used and abused and seems to lack the complete impact it once did.

Overall, Deadpool on an homage cover is effective and can slip past. In saying that, I usually find those covers smirk worthy but not out and out art, but even when the covers are annoying that's usually the aim.

Many times, if not most, the homage cover is simply trying to gain attention by relating to that part of your brain that deep down knows the pose and likes it and so attention is caught. It's not an artistic decision, at least not with artistic integrity set before artistic pay scales, and it is a cheap shot at milking you of your nostalgic dollars.

There is no need to see a DC character holding another dying character in their arms just because it worked on the Crisis On Infinite Earths cover with Superman and Supergirl. It's a weak piggy back and need not be applied. Nor do I need to see another Avengers related comic with the lightning background, even if they used it more as a stylistic choice than an homage. In the end it just gave us lazy covers.

It's even iffy when Buffy is suddenly lifting cars, a la Action Comics #1, though Supes himself has gone back to that well on occasion. I feel that once a cover has an homage, then it's time to put it to rest. No more, people, once is enough.

In the end, I feel there are some effective and pleasing homage covers that mean something and add something all at the same time. They are using the nostalgic image knowingly and usefully and don't mind admitting it, even as it relates to the new setting and the comic in general. In these cases, I find that it can come down to personal preference.

However, if the cover being referenced has been completely reworked to fit the new theme, like Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as several other modern comics (see left for more), did on the classic Steranko Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D cover, then it works for me. It's when you simply have the characters subbing into the place of the original that I can't really agree with it. I prefer something like what Quesada did with Daredevil by referencing the Elektra: Assassin cover but also making it something slightly new.

In saying that, the latest Punisher homage covers usually make me smile, so sometimes you never can tell. I guess if it's more the style or theme being aped then I don't so much mind because that takes some degree of talent. Subbing in one character to the iconic pose is not hard but continuing the theme certainly can be.

This can also cover general variant covers, and zombie covers specifically, but in each you need to address the artist used, the effective they want to obtain, and the individual quality of the work. One man's Sketch Variant is another man's Suydam zombification. I, for one, claim the Deadpool rules on zombie covers, same satirical intent, whereas variant covers are a beast unto themselves.

The Theme Cover

Which brings me to my last cover type; the one I appreciate the most. A cover that conveys some sort of theme or emotion from the story. The artist looks into the story, the actual meat of the comic being purchased, and comes up with a piece of art that compliments it. It’s doesn’t explain it away, it doesn’t ride the coat tails, but nor does it ignore it and create its own pouched up and puffy shouldered glory to which is beholden to no story.

This cover hooks the reader in and does what the perfect cover should do, excites the reader to dive deeper, but also gives them a moment to explore the cover and appreciate it on its own merits as well. A cover is not to be forgotten but nor is it the showcase of the set. It should act as a conduit to the story, and be a pleasant journey on its own.

For an example. This cover of Weapon X #6 to the right tells me something about the story while simultaneiously intriguing me. I picked up the Insane In The Brain arc purely based on this cover. It sucked me in and made me read the solicitation and then I was hooked. This cover is one of the best pieces of art I’d seen in a while and I had to have it. It helped that the interiors completely supported the team.

Strangely enough, four issues later I was completely nonplussed about the pin up cover offered me to close the arc. What a shame. It doesn’t mesh with the other covers before it, which were insanely splendid, and it doesn’t make me want to delve into that particular issue either. I read it, because the whole arc was very very cool, but had I gone on covers alone there would have been no chance of a purchase.

The thematic cover is art, not pin up but actual art. It’s worthy of a mount and a wall and you can look at it until the cows come home.

Marko Djurdjevic seems to constantly give covers that are almost pin ups except for the quality of the emotion he packs into the frame. He gives his characters something to do, and some of the time something to think about as well.  

Skottie Young is another example of an artist infusing his covers with emotion. He expresses through what he depicts and the reader then gets an idea of what sort of tone to expect from the book.


I like a cover that in the end is art but is linked to the comic it houses. You wouldn’t put Spider-Man on the cover of Nova purely because it looks cool and so I don’t want Spider-Man swinging through the city on his line of web for every one of his own issues for the same reason. I want to know what’s going on and appreciate that someone took their time to single out one frame for us to hang this issue’s hat on. That I can appreciate and that will make me want to investigate and then buy the issue.

It is a personal field, people will like what they like, and there should be no snobby preference. What sort of covers do you prefer?

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Anonymous said...

My favorite covers are definitely "The Story in the Cover" style. The only book to regularly use this style any more that I know of is Savage Dragon.

Ivan said...

Hey, now I wanna see the rest of the first picture.

Scott Roberts said...

I agree that the theme covers are probably the best. I definitely don't want the cover to tell me the story, thats what the interior is for, but I also don't want it to have nothing to do with the story. I hate when a cover portrays one story and the issue itself really has nothing to do with the cover. The disconnected cover is the type of cover I really have a problem with. The pine-ups I could take or leave, depending on the artist and how generic the cover is. If the cover could be the cover for any issue of the series thats a problem. Even highlighting a single character from a team, that will be the focus of the issue, is sometimes enough.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Ivan - don't say I never do anything for you, mate -
Make sure you check out what Spidey is perched upon, let's hope it wasn't recently waxed as even his grip might slip off.

flythe said...

I have to say that, for the most part, I hate modern comic book covers. Covers should grab the reader and make them want to buy the comic. I'm not going to buy a comic just for the art, so a snazzy cover won't sell me if I have no freakin' idea what's actually going on in the book. Also, if a character is on the cover, they should be in the comic! I hate covers that seem to tease an event or appearance that doesn't happen within the pages (female Black Panther, for instance, as well as at least one Moon Knight cover featuring a Thunderbolts character, I think Bullseye). Also, I hate the fact that most comics feature a different artist doing the cover and the interiors. It's very disconcerting to see a Thunderbolts book with a cover very dark and gritty in tone done by Francesco Mattina, and then open it to find Bong Dazo doing the interiors. The person who draws the interiors should draw the freaking cover so that what you see on the cover is what you get in the book. Also, speech balloons are a plus. Don't ask me why, but I love 'em. For a cover that meets all the criteria for a good cover I've listed or at least implied, see Booster Gold #27.

Ivan said...

Hahaha, priceless. Thanks, Ryan.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@flythe - I think anything can be disconcerting if you 'open it to find Bong Dazo."

My sandwich was awesome, but then I opened it to find Bong Dazo.

It was going to be the best Christmas present in the world until I opened it to find Bong Dazo.

My car was making a wheezy, rattling noise so I pulled over in the middle of the night in the dark forest and walked to the bonnet, and woulnd't you know that I opened it to find Bong Dazo.

It works in any situation, go on try it, I've been smiling this whole comment, haha.

Black Ice said...

@Ryan- Yo Ryan I know you wouldn't want to find Bong Dazo in anything, and imma let you finish, but finding Kanye West would be the worst. WORST OF ALL TIME!

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