Who's Who In the SBCU Update 2003

In his dreams Alan Donald is a multi-award winning writer of comic books, animation, theme park shows and rides, children’s books, novels, television, internet animation and more.

In real life Alan writes this column, which has been described as more than a lifestyle than a weekly column. He used to write SBC's All The Rage.


What Makes A Great Comic Cover?
Tuesday, August 26

Respectable US Comics?
Tuesday, August 19

Is Batman Gay?
Tuesday, August 12

Exclusive Contracts
Tuesday, August 5




What Makes A Great Comic Cover?

By Alan Donald
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The Panel gathers movers and shakers from across the industry together to answer your questions!

Don’t miss out on your chance ask the big guns a question or two, send them in now to: [email protected]

Most of the Panellists should be known to you but if not, don’t panic I’ve got a few details on them at the end of the column.

This week’s question comes from SBC reviewer extraordinaire Tim Hartnett. Tim says he was thinking of ‘the generic Marvel policy…with all the "in-your-face" style things and painted covers’ when he posed the question. The question is:

“What do you believe makes a good comicbook cover? Is the ‘in-your-face’ style better than the ‘story-telling’ style with its fun quotes?”

Mike Collins: “The first comic that got me reading US comics was Captain Marvel #25. A cover replete with shocked poses and dramatic captions. It practically shouted at me off the spinner racks-- 'Buy Me! This is going to be amazing!!'

DC stuff didn't interest me as they had all seemed to have (tho' beautifully drawn) 'calm' Nick Cardy covers. Didn't look like much was going on inside.

Early 70s Marvel was full of sinuous layouts-- usually Gil Kane or John Buscema, that just dragged me in. My all-time favourite cover is Doctor Strange #4 (couldn't find a copy to scan, sorry) just stunning stuff -- really made me want to read the story.

The question is really, would those type of covers work today? I don't think so: we've moved on from what we perceive as aesthetically pleasing. Not that I mourn the passing of my Mighty Marvel style, any more than I miss the way movie posters were designed. There's a style that suits a time.

There are covers that have grabbed me recently- I thought the TANGENT covers that Rian Hughes designed were great: they said 'It's comics, but not like you remember!'. Great stuff. I've been very impressed with the last few on Hunter, the Books Of Magic book. A fantastic design sense, eyepopping visuals, the new 'dress' work on Fables, too. Again, they made me want to read those comics, or at the very least get them down off the shelf which is -after all- the point of a good cover.

I think comics covers should reflect current design sensibilities, but not lose the point of what they're promoting. Recent 'Hulk' and 'Daredevil' covers are great pieces of art but (for me) don't sell the book to the reader. I don't get the thinking behind them, sorry.”

Axel Alonso: "A good comic book cover is one that it gets your attention, plain and simple. Whether it knocks you out visually, or just makes you think. There's no winning formula or superior approach. In a pinch, however, throw a monkey on the cover. They're are real crowd-pleaser."

Rick Shea: “Although I do appreciate some of Marvel's "poster-style" covers with iconic images, I'd much rather see them return to the "story-telling" style where you can tell when Spider-Man is fighting Doc Ock or Sandman that month. Every single Punisher or Spider-Man cover is interchangable and it's definitely not helping to keep our younger readers' interest. Even though most kids seem to wander straight towards the back issues when they're looking for Spider-Man or Hulk comics, they're usually more apt to pick up a book with a cover that features their favorite villain rather than another cover with Spidey overlooking the city or web-swinging yet again.
Jim Lee's Batman covers have been pretty iconic as well, but at least they feature a pretty good hint at what goes on in each issue. Featuring Superman and Batman fighting on # 612 helped me sell dozens of extra copies and got a ton more people into the series with that issue. Anyone looking at the covers to Spectacular Spider-Man # 2 or 3 will have no idea that Venom is inside. Same goes for some of the generic flying Superman covers, but they're a lot less frequent. If you have a great idea for an iconic cover once in a while like those great Kaare Andrews' Hulk covers, that's one thing, but don't overdo it. If anyone else can tell one Punisher cover from another, they should get a no-prize.”

Devin Grayson: “The best comicbook cover makes use of all the graphic and textual strengths that none of the other covers happened to use that month. Additionally, it will prominently display a couple of catchy male names on it, like "Geoff Johns" or "Brian Michael" or "Warren Ellis." If you really want it to pop, it's going to have to say ISSUE #1 in a corner somewhere, and Julie Schwartz once started an intriguing rumor that gorillas never hurt, either.”

Bill Rosemann: “Like movie posters, novel covers and record art, the comic book cover has evolved over the years. Back in the day, when comics battled for readers' eyes on a wire rack that fueled impulse purchases, you had to use every trick in the book and show something striking -- usually the hero in jeopardy (or marrying a gorilla) -- to grab their attention and money. Now, in a direct market driven industry with an older audience (peppered with media-savvy younger readers) who knows what they're going to buy before they even step into the store, you need to deliver an iconic image that looks great while still holding on to a bit of that 'Holy shit! What's that?!' feel. This isn't to say you shouldn't incorporate elements of the story within, but now you really need to deliver a clear, powerful image that readers' would also like to hang on their wall. Take a look at modern movie posters (from "Jaws" to "The Hulk") and you'll see what works: a strong shot of the main character that also sets a mood and gives the audience a hint of the wonders they'll find inside.”

Alan Grant: “There is no recipe for a great cover. a crap artist can ruin a great cover design, a great artist can turn a crap cover design into gold. When people start looking for formulae, the comic book business falls on its ass.”

Terry Moore: “A good comic book cover is anything that catches your eye and makes you pick the book up. Whatever it takes, muscles, cleavage, a naked duck, a classic grimace... anything. Just please for the love of God and the future of my children pick this book up and give it a try — that's all we want. What I hate is when you see a gorgeous cover you want to buy but the inside looks like it was drawn by a monkey's left foot. Like Alex Ross doing a cover for a Dilbert collection or something. We should legislate who is allowed to approach his throne... no riff raff. (*snotty sniff!*)”

Peter David: “Whatever sells the book.”

Lee Dawson: “I tend to like the storytelling style. I like to get a taste of what the story is about or the feel of the comic on the cover rather than an empty piece of flash. Being in marketing, I understand the reason behind the flash covers, but they tend to all look the same when lined up on the shelf. I guess it's my fondness for Golden age style covers revealing itself...I can look at those all day. But I guess in the end what makes a good comic book cover is whatever makes the most people notice and pick up the book, and ultimately buy it!”

Shawna Ervin-Gore: “The elements that make a comic-book cover work are different case-by-case, depending on what kind of comic it is. In some cases, I really love cover designs that use word balloons and evoke more classic comic-book designs of the past. But something like that wouldn't necessarily work on most independent, non-superhero comics, and it wouldn't be my first choice for something quiet, or scary, or for a more emotional story. Basically, I don't think the medium of comics necessarily calls for a specific type of design. Good design is good design, comics or not. Other things, like logo placement, DO become more important, just because of how comics are sold. A lot of shops still use stadium-stacked racks that only show the top of a book, and if the covers are designed so that the logos are not at the top, you have no idea what comics you're looking at. It's pretty unfortunate that the logo-at-the-top has come to be such a standard, since it really does limit the artist's ability to compose interesting or innovative cover art.”

Craig Lemon: “Something that accurately represents the contents of the comic would do. Something by the artist who actually draws the contents so you're not suckered into buying a book with "just" the cover by a hot artist.”

Tim Harnett: “One of the most important aspects of any comic is the cover: it's the first thing a reader sees. Recently, the comic world has gone the unfortunate route of in-your-face, "iconic" covers with little extra words or dialogue, and most
often not related to the story. As a long time collector, this sudden lack of imagination has certainly made an impact on me over time. Just look at any cover from today and compare with one from ten of fifteen years ago, and decide which you'd rather buy---the "look" of comic racks has certainly become boring, for lack of a better term. Perhaps the worst example of this are the covers on Marvel's Ultimate line, with little variation between them. I find this generic approach to be rather unengaging; a good cover gets the reader excited about what's in front of them---it welcomes them to read the book.

My personal idea of a great cover is one which indirectly expresses the themes of the story, without giving too much away. One of the best covers I've seen in awhile is Tom Raney's cover to Outsiders #3. In the foreground, Joker is holding a knife to Lex Luthor, while Nightwing and Metamorpho are in the background having a conversation: "The Joker is killing Lex!" "Should we care?" While this scene does not actually occur in the comic, it lays out the basic idea: the Outsiders will be helping out Lex Luthor admist the threat of the Joker. Besides being graced with the gorgeous detailed artwork of Tom Raney, the cover does its job as what a cover should be. The fact that it steps outside the box and uses word balloons in this "dark" era of comics makes it all the better.

I generally think the comic covers of yesteryear were brighter, more fun, and did the job better. And who can forget the little extras, such as the former "heads" on Marvel's covers, or the layout of the date and price. It is certainly my hope that publishers will try to be more creative with their covers in the future.”

Markisan Naso: In my opinion, good comic book covers are covers that are DESIGNED and not just drawn or painted. Rarely do we see artwork integrated with unique text treatments or other creative elements. Most of the time we just get a money shot of Wolverine popping the claws or Spider-Man swinging happily through the city. The problem is that while many covers are often very well drawn (Adam Hughes' work on Wonder Woman comes to mind), they are still very typical in the comic book world. So much so in fact, that there aren't a hell of a lot of comic books that stand out on the shelf these days.

For a brand new comic I think it's absolutely crucial that the book attract potential readers. One of the best ways to do this is by offering something unique on the cover. It's the first thing that people see when they browse through a comic shop or book store. And whether you are a seasoned comic reader or someone new to the genre, you are much more likely to pick up a new book off the shelf and flip through it if it looks interesting. I think there are a few examples of kickass cover design work out there. The Filth is solid. Kaare Andrews Hulk covers are outstanding creations. But I think the best covers can be seen every month on Wildcats Version 3.0. It's obvious that a lot of thought and effort is put into each one. Here's the cover from the new trade paperback:

The fact is, a monkey can commission a piece of art and slap it behind a logo. The comic book industry needs to get editors and designers to work more with artists on presentation. With a bit more effort I think covers can be vastly improved.

Alan Donald: “This is a tricky one. I really hate it when the cover art bears no relation to the work inside. I don’t mind it being by a different artist but they really have to be of complementary styles, you can’t have Brian Bolland on the outside and Kelly Jones on the inside, for example. Preferably it should be the same artist, though after all if they’re not good enough to be on the front they shouldn’t be inside (though of course they may be pressed for time).

For their time there was nothing to beat the 1940s and 50s Batman covers with their huge images of hulking bad guys and the Dynamic Duo cringing in fear. The same goes for a lot of the Marvel covers in the 60s but nowadays it is all change.

A cover needs to be striking, dynamic and different. It needs to relate to the story and the art inside but more than anything else it should entice readers to buy the book and not make them feel cheated when they do.”

Summary: “A cover should be striking, have something to do with the story inside and preferably be drawn by the same guy who does the work inside or so says our Panel. What do you think, let me know your feeling on the Panelogy forum.”

This Week’s Panel: Alan Donald (columnist, SBC), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), Alan Grant (Batman, Judge Anderson), Bill Rosemann (Publicist, Crossgen), Devin Grayson (Nightwing), Craig Lemon (SBC review editor and Will Riker to Jason Brice’s Picard), Rick Shea (top retailer), Axel Alonso (big gun Marvel Editor), Mike Collins (2000AD, Star Trek) and Peter David (Captain Marvel, Supergirl).

Next Week’s Question: “ Why is there not some form of basic health insurance for 'work for hire' employees (like there is for the exclusive contract employees) and what should these employees do about it?”

Previous Questions: Check out the message board where I’ve put up a list of every question the Panel has faced so far (neatly linked to the column it appeared in) to inspire you and let you know what to avoid.

SBC reserves the right to edit questions for reasons of consistency and inclusivity.

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