Master Of The Obvious: Issue #12

Wed, October 20th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

When I was living in Westwood in 1990, I stopped into the comics shop on Gayley Avenue one afternoon to find a teenager inside, puzzling over some comic with multiple covers. Determined to maximize his speculator dollars, he was polling others in the shop on which version to buy. Other customers didn't know. The clerk didn't know. The clerk pointed to me and said, "He's a professional, ask him."

Right, like I knew.

Gen13 Covers
Gen13 #13 took the multiple covers craze to new levels.

So I ask the kid, "Which one do you like best?" He studies the covers, then, finally, points out one. "Odds are that's what everyone else will like better too, so the other one will be rarer. Buy the other one." True story.

Covers are bad. Get rid of covers.

Know why people aren't buying comics? They're tired of covers. Companies think covers are so important, but nobody buys comics for the covers. Unless a hot artist draws one. But if a hot artist unassociated with a comic draws the cover, but none of his art appears inside, fans get frustrated. But nobody buys comics to read the covers, they read the insides, so the insides are really what counts. You can check it out yourself: go to any comics shop and look for coverless comics in the dime box. You won't find any. Why? Comics shops can't keep them in stock! Quarter boxes filled with covered comics stay filled, and the walls are filled with racks and racks of new comics with covers just sitting there, but coverless comics are gone in a hot New York minute. And the people who buy coverless comics are the true fans, they're the ones who are purely interested in content, so they're the ones any smart company should cater to. Let's face it, people just don't care about covers on their books anymore, and covers add a lot of cost to comics and just drive the price up. And the price on the cover scares a lot of potential buyers off, but if you got rid of the covers they wouldn't get scared, and seeing the first page instead would get them so wrapped up in the story they'd be buying the comic before it even occurred to them to ask how much it costs. We'd get a whole new generation of readers! But comics companies that insist on living in the past just keep putting covers on their comics, whether anyone wants them or not. Because the future is right in front of their nose, but they refuse to see it. I always said comics companies should forget about the covers and concentrate on the really important part of comics - stories, of course - but nobody ever listens to me. I'm goin' out and eat worms!

See? I can parody myself.

Still, what is the point of covers these days? They've always been problematic for comics companies. Used to be you mostly bought comics from spinner racks, so, except for the bottom comic on the rack, the only visible part was the logo, so covers basically existed as something to stamp the logo onto, and to prevent the cheaper inner paper from becoming unsalable. (I once co-designed an AVENGERS cover that John Byrne drew - nice job, too - with the Avengers helplessly suspended upside-down in a semi-circle around a demonically transformed Scarlet Witch. Pretty much everyone loved it. Except Stan Lee, who still weighed in from California in those days and called Jim Shooter on the carpet - sorry, Jim - for allowing a cover in which Captain America's boot partially obscured the A in the title.) It used to be absolutely verboten to tamper with a logo, until Carmine Infantino and others started breaking BATMAN logos into falling rubble and extending FLASH logos the entire height of the cover. Whether it harmed sales, I don't know, but at that point the logo became a possible element of cover art rather than a static overlay.

"Companies think covers are so important, but nobody buys comics for the covers. Unless a hot artist draws one."

But overall covers have remained very static over the past 60 years. Companies have developed whole philosophies about covers, though no one seems to have one now. The legend goes that DC in the 60s determined comics sold better if they had gorillas, babies or giant feet on them. Fiction House in the 40s decided that all action on a cover should follow a line from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, which quickly mutated into a lot of fully extended diagonal babe poses of Sheena Of The Jungle and the like landing on the ground, toes first, while letting go of a swinging vine.

The big philosophical question of covers, though, is representational or symbolic? The former takes the tack that readers want to see specific action from a story represented on the cover - if Spider-Man is on a rooftop dodging The Scorpion's tail inside, that's what should be on the front - while the latter is more abstract, a poster cover displaying the concept but not necessarily the contents. 40s comics were big on symbolic covers - Superman stands there proudly displaying the flag while children gaze up at him admiringly, that sort of thing - because, with several features in a book and many stories being done at one time, often editors weren't sure what was going to be in the book, and readers were considered to have fewer expectations. By the 60s, representational covers were the norm. If Iron Man was fighting The Mandarin that issue, the Mandarin would threaten Iron Man on the cover.

"The big philosophical question of covers, though, is representational or symbolic?"

If spinner racks limited the impact of covers, the comics shop restored it. Specialty shops meant more display space - whole covers could easily be seen by buyers - and I don't think it's coincidence that symbolic covers made a comeback then. Deadlines were again important - many editors developed a taste for symbolic covers because they needn't be replaced if the internal product changes - and various experiments like Dave McKean's striking covers for SANDMAN pushed the concept of imagery for its own sake, the cover as objet d'art. The appearance of the comic ship restored the supposed function of covers: to catch the reader's eye. (I wasn't surprised that Jim Starlin's 'BREED was one of the best selling of Malibu's ill-fated Bravura line. When you looked at a comics shop wall, the cover of that first issue, all shades of gray, grabbed your eye and riveted it.)

Punisher #3
Punisher #3

I personally prefer symbolic covers. My idea of a great cover is Mike Zeck and Phil Zimelmann's painting for PUNISHER MINI-SERIES #3, where The Punisher stands glowering and half-aiming a gun at the reader, while behind him is a practice target with bleeding holes in it. With its pure white backdrop, it's stark and eyecatching, and though nothing like it is ever seen anywhere inside any Punisher comic ever published, you see that cover and you instantly get the entire concept. But the argument of symbolic vs. representational is missing the point anyway; anything done exclusively gets boring.

I have 15 random comics from the last month spread out before me. 7 have symbolic covers. 5 have representational covers, at least reasonably approximating actions found in the corresponding stories. 3 are tweeners that could be interpreted either way.

All are terrible.

Not that the art is bad. On most it's pretty good. But, side by side in a square, not one of them pops. Not one grabs attention and screams "this must be bought!" Not one even snivelingly tries to cajole potential buyers into taking a peek.

"I have 15 random comics from the last month spread out before me...All [the covers] are terrible."

Considering how much effort many companies put into their covers, this seems odd. Covers are often (perhaps usually, these days) designed by committee, with artists and editors on the books reduced to hired hands to fulfill the plans of a designer. Which makes it odder, because most covers don't even have interesting design elements. Most are very busy, with an emphasis on pastels, so there's nothing for the eye to focus on. When I began writing for Marvel in 1978, they had one wall filled with that month's covers side by side, and critiqued them from month to month, figuring out why some worked while others didn't, what was wrong, what popped, which were similar when they shouldn't have been. I don't know if anyone does that anymore, but they should.

The Superman cover I described, the Punisher cover, most other great covers whether symbolic or representational, have one thing in common: they tell a story. Not necessary the story, but their own story. They capture imagination by giving it something to focus on, creating a set and suggesting an action for the reader's mind to embellish. It makes the reader want to finish that story.

Wonder Woman #150
Wonder Woman #150

Just as an example of the current crop of comics, I've got WONDER WOMAN #150. I could have picked any comic, but I've grabbed this one because it's so well done. The Adam Hughes art is beautiful. It's representational, a Wonder Woman poster. Unlike most, the design is nice, sparse - and topped with monotone coloring that knocks it all down to a flat image, except for the blue in Wonder Woman's eyes. Aside from a chesty pose and an enticing smile, it suggests nothing. No story at all. (Stan would have a field day at how the picture covers the bottom of the logo.) It's a textbook example of how to blow a cover, painful because it could have been so striking. Art for art's sake, perhaps, but a cover's a comics first - in many cases, only - line of advertising. The cover's job is to get the buyer interested, and comics covers aren't doing that.

But maybe covers have outlived their usefulness, aside from giving the logo somewhere to call home. With comics purchases at a low, many dealers shy away from even buying comics for display, preferring instead to sell by advance subscription or orders from the Diamond catalog. Comics are sold by description, not cover. Many people don't see covers until after they've ordered their comics, many potential buyers never get the chance to see covers at all. Yet companies maintain their elaborate design process on the basis that the covers affect sales. I'd like to see some company alternate months on titles between committee-designed covers and office-designed covers to see if anything affects anything.

Comics are traditionally an impulse buy. Even among hardcore fans, new titles remain impulse buys, and where the speculators once made #1s automatic sellers, today's reading audience casts a suspicious eye on everything. Great covers - covers that scream "read me now!" are our best initial salvo at breaking down consumer resistance (of course, the guts of the book have to measure up too) but even the most powerful handgun in the world is useless if you can't pull the trigger. If dealers aren't going to display the wares anymore, and purchases are sewn up long before publication, we may as well blacken every cover blank, or leave them off altogether.

Neglected to mention last week that Chaos' STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN comic is now out, so if you can still find it anywhere (business has been brisk, to say the least) go get it. As always, my website is Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions, and the answers to many, many questions about me and my work may be found there. Or not.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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