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Tue, July 14th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

THINKING ABOUT COVERS

I don't give much thought to covers anymore. Occasionally, a well-designed one will stand out, but the art on them isn't meant for me. I can't remember the last time I bought a comic off the stands because the cover drew me in. It just doesn't happen.

Still, there's an art to cover design that's worth looking into. In looking at some "Batgirl" covers for last week's column, I saw a few things worth pointing out. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive and comprehensive column on the proper points of cover composition. I just wanted to share some observations and cool covers. Consider this some food for thought.

Many of the techniques I've learned from my studies in photography apply directly to comics, so you might see me talking about that in this column a lot, too. Photography and sequential storytelling have a lot in common, and ought to get a column of their own someday. One of these days. . .

Check out the movement of Batgirl and Spoiler in the cover to "Batgirl" #20, by Damion Scott and Robert Campanella. The lines of the cape dramatize the action of the bodies. The tilts of the heads give away the direction their moving. The thick ink lines accentuate these curves and movements.

The design is simple. There is no background because you don't need one. There's enough of interest between the two characters that it doesn't matter where they are. In the middle of a story, this could be a problem. You'd laugh out loud if the opening narration box pointed out that a story is set in Paris, France, while the art showed an extreme close-up of two people sitting down to dinner without any visual cues that they're in France whatsoever. Here, the story is about how Batgirl and the Spoiler dance around each other, each children of the Batman, each with scandalous pasts and undetermined futures. They both want to get out on the streets of Gotham to do their job, but only one is fully capable at this point.

An image of the pair together, circling around each other, weapons in hand, is thus fitting.

From a technical perspective, I like the design elements around Spoiler's right hand. I like the concentric circles to emphasize the movement of her grappling hook. I like how much she resembles He-Man's pal, Orko. (Yes, that's a joke, though the resemblance is uncanny.)

On the negative side, I think there's a readability problem stemming from color selection. If you look at this cover from afar, it looks a little too dark, overall. I'd have preferred Spoiler's purple cape to be a slightly lighter color, to help Batgirl pop off the page more, to separate the two. From an inking perspective, there's something funny going on with the leading edge of Spoiler's cape. It starts off very thick by the left arm, but abruptly becomes thin to the point of disappearing after it crosses behind Batgirl. That might be meant to suggest the cape is flowing further away from the reader, but it doesn't work for me. There's no gradient; it just cuts to a nearly invisible line without warning. It doesn't look right, though most people probably won't notice it.

There's also likely an anatomy issue with Batgirl here, but I'm not going to think too much about it. I like a cool image, period.

My favorite cover of the run is likely "Batgirl" #27. This is Scott's take (inked again by Campanella) on the thoroughly cliched Batman-on-a-tombstone motif. Scott makes it work through Batgirl's body language and a cape that, again, looks cool on the cover. The flashlight shining on the name starts to tell a story, but it's that haunch and that cape that sell the cover on me.

I like this cover so much that I'm not bothered by the awkward computer-lettered tombstone that doesn't work at all. I think the angle the text is lined up on is wrong, and the precise computer lines don't jive well with the organic artwork.

Generally speaking, the eye is first attracted to the area of greatest contrast, by the way. Combining the yellow light in a sea of black with the location of the tombstone on the cover -- dead center -- and your eye is drawn straight to Vesper Fairchild's grave. When you look above that, you see how cool Batgirl looks crouching on her grave, flashlight in hand. After that, you see a shovel in her other hand and you know she's about to dig up that grave, which is exactly what happens in the book. Taken in a vacuum, you might also question if she's holding the shovel after digging the grave in the first place. People reading the "Bruce Wayne: Fugitive" crossover at the time would have enough information to know that it's the opposite.

I like the way the yellow light from the flashlight is reflected underneath Batgirl's costume. Lesser artists/colorists might have missed that, but the light should be bouncing off the tombstone with pretty harsh results. The flowers should likely be more backlit than front lit as they are here, but I like how the light is contained under the cape.

I like the grayed out Gotham City skyline in the background, and the broken lines at the base of the other tombstones seen in the midground area, all in silhouette. Again it's a bit of a design element, though it also hints at a foggy ground cover, in classic comic book fashion.

The interior artist of this issue, by the way, is Phil Noto, best known at the time for his wonderful "Birds of Prey" covers.

The cover to "Batgirl" #32 is a great example of an artist using lighting to create an image. In photography, that's what it's all about: light. In comics, I think it's too often an afterthought. Light is omnipresent, left to the colorist to worry about, long after it's too late and the shadows have been inked in. This cover is an example of backlighting, leaving the front of the faces in shadow while lighting up their edges, with rim lighting. Perhaps the light wraps too easily around Robin and Connor's faces, and perhaps it drops off too quickly, but it's a nice attempt by the artist to consider his light source and use it effectively. (See, also, "Rembrandt Lighting.")

Batgirl versus Alpha was a story that ran near the end of Scott's run, but it's the cover to "Batgirl" #36 that grabbed my attention the most, even more than the psychedelic look of the prior one. Why? The diagonals. It's too easy to draw things that move left-to-right on a page, or even top-to-bottom. The very nature of a comic book page (taller than wide) makes a top-down approach seem more natural, though the logo and other material at the top of each cover often make the art area more square, so either direction will work.

However, this image shines from the triangles it forms. Look at Batgirl in the extreme foreground. When looking at pictures of people, your eyes are most often drawn to the eyes of the portrait subject first. (Recent research also indicates that men tend to be drawn to a person's crotch area when visible, but that's a story for another time.) From those eyes, you see Alpha's gun, on the diagonal, pointed at her head. The perspective is slightly forced, and the strongest line on the image is that diagonal. But there's another one formed by Alpha's body language, as it's twisted away from the reader and reaching out towards the gun. Batiglrl neatly frames the right and bottom sides of the image, but it's Alpha who complete the triangle, his body forming the hypotenuse, if you will.

The only thing breaking that strong design elements of Alpha's right hand, holding up a cell phone. I'm sure the UPC code doesn't help, but I can't figure out how that arm is attached to his body. His other arm is a bit wonky, too, and the whole image suffers greatly from a lack of background that's trying to hide with some odd color splotches.

Also, the lens flares on the barrel of the gun are a bit much.

All of these criticisms are things I came up with while studying the cover for this column. At first blush, I picked up on none of it.

"Batgirl" #29 tied into the "Bruce Wayne: Fugitive" storyline, as the cast re-enact what they think happened that fateful night in Wayne Manor. Look at how Scott uses diagonals here again, not just as a design element, but also to tell the story. Draw the line in your mind, from Robin's eyes to Nightwing's gun to Batgirl's head to Batgirl's outstretched hand. It's an image that zigs and zags, telling the story effectively while being something that sticks out on the stands.

Notice how the gun is given such prominence in the image not just by being dead center on the image -- not just by being pointed at the title character's head -- but also by the yellow of Robin's cape forming the background highlight.

The dramatic worm's eye view helps the image. The forced perspective -- always a Scott favorite -- shows up again for both Batgirl's left arm and Nightwing's right.

And, sadly, again there's lens flare at the end of the gun.

The signature on the cover indicates that it's "After Garcia-Lopez." Pardon my ignorance, but what cover is this homaging? Or did Jose Garcia-Lopez help lay this out or something?

Finally, this cover was done during the month when all comics incorporated their title into the art. I love the lettering styling for this cover, crafted out of wisps of Gotham City smoke, as Batgirls sits perched on some bridge girders.

Those are just a few of the things I spotted on the "Batgirl" covers I was busy reading last week. Not all of the covers were this strong, but I'm still a fan of Scott's artwork. Hopefully, you've seen some things you might not have considered before. We're all learning a lot about comics every day.

Aside to Don and Randy: Found this on the back cover to the first issue. Thought you'd enjoy the blast from the past.

Everyone else: If you weren't reading comics eight years back, there was a thing called the "Dot Com Boom" that happened in the "outside" world and led to some things in the comics world that didn't last, either. You're better off not knowing about that right now. . .

A PODCASTING WE WILL GO

The new on-the-road podcasting methodology is a productivity bonanza. I posted four new podcasts last week, all around ten minutes or less in length.

Monday: Some thoughts on Boom! picking up the Disney Duck license.

Tuesday: The weekly Top Ten list. Here it is now:

10. "Asterios Polyp"

9. "Marvel Art Of Marko Djurdjevic" HC

8. "Hero Squared" TP Vol 3: "Love & Death"

7. "Good The Bad & The Ugly" #1

6. "Amazing Spider-Man By JMS Ultimate Collection" TP Book 1

5. "Back To Brooklyn" TPB

4. "I Am Legion" #4 and "The Zombies That Ate the World" #4

3. "Bone One Volume Edition" TPB (13th printing!)

2. "New Warriors Classic" TPB, Volume 1

1. "Wednesday Comics" #1

Wednesday: Things I Missed in the Top Ten List. As it turns out, I overlooked a few comics, and had a few I wanted to mention that didn't make the Top Ten list for the week.

Friday: Random bits and bobs. News of the day. That kind of thing. I recorded it because I could.

As a special bonus for the devoted listeners, I snuck a contest into one of those podcasts. Enter to win a copy of TwoMorrow's "The Comic Book Podcast Companion" book, featuring interviews with all sorts of podcasters, including yours truly. Listen to the podcasts for all the details. Be quick about it, as the contest deadline for entries is Wednesday, July 15th.

If that's not enough for you, I've already posted one this week, looking at the fervor leading up to Comic-Con International: San Diego.

Theres' a lot more to come this week again, too. Stay tuned! Subscribe to the RSS feed, or look us up on iTunes.

This week: More podcasts as topics spring to mind. Next week: Still playing it by ear, though I get the feeling we'll hear some pre-San Diego announcements that might be worth talking about.

The Various and Sundry blog sorta came back to life, then slowed down again. Dangit!

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com is still going daily, and we're past the halfway mark for the year. Only six more months of pictures to take!

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

And there might still be a new blog on the horizon yet. . . Seriously. It's in the works.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, some with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Really, are you still reading this? I'm cutting-and-pasting now.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, batgirl, damion scott

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