Doug: We're glad you're joining us today for another post from Mike S., aka Martinex1. Last week he led us through some serious nostalgia in regard to our comic book collecting foundations. Today he has a few things to get off his chest in regard to comic book covers (always an awesome topic around these parts). So without further ado...
Martinex1: Recently on the BAB site, there was much discussion aboutJohn Buscema’s cover artwork for Silver Surfer #2. Doug shared from the IDW book both the original artwork and the modified version that was ultimately used for publication. Most of us had an opinion about which was better but understood completely that the choice was subjective. I believe most also thought both were magnificent and we were probably quibbling over the level of greatness.
It begs the question, “How do we define a great cover?” I suspect the old Popeye adage, “I knows it when I sees it,” holds true. But I often find myself contradicting what I think describes the best comic art. I mentioned before that I tend toward covers that are busy with action and conflict, and that I dislike the cover with a standard character pose and minimalist background. I also hold to the value that Bronze Age covers are better than the modern fare. I am challenging myself if that is always true or if my tastes are slightly more nuanced than that. So I set out searching for covers I like and also covers I don’t like at all. This is not a hit piece, but I thought it was important to define what I dislike about cover art to better identify what I do enjoy. I also am not looking (for the most part) at covers that would be considered in the classic and iconic category.
Starting with Avengers Annual #10, this was a comic book that I nearly did not purchase because of the cover artwork. The cover looked like an in-house advertisement and had no focus. We often talk about covers that made us buy an issue; this was a cover that turned me off. The only reasons I did buy it at the time included a) I was a rabid Avengers collector, and b) I glanced at the wonderful Michael Golden interior art. But this was honestly a situation where I thought about purchasing another issue instead. In retrospect this was one of the best Avengers Annuals ever with great story and art, but the cover was extremely weak.
I have no idea why the cover was designed as such. I can only speculate that it was hastily crafted after something initially intended did not come together. Since that style of paneled cover was not common, it gave that impression of a rushed job. It did not pass my litmus test. I also don’t believe this is representative of the artist Al Milgrom’s normal output; some of his work on Marvel Presents with the Guardians of the Galaxy was quite dynamic. The added advertisement across the top of the book also irritated me (not just here but throughout that month’s offerings) because it diminished the size and focus of the cover art. For a better paneled cover (the only other example I could remember), see Avengers #197. Although still not to my liking and despite the generally weak layout type, this has more clarity and fits the storyline which amounts to a normal day in the life of the characters.
In my search, I found a cover for the Avengers Annual #10 that was created by the aforementioned Michael Golden after the initial publication. The very little I could find on this piece is that Golden had finished some preliminary rough sketches for the cover of the annual but none were chosen; as a commission he completed this one. Again, this is just some internet hearsay, so I am not entirely certain of the history. But take a look at that black and white artwork. Wow! Now that is amazing and very much to my liking. There is ongoing action and struggle with characters strewn about in the rubble, a new villain in Rogue, the return of Ms. Marvel, and the text that emphasizes not just the physical defeat but the emotional one. The lines, though busy, are clean and clear. The composition is focused. It would have been interesting to see this colored, to see how an artist would have used hues to further emphasize the subjects. The Avengers masthead is of course blocked, so in the real world I am not sure if this would have made print either. I think this gives some extreme examples of how a cover could be conceived.
Aside from my preference for action or ramifications of action to be prevalent in a cover, I also have the counter feeling that I do not like the posed characters standing with broad shoulders staring out of the cover. But then I have to consider Avengers #196. Taskmaster is definitely postured exactly in a fashion I find annoying in today’s comics. But this cover is one of my all-time favorites.
What is the difference? In my mind there are a handful of factors that come into play. 1) George Perez’ character design is detailed and wonderful, not to mention that Taskmaster is proportionately correct and dramatic. The full figure is loaded with mystery and complexity. Perez is a master who allows character elements to show through even in individual panels. It is easy to see the villain’s threatening confidence and ability. 2) The coloring is terrific. It is not often we have that type of green background; I can only think of a couple instances (including X-Men #142) that use that color scheme. The character just pops; the rogue’s blue and white and orange are in nice contrast to the backdrop. 3) The conflict is there; it is in the costume. By that I mean, because the Taskmaster is holding versions of the Avengers’ weaponry from shield to sword to bow, the implication is that this single lone lunatic could take on all of the Avengers. He was the human (or mutant) version of the Super Adaptoid. The text expresses as much in reinforcement. I am not entirely certain, but I believe that up until that point in time this may be the only Avengers cover with a lone villainous figure and none of the heroes present. It was very striking. In later years, we would see Ultron and Kang given this headlining honor, but I truly cannot remember many instances. 4) This type of posing rarely appeared at the time; it was an oddity in that era, not an absolute.
In slight contrast, here in Marvel Team-Up #117 is a cover with Wolverine and Spider-Man reaching out to the reader. This cover at the time struck me as odd and not in the same favorable way that the Taskmaster cover did, and I nearly did not buy this issue. I say “nearly” because I surely do own the issue as Wolverine was emerging as one of my favorite heroes around this time. However, the proportions of the characters seemed entirely wrong and were distracting even in my youth. Wolverine’s leading leg is huge and looks unbalanced; it actually looks like the leg was pasted on to cover something else. The pointy design at his boot’s knee looks much larger than it should be. The forced perspective is too extreme and is almost funhouse mirror like. Even Spider-Man’s extended hand seems overly large. And the layout and background look bland, simplified, and rushed. It was not colored to accentuate any contrast. I see this dark and shady attribute as more emblematic of recent covers as well. Now, by no means is Bob Layton a poor artist. Some of his Iron Man covers are iconic. Again, I am not sure what happened here in the layout and modeling and execution, but it did not work for me.
Often the chosen focus of the cover is a problem. In both Avengers #228 and Fantastic Four #287, this is apparent. I contend superhero-based comics with a civilian front and center on the cover is not attention grabbing enough. In the Avengers issue I would say that having the “Trial of Yellowjacket” depict Hank Pym on the cover is a mistake. Even if the interior suggests that it is Hank Pym “the man” on trial, the cover has to be dynamic and interesting and I am not sure this reached that level. The “H.P” on the central figure’s pocket handkerchief and the word balloon just exemplify how unidentifiable the character is to the average comic buyer (it still strikes me that distinguishing between Steve Rogers, Hank Pym, Clint Barton, and even Dr. Donald Blake in their civilian guises often took some second looks). The FF issue is no better. Even with all of the text I did not know what to expect in the issue and without opening it could not even be sure the FF would play anything but a passive role. And this cover is by an all-time great, John Byrne, and despite my love of his work I never purchased this one. All of the rest of his Fantastic Four covers are really top notch.
Now let’s examine some covers I think capture what I truly enjoy. The first is Fantastic Four #187. It’s simple really. It shows the conflict and struggle of the FF, and it holds the key impact that an overwhelmed and relatively powerless Reed Richards is the last standing. It shows a villain in Klaw who is obviously a threat, while holding the coup de grace in keeping the Molecule Man as a mysterious yet imposing figure. It has plenty of detail, and essentially in a single panel tells a story and draws me in. It also has a neat composition with Molecule Man’s legs bordering the action like a curtain opening. And maybe most importantly, I know what to expect when I buy the book. It is in a sense a teaser or trailer for the comic itself.
Similarly, Avengers #182 is a nicely rendered battle scene. And although there is no recognizable villain, it shows the magnitude of the brawl. My eye is drawn to Captain America and the pain and determination on his face. The image also accurately depicts what is inside, and what is inside will be exciting. I will point out that this is a piece created by Al Milgrom and Bob Layton. Not bad at all.
In conclusion, I have narrowed my definition of what I like on a comic cover and I think it comes down to this: a nice representation of what I am being sold. It can be a single character, it can be a pose, and as long as it represents what is inside I am okay with it. It has to have a sense of conflict. I prefer action but that action has to be representative of the story. And the characters have to be on model and preferably in costume. The color and contrast is important. Anything mundane and common and small is less appealing.
What say you? What do you see? Do you like something I do not or vice versa? What covers are your favorites, and what made you say, “Meh”. Have at it folks.