Daredevil can crouch, John Constantine can lean, and Emma Frost sure can pout. But is this all that today's comic covers can tell us about these comics? Cover addict John Fellows assesses the state of today's comic covers.
25 October 2004


Picking up or getting picked up are things that weighs heavily on my mind. Hopefully they're things that weighs heavy on your mind too.

Okay, you've got a note from your wife/husband/life partner to say you're excused from pick-up class; that's fine. But you remember what it was like to have the millstone around your neck, the need to find somebody who won't laugh in your face and spit in your pint-for-the-gents/fruit-based-drink-for-the-ladies. And despite all the Cosmopolitan cobblers that gets foisted on us about being charming, funny, considerate, and not swearing like Roy Chubby Brown or hitting on your friends... The one thing that really matters more than anything is appearance.

It's a highly nebulous thing. We all know what beauty is, we can all name ten celebrities that we find attractive, and yet no two people will have the same list. There'll be similarities between lists, but odds on, we all have our peculiar peccadillo as regards fanciable totty. Hell, go back fifty years and what was desirable was different altogether.

'No matter how ugly the cover, the personality's even worse.' Forgetting fantasy objects for a minute and getting back to the important subject of Scoring, it's a similar proposal. While my colleagues and I in any given bar or club will be able to pick out those girls who are obviously gorgeous, the ones who we particularly find attractive can be very different. What a particular colleague finds drop-dead gorgeous just may not tingle my spider- sense (and using analogies like that is why I'm still looking).

And what if I see a girl who has the perfect facial features, but is unfortunately clad in the worst goth attire known to man? Or what if a girl has the perfect indie-cool try-hard attire on, but has a face like my nan? What if they've got the right combination but it just doesn't work for their features? What if it all comes together fine, but it just mysteriously does nothing for me? It's all well and good slapping on a low-cut top and showing a bit of thigh, but then anyone can do that. And I wouldn't want a long-term relationship where the first date revolved around me trying desperately not to look down her top.


So, for those of you who didn't tune in for the Fellows Love Tips (shortly available in paperback form in all good bookstores), this problem occurs elsewhere too. 'Don't judge a book by its cover' isn't just a phrase to make ugly girls feel better, it's also a literal hint. And every time I venture anywhere near a comics store, I find myself wishing that the old misogynistic claim that, though she may be ugly, "she has a nice personality", could also apply to comics. Because it doesn't seem to matter how ugly the cover; the personality's even worse.

I love the art of design. I think it's a fascinating topic and one of those mystical artforms that seems one-part mathematics, one-part artistic skill and one-part psychology. We all know when we see an interesting cover. We know because we stop and stare and maybe even flick through the contents. We can look at the cover and appreciate the aspects that attracted our attention, but not entirely recognise why. I know I've purchased some comics purely based on the cover, and have continued to buy some comics based on the covers (the gorgeous Andrew Robinson covers on the later issues of STARMAN, for example). But when a title stands out purely because it's got good design (like PLANETARY), then it's a sad, sad state of affairs.

With the monthly release of the Big Two's solicitations, I get all kinds of excited to see the upcoming covers. The solicitation texts do nothing for me, being solely an exercise in brevity versus tantalisation. I don't believe anyone's bought a comic based solely on the paragraph of text describing the contents in as roundabout a way as humanly possible. It's the covers that leave me in awe. And the solicitations that go up on most major websites are pure, uninhibited cover glory. No need to go into a sweaty, smelly comic store; they're all there at the click of a button. And sometimes they just depress me.


Warren Ellis recently wrote a piece in his latest net column about design, focusing on his two design triumphs, PLANETARY and GLOBAL FREQUENCY. His claim is that the covers should be doing the work in "situating the reader" into the story, that they should set up expectations for what's inside.

This pays back into a discussion Steven Grant once had at Comic Book Resources about the difference between literal covers and metaphorical covers: the classic model of actually showing a panel from the story, reinterpreting an event to show the audience literally what they're going to get, versus a cover that represents the general mood or progression of the story through a more metaphorical image.

'Solicitation text does nothing for me. It's the covers that leave me in awe.' Ellis doesn't seem to agree that there's any worth in a literal interpretation of the internal events. He doesn't want to see Character A bitchslapping Character B for your delectation, he wants to create a mood. PLANETARY is a great example of mood, in that each issue is tailor-made for the contents of that issue. The comic always has John Cassaday drawing and it always has the central cast investigating a new pulp homage, but each issue has a different focus, and the covers reflect this. It's a wonderful idea because, as Ellis says, Cassaday has already done half the work in setting the scene in the readers' minds before they even open the work. But PLANETARY is a rarity amongst metaphorical covers, in that it makes each issue individual.

If you look at any given GLOBAL FREQUENCY issue, it's a little harder to tell what's going on inside. This is what I call Bradstreet Syndrome. While viewed individually, each cover that Tim Bradstreet has produced for HELLBLAZER and PUNISHER has been glorious, but viewed together, they're all pretty much identical.

This is where the metaphorical comic can fail. Evoking a mood is fine - and each PUNISHER cover evokes mood perfectly - but it's the same mood month-in, month-out. In fact, many of Bradstreet's covers are such simple images that they could literally represent a panel from inside the comic. And Bradstreet is not unique in this.


There's been a worrying prevalence of these types of covers in recent times, especially at Marvel; month after month of still images of heroes posing heroically, about ready to leap off their cornice/space-ship/surf-board to heroically right some wrong. These aren't explicitly literal images - although it's a safe bet that the hero will pose in a similarly artificial way in a large percentage of the issues - but they're not really metaphorical images either, as you don't get a feel for the story.

A good example of this is Alex Maleev's covers for DAREDEVIL. They usually give lip-service to internal events (guest-stars show up on the cover, for example), but don't ever stray far from the seeming Marvel mandate of heroic poses.

DC is a different beast. Their lack of overall aesthetic gives it the opportunity to tread every path - the good and the bad. Its literal images are usually uninspiring, unless they involve one of the few genuinely good designers DC works with. People like James Jean, Alex Ross, Kyle Baker are all natural designers with a head for the aesthetic, as well as for the layout of their works. But a lot of the other artists fall into the trap of just having a 'splash page' mentality when they're doing covers. Covers are not splash pages, and require a very different mindset. It's especially worrying when DC has designers of the calibre of Rian Hughes working with them.

But whether literal or metaphorical, very few covers actually assist me in my purchases. There are a lot of images that catch my attention, beautiful images of glorious oddities and strange worlds... But they're just eye candy, a flash of leg and a low-cut top. I don't get any sense of the character of the work. Then there are occasional books that scare me away from works I would otherwise be interested in, usually grabbing "hot" artists to gain interest.

But when the covers work on me, they really work. The recently lost WILDCATS V3.0 had perfect covers that both drew attention and perfectly evoked the contents of the book. I fell in love instantly and became spoiled on all other covers. After all, you never get over your first love.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

All contents