The problem of covers

I’m sorry about the image directly below this post, the one that’s the feature image for the post about Mark Millar’s first run of solo issues, the post titled Everything You Once Were. I’ve hated visiting my own blog this week and seeing its ugliness. The knotted-rope Swamp Thing, the 70s-shag-pile orange of the background, the airbrushed-van aggressiveness of the whole thing. And this is the best cover I could find for that run.

They were all by a guy called John Mueller, best known for a pair of graphic novels under the umbrella title Oink. (No relation to the British comic.) He seems to be American based on his blog, but the style he did these covers in seems to be very British. While the US was reeling from the hyper-kinetic art of the Image years, the fucked-up anatomy and obsessive hatching of Liefield and Lee, the UK was suffering its own travails. The painted artwork of Simon Bisley, most notably on Slaine in 2000AD and the Batman/Judge Dredd crossover, had spawned a legion of imitators who had all of his surface faults but none of his style. Bisley was basically a cartoonist working in paint, dressing his exaggerations in oils. The copyists were deadly serious and all the worse for it. There’s many a muddy page of painted art I’ve stared at in 90s 2000AD trying to work out who the fuck was who and what the fuck was going on.

Using a cover artist for a title who wasn’t involved with the interiors was another of those Vertigo innovations ushered in by Hellblazer. Dave McKean and Kent Williams painted the covers for the Delano run. Animal Man, not a Mature Readers title but with that sensibility, had Brian Bolland on covers. Doom Patrol got Simon Bisley. Shade had Brendan McCarthy covers and Sandman, of course, had celebrated covers by Dave McKean. It gave the comics a visual identity and visual continuity; you could spot them on the racks a mile off, and once you’d investigated one and liked what you saw, it was easy to spot the next.

The assignment of Mueller to Swamp Thing’s covers was mercifully brief. He’s followed by Brian Bolland in probably his shortest ever run as a cover artist: three issues. But he’s followed by John Totleben, at first painting and then switching to ink, and his work does a great job giving the covers their own identity while being a nice callback to the title’s roots.

One of the things that’s evolved on this blog, and which I admit I’m proud of, is the way I present the weekly feature article. The title’s a quote from the comics I’m writing about and the feature image is a crop from one of the covers. At first the crop was also reduced to black-and-white and that came about simply because the covers for the first quarter of the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing are pretty bad. They followed the house style of the time, showing Swampy in fighting action scenes that usually didn’t occur in the comic. Draining the colour from them at least settled them down a little.

By the time we’re into the Rick Veitch run the covers are more sedate, contemplative, and don’t really need the mono faux-respectability I foisted on the earlier run. And Hellblazer has those ace McKean covers, at first fairly representative before slouching into abstraction, and those didn’t need and wouldn’t take being made monochrome, so I gave it up. For John Mueller’s Swamp Thing covers I was tempted to bring it back, because they’re garish like a fairground ride, but it’s only for a fortnight.

But there’s a larger problem with covers. Look at the covers from the Moore and Veitch Swamp Thing runs, which is sixty comics and therefore five years. Who are they selling to? A cover is, by definition, meant to attract readers. Who’s getting attracted?

Those action-packed lying covers at least had a purpose. They might fool kids – that was the comics market then – into buying Swamp Thing. When they got replaced by covers that were either symbolic of what was inside or depicted a moment, beautiful as they may have been, who was going to be flicking through to see what was inside? Where’s the hook in a picture of Abby kneeling by a grave, or someone plucking a yam off Swampy’s back?

There’s a reason bloggers bang on about those Silver Age covers with dialogue on, where Superboy’s being rejected by the Britain’s Got Talent teens of the future or Jimmy Olsen’s joining a motorcycle gang. They make you want to read what’s inside to find out what’s going on. All those attention-grabbing covers with the Flash breaking the fourth wall actually worked. But they’re childish and comics have grown up now. So we get cover after cover that’s a freeze-frame of the action inside, usually either some musclebound dude in a costume fighting some other musclebound dude or some musclebound dude looking mean on his own. Or, of course, a porno chick in a superhero costume posing for the camera. There’s no variety and there’s nothing to pull you in.

The Vertigo trick of a painted cover or an abstract cover still works to the extent that those comics look different, but looking different isn’t enough when you’re selling to an audience that already goes in comic shops, that already knows the difference between superhero and horror stroke adult. Comics with design elements look the most distinctive, but put big areas of text and white space on every cover and they’ll soon lose that.

This isn’t an area where I’m railing against the stupidity of the comics industry as an outsider. I’m responsible. I wanted my comics to look grown-up because I was buying them when I wasn’t grown up myself. And there are few industries to learn from here; album covers have adapted to the CD then the one-inch screen of the iPod Nano, but they’re still released relatively infrequently. Books recover themselves every few years but there’s no pressure. Comics need a cover every month and they’ve forgotten how to do it. If they ever knew.

6 Responses to “The problem of covers”
  1. I’ve always had a love hate relationship with comic covers, when done well they do draw me in to the world of their story, daring me to start reading, but outside of creator owned titles they tend to be quite weak. Simply having a different style from the interiors is one thing, but a lot of cover artist these days seem as if they aren’t even clued in to the context of the comics story: see the cheesy, cartoonish covers for Greg Rucka’s recent realistic Punisher run for a strong example of this.

    Your article has got me thinking, I’ll now be staring holes into the covers of my comics next week.

  2. kate h says:

    I seem to recall Gaiman saying somewhere that in the early days of The Sandman, Dave McKean had to battle with DC not to have Morpheus on the cover of every issue. (They also almost yanked him from the covers so he could focus on finishing Arkham Asylum.) So I think the deal with the ‘yam’ cover of Issue 45 was probably “This comic is called Swamp Thing and this is what Swamp Thing looks like. Pretty gnarly, huh?” But I imagine also that Swamp Thing was one of the earliest mainstream comics to sell on its reputation rather than what it looked like. It was successful that they could do unusual things like have painted covers for the more contemplative issues.

    I quite like the idea of Silver Age type coverlines though: “Great Scott! Nukeface’s deadly radioactive juice has made Swamp Thing’s face fall off!” (Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!)

    Surely the shortest ever run of Brian Bolland covers was his much-heralded regular stint on Doom Patrol, which ran to the first Vertigo issue and then – over a year later – another issue.

    • I had a nagging feeling Bolland had done a shorter run; thanks for confirming.

    • kate h says:

      More Silver Agery:

      “Papa Midnite wants to trap Mnemoth in my body… and Constantine is HELPING!”


      “The Sandman sits innocently feeding the pigeons… unaware that DEATH is coming for him!”

      (I imagine the latter as one of those “skeleton driving a bus” horror covers that Mister Kitty likes so much.)

      • Nice. I was trying to think of covers I could add Silver Age taglines to, and I realised actually more of the Mature Readers stable had copy on the covers than I’d remembered. Shade always had a few words, Animal Man did speech balloons on a couple of occasions, and the two best (IMHO) Sandman arcs had loads of copy: the whole Victorian “In which..” intro on Season of Mists, and the little fragments of story on Brief Lives. Perhaps not full support of my thesis, but it didn’t do those comics any harm…

  3. The best runs of covers are those that convey something of the comic’s sensibility while being nice pieces of art: McKean’s Sandman, obviously, or Glenn Fabry’s covers for preacher. The latter got across that grotesque, unflinching style that was a big part of the comics, didn’t look like much else on the racks and were sometimes funny in their own right. But looking back at those there were a lot of duds; does the Salvation sign attract readers, or Cassidy jumping off the Empire State? Then again, what else would you cover those comics with?

    I’m not familiar with the covers for Rucka’s Punisher run, but I remember the Tim Bradstreet covers to the Ennis Punisher run being successful. Any reader who liked the realistic linework and gun fetishism of those covers would probably like what was inside. But then I try to remember those covers and, apart from the one where he’s got like 70 laser sights on him, I couldn’t think of a one. And he did sixty covers. Compare that with the cover Chris Sims of Comics Alliance loves so much, with the caption: YOU’VE JUST RENTED A JETSKI TO THE PUNISHER. KISS THAT BABY GOODBYE! I reckon that, cheesy as it is, would attract more casual attention.

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