Friday, May 13, 2011

A treatise on contemporary covers

I was in Forbidden Planet in Manchester about a week ago, and took a moment to look at the comic book covers. Or rather, I challenged my friend Joe to find even one acceptable, nicely designed cover on all the "mainstream" pamphlets. Now, I'm not going to tell you that we didn't find any, because we did. Out of about 250 books, we found three.

The other 247 covers hove to one of three formulae, either singly or in combination:

1. Stiff, stock pose, glaring outward
2. Warring dudes/dames collide or hero legs it: SIDEWAYS
3. Tits to the fore!

I do wonder if the people who commission these covers have actually seen what 247 covers featuring no negative space to catch the eye, racked side by side, look like. Well, I'm happy to tell you. They don't look like anything.

Here are two of the three non-terrible covers we found:



(The last one I couldn't find online, it was a Matt Fraction Marvel book with a very striking design).

If you want to see some amazing comic book covers from the last 30 years, check out this gallery of Bill Sienkiewicz work - so many faultless compositions. The older I get, the more I appreciate his art.

Of course, rubbish has been around since the first human put down the burnt umber, scratched his bum, squinted a bit, and said "that'll do." But comic book covers, like so many contemporary novels and magazines, show more clearly than anything where heavy-handed marketing has killed innovation and creativity. Where, to put it bluntly, thick people have smoothed out the wrinkles that made things interesting, beautiful or incongruous.

It's your money they want, and they treat you like you're stupid. Demand better!

17 comments:

YoungFrey said...

Are you talking about Casanova(http://www.comicvine.com/casanova-gula/49-38394/)?

I remember that Powers made a serious effort to avoid typical covers. Although a many weren't original compositions, being homages to famous albums and movie posters, it was still most welcome.

John A said...

There were four covers, Powers was the fourth.

James said...

I'm of the opinion that Dave Johnson ((http://devilpig.deviantart.com/gallery/)is the best cover artist working for the Big Two at the moment.

georgia said...

Why do I never bump into you in Manchester even though you are seemingly always frequenting my hangouts

Perhaps I do see you and don't know

Rich Johnson said...

Thank you for this post. You've articulated something that's been simmering away in my head for some time now. The 'Tits to the fore' point especially. But then, I'm probably not the target audience, as I'm not fourteen and I tend to worry about the practicality of superherovixens crime-fighting in vertiginous high heels boots. You'll turn an ankle, pet.

John A said...

Thanks Rich! But superhero books, readers aged fourteen? Forty more like.

Rich Johnson said...

Well, yes! Which just makes the 'tits-oot' cover worse.

Nigel said...

... when I started in animation as an Inbetweener, my Director said (more than once) that every *every* inbetween had to look as good/as coherent/as illustrative as the key poses... years later, I developed a personal technique for finding the well illustrated stories amongst the comics on offer - not a perfect system, but probably good 8 out of 10 times... it's this:
pick a comic off of the shelf and (effectively) treat it like a flick-animation book - just flick it, back to front, only looking down at the pages in your right hand (probably 'cause I'm right-handed)... if those panels, in that split second, still look like they're telling a story all by themselves, then buy that book...
... yes'yes'yes, it's not just about pictures, it's the story, too (as Eddie Campbell taught me - see that? that's name-dropping that is) but even if you trust the writer of a comic, all can be undone by some prat with a pen or brush... maybe it's my wearing of glasses but I respond first and foremost to the images, and how they tell the story... I was raised on Dan Dare, Look & Learn Magazine's "The Trigan Empire" (images by Don Lawrence), and, later, America's Will Eisner... and it's not just about style, how the figure is drawn, it's how the figures draw you into the story... that's technique, that's discipline and learning...
... I agree about the covers (and the editorial contempt that it so evidently displays), and I've stopped going to the comic shop now - because most books don't pass the flick test... and there are so many books, and so so many are poorly drafted - let alone cover'ed... I'm finding it much easier to separate the wheat from the chaff amongst webcomics... as one of the Four Webcomickers of the Apocalypse (ie. Dave, Kris, Scott & Ringo) said: "on the web, you only survive if you're good enough [on your own merits]"...

Colin Rankine said...

As R. Kelly said, don't hate.
They're in the superhero business, not the artcomics business, and they do very well with those covers. I'm sure you've noticed, John, that attention to yr blog spikes when you post, say, a drawing of the 80s X-ladies. Now imagine that you had investors and employees and all that. "Tits to the front" is perfectly all right. It keeps comics shops open!

John A said...

Colin: I would never impugn hardworking professionals. But none of us should excuse corporate cowardice - especially when the market for those hero books continues to dwindle despite the now constant raft of movies being made from them. If you think releasing a hundred near identical, generic, alienating covers into the marketplace on a monthly business is serving shareholders or anyone else in the long-term, then you and I have vastly differing opinions on the matter. I'm not suggesting that Marvel restyle its books after Paul Klee or Rothko. I don't give two honks what Marvel does. I just wish that the future of English-language comics didn't rest in such maladroit hands.

Colin Rankine said...

I mean, I'm not here to defend mediocrity. I agree in principle. But do you think there are editors at Marvel and DC who look at a good cover and say, "Yikes, look at all this negative space! The plebs will never go for it." More like, "Here's another picture of a muscley Green Lantern looking angry, sure to move X number of units and ensure my division's profitability for another quarter." They measure quality differently than you--or I--do. People have been calling it the death of comics for over 20 years, yet corporate comics are still there, and it's because of them that there is still a marketplace for First Second or Oni or whatever.

John A said...

Just because it's a slow death, Colin, doesn't mean it's not a death. Twenty years ago books got cancelled with sales to match what the top ten books get today. There are probably the same percentage of good and bad books, of course. But I don't know why anyone would pick them up who didn't read them already.

Colin Rankine said...

Not being a comics professional, I don't know about the demographics. It seems to me that the quality of work has only gotten better since we were kids, even though there is lots of mediocrity, and the decline of readership is down to things completely outside of the publishers' control. Publishers seem to be focusing on the readers they've still got, who don't appear to mind artistic merit but absolutely require dizzying facepunches, and the publishers know where their bread is buttered. They leave the winning of new audiences up to guys like you, who have more latitude to be creative. I guess I just don't understand why that mediocrity irritates you so much. It seems like an opportunity to me.

John A said...

Sadly it would be unprofessional, and probably harmful to my career, to explain some of my deeper seated bugbears with the industry - and especially working in the UK, where there is barely any indigenous industry at all. Imagine it as Chinese water torture that has slowly driven me mad. Things are better than they were, but that's like saying being punched in the the face is better than being punched in the julies.

Bad Andy said...

This might make an interesting read - http://2000adcovers.blogspot.com/ It breaks down the composition of some of 2000ad's more successful covers with input from the artists.

Bad Andy said...

Oh and check this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hsxq6U8XDKo

Martin said...

Hey John, your cover advice may fall on deaf ears, but thanks for doing your part to save the comics industry. Now that I've seen a New York Five cover I'm interested enough to buy it.