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Committed: Event Banner Envy

There’s a dilution of the bold and uncompromising design of comic books, and it is the event banner. Last year there were event banners scattered across the face of nearly every DC title, and they were a mess.

Over the last 4 days, I have alphabetized an entire year of DC comic books. Not my own meager collection you understand, but an entire comic shop full of them. I volunteered to help my friends at Isotope Comics clear out the back room to make space for their epic annual WonderCon party (which I highly recommend, though fair warning – it will be stupidly crowded.)

033110_catwomanWhile that might sound like a lot of work, I personally enjoy organizing and I had fun. An unforeseen side-effect of all of this delightful alphabetical and numerical organization was becoming ridiculously familiar with the actual graphic design on the cover of each and every issue, i.e. how the information was presented. As an experienced graphic design pro, you’d think that I would already be intimate with these designs. Not so. I like to separate my work from my comics, so I do my best to visually gloss over the graphic aspects of the covers. In case I find them wanting, I don’t think too much about the information delivery systems employed by my beloved comics.

033110_supermanUnfortunately, over the hours spent trying to ascertain the title and number of each comic in order to organize them, I was forced to become aware of the total confusion of information on these covers. What’s the title? Who knows. A lot of the time, I had to read the tiny legal copy in the back of the books to figure it out because the event banners obscured the actual title. This is not because I’m unfamiliar with these titles. At some point in time, I’ve probably had a glance at most comics, I like to try a little of everything (how do I know if I like it otherwise?) Sadly, there’s a design epidemic plaguing these poor books, and it is a disease of event banners. By my third day of looking at comic books, all I could say was “keep your damn event banner to yourself, no one wants to see it!”

033110_secretwarsiiAt this point, let me interject to explain something: For those of you who aren’t aware, comic book events are large, sweeping, “stories” spanning many of the books in a publisher’s pantheon. My first experience of this phenomenon was many years ago, with “Secret Wars II“, (which could be the first of these marketing events.) Like any completely clueless little kid, I took my pocket money and bought comics that I would otherwise never have picked up because they had the Secret Wars II event banner. Potentially, this could have led to me experiencing (and becoming loyal to) entirely new characters. Instead I was put off by the irrelevant and uninteresting stories. I’ll never forget that bitter sting of betrayal, as I read my hard-won purchase and realized what kind of marketing bollocks had been perpetrated. I could have lived my entire live without reading the Secret Wars II issue of Spider-Man, and seeing the Beyonder turn a building into gold, while Spidey explained how to urinate (maybe there was more to it, but that’s what I remember.) Marvel created this cross-over event to sell more books, not to raise the bar of comic book storytelling. Over the last five years these sprawling marketing events have spawned and multiplied like a flesh-eating bacteria, eating away at the foundation of these great comic books.

033110_theshieldThere are so many examples of this, it’s not even funny anymore… I’m interested in Adam Strange because of his interactions with Swamp Thing, do I want to read the Rann-Thanagar War? Not at all. Mr. John’s Green Lantern is a favorite of mine, but not because he’s part of some kind of color-based cult. Infinite Crisis? More like infinite damn events. For my money, the DC universe was a little less tedious before it had it’s not-so-final Final Crisis. I wish this were just a problem that DC had, but Marvel are also still misguidedly beating that dead horse, and as far as I can see, there’s no end in sight. There was a Civil War, but I really have no idea what happened because that event was so big and messy that it put me off, and I actually stopped reading titles I liked when I saw the event banner splashed across them. It is a damn annoyance and a marketing mistake to take well-known characters, and sprinkle other titles over the cover, obscuring recognizable logos. It dilutes the brand, and it’s the most obvious marketing mistake a publisher could make. Comic book titles are meant to be bold and uncompromising. If a publisher thinks that scattering a slew of tedious messaging around won’t confuse the reader, they’re insane.

26 Comments

The All-Smelling Nose of Agamotto

March 31, 2010 at 10:17 am

I’d like to know what moron designed Marvel’s Essential series. No page numbers? And some of them have the title upside down on the spine, which looks assinine on the bookshelf beside the other ones that are right side up.

Yo, Mr. Dumb Designer — look at DC’s Showcase Presents series to see how it is supposed to be done.

[…] cover-related item, this time in the realm of comics: Sonia Harris muses on “event banners,” and a quarter century of their more and more frequent appearance on Marvel and DC comic book […]

Sonia,
Extremely well written and I agree with every word. I try to avoid talking comic book design. It has little to no impact on the big two’s work. Despite all the hierarchies we could come up with, it wouldn’t be seen through.

The Initiative and Dark Reign were so ubiquitous that the banners weren’t really necessary–Stark and then Osborn were affecting everything happening at the time, so I would have been well off assuming that a comic would be entrenched in those events just by looking at the date on the cover.

I can’t imagine that the banners actually boost sales all that much. It could only be offputting to casual readers and people smart enough to care, and that sad group in the middle probably have the checklist anyway and don’t have to be told.

i think it’s totally double edged because there a group of readers who want nothing to do with event bannered books, while another subsection only wants to read stuff with event banners on it, regardless of the ongoing title. seems to me like comic companies have figured out that the event banner readers buy more, and that’s why the market has been saturated with them lately. still, it’s not like this is a new thing by any means. in fact, it’s been pretty consistent since the early 90s (X-Men comics, anyone?), minus a small drop-off of in the relatively-event-less early 00s.

as a reader who once hated event banners, then loved, and is now fairly indifferent, i think it comes down to this — what’s your financial and recreational commitment to the Marvel or DC universes? if the answer is “high,” then i bet you’re an event banner reader. i would suspect that “medium” to “low” readers would shy away from event banners or only pay attention to very specific ones. those readers are slowing becoming wait-for-the-traders anyway, so my guess is that event banners around for keeps.

I hate event banners. Isn’t there a way to make one that isn’t ugly as all hell?

I don’t mind the banners so much as I do the times they are put in on a story that has minimal connection to the main Event just to try to boosts sales. The worst example I can think of was way back during Crisis on Infinite Earths, when most DC comics had the banner “SPECIAL CRISIS CROSSOVER!!” plastered on the top even when the ONLY connection to The Crisis was the fact that Earth’s skies had turned red! The story would otherwise be like a typical issue of the series, except that it ended with the sky thing and a notice that to understand its meaning, you had to read Crisis!! Even those series that featured stories *actually* connected to the main story felt rather forced- as if the writers had been given a last-minute instruction to write a related story but they didn’t have all the facts so they improvised. Examples of this include the Wonder Woman crossover (where the god Hades was shown to have allied with the Anti-Monitor, a fact that is *never* referenced in Crisis and felt pretty unlikely) or the Green Lantern one where somehow the PLACES where the Monitors were born had some supreme importance during the Crisis- again, this is never referenced in the main series.

There are a couple of event banner trends that you neglected to mention:

1) Continued use of event banner well after the event has passed – Marvel is still mining the ‘House of M’ for new stories 6-7 years after the fact. I can’t imagine who buys them, but they must do reasonably well as new works continue to get greenlit.

2) Use of 2 event banners in the same title – “Civil War: House of M” – my head exploded at that one.

Although the article focuses on DC, Marvel has lately taken this a step further: the tie-in books to Siege have completely re-designed cover formats! Apparently they felt that mere banners were inadequate, and decided to use that sort of vertically-split cover format to make the event tie-in books all look the same. I think this is really too much, as it completely robs the books of their individuality.

Personally I don’t mind the banners too much as long as they’re not excessively obtrusive, and as long as the book really is a significant part of the event, as Sijo points out. But I can understand how experience with the Secret Wars II tie-ins could be very off-putting for event books :)

A lot of those Secret Wars II tie-ins were pretty awful, but I liked the Spider-Man issues with the gold building. It wasn’t like a lot of the stories were the Beyonder would just show up for no good reason and interrupted the flow of the story that was in progress. The Spider-Man story flowed naturally out of the events of the Secret Wars II series, and it continued to have repurcussions for Spidey over the next year.
I think as a cover desing, the Civil War tie-ins were the worst. It took up most of the cover, leaving the artwork reduced to a tiny little window.
Lord Paradise said that the Initiative or Dark Reign issues didn’t need banners because you could tell simply by the cover date. There are cover dates at Marvel? I haven’t seen any since the ’90s. Where do they hide them?
I’ve really missed cover dates.

This seems like kind of a ridiculous thing to complain about. As if anyone here didn’t know that comic companies (especially the big two) were attempting to sell books. You complain about an event banner on the cover and went as far as to not buy certain books just because they had banners. Last time I checked, that was called “judging a book by it’s cover”. I understand the (possible) frustration with these companies shoehorning a book into an event and thus using the banner, but I feel like this is a completely different issue. And seriously, if you’re looking to the covers of the big two’s books for revelations in graphic design, you’re looking in the wrong place.

I like the Secret Wars II tie-ins that happened years after the fact like Deadpool Team-Up #1 and Quasar #8

You seem to have lost your point somewhere along the middle. First you talk about graphic design, but then it turns up as a rant against events. I was hoping for an interesting article on cover and logo and banner design (and it looked like it was going to be that at first), but instead I get a shallow, dime-a-dozen article about how someone doesn’t like event comics. Talk about being misleading.

‘”Secret Wars II”, (which could be the first of these marketing events.)’

Um….no? Even if you weren’t aware of the CRISIS CROSSOVER banners, the mere fact it’s Secret Wars II should alert one to the fact it’s not the beginning of anything.

The first Secret Wars didn’t really crossover into anything, and I’m pretty sure didn’t have any kind of marketing as a crossover on the covers. So just because it ended with a “II” doesn’t mean Secret Wars II couldn’t have been the first instance of something.

Your title was misleading!
I was expecting something completely different and what I got was a new perspective on the hatred of comic crossovers.

Crossovers increase sales on books 9 times out of 10 . Letting customers know which books take part in crossover is a large part of that.

Some of the banners are ugly, to be sure, but to do an event without them is to keep people from getting all the “parts” or the story. Whether each issue of a crossover is necessary is a totally different topic.

I agree with Mario. I had a completely different understanding of what I would be reading. Good article, but I thought it would be something different.

Nice post.

The cross-over event branding really does seem to be outliving its usefulness. If you have new readers flooding into the market, then binding things tightly together would accelerate growth. It forces readers to sample other titles and some percentage will keep reading after the event.

However, it seems to accelerate declines in the same way. It is impossible to scale back. A fan of (say) Wolverine is effectively forced to buy a dozen titles to keep up. It drives the casual superhero reader out of the market.

Given that comic sales are declining across the board, it seems like the Big Two would want to unbundle their titles a bit. Drop the event banners. Scale back the cross-overs. Free up writers and editors to get away from line wide plots. Do everything to keep marginally attached readers on-board.

from a graphics stand poitn, i wish they would go back the the fold in the righthand top corner, as used in SW II and most 80’s events it did not take away from the rest of the cover, it was subtle and let you know what you needed to now with out have to look to find it.

I think it’s unfair to get mad at a company for using a smart marketing gimmick. They’re in it to make money. It’s up to the consumer to choose what he or she buys. I shamelessly bought everything that was part of Civil War because I was new to comics at the time and thought it was a great way to view the breadth of the Marvel universe. Did I like everything? No, but I was introduced to things like Thunderbolts that I might not otherwise have checked out. Now when an “event” happens I’ll just keep buying the titles I buy anyway, and I might pick up the main book if the overall story interests me. If people feel the need to buy everything just to understand the story then it’s their own fault. And dropping titles is pointless because chances are if you were liking it already you will like the story told there because you rarely if ever need the main book to understand the tie-in.

My first (last, and only) event banner buy-em-all story was Maximum Security. Y’know, where Marvel Earth was turned into an interstellar prison? Yeah. That taught me.

I agree witht he critique that this started about graphic design and moved into a complaint about events. That’s really two separate things. From a graphic design standpoint, I think some are done better than others. The worst ones, I feel, are the ones that make it difficult to determine the comic and/or issue number that you’re looking at. If you can’t figure it out quickly that is a design fail. On the other hand, the idea of a unified cover treatment is a really good, and economically smart (for the company) idea.That’s speaking just about the covers, not the content.

As far as feelings on events themselves, it might have to do with what you started with. My first one was Infinity Gauntlet. When it started I picked up quite a few of the corssovers. Some I didn’t like, and didn’t pick up beyond the first part, whereas others introduced me to series that I loved well after the crossover was done (SIlver Surfer and Dr. Strange for two examples). I learned the lesson to not blindly accept all crossover parts as golden, but didn’t really feel burned because I read the things as I picked them up and simply didn’t continue buying things that didn’t grab me. Of course, it was easier when it was only $1 as opposed to these days. I do agree that there is too much bannering on books that have nothing to do with the event, and that goes all the way back to Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Speaking of… Crisis on Infinite Earths was before Secret Wars II, and I’m pretty sure it was the first event to use actual banners on its crossovers. I can’t really think of any event before it that used them. (The first Secret Wars was before CoIE, but didn’t use banners.)

And don’t forget Marvel’s annuals crossovers – those were expensive summers…

On the flip side of what I mentioned above: what about the times where you do NOT collect an event’s crossovers because you assume they’re just sidestories and that the main series contains all you need to know, but it turns out that an IMPORTANT part did happen elsewhere? Example: Final Crisis MOSTLY stood by itself, but it turned out that the stuff in the Superman: Beyond miniseries was critical to the end of the story. How many people could tell that when the FC banner was on nearly EVERYTHING DC put out at the time?

AND another thing: what is it with this “putting a series’ crossover with an event in its own one-shot or miniseries rather than the actual series?” I understand that creators often have longterm plans and dislike having them disrupted by outside events, but what’s the point of hiring a different set of creators to churn out the crossover mini if the idea is to sell the series being made under OTHER people? Not to mention, one of the points of having a Shared Universe to begin with is to have the characters deal with events in other books (that logically would affect them). Continuity isn’t there to be used ONLY when a particular writer wants to. If you’re not willing to have your contracted stuff messed with, maybe you shouldn’t work on comics in the first place?

Banner Envy? Hulk no envy puny Banner!

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