Committed: Covers with Depth (INVINCIBLE IRON MAN & SANDMAN)
There are comic books I have bought for their cover and only for their cover. While the interior hasn’t displeased me, this meat of the comic book is not what drew me to it, nor (more importantly) what made the purchase a satisfying one. These are comic books I won’t sell or give away, even though I probably won’t read them again. While the interior are strongly echoed by the covers, it is the comic book as a container which interests me. Like most people, I try not to be a superficial person, to judge for the beauty inside, but for me, in these instances, the covers lend so much more weight to the stories which inspired them, that they become substance in their own right.
Today I thought I would write about two very different sorts of covers which excited me for two very different reasons. Having acknowledged these differences, I must say that the strength of each is that they are not only beautiful, but are firmly and strongly associated with the stories within them. It actually annoys me when a cover is simply beautiful, but does not solve the design problem of communicating the interior, that is art, but not design. Design exists for a purpose, these covers more than serve the purpose of communicating the interior and adding to the enjoyment of it.
Invincible Iron Man
When Rian Hughes cover designs for Invincible Iron Man: Disassembled storyline came out, I had already been reading the book for the previous 19 issues, so theoretically, I was already onboard as a reader. However, prior to seeing the covers I had decided that issue #19 formed a perfect stopping point for my reading the book. To clarify, I had only intended to jump in to the book for a short time (I do this, I get into a character for a while, catch up with him and then move on.) Then I got to my local store (Isotope) where, despite my asking James to stop saving the comic book for me, he had it! He laughed and said “I figured you would need this, it’s Rian Hughes!” He was right too, it was like design crack for me, so unlike anything else on the shelves and yet perfectly evocative of the character, the mood and story that was unfolding within.
Crisp and modern, these covers have such a marvelously 1960’s feel with the bold, monochrome colr schemes and single, rounded typeface (is that Futura, or Gotham?) Yet somehow these covers are also very much contemporary designs, with all of the lovely use of clean lines and aggressively jarring imagery. Hughes has often impressed me with his work, but to my mind these are a pinnacle of his comic book design work. Taking just enough art to hint at Larroca’s interiors, the designs really speak to the sparse, information-light nature of Fractions storyline. As Iron Man is forced to deal with his rapidly erasing mind, the stripped-down covers tell of the horrible inner journey he is on.
Usually I’m such a stickler for design rules, consistent branding being a bit one of those. I should have been appalled that Hughes dispensed with Iron Man’s instantly recognizable red and gold colored logo, but this is a story about Iron Man losing himself, so to lose the usual identity of the comic book makes perfect sense. As Iron Man experiences distressingly decreasing information in his own mind, these stripped-down covers echo that sparse sense of self that the protagonist is living. Besides, the logo becomes irrelevant because the covers are so obviously visually identified as Iron Man comic books by presenting us simply with Iron Man’s unique helmet. In addition, by showing us this portrait of Iron Man on every one of the 5 covers, the journey inside of Iron Man’s mind is clearly depicted, negating the need for splashes of text that so many covers are emblazoned with, explaining the content. This is a fantastic example of cover art as communicative information design.
At the time these were coming out, I would race to my comic shop each month (at the time I used to go to Gosh! Comics, opposite the British Museum, because then I could combine my comic shopping with a visit to the museum to sketch – a better excuse to get out of studying than saying I was going to buy comic books!) It was a logical purchase, since I’d been reading Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and had moved from there to the “new” title (at the time) Hellblazer. With McKean doing covers on Sandman, I thought it might scratch a similar itch. It wasn’t really a conscious move to buy them just for the covers, even if I understood it on some level, it wasn’t until issue 9 that I fully admitted it to myself. I loved the strange stories contained within those lovely covers, but they really weren’t the part of the package that was making me need to buy the comic books. It was those covers.
Not so much cover paintings, but cover sculptures by Dave McKean, these were extremely different from any other comic books on the shelves. I have since been told that the comic book appealed to a very distinct sort of goth/art student in America, and I can’t honestly say that I wasn’t either of those things (though I certainly didn’t see myself that way.) Nowadays such artist cover art might not seem so shocking, but when they came out I had never seen anything like them in comic books. As an art student, I had an interest in Joseph Cornell’s art, and this is the closes thing I’ve ever seen to McKean’s Sandman covers. While Cornell’s work hinted at stories, it was interesting to me only in the abstract and I had little interest in the subject matter of his boxes. However, McKean managed to infuse every frame of his covers with the dark, mysterious nature of the Neil Gaiman stories contained within. His art spoke volumes, each image and object drawn from the stories, leading the reader into this odd new and old world.
Years later, a friend gave me all of the trade paperbacks of Sandman and I reread them over a few weeks. At the time I was very curious as to whether my adult-self would enjoy the same comic books I was so into as a kid. Rereading them all at once, (instead of gradually over the years it took them to come out originally), was a very different experience and I found myself missing a lot from my original purchase. At first I thought it was just because comic books have changed so much in the intervening decades, as well as whatever changes I’ve gone through personally. Then I realized, it wasn’t just those obvious changes, much more importantly, it was the lack of covers introducing each story in the trade paperbacks. Recently I looked back at the individual covers, as part of my own personal research to study my favorite cover artists. I immediately saw how deeply McKean’s cover art had impacted my initial interpretation of the stories. Each issue was introduced by these marvelous painted sculptures and although the stories were quite lovely, the covers were a huge part of my own feelings about them. Without the covers front and center, the trades were missing the essential component of my original appreciation of the books. I gave the trades away, but kept my original issues, those single monthly issues are the comic books, the trades alone or the covers alone just don’t make sense in isolation.