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CSBG Archive

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.

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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.


Don’t know about Gotham, but its not Futura. You can tell by the M. Good article though.

I have 2 collected trades of Sandman stories from different times; one’s a 1991 collection of the first several stories (“Preludes and Nocturnes”) and the other is a 2010 edition of the “Dream Country” stories. Both have cover art for each story before the first page of each. Sorry it seems you have a coverless version, but they are out there.

I think it was in a Comics Journal interview in the 90’s where Gaiman was asked about the shifting cover art styles, the varying placement of the book title on the covers and the lack of a standard title logo for the series (a la Iron Man for example) and his reply was something like, “I trust that our readers are an intelligent lot and can find us on the shelves even if it looks a bit different from month to month, it’s the comic that says “Sandman” on the cover.”

Also, Sandman had the most interesting and intelligent letter writers out there, and if anything I wish that the original letters pages were reproduced in the trades. Sometimes readers’ questions, or the responses from the editors or Mr. Gaiman, would provide useful insight or extra information about the stories themselves, and it’s sad to think that these would be lost to modern audiences.

Yeah my trades have the covers before each issue, except for World’s End, which reproduced them smaller in the beginning of the book. . I suspect that was because of the nature of the story(stories within stories within stories) and also because those were McKean’s least favorite covers of the series.


It actually is Futura. the bolder weights don’t have miters on the cap M.

There was just yesterday a picture of the cover sculpture of Sandman 1 (at a slightly different angle) on bleedingcool. Very cool to see.


It actually is Futura. the bolder weights don’t have miters on the cap M.

That’s good, because Tony Stark makes a big deal about being a Futuraist.

Well spotted, typo geeks! Futura, Paul Renner’s quintessential stripped-down rationalist modern sans, was the best choice. These covers were made possible by the writer, Matt Fraction, who specifically asked me on board to design them and provided references for the visual starting point, which as all good designs do, builds on the story content. Matt has a keen design eye, and is a pleasure to work with. I often end up designing things simply because I’m asked to do so by the writer or artist. I mocked up some covers using existing pieces of Salvador’s art, and he completely got where we were coming from and ran with the ball for the rest of the run. Towards the end he was supplying punchy art that fitted the concept with very little input from me. Salvador would send me the head and the inset image in black and white, as two separate files, and I’d colour them and lay them out, adding the circles and other design elements. A strong collaboration between writer, artist and designer, based around a solid concept, is often what makes for the best covers. Incidentally, these were split-run covers, sharing shelf space with alternate versions that looked exactly like the old-style covers used previously – Marvel’s covers are usually designed in-house. I’m not sure if this was done because Marvel’s marketing types were nervous about my designs sales appeal, but as it turned out it provided an interesting double-blind scientific test – same comic, two different covers, my design up against the usual Iron Man cover design. Result? according to the editor, my version quickly sold out, and many shops only had the other version left. Lesson? Interesting and unusual design sells comics. I was originally asked to design the next arc too, but as the Iron Man film was coming out ended up only designing the first issue before it reverted to the old design, presumably to play safe and link in to the film (though looking at it, I don’t think that it actually does.) Anyway, an interesting and creatively satisfying project all round. Thanks, chaps.

Many Sandman trades indeed hold those covers, either between chapters or in the end. But of course they have less impact that way than as actual covers.

Are there any more photos of McKeans cover sculptures for Sandman available? I had no idea they were that big!

Covers are a big attraction when buying individual issues rather than trades. There are many I would love to have framed on my wall.

And I meant to say the Absolute Editions of Sandman present the covers pretty impressively although I only have the first volume.

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