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She Has No Head! – Anatomy Of A Comic Book Cover

saga07_cover

Saga Number Seven by Fiona Staples

OR…The Six C’s of a Badass Comic Book Cover!

We all have our own tastes when it comes to art and comic book covers are no exception. Thanks to a lot of drinking and looking at comic book covers over the last few years (in my Drunk Cover Solicits In Three Sentences or Less feature on my blog) I’ve thought a lot about comic covers over the last few years and what really makes me respond to something, or alternatively turns me off. So here are 6 C’s that make of the anatomy of a great cover for me – along with a slew of gorgeous examples. I focused on more recent stuff from the last few years, both because that’s where my focus has been for the feature on 1979 Semi-Finalist and because while I there are obviously tons of gorgeous covers through the ages, I think we’re going through a pretty great time for comic book covers. A few classics snuck their way in anyway. It should also be said that while I broke these covers up into groups based on what I was talking about, many of them could fit into multiple categories – they’re just that cool.

Enjoy!

COLOR

I’m a sucker for a limited color palette. Monochromatic tones, contrasting colors, or the use of just one bold color along with some black or white make up some of my absolute favorite covers. Even when they come in totally different styles, color alone helps distinguish the best of the best for me.

COLOR

Skottie Young, Esad Ribic, David Aja, Charles Burns, J.H. Williams III, and Matthew Southworth.

Another thing that impresses me greatly when it comes to color (or the lack thereof) is the boldness required when an artist chooses to go with a whole lot of white. The negative space created by a whole lot of white is not for the faint of heart, but when handled well, it makes an absolutely striking cover. Sometimes less really is more.

COLOR - WHITE

Dave Gibbons, Chris Bachalo, Yuko Shimizu, Bill Sienkiewicz, Ross Campbell, and Becky Cloonan.

COMPOSITION

Next to color I am most swayed by an excellent composition. Interesting positive and negative space is a must, and either absolutely perfect execution for a complex cover, or the restraint to go simple are my two favorite extremes. Interesting angles, off-center compositions, and the illusion of movement are all on display in the examples below.

COMPOSITION - SIMPLE

Marcos Martin, Esad Ribic, Skottie Young, Amy Reeder, Richard Corben, and Travel Foreman.

Another compositional trick that’s been seeing a surge over the last 10 years or so is the heavy influence of strong graphic design elements and sensibility in comic covers. J.H. Williams III is easily one of the standouts here, but we’ve also seen a lot of stunning examples in very cool offerings from John Cassaday, James Jean, David Aja, and many others.

COMPOSITION -GRAPHIC

James Jean, Mike Del Mundo, John Cassaday, David Aja, J.H. Williams III, and Mark Buckingham.

One of my favorite developments that combines both a strong sense of composition and a strong consideration of graphic design sensibilities is “text integration.” It probably deserves its own category, but since it doesn’t fit in with the whole “Six C’s” thing I’ll merge it with composition. Not a lot of covers are willing to play with their title integration, thanks to “brand recognition” concerns, and worries about consistency and ease of reading, but for me, nothing shows better design and a more well-considered cover than one that has integrated the title into the work. Sometimes this means simply where the usual title is placed, taking into account the illustration work and choosing the best place for it, even when that’s not at the top of the book as is generally standard. Other times it means literally working the text into the illustration.

COMPOSITION - TITLE

Fiona Staples, Dave Johnson, Adam Hughes, Joao Ruaz, J.P. Leon, and James Jean

CONTENT

This one is probably the trickiest and perhaps the most “salt to taste” – we’re all turned on or off by different things. If you read my column (or the Drunk Cover Solicits that inspired this post) then you all know I’m pretty quickly turned off by sexist covers, which is not to say that I have anything against sexy covers. But that line is different for everyone. Instant turn offs for me are excessively male gaze focused posing, zippers that defy the laws of physics, female costumes that make no sense (especially when contrasted with a slew of practical male costumes), and overtly T&A-ish stuff with no contextual reason behind it. Truth be told I’m also pretty turned off by covers that feature a huge group of characters – all of them male. When it comes to simple visual elements I am generally turned off by poorly executed work that feels hurried or ill-considered and also by overly fussy work with no clear focus to hold the eye. Too many unnecessary lines and ideas feels like overcompensation and insecurity to me…and it makes me sad.

ETA: As a commenter mentioned, I really glossed over some of my most hated aspects of a cover – mostly because they are less offensive and more biased – sometimes with reason and sometimes without. Top of that list are “floating heads.” I DESPISE a floating heads cover, they are almost always horrible and generally feel exceptionally lazy. Also up there on the list would be the “background/no background cop out cover.” This is when an artist doesn’t commit to no background – with just color or white space, but makes a terrible (half-assed) attempt at a background (see: almost all of Liefeld’s covers). Other pet peeves include cliche shots of superheroes solemnly at the grave of someone and horrible giant artist name plates (another Liefeld sin). I also tend to dislike covers with a character’s face “split in half” – though there are examples of that done really well, and covers with the reflection of a character in something (especially a sword). Again, however, sometimes an artist can nail the reflection idea. Terrible anatomy, posing that’s impossible (even for superheroes), a misunderstanding of perspective as well as how many teeth are in the human mouth, etc. The list of pet peeves go on and on! That said, as with everything, there are exceptions to every rule!

CONTENT - BAD

Guillem March, David Finch, Daniel Acuna, Stephane Roux, Guillem March, and Rob Liefeld.

CREATIVITY

It’s SO hard, especially when dealing with properties that have been around forever and a day to find a new way to express something in such a small space. And yet I see covers every week that blow my mind with their ability to take what we all know so well and turn it on its ear. Simply visual, simply emotional, and frequently both, these covers really go the extra mile in making you think or smile, or be horrified. Whatever their goal, I’m constantly impressed by covers artists abilities to re-invent the wheel with regularity.

CREATIVE

Paolo Rivera, Jock, Gabriel Ba, Matt Kindt, Fiona Staples, and Jock.

COMEDY/CUTENESS/CHARACTERS

Not every book is a great fit for a comedic cover, but man can those issues be fun. I don’t know about you guys, but there are simply not enough laughs in my life, so a cover that can make me chuckle is worth its weight in gold. Whether we’re talking about clever referential recreations like Rebekah Isaacs’ “Angel and Faith” meets “Archie Comics,” simple visual jokes like Geoff Darrow’s Deadpool fighting a dinosaur that seems to be vomiting kittens, or Alan Davis’ old school non-subtle but totally hilarious actual joke on the covers of “Excalibur.”

COMEDY copy

Rebekah Isaacs, Danny Luvisi, Alan Davis, Darwyn Cooke, Geoff Darrow, and Skottie Young.

Maybe it’s the chick in me but I love an adorably cute comic book cover. This of course makes all Skottie Young’s covers very popular in list of things I love. His baby X-Men (etc.) just never get old. But anything that makes me secretly go “awwwww” under my breath and makes me want to actually cuddle it, scores big points. My life needs more fun AND more cuteness.

CUTE

Dustin Nguyen, Skottie Young, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Jill Thompson, Darwyn Cooke, and Skottie Young.

Another thing I’m a real sucker for is a the single character cover. At the end of the day characters are what comics are all about for me, so those standalone, make it work just on the basis of a single character covers strike a tone with me. Even better is when they’re all crazy bold or controversial (I’m looking at you Frank Quitely’s Emma Frost New X-Men cover!). But to be honest, I think I’m as entranced whether they show something unexpected or unique, shining a light on something I didn’t know about a character, or when they simply capture with perfection what I already did know and love about a character.

CHARACTER

Stephanie Hans, Rafael Albuquerque, Fiona Staples, Amy Reeder, Mike Del Mundo, and Frank Quitely.

CHOICES

Bold ones, that is! Sure colors and composition are key, but let’s face it, what helps you sit up and take notice more than a bold cover. A striking color choice, a heroine shown half normal and half stripped down to the bone (literally). The simplicity of just black shadows, headless cartoon women (which you’d think I’d be against – but not when done right!), or buried heroes, and heroes jumping into the gaping mouths of a living island. Whatever it is, unconventional is good. It’s fresh and new and exciting to see artists – both new and old – pushing the form. These covers aren’t always going to be for everyone, but they tend to be some of my favorites.

CHOICE

Ross Campbell, J.H. Williams III, J.P. Leon, Skottie Young, Chris Bachalo, and Mike Allred.

I hear/read people talking about comic covers not being works of art, or not being very impressive with surprising (and distressing) regularity. In some cases I can just assume they don’t really know what they’re talking about and haven’t seen what’s out there – it’s when I see real comics fans dismissing comics covers that I get truly bummed out. Sure, I hate it when a gorgeous illustration is ruined by crappy text or giant “event banners” or worse, movie (etc.) advertising, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reward and celebrate those who are making an effort to get it oh-so-right. There is some truly beautiful and impressive stuff out there – and it deserves praise!

What about you? What kind of categories help define what you look for in a great comic book cover? What are some of your favorites over the last few years? Do you see the comics we have today as innovative and breaking boundaries, or do you feel the classics were best?

 

 

29 Comments

I bought the issue of Angel and Faith you talked about because of Archie Comics tribute cover. I don’t normally buy the Buffyverse comics, but that tribute made me grab that issue. Similarly, I already buy Kevin Keller, but even if I hadn’t, I’d have picked up #5 for the Action Comics tribute cover.

Two other recent covers that really grabbed my attention are Swamp Thing #18 (flowers and pastels with Art Nouveau accents) and Animal Man #18 (Buddy Baker on a black background, screaming, next to the text “This is the most tragic day of in the life of Buddy Baker!”). Given the way these titles were recently linked in the Rotworld storyline, I also thought it interesting that one referenced life on the cover, while the other referenced death.

Oh, I don’t mind comic covers being works of art–there’s some gorgeous covers out there. However, shouldn’t the primary purpose of a cover be a sales pitch? A cover may be pretty, but why do I want to pay $3-4 for what’s inside?

One thing I hated in the early 00s that continues to this day is that every cover was a pinup which told me little to nothing about the book. Most early issues of “Ultimate Spider-Man” exemplified this–most issues had a cover with Spidey web-slinging, which looked nice but told me nothing about the story inside. Same with Bruce Jones’ Incredible Hulk–we had some cute covers that homaged “Where the Wild Things Are” or Norman Rockwell paintings, but said nothing to the story inside.

To that extent, I’m moderately encouraged by DC’s “WTF month,” the poor name notwithstanding. Now that the gatefolds are being revealed, there’s actually buzz about some–I repeat, some–of the books. It strikes me as hearkening back to the Silver Age, where the Flash would be shouting at you–“STOP! If you don’t buy this book, I’ll die!” or something. The six-year-old version of me would probably want to buy that.

JLA #61 http://covers2.cbrd.info/48d740cb434f20ec8b9dd4007e798eb4_l.jpg

Fantastic use of the logo, minimalist background makes the figure work really stand out.

Wolverine Origins #5, Quesada cover http://covers2.cbrd.info/35ab3ae7a8db22fc2e5af5606c5cc780_l.jpg

Strong graphic design elements, and a tasteful yet sumptuous character placement.

I linked to a couple of my favorites, so while I’m waiting for my first post to get approved, I wanted to suggest you rename your column “She Has No Nipples” based on that Guillem March cover with Talia. Just for April Fool’s Day.

I’m really looking forward to Skottie Young’s Thanos Rising #1 variant.

Alan Davis had some great Excalibur humor covers. Brian Bolland is a real master at it too. He has some great ones with Dial H and had some really good ones with Jack of Fables too.

Awesome column!!!!! I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I like when it comes to comic book covers, but I feel like I’m constantly changing my mind or being contradicted by a great cover that breaks my rules.

Still, there are a few cover treatments that I like almost universally. First and foremost, I’m a sucker for covers where the logo is being destroyed. I think it’s the anti-authoritarian in me. I love seeing a comic book wreck its own brand!! JRjr’s Uncanny X-Men #176 and Ron Garney’s Uncanny X-Men #301 are two of my favs.

But then nostalgia also dictates my taste. After seeing certain kinds of covers over the years, some styles really grew on me. Specifically the 70s Marvel comics with the really oppressive trade dress that took up a 1/3 of the cover. I hated it at first, but now I’m really fond of it. I also think that’s because those tended to be story covers, which I really REALLY like. I’m in love with pretty much any of Billy Graham’s Luke Cage: Hero for Hire covers, with my absolute favs being #6, #8, and #15.

But my favorite cover style was popularized in late 80s/early 90s — the catch phrase cover! They’re like a blend of story covers and pin ups… with a corny phrase tossed in for good measure. “Bustin’ Out!!” or “Death in a Distant Dimension!” Stuff like that. These were especially prevalent in the 90s cosmic stuff from Marvel, like Ron Lim’s Silver Surfer and Infinity comics. I’ve replicated this style for my own comics because I dig it so much!! Oh, and there’s Punisher War Journal #19 with the jet ski joke AND catch phrase at the end. So good.

But like I said first, stuff is always breaking the rules for me. I love Quitely’s New X-Men character covers despite the fact that I don’t normally gravitate towards single character pinups because I normally want some story from my covers. And Rob Liefeld’s covers tend to really do it for me despite not fitting into any of the categories I described above. I think his sense of layout must just appeal to my natural taste. Same goes for Ross Campbell’s Glory covers. Something about the mood, lighting, and graphic design really does it for me (even those I’d like them more with corny catch phrases! “Into the Belly of the Beast!” or “Queen of the Hill” would probably increase my love of those covers ten-fold.

And then there’s my favorite comic book cover ever, which doesn’t really fit into any of what I’ve mentioned so far — Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter. I think it’s the perfect blend of funny, bizarre, crisp, clean, and action-packed.

I love that Emma Frost cover, not for the sexiness, but for the pure attitude.

” I love that Emma Frost cover, not for the sexiness, but for the pure attitude. ”

Same here. It’s like she’s trying to give you blue balls with her sneer.

thanks for the TWO inclusions, Kelly!!! :D really great post, i love hearing all your thoughts on this.

my personal favorite type of cover is always the character close-up cover, preferably a face/head/bust shot, especially if the character is confrontational by looking out at the reader, like the Stumptown and DV8 covers here, or even Amy’s Supergirl where her face is right up in yours. that always grabs me when it’s among a bunch of other covers because it’s like you make eye contact with the character and there’s an instant connection, and for me the characters are always the thing i’m most interested in and what better way to get up close and personal right off the bat? i’d do all my own covers that way if i knew people wouldn’t get bored.

the Black Hole cover, coincidentally one of my favorite covers ever, also does this even though it’s not a close-up, but the character looking right out at you with those stark eyes is so strong. plus the flat colors bring it home and that little sliver of salmon pink for the sandwich just kills it. it wouldn’t work half as well if it was rendered any further.

i also love a lot of white space like you do, or a lot of flat color and a smaller figure. some kind of 25%/75% composition.

I do like a good pin-up shot for a team book every now and again. It should be overused, but a good one can really sell the team concept as being cool. And give you a great feel for the book.
Examples:
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/100/3637_20060727235536_large.jpg
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/339/28867_20090519221204_large.jpg
But I don’t care for the posed shot happening very often. And I still want it to relate to what’s going on in the issue. Even in both my examples above, they’re very appropriate to the story inside. I really hate it when a team book shows characters on the cover “not appearing in this issue” or even not appearing together. be representative.

I like changes in perspective in a cover, where the “camera angle” has moved to give you a different look at people.
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/399/54970_20100522185750_large.jpg
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/78/9301_20060526012634_large.jpg
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/30/17408_20051219212854_large.jpg

I like a cover where they done something different than just take a snapshot from something that happened in the issue as well. Something that makes me wonder what’s going on and represents either the tone & content of the story without necessarily being in the issue.
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/100/3663_20060728123602_large.jpg
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/107/4620_20060815142854_large.jpg
http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/63/27232_20060421160825_large.jpg

It’s harder to explain what I don’t like; it’s more I know it when I see it. I don’t like “porn faces”. I don’t like “floating heads”. I’m not a fan of most segmented covers; unless the artist really knows what they’re doing it either gets too busy or looks lazy to me.

I despise the “trade dress” that is being used so often these days. (thanks, Marvel) Or the advertising banner across the top (thanks, DC) Talk about restricting what an artist can do or making a brilliant concept look ordinary. Or even ugly.

I also love it when an artist integrates their signature into the cover somehow. I don’t know why, but I always think it’s cool.

You wanted a separate section for “text integration”? How about Calligraphy, and turn it into the Seven Cs (which also pleases my inner sailor!)

Boy, that Frank Quitely drawing of Emma Frost is so incredibly ugly. I don’t know if Quitely tried to make her sexy, but if he did, he failed spectacularly.

Except if you find alien hermaphrodites sexy. Then that cover would be a dream come true.

That Emma Frost cover is one of my favs by Quitely!!! I think what makes it (and lot a of his other character art) special is that it’s sexy and grotesque at the same time.

Yeah, count me another vote in favor of that Quitely cover.

One thing that’s cool about Marvel Now is that there’s a big push towards more text integration in covers. One of my favorites is this’un: http://media.comicbookmovie.com/images/users/uploads/8073/superior1.jpg

It’s a single, striking image, but it gives you a great idea of what’s going to go on in the issue.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a bad cover.

I just think that drawing is very… let me put it this way, in the bluntest way possible, if I absolutely had to use a comic book cover to get aroused, that would be the last one I’d use. It would kill my hard on as fast as having icy water splashed on my lower regions.

Now, I love Frank Quitely, since I don’t buy comics to serve as masturbation fodder. But in that cover I think he went too far. I would absolutely run away from a creature that looked like Emma Frost in that cover. I don’t know how you could even use the word sexy to refer to it, Nick. Yes, it. That is not a she in the cover, it’s an it.

“But anything that makes me secretly go “awwwww” under my breath and makes me want to actually cuddle it, scores big points.”

And that pretty much sums up how I feel about that Skottie Young Deadpool cover you picked; as a dude, I’m not ashamed to buy comics with characters rendered in a cartoony, adorable way. I’ve never understood why he can be a bit of controversial artist.

Also, Bachalo is not just a great artist, but a brilliant graphic designer; he’s another controversial guy, but I’ve liked his stuff since Gen X. Another guy who came up around the same time that I think is great at doing covers is Joe Madureira; he can do the “kewl” stuff that sells to adolescent boys, but he also knows how to layout a cover and do the old school bit that Silver Age comic covers used to do, where they almost kind of pose a question to the reader to intrigue them into buying the comic, but without actually stating the question.

@ Josh

How could you not use this cover for your second set of examples?!

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/03/Justice_League_1_DC_1987.jpg/250px-Justice_League_1_DC_1987.jpg

This is still my favorite cover of all time; it’s a nice team shot that intentionally goes against the formula, and it works so well that it’s been homaged quite a bit since.

Love this jrjr cover of amazing spider-man
http://www.samruby.com/AmazingSpider-ManE/Large/AmazingSpider-Man484.jpg

And like this Judge Dredd homage to Akira
http://anonymousrain.tumblr.com/image/27337309997

I agree that a cover should sometimes say something about the story, but a mixture if this and pin ups is healthy.

Brilliant article.

Excellent stuff. The reason I got into comics in the first place was because of the covers. I hang my comics on the wall (inside some protective sleeves, don’t panic). In a medium as heavily visual as comics, nothing is more important than a cover. Covers give artists the freedom to really experiment with the character and do things that may not fit into the flow of the regular monthly comic.

I’ve never really thought about why I like or don’t like covers, or have any rules for it, but I seem to agree with most of what you’re saying here.

Quitely is a great artist but his characters are always so ugly.

I’m surprised you don’t specifically mention floating heads as a turn-off. It always is such a standout in Drunken Solicits:p

I really enjoy when a cover can viewed almost as a first panel or splash page. This is the case for the individual Watchmen issues. It makes for a unique experience in that you are reading the story from the moment you look at the issue.

One recent comic that left me really admiring the cover choice was Batman and Robin #18. The cover had a distant meta-textual element to it, in that it had been solicited with a different cover that ended up being a slash page held within the issue. Once I got to that page in the comic, I fond myself flipping back and forth from the page to the cover.

Here’s a side-by-side: http://robpatey.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/batman-and-robin-18-covers.jpg

Of course, in the issue Batman continuously seems to be imagining himself going through his patrol with Robin by his side and we being shown both what he wants to be true and what is actually occurring. The fact that this starts with the cover was a particularly brilliant piece of this amazing story.

In general, I do not like covers with word balloons on them. I think I spotted only 3 or 4 in your images. The exception to my rule is: I like word balloons on covers if what is written is absurd/funny.

@Pat_JG–I own numerous copies of Secret Six vol1 #1 for that very reason; such interesting design, especially for the time.

I find it somewhat ironic that the “cute” Catman voodoo doll cover of Secret Six is from the “Cats in the Cradle” which is an incredibly dark (and fantastic!) character-driven story. What makes it such an awesome cover is how the juxtaposition of the childish and the grotesque fits into the theme and narrative of the story.

For me, that is the hallmark of a great cover: it reflects or illustrates, often abstractly, some key idea or element in the story.

I know Marvel and DC went through a phase of aiming for “iconic character images” for covers, and those can be nice, but the best covers are iconic for the story, not just the character.

[…] Of course, its still lean times for many of us, so maybe take a free bite with Sharkmouth, check out some sexy new Dylan Horrocks, visit the refreshed and much improved Thrillbent (my favourite by some way is Clown in The Mirror), or just Throw Your Keys Away. If you’re feeling really lean, maybe dispense with everything but colour? Actually, now we think of it, all you really need is a few good covers. […]

Anastasia Panina

April 9, 2013 at 10:26 am

Greetings from Russia!

I wonder, does Kelly know that the site Geekster.ru translated her article here (http://geekster.ru/da-ona-zhe-bez-golovy-anatomiya-oblozhek-komiksov/) and made her a man by putiing masculine endings in verbs and nouns instead of feminine ones?..

[…] What Makes a Good Comic Book Cover? (goodcomics.comicbookresources.com) […]

Thanks for the great comments everyone!

@Spidermaniac:

For what it’s worth, that cover is not in the “cute” section but rather in the “comedy” examples. I don’t know if that changes how you feel about it, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

@Anastasia Panina:
Thank you for the heads up – that is indeed a very poor translation – so frustrating! I definitely appreciate your efforts on my behalf! Thank you!

I’m old school. I like my covers to actually have something to do with what’s inside the comic.

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