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On The Other Hand #7 ... The Cover Pitch

Written by Logan on Wednesday, November 02 2016 and posted in Columns

On The Other Hand #7 ... The Cover Pitch

In this issue an Avenger dies!




Here's the Wind-Up ...

The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was Justice League of America #195 (1981). I got it at my local comic book store, the wire rack in the 7-11 next to the elementary school. Like most stores, they didn't appreciate kids staying and reading their magazines for free, so I had to make my choice without looking through it in depth. I only had the cover to go on, but what a cover!

JLofA 195

Except for Cheetah I didn't know who any of those characters were, but I had to have that book! Just look at that image. The artwork is gorgeous, early George Perez at his finest. The Secret Society of Super-Villains, and they appear to be winning...The Justice Society...AND a bonus pin-up? Who could resist that?? Even the outrageous price of 60¢ couldn't deter me.

I fell for the cover pitch completely, and I'm glad I did. That book is still one of my favorite single issues, and some of those unknown villains are now favorites. That bonus pin-up became an iconic group shot. I must have read that mag a hundred times.

Bonus PinUp

The Cliche

I know you're waiting for it, so let's get it out of the way. You can't judge a book by its cover. One cannot discuss the art of the cover these days without at least mentioning it. Today everyone knows what the ubiquitous idiom means in the proverbial sense, but the origin of the phrase was more literal.

The origin is credited to the 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. "They was all bound alike,—it's a good binding, you see,—and I thought they'd be all good books. ... they've all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o' one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn't judge by th' outside. This is a puzzlin' world." The sentiment is there, but the quote isn't quite right.

The first appearance of the line with the more familiar phrasing comes from the June 1967 newspaper Piqua Democrat. "Don't judge a book by its cover, [or] see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a jacket and yaller pants." The saying became popular when it appeared in the 1946 mystery Murder in the Glass Room by Lester Fuller and Edwin Rolfe: "You can never tell a book by its cover."

Here's the thing about comic books: sometimes you have to judge a book by its cover; it is all you have. I have fond memories of sorting through the racks at 7-11, but I rarely got more than a look at the cover before deciding if I wanted it or not. There was no comic book store, no trade magazine, and no internet chat to turn to. The cover had to tell me everything I needed to know and give me a reason to buy it.

... And the Pitch!

The comic book cover was a sales pitch. It was a collaboration between the artist and the editor designed to grab the attention of the potential customer. More than that, it was a chance for the book's artist to grab a little spotlight. Hard as it is to believe these days, the interior artist and the cover artist used to be the same person. The cover gave the artist a chance to flex their muscles in a larger image with more creative freedom.

It didn't really matter if the cover accurately portrayed the story inside as long as it grabbed you. (Movie trailers still subscribe to this theory of marketing far too often.) The Silver Age produced a lot of incredible, but misleading covers. Hell, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane depended on this for their books. And some of those covers were... wow, how to describe them? Well, you just need to see them.

Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane Covers

Now tell me you don't want to know what's going on inside that book. I dare you. You can't. Of course you want to know! I used to love walking through the comic book shops that had these classics on the wall. Why is Batman a gorilla? How did the Flash get so fat? I wanted to read them all. I could easily waste an entire day just browsing those covers, covers to comics I knew I would never own.

One book in particular really caught my eye, and I still remember it vividly. I was around 11 or 12 years old when we got our first real comic book store in Petaluma. The Comic Book Box was a tiny little shop that used to be somebody's tiny little home. Every last inch of wall space was covered by a prized comic book in a protective bag. On the wall behind the counter were the most expensive books. The book I focused on was Alpha Flight #12, "And One Shall Surely Die!" and it was priced at $10. I didn't even read Alpha Flight at that time, but I really wanted that book. (Besides, I heard the older kids saying, "I can't believe they killed him!")

AlphaFlight12

As a kid, money was tight and there was no way I was going to pay $10 for one comic book. I couldn't afford much in the comic book shops, so I turned to what would soon become my favorite part of the store: the quarter box.

In the quarter box, the cover is king. You'll see a lot of titles, many of which are completely alien. I never heard of some of those books, but I was intrigued enough to grab several. Sometimes they were clunkers (they were in the quarter box, after all) but sometimes they were gold. I met Bill Willingham's Elementals in the quarter box, and the Justice Machine, and Mr. Monster, and so many more.

The Process

The greatest prize in in my uncle's comic book cache was the battle of the century, Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man, the greatest superhero team-up of all time! DC and Marvel presented this once in a lifetime event. It was an oversized behemoth of a book for an exorbitant price--$2.00! Even if you haven't read the book, I'm sure you've seen this image before.

Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man

Today, though, I want to direct you to a particular part of the book, the inside of the back cover, the page that explains "How this famous cover was born." The page has a series of preliminary sketches by Carmine Infantino with notes on what worked and what didn't work. The result was a masterpiece by Ross Andru and Dick Giordano. I had seen hundreds of covers, but this was the first time I really thought about how they were designed.

How this famous cover was born

Years later, I received the classic How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way for Christmas. Legendary artist John Buscema created this one. It's filled with great design advice as well as basic drawing techniques. Chapter 11 discusses the comic book cover. Once again we get preliminary sketches with notes and ideas as the creation process went along. (And once again Spider-Man is being attacked by a flying hero. Coincidence?) Unlike the other feature, however, Buscema also discusses the importance of the cover in making a sale. "If it doesn't cause you to pick it up, it means one lost sale."

Buscema on covers

The Cover Artist

Jack Kirby drew some amazing covers. He once said that it was his favorite part of the book and his ideal job would be to draw covers all day. He loved creating them and it showed. Today, his dream has come true. The cover artist is now a regular job in the industry. I always feel a little bad for the interior artists today that don't get to do covers.

The advent of the cover artist is a mixed blessing. The artistic value of covers has gone way up, but the marketing value has gone way down. I honestly cannot remember the last time a cover really grabbed me. Looking through the Cover of the Week threads I usually see some great art but very few make me wonder what's going on inside. They're not covers, they're posters. I'm not saying that to be melodramatic, that is legitimately what they are created for.

Some years ago I attended an artist panel at a convention on the subject of covers. (I can't remember who all of the artists were, but I want to say Adam Hughes was the big name.) It was an eye-opening panel. Several artists admitted that they often draw covers without ever seeing the script. They may not even know the story. This is what they get:

EDITOR: "We need a cover for Batpool #29."

ARTIST: "Ok, what's the story?"

ED: "No idea."

ART: "Who's writing it?"

ED: "No idea."

ART: "Who's drawing it?"

ED: "No idea. We can't plan that far ahead. Just give us a good pose, something exciting with no dialogue that can go on a poster. And boobs."*

*Paraphrased slightly.

And that's how the modern cover gets commissioned. (What, you thought all those variant issue cover artists actually read the book?) With certain notable exceptions, today's covers are largely designed to be posters, shirts, toys, and other merchandise. They don't exist to pitch the story.

The Big Change

To be fair, they don't need to anymore. The industry has changed so much that covers are no longer the primary contact point for the customer. We have a steady stream of comic book news, reviews, previews, and interviews that we didn't have before. Entire pages can be released as the pitch now. Customers can (and do) pre-order the books without ever seeing the covers. They already know the characters, the creative team, the general storyline, and the surprise twist ending to the issue after this one.

To be sure, I am not saying the covers today are ugly (mostly), just that they serve a different purpose. A current trend I quite like is when covers create an identity for the series. Taken individually, the cover may be neat or pretty, but not special. However, when the covers are seen together the effect is breathtaking. Take a look at Hawkeye.

Hawkguy Covers

The artist, David Aja, performs this service for Scarlet Witch As well. The covers are gorgeous. And yet, I don't think I have ever voted for one in the Cover of the Week poll. Taken individually, they don't make me curious about the story. Not like a gorilla playing the drums does. (That's not just me. Comic sales spike when there's an ape on the cover.)

The Poster Boy

I don't know exactly when the covers turned to poster images instead of sales pitches, but I have a theory. The first cover image that I remember seeing everywhere was from Wolverine #1 (1982). Long before Wolverine became the poster boy for oversaturation, he starred in a single four issue mini-series. This is the book that gave us his immortal catchphrase, "I'm the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn't very nice." Frank Miller's cover art is gorgeous. It is not difficult to figure out why it was so popular.

wolverine-number-1-frank-miller

Notice, though, that there are no words beyond the title, nothing to disrupt the image. The picture has an elegant simplicity that lends itself to re-creation. It was on posters. It was on shirts. It was on coffee mugs. It was even painted on the wall of my local store, Golden Apple Comics. Just one more thing to blame on Wolverine.

Fade to Black

The creation of the cover pitch is a vanishing art. Cover text and blurbs are seen as anachronistic and outdated. Just think of what the hobby would be without them, though. Phrases like "And one shall surely die!" or "Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!" or "Wha..? YOU!!" would never have entered our regular lexicon. That cover text is a hell of a lot better than "Special Collector's Edition!"

Ironically, the poster image covers were a staple of the Golden Age. You have probably seen at least a few covers that were cute but had nothing to do with the inside. World's Finest was especially famous for this.

World's Finest Covers

Comic book covers went from the poster to the pitch and back to the poster. It's an interesting cycle. Will we go back to the pitch in the future? No idea. But I hope so. I miss that feeling I used to get when I walked into the local comic book shop, that feeling that I needed every book I saw. I miss the thrill of seeing how big the comic book universe really was, and I wanted to know everything.

Until the art of the pitch comes back, we must rely upon snarky comic book websites to help us decide which comics deserve our money. My strategy is pretty simple these days: I just look for the Skottie Young covers.

"On The Other Hand" is a column of unrepentant nostalgia. The author notes that horror comics were always good at the cover pitch, a tradition that continues to this day.

Not you!




 


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