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Judging By The Cover #1: What Sells A Cover

Written by Scary Cleve on Thursday, October 27 2016 and posted in Columns

Judging By The Cover #1: What Sells A Cover

So, what is good comic cover art anyway?

Source: Midtown Comics

Hello and welcome to Judging By The Cover, a new column where I talk about one of the most important aspects of comics: Cover Art.

You ever heard the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover?" Yeah, that's bullshit. You think anyone would have gone to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre without its infamous poster of Leatherface? What about those Mary Grandpre covers for the Harry Potter books that invoked the magic of the series?

Covers are important in suggesting content and convincing you to buy it. In order for that to happen, unless you know what the content is beforehand, the cover has to be something pretty snazzy.

This is no more apparent than in comics, a medium where on the front and on the back, whether it's a single issue ongoing or an elephant-size graphic novel, the images have to convince a reader to spend their hard-earned blood money on your four-colored crap, or black and white crap if you're cheap (Read: artistic).

At first, I thought this column would be picking covers that showed up each week and declaring which were good or bad, but that's boring. Any review can tell you that. Hell, just because a cover is good doesn't mean it's a good comic. It could be Dave McKean on the outside and Kukuruyo on the inside.

Instead, Judging By The Cover will be about various aspects of comic cover art, including the technical, artistic, and critical. Yes, that means I might tell you if a cover is problematic (SJWs roll that way, y'know?). You have been warned.

Today, we will be discussing the question of what sells a cover?

With all the comics coming out on shelves each week, a comic's cover art has to stand out from the rest. It's got to send signals to the discerning eye of the potential buyer and hypnotize them. You waaaaaant this. You doooooo.

So, what sells a cover? Truth is I wonder that myself. I would like to say that what attracts me to a cover is creativity and uniqueness. Anything that doesn't live up to this criteria is uninteresting.

For example, this Aquaman cover by Brad Walker:

Aquaman 5


It's a well drawn cover with detailed scenery and image composition, but I find it generic to what is typical in modern superhero comics.

David Finch Batman


Although this Batman cover by David Finch might have some differences, it is a similar aesthetic to Brad Walker: dark-toned colors, intense action, overblown muscular physique, etc. This kind of cover I see a lot to the point they all blur together. These covers don't interests me as a consumer so I don't by the books.

If I can think of a cover that does attract my eye, it's this:

Descender 14


At first, this cover by Dustin Nguyen might not seem like a remarkable cover. Just a robot on a white background. Upon closer examination, however, there are little details like rust, nuts, bolts, dirt, cracks, and imperfections to the robot's design. More impressive is the fact this little guy is colored with 100% watercolor. Yep, that's right. The entire comic is colored this way, no digital whatsoever. You can even see the texture of the watercolor paper this puppy was printed off of. I consider this impressive. It isn't that digital is uncreative, but I'm amazed Nguyen used a traditional technique for an ongoing monthly.

It also helps how experimental the comic's art is. This cover might give the notion the comic is hyper-realistic like the previous superhero covers, and there are indeed parts of the comic with extreme attention to detail, but this is balanced out by the more expressionistic character designs and surreal sci-fi images. 



Nguyen is not concerned with representing reality so much as presenting a unique world beyond the limits of imagination. This catches my eye more than Walker or Finch.

However, when I originally purchased this book, it wasn't because of Dustin Nguyen's art. I had been aware of him, but never paid much attention. I bought this book because of the writer Jeff Lemire who I'm a big fan of. I love Nguyen's art now, but I don't know if I would have read Descender if not for the Lemire recognition.

This really muddles my own criteria of what sells a cover. How can I say that it was the cover art when I had previously recognized the writer, not the artist? Did I even really notice the art? It even works where I might not to pick up a book.

Briggs Land


I really like this cover by Ryan Kelly, but the series is written by Brian Wood, a writer I dislike. I won't buy the book for this reason. If such a factor plays in, can one really say that what sells a cover is solely the art? What about price, brand recognition, etc.? If these factors due play a role in purchasing a comic, then the question of what sells a cover has to go deeper.

Let's pull back for a minute and just assume for a second that art solely determines comic purchases. Say that you're a first time comics reader. If you were going in a shop with very little knowledge of the medium, no recognition of creator names, what would you pick up?

Looking back when I first started buying comics regularly, one of my first purchases was Preacher Vol. 1: Gone to Texas.

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I won't lie and say that this purchase came without previous influences. Growing up, I read mostly children and superhero comics, some manga, and read a little bit about comics history. I wouldn't say that I was in love with comics though. Their presence were on again, off again in my childhood, not as absorbing as video games, TV, movies, and books. If anything, books were my first true love before comics. I loved reading, especially horror novels. It wasn't until Preacher I loved comics.

I picked up Preacher in my senior year of high school. I had seen the Watchmen movie, liked it, and read the graphic novel soon after. I think the reason I enjoyed it so much was that the original comic was similar to the books I had been reading at the time: dark, adult, taboo, and asking serious questions about the world. After reading Watchmen, I became interested in reading more comics, so I headed over to a local comic book shop and looked for similar titles. I picked up some recent Marvel and DC superhero books and was disappointed. Compared to Watchmen, these comics were generic and offered no substance. Just meaty dudes in costumes beating the shit out of each other. Bland art, confusing storylines, lack of character, and the fact I had to read previous issues to catch up with the story was a bad first experience.

I almost gave up on comics until two caught my eye. They were reprints of the first issues of The Planetary and Preacher. The cover for The Planetary seemed a bit like a superhero cover, but it looked cool enough to attract my eye. Preacher was different. It did not look like a superhero cover. In fact, it didn't look like any comic cover I had seen before. It had a painted quality, and the imagery was dark and foreboding like the horror novels I enjoyed reading before comics. Both covers had a logo over them: "After Watchmen, What's Next?" This was a marketing campaign that took place during the Watchmen movie release where DC advertised books of similar quality. Still enraptured with Watchmen, I picked up both issues.

At first, I enjoyed The Planetary more. It was similar to Watchmen where it seemed that the superheroes were more serious and had 3-dimensional characterization. Preacher was unique though. First, the interior art was different to the cover art. I didn't know that could happen in comics. Just like the cover art by Glenn Fabry, the interior art  by Steve Dillon was gritty with rough-looking character designs and slasher movie blood spatter. There were also multiple uses of the word "fuck." And by multiple, I mean an angsty 15-year-old South Park fan's worth of them. I didn't know you could say "fuck" in comics. Not even Watchmen had that. Definitely like something I would read in Stephen King. However, I still preferred The Planetary. I was stuck in a superhero haze and only wanted to read what was familiar. However, with The Planetary not around at my local shop, I picked up Preacher Volume 1 instead.

To this day, I am thankful I chose the latter. Preacher was unlike anything else. It had blood, gore, nudity, sex, depravity, foulness, and blasphemy rolled into an X-rated epic. It wasn't just shit and giggles though. The series challenged my long held religious beliefs enough that I've become an agnostic since then. It gave me a deep suspicion of authority figures and the idea of accepting an authoritative figure at face value just because of their supposed superiority. In many ways, it helped shape who I am today.

After reading Preacher, I became a hardcore comics fan, especially indie titles. It also inspired me to write comics. A lot. Like a crazy, scary amount of them. Wonder why I'm cuckoo for comics? Mother. Fucking. Preacher.

But what about Preacher sold it to me? The past few paragraphs I think hint at this: the "After Watchmen" ad, the content itself, and the challenge to my personal beliefs. But did the art play into it? After all, I was originally going for Planetary, and a first glimpse at Preacher didn't sell it to me. It was only after I committed to reading it entirely that the comic grabbed my attention.

Could it have been the cover art? I would say partially yes. The cover art is indeed unlike anything else. Glenn Fabry's classical paint quality with religious symbols framed in a subversive manner have that taboo and rebellious quality. It was also cool how the cover art related to the story, not just a hint but a representation of an actual scene from the book. Sometimes, it was a scene from the story that doesn't appear in the interior. I found this creative and unique. The art had more of a purpose other than to look cool.

Another thing that fascinated me was the fact the cover art was different from the interior art. Until Preacher, all the comics I had read had covers and interiors done by the same artist. Far away from clashing with each other as some cover/interior art combos do, Preacher's artists complimented each other. Steve Dillon's interiors matched with Glenn Fabry: dark, gritty, and subversive. Same thing with Garth Ennis' writing. This was a comic that fully envisioned the taboo, violent world from the creators. It was a perfect package.

Preacher's covers certainly fit into my creative and unique criteria, and they influenced the kind of covers I seek now. However, there is still no escaping the fact other biases came into play. Taste, as much as I would like to say so, is not solely dictated by just looking at art and deciding if you like it or not. I'm still not sure if I would have gotten into Vertigo and other indie comics without the "After Watchmen" ad. And it's not like creativity and uniqueness are solely the place of indie comics. Plenty have awful, generic art, and many mainstream superhero comics have brilliant art.

Even though making the best cover art will always be a significant factor in selling a comic and what I will judge what to buy or ignore, other factors will be part of the decision-making process. Those factors include author/artist recognition, genre taste, brand recognition, price, etc. Maybe it would be best to think critically on what really sells a cover.

What about you, readers? What sells a comic for you? Is it even the cover? Tell me in the comments below. I would really like to know.

That's all for now. Check back next time when I talk about creative homogeneity.




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About the Author - Scary Cleve

All his life, Scary Cleve wanted to write gruesome stories in a grim Scottish castle while sipping whiskey and contemplating his existential angst. Instead, he ended up living in Florida, so he does all this with a tan. He's been a life long fan of comics and plans on writing some. Until that day, he writes and edits about comics over at PopOptiq under the guise of Ben Howard, and he's more than happy to spread his filth to the Outhouse. Other interests include horror movies, heavy metal, and writing screenplays and occasional short stories.
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