This is the third season of a column that judges a book by its cover. Catch up on the current season here, or view the complete archive.

Welcome to BY ITS COVER: LEGACYBIRTH, where we return with our original format, but update the logo for 2018!

But before I get to the comics, lets look at some movie posters. One of the most influential painters of our time is Drew Struzan, who illustrated an amazing number of movie posters a lot of us grew up with. He’s probably best known for his endlessly imitated floating head collages.

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What imitators often don’t pick up on is that his most effective collages are successful for two reasons:

  1. There’s a focal point that immediately grabs our eye and draws us in, capable of being spotted from across the room.
  2. There’s a visual hierarchy and flow that leads our eye around the image.

The focal point of the INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM poster is Indy’s face. It might seem comically large when viewed up close, but it’s effective precisely because you could immediately see it when walking into a theater lobby. You’d probably walk up to it to take a closer look.

From there, Indy’s eyes point us to the left. The verticality of the villain’s body sends us down to the logo. Reading the logo left-to-right, we end at the bottom image, and the faces lead us back up to Indy. Some people who start at Indy’s face might look at the other faces first, but you almost inevitably wind up turning back and going on this counter-clockwise path.

HOOK does a similar thing. The focal point is the two largest faces, where we might linger awhile because both figures are looking at the hook. But Hook is turned slightly left, which starts us on this path of objects all lined up, just waiting for us to follow it down and around to the logo. And once we get to the logo, we want to look at the focal point again.

The reason this is so effective is because the posters aren’t in a hurry to let us go. The elements are arranged to try and keep us within the composition as long as possible, rather than sending us off to the next poster.

This can also be done with single-figure compositions using lighting. We’re drawn to areas of light surrounded by darkness, so if you want to keep someone inside the composition, just make sure all four edges are darker than the focal point. This technique has been used by everyone from classical painters to modern game designers to subtly lead you around.

Not that I’m saying every cover should fade into darkness, just that framing your subject with darker objects can be an effective tool.

Here’s an example from this week. The bottom of the image fades to black in order to guide us up to Superman’s chest and face, while also adding depth to the flying figures. The cover is beautifully drawn by Jenny Frison, but the composition itself isn’t quite working. Wonder Woman is the focal point, and her gaze keeps leading me right off the page and over to the next book on the stand.

I think the circular background design and WW’s hair were meant to subtly lead us down to Superman, but they’re not strong enough elements to break such a hard-right pointer. It’s possible that if the composition was flipped, the DC logo block would stop us from leaving the page and we’d look down at Superman, but it’s not the most elegant solution.

And I don’t mean to pick on Frison. Composing a nice flow is a problem that comes up in a lot of movie posters as well.

I mean, what can I even say about this poster? There is no path and no flow. This is a design that requires patience from the viewer, and I believe the designer should be putting in more work than the viewer.

In my opinion, this is the best of the AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR full-cast posters, and it still struggles. This image is by Paul Shipper, hands down my favorite modern Struzan imitator. In particular, he does a fantastic job of using color in a way that invokes classic mid-period Drew Struzan. But a few of the characters are directing us to leave the image, and the composition itself is more of a web than a path, which feels exhausting to look at. Most viewers won’t linger if it feels like effort is involved.

So if you want to design an effective comic cover, don’t point the viewer to the next cover. Draw them in and trap them. Place them in a psychic labyrinth that’s so satisfying to wander that their only escape is to pick up the book and take a look inside.

This Week’s Covers

Every week I pick a handful of covers that I consider particularly well-designed, not just well-illustrated. My personal criteria for a well-designed cover is that the illustration and design elements compliment each other rather than fight each other, and that the resulting image stands out from the crowd.

THE ONE #3 by Rick Veitch

The state of superhero covers hasn’t changed a ton since the last column. A lot of covers that are too busy to easily read across the room (or as a thumbnail image), without a clear focal point or color palette.

THE ONE #3 was the very first cover that jumped out at me this week. I mean, it’s not very exciting. In fact, it’s the opposite of exciting. It’s anti-exciting. But it’s bold in its lack of excitement, and looks completely unlike anything else on the shelf.

 

EXILES #1 (VARIANT) by Mike McKone

This is definitely a cover that can be seen across the room. It’s also stylish and full of attitude.

My one nitpick is that I feel like something more creative could’ve been done with the logo, and it feels a little off balance with so much in the upper right and nothing in the upper left. This also might’ve worked well as a textless cover.

 

 

THE ART OF EDENA by Moebius

You can’t go wrong with Moebius.

I love the perfectly round bubble, and that’s its centered horizontally. I could imagine this as an album cover, sans-text, with the bubble in the exact center.

My only complaint is that the title lettering gets a little hard to read against those light greens. It could used a thin, solid drop-shadow just to define the shapes a little more.

 

COLD WAR #3 by Hayden Sherman

Like the EXILES cover, this jumps out because it’s very big and bold. I like the limited, high-contrast palette.

 

 

 

 

CLOVER HONEY: ARTIST’S CUT by Rich Tommaso

Does this look too much like a Critereon Collection cover, or just enough like one? It’s the tab along the right edge that really does it. But it’s not like Critereon has a monopoly on tabs along a side or anything. I like it.

The title treatment is a little funky. I kept trying to figure out if it was called RICH TOMMASO’S 1995 CLOVER HONEY, or RICH TOMMASO’S CLOVER 1995 HONEY, etc. “1995” is not part of the title, just the year it was published. I would’ve tried to find a different place for that.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA #700 by Chris Samnee

The image on the left is an earlier preview version that’s floating around online. I’m so glad they dropped the Legacy trade dress on this one, because I feel like those were destroying the excellent covers Samnee did during this run.

I really like this triangular composition, putting the focus on Cap at the top. The group portion could flow a little better, but it’s alright. It does help keep the focus on Cap.

I feel like more could’ve been done with the logo placement. It looks like they wanted the logo small, but still wanted Cap to overlap it, and this was the compromise. But I kind of want to see it taken to one extreme or the other, either gigantic or mini.

Please excuse the sloppiness of these quick mock-ups.

I think these are both more exciting, but I could go either way. A third option might be a transparent version of the giant logo.

Do you have a preference?

7 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry, but I prefer the original released logo to the two revisions you made. The larger lettering makes Cap’s figure harder to see, and the smaller lettering doesn’t do enough to sell the title.
    The outside edges of the poster don’t necessarily have to go to black, which does seem to be a favorite trend these days. The vignette shapes can be enough in of themselves to hold the eye. Examples can be found in great poster illustrators like Frank McCarthy, Howard Terpning, or Yves Thos.

  2. I agree, the sloppy mock-up of the giant logo does make him hard to see. But that’s partly because the line weight of the letters is so much thicker than the line weight around Cap. Objects closer to use should have a thicker line, and doing the reverse creates an uncomfortable effect. If I were doing this for real, I’d try making the logo lines a little thinner to match Cap, the way the medium size one does.

    If you think the small logo doesn’t do enough to sell the title, you’re really going to hate when I talk about textless covers next week. ;-)

  3. I like the small logo version quite a lot. You really don’t need a logo to sell this comic, especially with Cap himself standing at a pinnacle like that. I do have some questions about the figures below Cap, though. I think you are right that they could have been organized with a more Struzan-ish strategy. Is the Thing leaning on something, or digging the Hulk in the ribs? And the woman on the far right – her glowing seems to unbalance the other figures, who are more traditionally presented in ink with flat colors. Otherwise a fine cover, quite dramatic, and very eye-catching.

  4. Great breakdown of cover design. Personally, I’ve been re-reading a lot of older comics recently and I can’t help but compare the covers to today’s comics’ covers. It just seems like the “average” cover of the 60s or 70s was a lot more interesting than the average cover of today’s comics. I thought that my problem was with content – a lot more covers nowadays seem to be “character standing/character sitting/character standing next to another character or group of characters,” which is a bit more boring than the action-packed covers of yesteryear. Now I realize that maybe the “character(s) standing” cover can work, but it needs more attention to composition.

  5. “It just seems like the “average” cover of the 60s or 70s was a lot more interesting than the average cover of today’s comics.”

    In the 60s and 70s, covers had to jump off crowded newsstands and entice kids and casual readers. That changed when the direct market became dominant in the 80s. Covers could be more sedate, because fans and collectors were going to buy it anyway, regardless of what the cover looked like.

    I loved (and still love) Gene Colan’s “symbolic” covers of the late ’60s. This one enticed me to buy it as a kid:

    https://www.comics.org/issue/21727/cover/4/

  6. That Daredevil cover by Colan is one of my favorites. There’s something about Doctor Doom and Daredevil that makes for great covers – I think Paolo Rivera had a pretty memorable cover featuring those characters for an issue of Waid’s run (Rivera is great, by the way – I feel like his whole run of DD covers had a wonderful balance of eye-catching style and intriguing content).

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