There was a time not so long ago when it was Marvel policy that every cover should have a single iconic figure, and no direct relevance to the story in that given issue. And fans far and wide screamed about it–yet it did nothing to hurt sales overall. And now that we’ve returned to mixing up the cover approach, it hasn’t materially affected sales either. I regularly hear from a small group of people who don’t like the mostly-iconic covers we’ve been running on NEW AVENGERS, but those covers clearly have not been hurting the sales on that book–and the more story-driven covers on, say, THING didn’t materially increase the sales on that book.
The place where cover art can help or hurt your book’s sales these days is really the Previews catalogue, the tool that retailers and readers use to advance order their books. So it’s not like the cover art is irrelevant or anything. But even within that venue, just having a strong image isn’t enough in most cases to sell the magazine–other factors such as story content, creative team, relevance to the larger Marvel Universe, and the amount of coverage given seem to be more important elements in making a decision for most retailers and fans. I’d hazard a guess that, were we to solicit a new ULTIMATE project with, let’s say, Brian Bendis writing and Greg Land penciling, but we didn’t show any image at all, it would still be ordered quite well–retailers would be very upset with us, because they hate having to take a position on any title without the maximum amount of information they can get, but I expect that most of them would weigh the factors they did have–especially if the story content promised important elements for the ULTIMATE line–and would order acordingly.
Matt also calls this out, since it’s a pretty stark reminder that the comic book industry is run on a generally content free basis. Which isn’t to say that people don’t prefer good stories and art, but it’s all creator and company brand names that sell books, and anything else is an extremely uphill battle. The system remains indifferent to impulse purchases and marketing to new readers. Granted, more people than ever are already hooked on the product, but it’s a sobering thought.