Monday, 12 May 2014

What's in a cover?

I was reading an article on trade dress on comic covers last week, and I thought it might be fun to pull off a few books from my shelves with great covers and discuss them here. I don't have a great deal of 'floppies' (serialised comic issues)- the vast majority of my collections is collected editions and graphic novels, but still I was surprised- actually taken aback- by how few covers stood out once I began looking though them for a few to highlight here (perhaps I don't own many well-designed books!). Sure, part of that is down to subjective choice and aesthetic preference -looking at the ones I've collated below, it would appear I have a tendency to favour pared back or pattern-focused visuals, but I do think a striking image or design transcends that personal leaning. When you boil down elements such as composition, colour, font, creativity, etc., that essentially translates into having a cover that will stand out when sitting amongst other books on display in a store. I don't think it's absolutely necessary for a cover to even indicate content; a strong cover will make the reader pick up the book on the quality of the visuals alone. As informed as many comic fans are, when you're looking for a comic you're already aware of, or the new title by your favourite author, the cover image isn't really going to come into play as much- I guess I'm talking more here about any person going in blind into a store and looking for something to read. 

You'd think comics, being a visual medium would boast a ream of superb covers... but, I don't know. Anyway, here are some of my favourites:

Leviathan by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, Rebeliion/2000AD: The contrast of the orange and black colour scheme works really well here, as does the that tall blocky font for the title, nicely placed at the bottom (simultaneously emphasising the upwards reaching direction of the hand and the eerie depths of the ocean), but the size and fiery design of it lend it prominence. I don't usually like black background covers, but there's an ominous facet to it here, with that centrally placed huge hand reaching up from within the depths of the blackness to the strip of bright orange across the top. Upon closer inspection, you can also see hundreds of little floating ghost-like figures swimming in there, too- they're subtly done, the kind of thing you might not even notice at first glance, but that works- if they were embossed with a more vibrant colour or depth, it would make the whole thing busy and overwhelming.

Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim, First Second: While I'm not entirely sold on the cut out, pasted together paper nature of the title font (or really any of the fonts here), that aside, this is a wonderful cover, and one that is much more effective when viewed in person. The minty blue background is refreshing and the transparent dust jacket gives it another dimension- I'm surprised we don't see more of people playing around with the design of dust jackets. With the jacket on, the book's got an almost 3-D quality to it, you can see the characters behind it, looking out at the aquarium of fish, with the reader on the other side. When it's removed they're looking straight at you, and has a nice, clean feel to it, allowing the blue to come into it's own more.

Strange Tales 2 anthology, Marvel, cover image by Kate Beaton: This is a good example of a simple but effective cover, for me. Light grey background that's kept from boring-ness by that vivid red spine, a nifty mirror title font and an interesting central image. The font and the image make up the focal point of the cover- placed closely together to draw the eye, yet carefully breaking up the grey so there's not a vast swathe of it at either the top or the bottom. While it may sound daft, it's more difficult than it looks to have mirror font which you can read straightaway, but it's instantly legible here, and the decision to use a muted blue, instead of introducing another vibrant colour next to the red is the right one. The movement and character in Beaton's lines is apparent in even a small a illustration as this, and it's all pulled together by  the touches of yellow, outlining the title, boxing off the 'tales' and picked up in Thot's hair, boots, belts and hammer.

Approximate Continuum Comics by Lewis Trondheim, Fantagraphics: I sorta love covers and images like this- conversely simple and intricate (here's a fantastic one by Dilraj Mann). The trick is either to keep them black or white, or like Trondheim (or whoever made the call) here, give them a single colour wash and keep the lines clear and simple (no intense detailing, most of the shirts are kept plain, with a navy or checked one thrown in now and again to break up the uniformity), so as not to complicate and crowd the picture. The orange is a good choice, giving the book a point of interest  -black and white may have been a bit too stark- without it being overly bright. The octagonal book-plate used for the title and author/publisher credentials plays further into the doodled exercise book sensibility- if we could all doodled like Trondheim cartoons, that is!  

Blue by Pat Grant, Top Shelf: I have a weak-spot for landscape comics, and Grant's Blue is a beautiful one. It's a testament to the power of Hokusai's iconic Great Wave of Kanagawa that almost any stylised ocean picture will recall his work of art, but Grant holds his own here, capturing the hypnotism of the sea in the textured froth and lines of the waves. Like the Trondheim cover above, that rhythmic grain is compounded by a pattern-like repetition of image, while the strips of brown on the side are a wise choice, preventing all the blue and white from feeling too cold and clinical, but also maintaining tonal consistency. The banded vertical title gives precedence to the picture, although the size of the sponge-blocked font makes it hard to miss. I feel the band could have been narrower and the font smaller- more elegant, in keeping with the rest of the cover and it would have worked even better.

Pinocchio by Winshluss, Knockabout: Winshluss' cover to the absolutely masterful Pinocchio is probably the most busiest one on this list, bringing together a myriad number of influences: a stained glass-like window feature crossed with gargoyles and tattoo elements- the roses, birds with eightball heads. It has a lot going on, but it manages to navigate the reader to the important bits first- Pinocchio is front and center in a richly coloured royal blue oblong, picked out by silver foil himself (which hasn't pictured at all, sadly), with the little bit of green sky on the horizon there giving it nice punch. The symmetrical panels on either side have the grey cogs of machinery in the background, with little ghost figures escaping from within, and the whole thing bordered by carved gothic stonework of skulls and worms. Despite all the detail, the foremost aspects you're drawn to are the two most vibrantly coloured: the title, emblazoned in an ornate, flaming turquoise and yellow, placed across the lower section, and the blue oblong with a marching Pinocchio in the middle. The grey. pink and jade are all rendered in muted shades to avoid clashing and a fight for attention.


Col-Dee by Jordan Crane: Just because something is smaller in size doesn't mean it's less deserving of the trappings ( a book cover isn't a trapping, but it's late, so I'm rolling with it). I was going to love a comic that's superficially about a broken vending machine which supplies endless cans of pop without taking your money regardless, but this being Crane every aspect of it is meticulously thought out and implemented. Col-Dee has a gorgeous little french-flapped dust jacket, made from a lovely thick-grained paper (important- paper stock and quality is always important), with the cover a-proper made from a nice cardboard. 

The dust jacket cover has a thick band of bright yellow across the bottom with the title and Crane's name picked out in white cursive- the colour a reference to pop in both its art and soda forms. The top section has a light blue liquid background with bubbles rising up, and an unblemished, open can of fizzy pop from which it's pouring. The back cover and the french flaps show the can in various stages of being crushed. The actual cover is beautiful: flattened circles of eggshell blue shot though with navy blue stalks on a steel blue background. the whole aesthetic is continued inside with water-splashed dots on the end-papers and blue linework. It's a superb example of incredibly strong design executed perfectly.

The Three Paradoxes by Paul Hornschemeier, Fantagraphics: Hornschemeier's cover is very abstract and unusual in one sense, and probably the sort of thing I'd imagine people warn against having, but at the same time it's so utterly comicky and the cartooning so appealing, I can't help but love it. it's divided into three sections- a band across the top with the beginning of the title, a car on the open road with the sky and clouds above, and the bottom section split into two by a horizontal band down the middle containing the rest of the title in a rounded, bubbled font. The split panels each show a pair of leg walking (the bodies cut off by the top 'panel' so that their heads are 'lost' in the clouds) cut off by- again the symmetry, and repetition, a sense of movement, the pops of colour via the orange shorts and red shoes. It's the least traditional cover here, but the symmetry and clean, uncluttered cartooning help anchor it.

I don't want to end this piece on a bullet point of 'so you see so-and-so maketh a good cover,' because if anything, I think the different approaches on display illustrate how many routes are available when creating a strong, eye-catching image that draws people in, and yet we do still seem to get a remarkable amount of lack-luster comic book covers- it's not even something that calls for experimentation, necessarily- just thought and consideration. Covers are such an important facet of a book and one I really wish more time and attention was devoted to.