By Jeff Alan Polier
A comicbook’s front cover is almost always going to be the first thing that a potential reader will see. As the saying goes, ever issue is somebody’s first. The cover needs to be the first step in convincing them that this issue, right here, is the one to buy. There are many of readers, especially these days, who are already buying and will be buying a specific title regardless of what the cover looks like. Even they deserve a good, professional cover.
I guess that it’s been about a decade since I first wrote on this subject. That original editorial is long since lost so I’m re-doing it from memory. Rule #1 is my cardinal rule and no exceptions would be made. The rest aren’t in order of importance, just in order of how I thought of them.
The idea behind this is that these are the rules I would enforce if I were the editor of a comicbook, line of comics, or (goodness) Editor in Chief of a company. Some of these ideas originally came from other sources. One rule I’m sure came from a Peter David column. Another one I’m sure came from John Byrne. How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema played a large role in how I came up with these rules, too.
RULE #1 THE LOGO OF A TITLE SHOULD BE EASY TO READ, EVEN AT A DISTANCE. Probably the best example of how to do this wrong was Valiant’s Rai. Good grief. That was an ugly logo. Four examples of how to do it right are the four current Avengers titles: Avengers, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, and Avengers Academy. All four are using the same design for the word “Avengers” and yet the other words are prominent enough that nobody is going to try and buy Avengers Academy and accidently purchase New Avengers instead.
RULE #2 THE LOGO OF A TITLE SHOULD BE AT THE TOP OF THE COVER. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been to a comics shop where the books weren’t displayed on tiers of one kind or another. The same goes for grocery stores and bookstores. The logo should be visible whether a comic is in the top row or the last row. Having the title at the top also helps when looking through back issues or good old-fashioned spinner racks. There may be an exception to this rule when it comes to events. See rule #7.
RULE #3 THE ART OF THE COVER SHOULD NOT OBSCURE THE LOGO IN ANY WAY. The artist has an area to work in and that area does not include where the logo goes. Putting part of the art over the logo isn’t clever. It’s clutter. On a related note, the background art, if it extends far enough up to be behind the logo, should not distract from the logo. See rule #1.
RULE #4 THE PUBLISHER AND ISSUE NUMBER SHOULD ALSO BE AT THE TOP OF THE COVER. Preferably in the top left corner, if only because that’s where we’ve been conditioned to look after decades of comicbook buying. The reason to have them at the top is the same as for the logo. It is simply information that prospective buyers need to be able to see quickly and easily.
RULE #5 THE PRICE AND RATING SHOULD BE EASY TO FIND. I spent a little bit of time working at a LCS (local comics shop) and while it didn’t happen often, there were times when I had to search for the price. Neither the customer nor the retailer should have to search for that. My preference is that the price be with the publisher and issue number in that top corner. While I’m at it, if the company I’m editing for has a ratings system (like Marvel already does and DC soon will) then the rating should be up there for all to see as well. Marvel currently puts both of these pieces of information with the UPC. That’s OK as long as they are consistent but does mean that it’s near the bottom of the page. One Marvel title currently at my desk has the UPC near the top of the page so that the UPC, rating, and price are right below the issue number. That’s both good and bad. Good because it brings the stuff I want at the top to the top but bad because…
RULE #6 THE UPC BELONGS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE COVER. I’m not one of those kooks who believe that the UPC is the Mark of the Beast. I do think they’re fairly ugly, though, and should be down at the bottom, as out of sight as possible.
RULE #7 TELL IF IT IS PART OF A LARGER STORY BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF THE BOOK’S ACTUAL TITLE. I understand that it is important to publishers to make it clear that a specific issue is tying in to one of their events such as “Brightest Day” or “The Heroic Age.” Recent event logos seem to be taking as much or more importance than the actual title of some comics, though. Something Marvel did way-back-when that worked very well was to promote the tie-in within a triangle at the upper right corner of their comics. Let’s take “Inferno” as an example. The main X-titles where the story was taking place had a large “Inferno” logo above the regular logo but any other title tying-in had the unobtrusive, yet still informative, corner promotion. If the event’s logo must be at full size, put it beneath the title’s logo.
RULE #8 TELL IF THE BOOK IS PART OF A SMALLER STORY. If the story inside is part of a current arc such as “The Weaponer” or “Judgement War” then it should say so somewhere on the cover and it should say which part of the story it is.
RULE #9 TELL IF THE BOOK IS A LIMITED SERIES. Whether it is a limited series of two issues or 52 issues, be clear about it on the cover. This should also be in the upper left corner with the issue number.
RULE #10 CROSSOVERS SHOULD BE CLEARLY LABELED WITH A READING ORDER. When someone is reading whatever the current mutant or Superman or Batman or whatever crossover, they should be able to look at the covers and know what order to read the comics in. Yes, I know that there are times when the story in one book is taking place at the same time as the story in another title. I still firmly believe that the editor isn’t serving his client—the reader—if it isn’t clear how the story is meant to be read.
RULE #11 DON’T TELL WHAT THE ART OF THE COVER SHOWS. If Spider-Man is pictured on the cover than you don’t need a caption stating “Guest-staring the Amazing Spider-Man!”
RULE #12 CAN THE HYPERBOLE. This is related to rule #11. If the artists did their job than you don’t need to announce that this is a “Must Read Issue!” To be honest, there isn’t much hyperbole on comics covers these days.
RULE #13 LIMIT COVER DIALOGUE. If you absolutely must have a character on the cover speak, OK. Otherwise, let the art speak for itself. Again, this doesn’t happen often any more.
RULE #14 CREATOR CREDITS ON THE COVER ARE NICE BUT NOT REQUIRED. I like that the creators are actually receiving cover credit. That’s pretty cool and potentially good for marketing the title. That being said, the credits on the cover should be visible but unobtrusive. If the art for a particular issue means that there isn’t room for the credits, so be it. Said credits should be easy to find within the comic, anyway.
It may seem that with those first 14 rules, there’s hardly any room left for the art. I don’t believe so. Even with all that, there should still be about 80% of the cover for the art. All my rules for art relate to telling the potential buyer what they will find behind that cover.
RULE #15 THE COVER ARTISTS SHOULD BE THE SAME AS THE INTERIOR ARTISTS. Unless a cover is clearly marked as a variant, the art team on the cover should be the art team for the comic. Doing otherwise is mis-leading at best, bait-and-switch at worst. As a reader, I don’t like seeing a great cover only to open a comic and find a different, inferior artist did the interior art. I’ve seen the opposite, too. Rob Liefeld did covers for Alan Moore’s run of Supreme even though he wasn’t the interior artist. I remember talking with people who didn’t buy the issue because of the Liefeld-drawn cover art.
RULE #16 THE MAIN CHARACTER OR CHARACTERS OF THE STORY SHOULD BE ON THE COVER. Be it Lex Luthor in Action Comics or an issue of Uncanny X-Men focusing on Pixie, that lead character should be on the cover. Making, say, Captain America the main character on the cover of a story that he’s barely in is foul play.
RULE #17 THE COVER ART SHOULD REPRESENT AN ACTUAL PART OF THE STORY. For goodness sake, no pin-ups! The newest issue of Batman doesn’t need a shot of Batman standing around looking cool or swinging from a generic rooftop. We already know it’s a Batman book because we read the logo (see rule #1). What we need is an action shot of the hero that represents something he’s doing in the issue. It doesn’t matter if he’s an aggressor, a defender, or mixing chemicals, it should be done in an exciting and heroic manner.
RULE #17B IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, THE COVER ART SHOULD FIT INTO THE STORY. My personal taste and something I would encourage as an editor is that the cover should be a panel-between-the-panels. You should be able to read the comic and say to yourself, “This is exactly where the cover takes place.” I’m not saying that it should be (for example) panel two of page 14 but that it should fit between panels two and three of that page. It also should not be a required part of the story, though. You shouldn’t have to go from that theoretical page 14 to the cover and back again in order to understand what’s happening on the page.