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.

Views: 244

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on January 31, 2011 at 5:45pm

I'm sorry, but I just can't agree with Rule #15 (THE COVER ARTISTS SHOULD BE THE SAME AS THE INTERIOR ARTISTS). The No. 1 aim of any cover is to have an enticing image, and whether that is accomplished by the artist working on the books or someone else is immaterial. I don't believe that is misleading, dishonest, bait-and-switch or anything of the kind. I certainly wouldn't argue that Alex Ross's covers for Astro City cheat the reader because Brent Anderson does the interior art.


Not to mention that DC and Marvel, at one time or another, has had an artist dedicated to doing nothing but covers. In the '60s and '70s, Neal Adams did covers for the Superman stable of books. And Ed Hannigan did many covers for Marvel and DC in the '80s. Not that long ago, I picked up a comic titled Ed Hannigan: Covered, which featured several of his works for Marvel, and many of them are memorable (see some here and here).

Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on January 31, 2011 at 6:42pm
I'm with Clark on the cover artist issue. It's become quite common for covers to be done by a cover specialist, and I don't think that confuses regular readers. Some of my favorite series have had cover specialists for their entire run, e.g. Morrison's Animal Man run, or Fables. Anyone new to comics would figure this out pretty quickly.
Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on January 31, 2011 at 6:42pm

It doesn't matter if the interior artist is more skilled or less skilled than the cover artist. Having them be different doesn't provide an accurate representation of what the buyer is actually receiving. It's like having a Big Mac wrapped in a Whopper container. Whichever one you prefer, the cover did not really tell you what's inside.


In my opinion, it's not that I want an Alex Ross all-painted Astro City book (although I wouldn't object to a one-shot) but that Brent Anderson deserves to have his art on the cover..and the readers deserve it, too. On the other hand, having a Neal Adams cover and just about anybody else on the face of the Earth doing the interiors is a major cheat.

Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on January 31, 2011 at 6:50pm
Also, remember that this is all what I would do as an editor. I may disagree with what you choose but those are the titles you are editing, not mine. (Dibs on editing Avengers Academy!)
Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on January 31, 2011 at 7:21pm

See if done right I don't mind if the art covers up the logo a little bit. You allow for an exception to #2, I don't. Except maybe the month that DC did the logos as part of the cover.

I totally agree about number 4 though. Man there have been some issues of Fables that were darn near impossible to find the issue number on. They were incorporating the number in the the art and that number could be anywhere on the cover.

It doesn't happen often, but I like it when they put the UPC label on the back cover. That is so much better.


Good article, Jeff. It does make for good conversation

Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on January 31, 2011 at 8:03pm
Thanks, Travis.
Comment by Figserello on January 31, 2011 at 8:53pm

Man that's some heavy proscription, Cav!


As a list of the received notions that a clever artist or editor can break to eye-catching, or thought-provoking effect, it may be quite useful. It also might be useful for a comics team to follow for a while as an exercise in artistic discipline.  It's fun to set arbitrary boundaries inside which you have to work.


#1 - The face and emblem covers that DC used in the 90s, downplaying the logos, were very pleasing, for the most part, and highlighted how iconic many of these properties were.


The rules about storylines and tie-ins and creators being notified on the cover shouldn't be nessecary in shops where the customer can leaf through the issues.  (Shops that bag all the comics on their shelves should close down forthwith.)


I think all that info should all be available in the first page or two of the comic, or the opening 'recap' page.  It's vital info - some of us are more interested in who is bringing us the comic rather than who stars in it.  I get Secret Six, but the only reference contained in the tie in to Action Comics mentions that the events leading up to it happenened in - and I quote - "some other comic." Grrr.


Comics are a dynamic mixture of words and pictures, in sequence, and I wouldn't mind if more words and more sequential images are used on the cover.  There's more than one way to skin a cat, after all.  I thought most of those 'ugly covers' on the silver age thread all showed a playfulness and sense of fun and experimentation that is often lacking.  When you think about it, the cover is a whole, glossy extra page in the package that is very underused most of the time.  This may become a little more pertinent as the page numbers decrease.


I was brought up on comics that looked like this:



Pin-ups and specialist cover artists should only be avoided if the only present boring generic images.  Boland, Fabry, Ross, that Fables guy - are all working to their strengths by only doing covers.  I'd like to see more actual comics by them, but if all we get from them are these lush, detailed, glossy, highly finished 'pin-ups', then I'm not complaining.


A lot of your rules are fine if the product being sold are chains or boxes, but some of us like to think that there is room for a little bit of 'art' in the presentation of these nonsensical fantasy stories.  Art is about stretching the boundaries.  So what if we have to take a couple more seconds assertaining what the comic is about, or whether we might want to buy it?  That's all part of the fun of the hobby.


Relax, dude!

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on February 1, 2011 at 12:10am

I have some quibbles with Rules #11, 12 and 13, too:


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.


This goes to an article I read several years ago about comics covers; the writer posited that they can be akin to movie trailers or movie posters.


The cover that's like a trailer is meant to draw you in with more than just the image; it uses dialogue boxes, captions, speech balloons, titles, blurbs and such like to tell a bit more of the story. Somewhere along the line, it fell out of fashion to do those things on covers and they became more like movie posters: a cool image of your hero posing, or running toward the camera, with little explanation of the scene.


So, I'd say it's fair to have a caption such as "Guest-Starring the Amazing Spider-Man!" if he isn't a regular part of the title, I don't think its out of line to tell the reader why he's there.


And I'd say it's fair to announce a book is a "Must-Read Issue!" because it isn't necessarily the artist alone that makes it so, and you can't tell what the writer did from the cover alone.


And I don't understand the modern proscription against dialogue on a cover .. but then, I don't generally agree with arbitrarily taking tools out of the toolbox.


That said, I'm totally on board with Rules #1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7. 8, and 9. 

Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on February 1, 2011 at 7:14pm

Generally, I like what you're saying, Cav. Well, except No. 13 (Limit Cover Dialogue). I love cover dialogue and wish there was much more of it being used today. If a cover is like a movie trailer, then it definitely needs to be used unless you're "showing" a silent movie.

Cover dialogue sets things up in the barest fashion, it lets you know the central conflict, and I appreciate that in a cover.

Here's something interesting I've noticed: As a regular reader of a book, I find pin-up covers really annoying. Pin-ups make it hard for me to tell what's inside. They usually don't reflect what's going on inside a book. And they certainly don't give me a tease to what the interior art will look like.


But .... As a first-time or casual reader for a book, a nice pin-up cover will get me to look at what's inside. Years before the Internet made "collecting" cover images so easy, I would buy a whole comic just for its cover. (Now I just note that I should "find that cover art" when I get home from the shop.


So, pin-up covers a toss up for me. I like their shelf-appeal, but I loathe them as a regular reader.

Comment by Mr. Silver Age on February 2, 2011 at 10:05am
I agree that when the cover artist is the same as the interior artist, it better represents the art and gives new readers an idea of what they're getting.
Even so, that hasn't been true of comics in my life, going back to Murphy Anderson on JLA and then Neal Adams and Nick Cardy on up to Alex Ross today. So it's not that surprising when it happen.
Where it really impacts sales in on unproved comics, like new independents, when they bring in a big-name guy to do their covers. When I'm looking through Previews and trying to get an idea of what to order--because it's unlikely I'll see them in the story otherwise--having a guest artist providing cool covers isn't a help.
Today, I'm not sure the old notion that "every comic is somebody's first" holds true. I seriously doubt many brand-new readers are picking up a random issue of a DC or Marvel super-hero comic. If they are, they probably aren't coming back for another, no matter what the cover looks like.
I also doubt that covers sell many comics any more. Most comics buyers use pull lists or know what they're looking for when they get to the store. Even if there was an intriguing cover, picking up any random comic and expecting to understand the story has a low chance of working. So I doubt buyers buy by covers, even if it looks intriguing--and most times they don't.
-- MSA


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