Comic book covers might become important again. That’s my observation for the week. In the olden days comic book covers used to be really important for a comic book. They are what often sold the comic. Editors and artists sweated out what the cover should look like. It was the first thing a potential buyer saw and it had to pull the buyer in, make him look at the comic, want to have it, and then buy it. That’s a big job for cover so it was an important job. Sometime in the late 1990s that job importance went away. Probably because of the internet but it might have started earlier than that.

It might have started to happen when comic book companies began using future covers as advertising. I can remember, sometime in the 1980s, when publishers began running a small version of next issue’s cover at the end of any given issue. You got to see the artwork a month in advance. They would also run a couple of other comic’s covers with it. So if you read all three comics being promoted you might see all three of next month’s covers three times. By the time next month’s issue rolled around you’d already be familiar with the cover image. It was no big deal.

Another thing that chipped away at a comic book cover’s importance was the Previews catalogue. This is the book from which comic book stores and comic book fans can see what’s coming out in a couple of months and order what they want. It was in the mid 1990s when comic book distribution was whittled down to one company that Previews really gained in importance. Publishers often had to get covers done long before the comic was finished to have something to show in Previews. This is one of the factors that lead to generic pin-up shot comic book covers. The cover had to be done before the story was finalized so a shot of Spider-Man swinging on his web will do just fine.

The other part of the Previews equation was that a lot of comic book buyers would be deciding months in advance what comic they were ordering/buying. It didn’t matter if the cover was good or bad. Previews had in it information about who was writing and drawing the comic plus and guest stars or special events that might be happening. There were no surprises to be found on a comic book cover because all the information was out there already.

I think it was at this point that editors and artists stopped sweating so much about the cover. It was no longer one of the main things that sold a comic book. Also generic covers could be used for different purposes. A generic shot of Spider-Man swinging through the city could be used on a T-Shirt, jacket, poster, ad, stationary, playground ball, or whatever else they could think of to stick it on. Generic artwork became more valuable to a publisher than a good comic book cover. So comic book covers became generic.

Of course the internet speeded up this whole process. Now almost every bit of information is available long before a comic comes out. Every website about comics posts images of upcoming comic book covers. I would guess that almost nobody buys a comic book these days based on it having an good cover that piques their interest. There are still some artists that specialize in making comic book covers and they do a good job of it but I don’t know how much of a difference having one of those big name artists doing the cover makes in impulse sales. This summer I bought a Batman book that I don’t usually buy just because I liked the cover but that doesn’t happen too often.

So why do I think comic book covers can be important again? E-Mail of all things. Y’see I recently got an iPad. With that, of course, I got all the comic book publisher’s apps so that I could check out what they had to offer in the way of digital comics. I’m an old folky who doesn’t really like digital comics but I’m also a gadget geek who likes to keep up with the latest stuff. None of the apps made the covers very important. They were mostly small thumbnail images that you clicked on the see more info about the comics. Nothing special.

The publishers’s comic reading apps are all free and they offer free samples but as is par for the course they want you to sign in with an e-mail address so they can keep track of your stuff and try to sell you things. Nothing new there. It was later on in the week that I got an E-mail from Marvel advertising the first issue of the Defenders. The E-mail had a little copy and a big image of the cover. Rather than the thumbnails or small images of covers I was uses to on the web this one was big and had some impact. I actually thought is was cool to see such a nice reproduction of the cover. When the next week’s E-mail came I was actually interested to see what cover they would show me. That’s pretty unusual for me to care about advertising e-mails and it got me thinking about comic book covers.

The major flaw with my hope that comic book covers could become important again is that both covers they showed me weren’t very good. I’ve always said that it takes three things to make a good comic book cover: good design, good drawing, and it must tell a story. The “Must tell a story” part is what makes comic book covers unique and used to give them their cache in our society. Even if a person had no interest in comic books a comic book cover could very well amuse them. That counts for something.

Even though I didn’t think the comic book covers were good I was excited to see them full sized and in my inbox. I think that’s a successful way to present a comic book cover: large, by itself, and with a little bit of type for presenting information. Give the image a chance to do what it’s supposed to do. Sell me the book. I think that if the covers were interesting I would have bought the comic when I was at the comic shop. I did, at least, track “The Defenders” down and look at it that week.

I think that if editors and artists start thinking again about what makes a good comic book cover and presents those covers full size in digital form then a cover can once again start to take on its task of selling a comic book. It’ll work on me.