For decades the comic book cover held a special place in our society. More of a place than even the comic books themselves I contend. To collectors of original comic book art they are always the most valuable pieces. They still generally are but I think the comic book cover has lost its grip on the imagination of society at large.
A good comic book cover has to have three elements: good drawing, good design and it must tell a story. That third element, the story, is what sets it apart from book covers, movie posters and other bits of illustration to be found in our world. A comic book cover is supposed to catch your eye, intrigue you with the story it tells and make you buy the comic.
The storytelling aspects fit in nicely with art history and harken back to a time when paintings told stories, mainly religious and historical in nature, to a public that was generally illiterate. I think this is why comic book covers always had an impact on society at large even if people never read the comics themselves. People like being told a story by a picture because it has been happening since the days of cave paintings.
Roy Lichtenstein’s famous paintings made great use of this because even though he was copying panels from inside of comics he was choosing one image that told a story much like a cover only easier to copy. All of the pop culture stuff, such as greeting cards and TV commercials, that are derived from Lichtenstein’s work also copy this element of the picture telling a story. There is usually a woman crying over something since Roy copied a lot of romance comics but it is the storytelling that is essential.
Of the three elements: good drawing, good design and it must tell a story, storytelling is now rarer to find. The reason is that the function of the comic book cover has changed. Back in the day before magazines about comics, before internet sites about comics, and before there were comic shops that got a big publication called Previews from which the customer could order comics in advance, the first time a person saw a comic was on the stands. The cover was there to entice you to buy it. That was its purpose. Not any more.
Now a cover art is “pick up art”. Pick up art is when a piece of art is needed for a catalogue or an ad. It doesn’t really matter what the art is as long as it is what the ad is selling. So if an ad for a Spider-Man comic is needed you have to get a picture of Spidey. May as well make it the cover of the issue because no one is going to get paid to make a new piece of art just for a catalogue or ad. Comic book covers are now sent out to web sites, magazines and Previews (for comic shops to see) months before the comic is published. Schedules and deadlines being what they are sometimes stories don’t come out the exact time they are supposed to. Gradually it was found better to have the cover not reflective of the story inside. Covers became “iconic” which meant that the hero or heros were usually just standing looking “cool”. Being that “icon” means “picture” I was always confused by that bit of double talk but the covers could now be more easily used as pick up art for a variety of purposes. There was no story to get in the way.
Covers still matter to some extent. Put an Alex Ross (the premiere cover artist) cover on your comic and you will sell a few more issues but most covers now all look the same and look like afterthought. After all the art has already been used multiple times so it is generally not new to the customer, he has seen it on web sites and the Previews catalogue. The cover doesn’t tell a story because that job is now done by hype long before the comic exists.
The artists have also embraced this new paradigm because it is a lot easier to draw a guy just standing there than to draw multiple figures and tell a story. The worst are the guys who have embraced the licensed book cover way of doing things, guys standing there with floating heads around them. Gives me the shakes.
A few genuine craftsmen are still out there plying their trade, Brian Bolland comes to mind, but mostly its dull and lifeless covers. This way of thinking about covers has made it easier for comic book companies to market their comics and keep up with the demand for preview material in our modern information age but the price was to lose the special caché that they once had in our society. Show a non-comics reader a cover from the 60′ or 70s and they’ll go “ooohh…”. Show them on from today and watch the disinterest.