Tom Brevoort's Cover History SeriesThis content of this page was written by Tom Brevoort on his blog in 2007, which has subsequently disappeared with a revamp of Marvel's website. I thought the history he provided was really valuable, so i rescued it via the waybackmachine and and i'm preserving it here.
I've been thinking a little bit about covers and the role they serve in the modern comics marketplace over the last week or two. And so, I thought I'd try to do a week (or part of a week, depending on how much mileage I can get out of this) on the history of comic book covers and what that approach can tell us today. And as we go, if anybody out there has favorite covers of their own that fit the period being talked about, feel free to suggest them or point them out.
The earliest comic book covers were a pretty straightforward outgrowth of the lurid Pulp Magazines of the 1930s, much as the content of the comics took its cues from the sorts of adventure stories persented in such magazines. In the really early days, your cover scene would almost always have nothing directly to do with the contents of your magazine--right down to the characters depicted. If you were publishing ACTION COMICS, you'd just show some pulpy scene depicting action, maybe a guy parachuting out of a plane headed for a fiery crash, or a guy stalking or being stalked by a lion in the veldt. Nevermind what characters might be on the inside of the magazine--the cover in this earliest period was about selling a tone, a style, a sensibility.
The earliest Marvel comic cover, that of MARVEL COMICS #1, took its cues directly from the Pulp Magazines that publisher Martin Goodman was then putting out--right down to the cover artist, Frank R. Paul, and the fact that the cover was more painterly in its approach. It's important to remember that, in these early days, there weren't yet any experts, weren't any industry standards or common wisdom. People were just sussing things out as they went along. So for his first cover, Goodman selected the Human Torch to be his subject, figuring (presumably) that he had the most eye-catching visual of any character in that premiere issue. If you look back at in in hindsight, you can't even tell that this is a super hero title--the Torch looks like some kind of monster or demon attacking the guy with the guy, presumably the hero. It looks like a thousand Pulp covers that had come before it, but maybe this treatment helped it to stand out on racks that were already beginning to become crowded with titles.
Eventually, some semblance of common wisdom emerged, as we see indicated at the left on a later MARVEL cover. Not just Marvel/Timely, but virtually all of the super hero comics of the day followed this basic format, regardless of publisher: the upper third or so of the cover would be taken up by the logo, often segregated from the artwork by a big banner. There was a lot of importance given towards establishing a brand identity (although that term didn't exist back then), making your title especially visible and bold. In many of the comic racks of the day, that upper third of the cover might be all you'd see, so the idea was to make your logo as vibrant and punchy and memorable as possible.
Below the banner, especially on the Marvel/Timey covers during the war years (Timely Comics was the name Marvel published under during its earliest decades in the business--some creators continued to refer to the outfit as Timely well into the late 60s), pandemoneum often reigned. Alex Schomburg, who did this cover and a hundred others for the Marvel heroes, was a master at this sort of composition, with tons of intricate details, plenty of punch, and often an absurdly large central hero. Especially during the war years, it wasn't unusual for the cover of a comic magazine to depict a costumed crusader taking on dozens or hundreds of enemy troops, often drawn in the most caricatured manner possible. The idea here was to sell energy and patriotism. Typically, the cover was far better drawn than most of what appeared in the book itself, and the energy level of the stories often didn't measure up either. Still, this was an appealing format, with bold, splashy colors, a minimum of copy, and a strong design sense calculated to catch your eye and pull you in.
Continuing our series on the history of covers and cover theory.
By the late 1940s, after the second World War had ended, sales on super hero comics slowed. Public tastes were changing, new genres were becoming more in favor, and a general ennui among the readership was setting in. Additionally, the end of the war meant the end of paper rationing--whereas once anybody who could get their hands on a supply of paper was virtually guaranteed a decent sale on any comic book they chose to print, now the newsstands were being choked off by a steady supply of more and more and more comic books, as new fly-by-night firms all tossed their hats into the ring.
In this atmosphere, the focus of most comic book covers changed. While previously, the cover image often had little or nothing to do with the insides of the magazine, this was the birth of the "storytelling cover," a cover image designed to tease and tantalize the reader as to the particular tale being spun.
Where most covers up till this time had been about action and mayhem and kineticism, many of the covers of this era were primarily about intrigue, and surprise, and anticipation. In some cases, the visuals are almost secondary, an afterthought to the story concept. The CAPTAIN AMERICA cover at the left is a good example of this theory in practice. The selling point is the story question: does Bucky get shot? (He does, and severely enough that he's retired in this issue, replaced as Cap's partner by Golden Girl.) You can see Stan beginning to experiment with the sort of provocative cover copy and blurbs that characterized the Marvel covers of the early '60s here - some covers of this era have upwards of 800 words of text on them!
The same sort of approach held for the anthology titles - only more so! It wasn't uncommon for a cover not only to spotlight the most compelling tale in the issue, but also to do vignettes of all the others. This tended to lead to covers where the illustration tended to be subordinate to the text - the STRANGE TALES cover at the left is difficult to see from any sort of a distance, and almost seems to give you the hard-sell when you get up close to it. But this is what they thought would best sell the magazine at this period.
As the years rolled by and you got into the 1950s, especially after the Senate Subcommittee hearings on comics prompted the creation of the Comics Code, you tended to most often get a combination of these two approaches on a cover - what I'd call a hybrid approach. This was an image that was story-specific in nature, and had word balloons or copy that gave them context, but which might not actually be reflected in the stories in the issue. This certainly liberated artists and editors to dream up the most eye-catching or provocative images they could imagine for their covers - but it also led to a certain amount of reader dissatisfaction, when a buyer discovered that the compelling moment he bought the book for didn't actually take place in the issue, or happened under circumstances wildly different from what the cover promised.
Continuing our sequence on the history of covers and cover theory (Marvel covers primarily, because I'm limited in terms of what non-Marvel examples I can post here.)
Around 1957, Timely-Atlas-Marvel went through a massive implosion, due to some bad business decisions. The entire comics division (Martin Goodman published a wide line of magazine titles, of which his comics line was a small and relatively unimportant adjunct) was shut down for at least a few weeks, and then came back under much more restrictive terms. Rather than putting out sixty or seventy titles a month, under its new distribution terms, Timely-Marvel was limited to a mere eight titles a month. So in order to launch a new book, Goodman needed to cancel an existing title. In order to maximize his line, Martin decided to publish 16 bi-monthlies.
By this point, a certain cover style kind of worked itself out. The Marvel books of this era didn't carry any company name or trade dress, so it was really only by these unifying elements that anybody would realize that all the books came from the same office. (Different titles were also copyrighted to different shell companies in an attempt to get around tax laws and the like FANTASTIC FOUR #1 was published by Canam Publishers Sales Corp.) The focus of most of the line was on "Big Monsters," inspired by the "Godzilla" movies that had begun to play in American theaters. The typical cover touted the creature of the issue, with big, pulpy display lettering showcasing his name, anxious blurbs and balloons touting the creature's invincibility and possibly outlining his state of mind towards humanity ("Run, puny humans! Nothing can stop Klagg!") There was a particular flavor to the lettering, with thick outlines around the balloon shapes, and a certain style to the way the bursts were done. Each cover was story-focused to some degree, but they also all tended to seem the same - just the name of the monster and a few of the particulars changed issue after issue, month after month.
The earliest Marvel super hero comics tended to follow this format, and many of them don't really even seem like the covers to super hero comics at all. Looking at FANTASTIC FOUR #1 at the left, today we realize that it's the first of the actual Marvel super hero comics. But back in 1961, when it might have shared rack space with a book like that issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE, it more readily seemed like a part of the "Big Monster" line. It's only the copy box that really tells you any different, that and the defiant balloons from the FF themselves (as opposed to the sort of defeatist talk espoused by the usual bystanders on the Big Monster covers.)
Looking at later issues, this trend continued for awhile. By FF #7, the team had costumes, but this cover still looks like more of a fantasy-adventure magazine than a super hero book - while the heroes are depicted, it's done in a way to kind of minimize their impact. Some theorize that this was done because the Marvel books were then being distributed by an outfit owned by DC Comics, whose officers tended to guard the turf of Superman and company. This was a way of kind of flying under the radar, at least until such point as the books were established. Even the cover of FF #13, a full year-and-a-half later downplays the super hero elements. Again, it looks like a fantasy/science fiction comic book, with explorers in jumpsuits on the moon, and the mysterious, threatening transparent hand. The copy, though, has begun to streamline, as Stan started to find the voice of the Marvel style and the persona that would define both him and the books going forward.
One month after this, the Marvel Comics Group would get a name, and its first trade dress.
Part four of our series on the history of Marvel covers.
Marvel had been publishing super hero comics for a year and a half before the company finally got an identity. Starting on covers with a May 1963 cover date, Marvel got both a name and its first trade dress, in the form of the corner box seen to the left.
Reportedly conceived by Steve Ditko, the corner box was a masterpiece of design simplicity. In those days, the majority of outlets that carried comic books tended to rack them in one of two ways: either in spinner racks which displayed perhaps the top 1/4 of the cover, or on lon magazine racks side-by-side overlapping, in which only the left edge of the cover would be visible. The corner box was designed to take advantage of this "magic inverted L" by being visible no matter which way the book was racked. That meant that a consumer could identify a Spider-Man issue or a Fantastic Four issue more quickly than a title belonging to the competition. With only minor variations, the corner box would remain a staple of the Marvel cover trade dress for the rest of the decade.
By this point, the early style of Marvel covers had crystallized. These tended to showcase an explosive or gripping piece of artwork, and come covered with assorted bursts and blurbs proclaiming the greatness of the contents of that issue, often with a heavy dollop of self-effacing humor. This established the Marvel style right off the bat, and made those books stand out among the competition - they tended to be funnier and more engaging than the average, while at the same time being more exciting visually. It seems like such an obvious approach in hindsight, but most publishers of the day were still tentative because of the Senate hearings of the '50s, and so were reluctant to make waves by calling too much attention to themselves. Most other super hero covers focused on being pristine, almost sterile in a classy way. Rarely would a super hero break a sweat. The challenges tended to be intellectual and emotional, rather than physical. Not so on the Marvel covers of the day.
By the mid-'60s, this style had evolved further, refining itself. As the overall quality of the artwork rose, the emphasis moved more concretely towards having a strong, punchy, dynamic image. The amount of copy fell dramatically, typically only one box or blurb, most often highlighting the title of the issue or the central idea of the conflict. By this point, the Marvel books weren't so obviously screaming for attention - sales were up, and Stan and Martin Goodman seemed content to let the artwork shoulder the burden of selling the magazine. Covers became a bit more graphic, propelled by the innovations of young artists like Jim Steranko and Neal Adams.
But around 1969, sales of comics across the boards began to slow, and partially as a result of that, Marvel began playing around with its cover approach in some significant ways - as we'll see when we resume next week.
Back from hiatus, and picking up the thread about the history of comic book covers, Marvel ones in particular.
As I mentioned a week ago, around 1969, the comic book field experienced a periodic slowdown, as the gains that had been made in the wake of the BATMAN live-action television show and the super hero boom that followed trailed off. And one of the ways that publishers began to fight this trend was to play around more with their covers, and how the books were being showcased on the racks.
One of the first things to happen on the Marvel titles was the return of word balloons to the covers. Prior to this, word balloons had vanished around 1963, having been replaced first by bombastic copy and later by understated titling. The editorial direction had clearly been evolving towards treating each cover like a work of art, rather than as an advertisement. Well, 1969 turned that around really quickly. Now, covers tended to be less poster-like and more story specific, and were typically covered in shrill balloons attempting to convey the extent of whatever crisis the hero found himself in. In many cases, this led to "balloon overload", where practically every figure on a cover got a balloon, whether it really added anything or not.
Then, in November 1971, Marvel introduced a new cover format in an attempt to make the Marvel books stand out from the competition on the stands. These are what I think of as the "little box" covers, and the format lasted intact for a little more than a year, and the remnants of it could be seen throughout the rest of the decade. As seen on the left on the AVENGERS #98 and FF #124 covers, the "little box" covers put the artwork into, well, a little box, so that the logo area could be clear and against an uncluttered background. A tagline promoting the story was added at the bottom, and additional balloons and copy were worked into the art space. This was also the demise of the traditional Marvel corner box, which was replaced by the Marvel top banner (which became something of an icon in and of itself to readers of the era.)
This was, to put it bluntly, an unattractive format, cluttered, with the artwork cramped in among all the bombast. And yet, during this period, Marvel's overall sales finally eclipsed those of rival DC, so somebody knew what they were doing.
Also during this period, there were a couple attempts to standardize the covers even further, with one or two artists producing the vast majority of the cover art in any given month. Gil Kane in particular seemed to work on 80% of the Marvel covers at one point, which tended to lead to an even greater sameness among the books on the racks. But on another level, that sameness could be looked upon as an exercise in branding (though this wasn't a term that existed back then.)
As the '70s went on, the "little box" format slowly eroded away, but the larger editorial lessons hung fast through the rest of the decade. If anything, the number of balloons and the amount of copy became even more ridiculously verbose. Now, don't get me wrong - some people managed to make these cover formats work, and some of this copy really made these covers memorable. But overall, this was an era of hyper-dense, not-terribly-focused images with an increased emphasis on copy, particularly balloons, to sum up the situation and stakes and sell the drama.
And particularly as creative teams worked further ahead on covers (or they were being produced by a handful of artists across the line) another situation started to crop up: covers which misrepresented the contents of the issue, or that depicted the final cliffhanger of the issue. This was truly irritating - you'd pick up a book because the cover showed Captain America being hurled out of a blimp above Manhattan, and you wanted to see how he'd get out of it - and then the issue would end with Cap being hurled out of the blimp. And despite some strides, it could still be difficult to find consecutive issues in some regions, so there was no guarantee that you'd be able to locate the follow-up installment (or that its' cover wouldn't leave you feeling just as unsatisfied.)
Part six of our analysis of the history of covers and cover theory. We're moving into the '80s now.
At the beginning of the decade, things had hit something of a nadir with the addition of paid advertising to the covers, as seen on the left on the classic X-MEN #137 cover. Presumably the advertisers paid extremely well for this prime real estate, but nonetheless it meant that about a fifth of the cover was taken up by ad banners - and the most important fifth at that. This meant that the artwork wound up squished into a tiny space - shades of the "little box" days!
However, around this time, there was a marked change in the philosophy behind covers. Based on nothing other than a knowledge of the time period, I'm guessing this had something to do with Jim Shooter becoming Marvel's EIC, and his own personal preferences when it came to cover images. Whatever the case, there was a pronounced and immediate movement back towards some of the thinking of the '60s, but even more so. Now, simple, bold, graphic images were the name of the game. (Even the X-MEN #137 cover fits this mold, blunted though its effectiveness is by the huge ad banner.)
Probably the most influential artist in terms of graphic approach during this period was Frank Miller, who produced a series of DAREDEVIL covers that were at once simple and stark, but also immediately eye-catching. Frank and his contemporaries also made good use of the improvements in technology to begin experimenting with elements like color holds (areas or shapes or figures printed in a color or colored line, without a black holding line.) Miller's influence could immediately be felt across the line, with other artists emulating his thought process and applying it to their own work.
Around 1983, Marvel switched up the trade dress once again, abandoning the Marvel Comics Group banner-bar that had characterized the line for the past decade in favor of a return to a streamlined version of the corner box. There was an ad produced during this period, touting this improvement, showing the difference in art space that was gained by eliminating that top-strap. There was also a bit more willingness to mess with the trade dress set-up when necessary, as on the DAREDEVIL #228 cover to the left, which compresses and virtually eliminates the corner box to make the composition work.
Copy was still an important part of the cover design, but now it was subordinate to the imagery, and used to support it and heighten the impact. Denny O'Neil in particular was expert at coming up with interesting, memorable cover copy that added punch to a piece, and improved it, and his approach was adopted and assimilated by the younger editors on staff, guys like Jim Owsley.
The eighties also saw the flourishing of the painted cover. Painted pieces had been regularly used on Marvel's line of black and white magazines during the '70s, but for the most part they'd stayed off the color comics. I don't know if this was a concern that the crappier printing on these books would turn a painted cover to mud, or that there was an additional cost (or a perceived additional cost--sometimes people would avoid doing something because they thought it would cost more, without actually checking to see that it would cost more) involved. But especially as the Direct Market began to blossom, where books could be sold to a dedicated audience on a non-returnable basis, there was more of a willingness to experiment.
The guy who really broke barriers in terms of making painted coves popular was Bill Sienkiewicz. Bill was a popular artist of the period, having made MOON KNIGHT a surprise hit with his moody, Neal Adams-influenced artwork. but Bill's style kept evolving, and he kept bringing in influences from outside comics, fine artists and commercial illustrators. By the end of his run on MOON KNIGHT, his work was less illustrative and more expressive - an approach he carried over into his painted works. The earliest of his painted covers I can recall were the ones he did on NEW MUTANTS, and they caused something of a stir (as did the interior artwork, which was unlike anything anybody had ever seen on an X-book.) And once the style proved popular, at least among the cognoscenti, others followed.
Continuing our review of covers and cover philosophy down through the ages, we're now up to the glory days of the 1990s.
By this point, cover philosophy had changed again, possibly due to the fact that Tom DeFalco had replaced Jim Shooter as EIC. There was something of a move back towards the flavor of the '70s, with more emphasis on copy, and a more chaotic arrangement to most covers in general. One of the things that set a tone for the approach towards covers was that a study was done that indicated that covers with copy on them would be looked at by a potential consumer by a fraction of a second longer than a cover without copy. As a result, with rare, rare exception, all covers were required to have some cover copy of some sort on them. And often, a lot of it.
But the biggest change, the one that distorted the very fabric of the industry, at least for a time, was the advent of the "enhanced cover." There was a general boom in comics during this period, fueled somewhat by the entrance of scores of speculators into the marketplace. These were people who, on some level, viewed comics as commodities, and were out to make their fortune by investing in them. And Enhanced Covers were a way of luring them in.
They started very quietly. The cover to HULK #377, the issue in which Peter David united the fragmented psyche of Bruce banner into an all-new Hulk, was printed with a Fifth Color ink (so called because it was a special mixture of ink in addition to the typical four colors-magenta, cyan yellow and black - that were typically used to print a cover.) The flourescent green really popped off the racks, and the book sold out, with demand unabated. It went through at least one additional printing - and people began to get the sense that they were on to something.
From there, things spiraled out of control very quickly, as Enhanced Covers were proven to cause a spike in sales, often a major one. At their height, Marvel was scheduling more than one of these a month, on one title or another. They also made for a good excuse to raise the cover price on a title, and so increase the profit margin on that particular issue. Every gimmick that you could think of was tried - there were embossed covers, die-cut covers, holographic foil covers, glow-in-the-dark covers, hologram covers, fold-out covers, chromium covers - you name it. And some of them were executed really well. But any time you roll out this many items so hastily, quality is going to suffer. The die-cut on that PUNISHER WAR ZONE cover to the left, for example, doesn't do anything to enhance the image in any way - it's just die-cut for the sake of die-cutting, and almost randomly done.
The 90s were also the era in which printing and computer technology advanced to the point where computers could now be used to color comics. Pioneered largely by the Image artists, particularly Steve Oliff on SPAWN, coloring techniques took on a whole new dimension. There was an art to coloring before this, but it was never make-or-break - and you only had so much control over the final product, since the actual color separations were being done in a printer's workshop somewhere by hourly laborers. But at this point, coloring became much more an integral part of the artwork, and colorists began to attract the same sort of acclaim previously reserved for pencilers and inkers.
However, like any new technology, it took awhile for people to work out the bugs, both in the calibration of the software, but more in the aesthetics of the process. Now having unlimited colors to work with, rather than the standard-until-this-time 64, most colorists went a bit nuts, resulting in a lot of covers that either printed dark, or look like they came out of an explosion at a crayon factory. Tones and textures were added haphazardly, regardless of whether they fit in with the artwork. And again, not in every case, but by and large, this led to a whole parcel of covers that looked modern, but also were difficult to make out, or to see from a distance. The AVENGERS logo on that cover to the left, for example, is very difficult to read.
Otherwise, the decade was a melange of everything that had come before, plus more. As outfits like Richard Starkings' Comicraft refined digital lettering techniques, more and more cover lettering was produced on a computer, rather than by hand. This was a double-edged sword - it was good in that the overall quality of cover lettering had gone way down as the number of titles being produced had gone up, but it also meant that all of the cover copy tended to have a certain sameness about it, using the same font styles over and over again. And cover advertising came back, as seen on the last AMAZING cover on the left, but at least here it was confined to the triangular "Nabisco corner" rather than bannered across the top. (but could you find anywhere else to squeeze another word onto that cover? Shades of the '70s indeed!)
The bottom line with many of the Marvel covers of this era is that, for all of these reasons and more, they tended to be very difficult to "read," especially from a distance. And that sets the stage nicely for the move into the 21st Century.
Day eight of the sequence on covers and cover theory, and now, two weeks later, the finish line is in sight. We've finally gotten up to the turn of the century.
There was a definite switch in cover philosophy when Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas came into Marvel at around this time. Some of this was influenced by Joe's artistic approach, some of it was influenced by what was going on elsewhere in magazines and in advertising and packaging artwork, and some of it was just a personal preference. But in general, there was a hearkening back to some of the particulars of the '80s approach.
Joe tends to like bold, simple images. And as you can tell from his own artwork, he's got a real passion for design and composition, so these were all elements that came into heavy play once he became EIC. The standard Marvel trade dress fragmented, as different approaches were tried for different titles or families. In a lot of ways, there was a real "Wild West" philosophy in Joe's early days, where we'd try anything, even in defiance of plain common sense, if it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Bill also liked simple, direct cover images. He immediately pushed editorial away from what he called "group grope covers," images on which a dozen characters were all flailing around atop one another that were difficult to make out from any distance. Bill in particular was a proponent of single character covers, and while he became dogmatic about it after a while, this approach did lead to a number of simple, striking images. The downside was that, especially on solo character books, after awhile the covers all began to look alike. I remember especially having this problem on Tim Bradstreet's beautiful PUNISHER covers - they always looked great, but I could never tell if I'd read a given issue or not.
Part of the reason for this change in direction was the expansion into the book market. In those venues, simple compositions with strong design work best, so initially there was a tendency to look at every single cover as though it was going to be a Trade Paperback cover as well. These days, we've learned that we need to have at least one good Collections cover for each arc or section of story, but that so long as we've got that, we can go more off-model on the remaining covers in the sequence.
Also in part due to the new Bookstore markets, copy tended to become as subordinate is it's ever been in this period, virtually eliminated in most cases. The one consistent exception was the starting points of story arcs, which we'd want to call out on the covers as an excellent jump-on point. But in general, cover copy was seen as superfluous most of the time.
Which brings us up to today. We've loosened up a bit on the single character covers, but we still try to make each cover image as simple and easy to grasp as possible. The Marvel trade dress has standardized again for the most part, with the red Marvel logo appearing in the upper left corner. And we're open to doing the occasional more experimental cover, like the recent issue of NEW X-MEN that was a take-off on a Norman Rockwell painting. We're also using cover copy a bit more liberally, as on Joe Q's distinctly retro-style covers for the "One More Day" storyline.
We still hear on occasion from readers complaining about the covers being too iconic, or not having enough to do with the insides. And I think in general that's an invalid criticism at this point. While we are still working to create more streamlined designs, they most often have some bearing on the story, and aren't just a generic shot of the hero of the book. Of course, each reader's mileage will vary, and not every cover works out as we'd like it to--you can find a couple stinkers every month by flipping through the Marvel Previews catalogue. But I do think we tend to hit more often than we miss.
There have also been some instances where the covers misrepresent what's on the inside of the book - characters appear on the cover who aren't on the issue, and so forth. I tend to hate it when stuff like this happens on my books, and yet, every once in a while it does, often because of the need to work so far out. The recent NEW AVENGERS cover with the symbiote Wolverine is a good example - it's a great image, but it doesn't really have enough to do with the interiors. But by the time we realized the disconnect, it was too late to do anything about it.
All right, tomorrow, new topic.