Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 2: Cover Me!

A Year Called Comics, part 2: Cover Me!
(The second of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

There I stood, in front of the new release rack at my favorite local comic book shop, with a difficult decision to make. Two of the issues I’ve most anticipated in recent months were displayed side by side, by sheer alphabetical happenstance: IDW’s Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Space Between #6 and Oni’s Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen #1. One promised to climatically conclude a miniseries, the other promised to grandiloquently launch one, and while I had been anxious to quickly grab my copies from the shelf for instant consumption (three deep from the front, of course, because who knows who’s fingered that first issue!), I was unexpectedly forced to take pause and to ponder a question many fellow fanboys in that position oft consider: “Which cover do I want?”

Oh, yes, nowadays the cover does much more than protect a comic book’s interiors, and when someone (namely, me) has decided to read one issue from a different series every day for a year, the cover isn’t simply representing its respective contents, but the potential of an entire title! So, when one has every issue of, say, Marvel’s Tomb of Darkness at his disposal, which issue’s cover demands instant purchase? What does it do that the others didn’t? Check it out . . .

Like any work of art, the comic book cover intends to elicit a dual reaction from its audience: one that establishes a visual and perhaps even emotional connection and one that elicits a commercial, “I must have this!” appeal. Several months ago, when I was flipping though a local hobby shop’s back issue bin of horror-oriented comics for an entertaining Halloween read, Tomb of Darkness #14 struck me as a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive example of an ideal cover. Featuring a stitched up, lumbering hunchback, we only know what this monster looks like thanks to a well placed mirror behind its cowering victim, who has this cover’s center stage. The audience is effectively sharing the creature’s perspective, just as allured by the beautiful blonde as perhaps also disgusted with its reflected grotesqueness. This masterful instance of character blocking is coupled with the Marvelicious teaser text, “Death’s dark image! A twisted tale of vengeance from beyond the grave!” For a dollar, I felt like I was practically robbing the hobby shop of a Bronze Age work of pop culture art!

I eagerly devoured Tomb of Darkness #14 on Halloween, anxious to read the adventure of that ominous ogre, but to my horror, of those four reprinted tales of terror therein, it was no where to be found! The cover, which had single-handed earned my whole dollar, had deceived me! Alas, I’m still proud of that purchase because, in addition to its entertaining interiors, it represents the effectiveness of the iconic cover, the first of three cover types I discovered throughout A Comic A Day. Often reserved for number one issues, the iconic cover is a visual summation of a series’ spirit, plain and simple. As an anthology title, the cover of Tomb of Darkness #14 isn’t required to reflect any of its contents – only the fact that its interiors, like every other issues’ in that series, are eerie. Consider the cover of Marvel’s Free Comic Book Day offering Amazing Spider-man: Swing Shift, which forsakes even the baggage of a background only to present the ever-agile Webhead, conveying the unspoken promise of continuity-free superhero action! The iconic cover has become such a valuable compliment to the comic book that contemporary issues usually employ and credit “the cover artist,” whose notoriety is usually as attention-worthy as the illustration itself. Consider Dynamite Entertainment’s new Lone Ranger series and the work of John Cassaday as a definitive example; those poster-worthy covers drew me to the character, with whom I’d no other connection, and now I like everything about that book. When it comes to considering a new series, iconic covers are really just a few letters away from answering the question, “Should I pick up this issue? I can!”

Some comics aren’t as easy to sell. After all, with thousands of Spider-centric comic books available, Spidey can only be illustrated in so many different poses, even considering his different outfits over the years. No, sometimes the easiest way to cover an issue is to summarize its contents – the synoptic cover, I’ve dubbed it. Although Amazing Spider-man #4 wasn’t a part of the A Comic A Day challenge, it perfectly represents this concept; while some artists choose to recreate an interior panel for the cover’s sake, artist Steve Ditko actually conveyed a four-panel strip to introduce the Sandman, keeping the layout uncluttered and simple enough to establish the story’s villain and enrapture potential readers! (The effort has resurfaced in the upcoming Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man #24, with moderate success.) One of my favorite examples of this concept is Eclipse Comics’ The Rocketeer Special Edition #1, a three panel grid that effectively captures writer/artist Dave Stevens’ culminating trinity of subplots (and considering the eighteen months that had transpired since the tale’s previous chapter, the visual catch-up was undoubtedly necessary). Further, in addition to exclaiming captions, cover speech balloons tend to say a lot with a little about a comic book’s story; consider the cover of Lone Star Press’ Ex Parte #1 by Mike Wieringo, in which a captured alien warlord proclaims, “I want to speak with my lawyer!” This image actually acts as the issue’s first panel while still expertly summarizing its super-legal concept. In this case, one should judge a book by its cover!

Finally, I’m going to dub the last category of cover as “the black flag.” The explanation has little to do with comics, actually; see, when the Atari’s cover of Don Henley’s song “The Boys of Summer” was released a few years ago, my initial impression of the punk interpretation was positive . . . until I’d heard the line, “I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” changed to “I saw a black flag sticker on a Cadillac.” This reincarnation pulled me out of the song and, while I understand the need for modernization, I felt the lyric was forced and ultimately unnecessary. Well, I told you it had little to do with comics, but the black flag cover is effectively a revamped, ultimately reused illustration – what many artists and fans dub “the swipe.” (Erik Larsen has commented on the phenomenon in his Comic Book Resources column One Fan’s Opinion, and I sparked an Image Comics message board debate on the subject a few months ago.) Generally, while the black flag implies a certain sense of laziness, it also asserts kinship with similar material, asserting that imitation is a sincere form of flattery (hence oft crediting the previous artist, i.e. “McFarlane after Kirby”). In some cases, the concept is effective in fulfilling the roles of an iconic or synoptic cover; the cover of Boom! Studios’ Mr. Stuffins #1 mimics the Casino Royale movie poster, with a teddy bear in James Bond’s stead, visually establishing the series Teddy Ruxpin-meets-secret-agent vibe. Still, does the end justify the means? Is the black flag a funeral banner for the death of artistic originality? That debate is assuredly alive and well.

So, I know you’re wondering, which covers did I buy for those two comics I’d anticipated last week? I picked the Joe Corroney cover for The Space Between #6, boldly depicting the Enterprise NCC-1701-D and its top three officers; though I enjoyed the Worf-errific alternative, I preferred the portentous image since these characters are scarcely spotlighted anymore. Also, I actually picked the standard cover of Tek Jansen #1 over the John Cassaday variant because I appreciated its airbrushed homage to sci-fi magazines of old. As a fan and collector, these decisions had to be as intentional as the publishers’ choice to offer them, which is, above all else, a marketing ploy. If every comic book is a proverbial tomb of darkness, the cover is its revealing ray of light, and if money wasn’t an issue, I’d buy them all . . . but in that regard, I have no one to cover me.

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