Don't judge a book by its cover. An ancient but ever so poignant phrase especially in this era of small press, self published and print on demand books. Can, or even should, the same adage be applied to comics. After all it is a visual medium with where we buy into creators, their style and technique with an added importance (and price tag) being given to variant covers.
Walking into my local comic book shop, I went about the usual pulling of the stack while casually chatting to the owner of the store when something caught my eye. At first it was the large glowing rectangle that grabbed my attention followed by the realisation that this was in fact an ‘I’ being held by one of the book’s characters. Then I noticed the absence of any logos leaving the art to breathe without the clutter of publisher branding. Okay, I didn’t buy the book but that consideration to the design of the cover led me to at least inquire about it. I dare say it would be in a long box in my house right now if it hadn’t been a double figured issue number or more decisively a variant.
A cover should do many things. It should tease if not directly reference the content of pages inside, it should have some indication of the title and it should definitely make a comic stand out from the sea of super hero fair lining the comic store shelves. This is how I discovered Jonathan Hickman. The use of negative space used, or not used, on the covers of Transhuman was an instant draw for me. That combined with an iconography that identifies the subject matter and an art style that carries through on to the sequential pages. Hickman still continues to impress me although his work has been bent to fit Marvel’s house style. For example within the logo of history spanning book S.H.I.E.L.D. Hickman utilises the periods and the relative width of the letters to make up a diagram of the Solar System. Even with the brief of a top tier publisher he has found a way to convey the scope of his story with a few simple lines. For better or worse experimentation of this kind seems mostly committed to the independent creator and/or publisher.
As we make the transition from a physical to a digital marketplace the presumption is that industry will pick up readers that would never frequent a comic shop. Like in a physical comic shop it makes sense for big name publishers to have their big name characters adorning their covers. These are their brand, the characters that sell their books and the same can be said for digital. Combined with an increase in consumers that are no more familiar with characters than their latest trip to the multiplex, indie titles have their work cut out. With the paper and ink reduced to a black and silver box device the cover may seem like unimportant ancient history, a footnote in the annals of time. Here is where that archaic saying comes in. If an audience can be taught to judge a comic book by that initial contact then quality should hopefully shine through. Not only on the outside but inside too.