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Comic covers

I've been thinking about comics a lot recently. Specifically weekly superhero comics published by the Big Two. Well, mostly Marvel. Spurred on by my resurgent fandom of the MCU what with Black Panther and Infinity War and everything, I've been dipping my toe back into the world of weeklies. Unfortunately I'm finding it very much plagued by he same issues that curtailed by interest as a teenager.

Led in by my friend Emma's devotion to the X-Men cartoon and subsequently the X-Men comics, I had a couple of years enthusiasm for an X-spinoff called Generation X which starred my favourite X-Man, Jubilee. It started well, a collaboration between Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo, inking by Chris Buckingham, with a tone and sensibility all its own. It nosedive in around the late 20s and I discovered the problem I have with comic books: inconsistency, unreliability, meandering plots and suddenly changing creative teams, endless soap-opera form stories with no climax or break. Except worse than soap operas because deaths stuck even in comics than soaps less no nothing ever ended.

I've been thinking about how, if unexpectedly handed the job of creative director or whatever the job title would be at Marvel I'd change the formats up. I mean, there may be plenty of people who enjoy the storytelling format just as it is but a. since it's only hypothetical I'm free to tear the comic world apart and rearrange it to suit my tastes and b. they're wrong.

I'd have limited runs of title. Seasons, like a TV show. Variable in length and form to suit the titles, but averaging out like a traditional season of American TV: about three or four months of weekly installments per year. Creative teams would get a chance to sign on for finite arcs, running one season or maybe more at their and the publisher's discretion.

Like television, each season would have a showrunner figure - in this case the core writer and artist team who decided how this season was going to play out in broad strokes. And like a showrunner, the head writer would be responsible for a lot of the episode/issue writing. But other writers (freelancers I presume) would also turn in scripts based on the assignments worked out in the writers' room. I'm not sure about the art side. Ideally I like a comic run to have a consistent artist and hopefully the publishing breaks would allow for less schedule slip there.

Of course one major objection I can see the Big Two having to this model is that they would lose readers every time that reader's favourite character went 'off the air'. To some extent you can rely on the wider Marvel or DC universes to entice readers to other titles (just how at the cinema few people only see the Captain America films or just see the Guardians Films) and the comic fan's hunger for more content. But I think it's a pattern that would go hand in hand with changing the way comics are bought, by creating a card system. This would be a subscription service much like an Audible subscription with different packages one could pay for (e.g. three/five/ten titles per month). Because I don't want to kill the direct market, these credits would be used to buy comics in store and not the digital copies (maybe they'd be released with a month delay or something). Credits wouldn't expire immediately if a week passed without collection but wouldn't last beyond a grace period of a couple of weeks either.

And of course in the last issue of a title's seasonal run, you'd add in a couple of pages to celebrate/digest the story just told but also to oh-so-classily-suggest where fans might look to spend their credits in the absence of this title. You'd probably make sure there was a couple of week's overlap so readers wouldn't lose momentum.

Certain big characters might actually not be out of the pages for very long periods of the year as in addition to their own titles they appear in team-up or group books (e.g. after a season of Batman ended he might still be regularly appearing in Detective Comics and Bat-Family titles).

Comics wouldn't have to turn to their only two current options for resting characters - killing them or cancelling their comics. There'd be a chance for a storyline like the recent very good Captain-America-oriented Secret Empire one to play out without having to have Cap appear the very next week, robbing the climax of any weight. There'd be space to imply the characters going off and doing things we don't always want to watch them do on page (deal with emotional fallout, for one) but nonetheless want to feel they get round to at some point. Again, it's something that works well withe the movies, the room to infer how things have moved on between outings.

Talking of the most recent Captain America, I've been playing around with some covers for the run.

Something I've been thinking about longer than my storytelling issues at least in recent years is my frustration with graphic novel and comic book cover design. There's some great stuff out there but so much is really mediocre, generally featuring beautiful illustration that matches the interior but with little advanced design work having been applied. In a time where book covers are a rediscovered art and the challenge of online selling has driven designers to new heights of excellence, it's extremely frustrating that an area of publishing that is so visually oriented churns out unimaginative covers.

Just a bold though - do we always have to have the interior artist's work on the front? After all, prose novels don't have to feature the interior words on their fronts. Illustrated children's novels don't necessarily feature that illustrator on their front. I'd love to see more design-led covers; more pure typography, photographs, illustrations by different artist working in non-paint/pen mediums like woodcut and embroidery.

Weeklies are a different story of course. You can't commission bold and slick design work once a week for a twelve-page magazine. I still think they would be a lot better though. I know there's excellent work going on. David Aja seems as much of a graphic designer as he is a comic artist and his Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch covers are fantastic. but if it's normal to leave covers to the book's artist like this, it shouldn't be. I don't know if they do, but Marvel and DC should certainly be employing a full time graphic design team just as Vogue or Marie Claire do.

For example. while I adore the work of Chris Samnee (current artist on Cap) I find the covers uninspired. This is the first issue (and page nine, more on which below):

It's certainly not a terrible cover. Samnee always composes action shots well. It's a little bland perhaps, but that's probably part of the point. After the controversial and murky waters of Secret Empire, this run is very intended as a return to classic Cap form, so an image of him smashing through an army of generic mooks is in order.

But the layout is terrible, and there's no sense of a designing hand. Cap's arm and shield sit awkwardly across his name, a confusion of purpose - if this is a celebratory, triumphant image, why is the man's name being so obliterated? This page should have been sketched up and drawn to order to fit a pre-decided page layout. With my new system for publishing comics there would of course be plenty of time to create overs after the final script was submitted.

Alternatively, I like the idea of a new spin on the old Silver Age format of WTF covers (so brilliant detailed by Images that are suggestive of a weird or startling moment in the book that follows that will draw readers in. Cap punching probably-Nazis is nice but it's intriguing no one. Rather than commissioning new cover art I like the idea of blowing up existing interior images for the front. This seems in some contrast with my previous comments about not featuring interior art or artist at all, but that was in relation to graphic novels - this is about weeklies.

There's one panel that I feel very strongly should be the cover of Captain America 695 and it's the bottom one on page nine there. That's an immediately interesting idea, suggestive of all sorts of story possibility. The composition is also good, with the 'face' of Captain America on the billboard and the back of Steve Rogers to the camera while he regards it, tense with some ambiguous emotion. For a comic run about a superhero trying to find himself by travelling small-town. America it's hard to imagine a better image (though I have had to re-jigger it a bit to fit a portrait format)

It also sneaks the 'Captain America' title on there, something useful for the first book in a new run but that I would personally love to avoid on front covers following the first issue, and instead rely on the iconography of the costume and shield to identify the book. A title feels utterly redundant alongside such immediately identifiable iconography and what is redundant shouldn't be included.

So issue two would be all artwork, no title. Of these below my favourite in the third along. The first is too conventional a hero shot and the second too awkwardly and obviously turned on its side for no purpose other than to fit a portrait format cover. The third is flipped at a right-angle from interior orientation too but in this case the flip adds dynamism.

It doesn't suggest anything specific from the plot-line but it does strongly suggest specific action, a sense that Rogers has to move fast, changing clothes on the move, to meet some great challenge. It includes the uniform clearly, especially centering the distinctive white star. It's a classic hero shot, the Cap leaping into action while shedding his civvies to reveal his costume, so it speaks to the back-to-basics appeal of these comics but does something interesting with it compositionally.

For the third issue:

I like the second along of these. There's enough that's intriguing about the image - Cap's worried expression, the inclusion of the ordinary-looking man and his injury and the ropes - to suggest tantalisingly the kind of action that awaits. Again, it also places the iconic elements of the costume prominently so we don't need to pause and wonder whose comic this is.

For the fourth issue:

I do like how the use of one of Samnee's high-contrast silhouettey panels from this comic's first page reduces Cap to almost abstract lines but the 'A' anchors it. I think it works that the only clearly readable aspects are that and the gritted teeth. The previous issues ends in an enigmatic cliffhanger and this issues starts with a sharp left-turn from the kind of story we'd been led to expect so far and piles on one surprise after another in its pages. So keeping the cover broadly suggestive of tension and danger while only hinting at enigmatic specifics (the dripping water) feels like an appropriate cover.

For the fifth and latest issue:

I rather like all of these for the latest issue. The first might seem to be rather similar to the issue I dismissed as the existing cover of the first issue - Cap fighting a bunch of the self-same mooks - but this composition is much more dynamic and suggestive of story. We see Cap not in a moment of triumph but as the battle might go either way. He is hugely outnumbered.

The third cover is the most classic composition and shows as the others don't that Hulk is in this issue. It is the time-honoured 'whhuuu our heroes are attaching each other??' scene but there's nothing wrong with that!

The middle cover is pleasing in how it blows up the iconography almost to the point of unrecognisability, but not beyond it. Supporting character Liu's daunted, admiring expression reflected in the shield does speak pretty well to the tone of the issue in a way the Cap-v-Hulk one doesn't. This is no longer a comic about a man encountering adventure and dealing with them pluckily, it's one where he has been called on to step up into full leadership/figurehead mode again. and a shot like this for the cover might signal the shift usefully.

So my run of Captain America covers would currently look like this:

I really like the story it tells. When issue 700 comes out I'll give it the same treatment!


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