Retrospective article: Uncool Covers

May 19, 2004

Originally published on June 29, 2003 on Hero Realm. Updated with some additional material at the end.

By Avi Green

When I first read comics when I was a kid, many of them had all sorts of covers that gave me a feeling of excitement as I began to read them. They would have what were called “captions” – little sentences that could ask things like “Why is this or that happening?” Or, they would have word balloons on them spoken by either the heroes or the villains, telling what they’re going to do this way or that.

The purpose of these was to give readers both old and new an idea of what was going on inside the story, and it certainly helped to heighten the level of excitement and suspense through which readers can enjoy what’s being told inside.

Some of these covers were quite clever. Not only did they have all sorts of clever captions and word balloons, but they could also be drawn to look like a set of panels from within the book itself, and there were even some that incorporated live action photography into them as well! And one of the most clever ones that I know of was where John Byrne drew himself onto the cover of a Fantastic Four issue from January 1982, complete with a nice big grin of excitement on his face!

But then, suddenly, years later, much of this started to disappear, probably around the time that the independents were starting in the business in the mid-1980s. As the years went by, and the 90’s came around, word balloons appeared less and less on the covers, and even captions and other exclamations on the covers started to show up less and less too. DC’s covers, for example, while they still did have captions, seemed to stop using word balloons on a lot of them, such as on Wonder Woman’s second volume, and Batman’s books probably haven’t used them since the early 1990’s. Of course, some of them still do use word balloons, like, say, when paying tribute to the Silver Age, such as in recent issues of Superman and the Flash, but aside from that, few of their books have what the ones of yesteryear had.

But even more distressing, Marvel, within the past 2 years, has stopped using both captions and word balloons on their covers altogether. And while some of the covers do give the reader an idea of what they’ll see on the inside, including teasers, a lot of them are now reduced to simple pictures of the hero in some kind of stance or other, like Spider-Man sticking to a wall or swinging through town.

Back in the Golden Age of comics, there were some covers to be seen without captions or word balloons on them. But the difference is that a lot of those still had teasers and other hints on them to give the reader an idea of what was happening inside.

Many of Marvel’s recent comic book covers boast none of these now. Instead, as said above, they just offer up a simple picture of the hero/heroine in some pose or other, with no interesting villains to be seen, and no supporting cast members, street crowds, or other superheroes on them either.

Not only that, but they’ve also been looking less like the interior artwork and more like what you might see in an art gallery, even 3-D! It’s nice to see that comics artists have been able to advance so well in graphics design, but to see it happening at the expense of excitement and suspense is really distressing. Where is the thrill of being offered an idea as to what’s happening this month in our favorite comics?

It may be that Marvel for one is doing it because it saves them money. Yet, judging from the high quality artwork and the effort that must’ve been put into it, it’s somehow hard to believe. Such artwork – even what could be done via computer –would surely have to cost a lot to produce.

I think it’s a shame that their covers now amount to little more than art gallery material. By simplifying their covers so much, they don’t give the reader, old or new, an idea of what’s going on inside, nor does it give any feeling of excitement or fun. And with nothing to give an idea of what they’re going to be seeing inside, nor any sense of fun, how are new readers really expected to take interest in many of the books?

What worked for me in the old style of covers particularly was that they conveyed a real sense of fun and enjoyment. And having fun is the main reason I read comics, just like when going to the movies. In fact, captions, if not word balloons, took their inspiration from a lot of movie posters years ago!

And I really wish we could see more covers like those that were drawn in the past once again. They could be very clever and inventive, and they also could draw the interest of new readers by giving them hints on what to expect. Plus, they looked just like the drawings on the inside, and not like 3-D computer graphics.

Sometimes, changes aren’t as good as what came before.

Now, here's a pair of letters I recieved in response to this article. First one is by Brian Grindrod, owner of the Fremto website:

It's been a few months since I dropped by HeroRealm and the first article that I noticed on the front page was your Uncool Covers article.

The article is top shelf and I agree with you 110%.

In my reviews, I always comment on the cover and how many of them really lack the *ooomph* to attract a potential customer.

Glad to see somebody else picking up on that!

- Brian (June 29, 2003)

Glad to hear from you, and I'll be reading your next reviews.

best wishes,
Avi Green (June 30, 2003)

And here's the next one:

Thanks...I was thinking about that, too.
       It's funny you mentioned John Byrne. People always talk about BYRNE-STEALING (Byrne refers to the reading of magazines, books, or comics in the store without paying for it as stealing), but with most of these covers, you have no choice but to Byrne-steal it just to see what the issue is about. Remember that issue when Aunt May found out about Pete's identity as Spidey? What was on the cover? Spidey swinging around the city (even though we only saw Spidey on the LAST PAGE in the whole comic!) Remember that recent reunion of Pete and MJ? What was on the cover? Spidey swinging around the city (even though he was in the AIRPORT through the whole issue!!!) I'll wager that most of the recent Hulk comics all have the Hulk on the cover, but 9 times out of 10, the Hulk isn't even in the comic!
       We all know about people just putting a pin-up of the title character on the front of the book and calling it a cover, but are there any more examples of covers that are misleading like the ones I've already mentioned?

Phil Watts, Jr.
Petersburg, VA. (June 29, 2003)

Thanks for the letter. (June 30, 2003)

The slang of Byrne-stealing is something that I myself only fully learned recently, and yes, it is pretty appalling that people now have to flip through the comics at the stores in order to figure out what's going on inside. If I were in charge of directing the artwork for the covers, I would've thought to have a cover drawn for the Spidey issue with Aunt May's discovery of Peter's secret ID showing her as if she were going to blow his secret to the public in almost the same way as the cover for Flash #204 Vol 1. which showed Iris West Allen looking like she was going to reveal her late husband Barry Allen's secret ID as the Scarlet Speedster to the public on the streets. Covers like that are what can give a feeling of suspense to the reader and make them want to find out exactly what happens inside.

Sadly, Marvel now seems to care little about really wanting to give even new readers a feeling of excitement over what's happening in their books, and instead must want to draw these very pedestrian covers of theirs for making money at auction sales. A real shame, since even covers with live action backgrounds could also be very clever, something that DC may have done recently with a cover for Superman.

Avi Green

I think it may have to do with certain people who see blurbs on the cover as something that's cornball. But even then, you can still put something on the cover that can give people a clue to what's going to happen in the book...but considering those two covers I told you about, they're not even doing THAT much!

Phil Watts, Jr.
Petersburg, VA.

It's been at least a year since I'd worked on this, and now, I'm wondering, is Marvel beginning to show any signs of trying out again what worked for them in the years gone by? Well, if this cover for one is any indication:

That word balloon seen there is a promising sign, I guess.

So who knows? Maybe there is good news waiting around the corner. But only time will tell. And last year, well, it's a shame that of all places where they actually did use captions, was on the last 5-6 issues of Thunderbolts, when they tried to pull something similar to what they did with X-Force, which was then changed to X-Statix (soon to be cancelled), turning Thunderbolts into some kind of a fight club series, and what did they do? They made the covers look almost like Maxim magazine!

It's a shame that when they did use captions during that time, it turned out to be in the wrong place. But luckily, the cover above, as said before, does look promising.

Copyright 2003-2004 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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