By Its Cover (Week Of 05.07.14): Rethinking The Traditional Trade Dress

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Last week I asked: “why does anyone still use this layout at all?”

My question was answered via a link in the comments to a previous installment of Brian Hibb’s Tilting At Windmills. The short version is that there are still comic shops that overlap the covers of new comics out of necessity, though I recommend reading the entire piece because Hibbs makes some excellent points.

Hibbs could’ve been talking about this very column when he said:

“Now, look, I know that cover layout is also done for artistic and expressive reasons. And I entirely understand the school of thought that is against homogenous design and is for “standing out” on the racks, but I also think you have to balance that very carefully against how things actually function in the real world.”

While I readily admit to being against homogenous design myself, that’s not the reason I personally dislike the standard comic cover layout. In fact, in some ways uniformity can be beneficial, as Rian Hughes pointed out in an interview with CBR:

“Having a cohesive design across all the titles in terms of company logo placement and character logo placement really helps build a solid brand, makes the whole larger than the parts.”

Rather, my complaint is how often the standard layout results in covers that appear lop-sided, in a way that doesn’t look intentional or aesthetically pleasing. In short: they looks bad.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in opposition to Hibbs’ plea for people stick to placing the most important bits in the upper left corner. I just want to see it done in a way that also looks good.

For example, the trade dress that Hughes designed for Valiant works so well because it’s contained within a box that unifies all the design elements (below left). On the other hand, even this isn’t able to keep it from throwing centered compositions off-balance (below right).

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A more reliable workaround would be to create bar along the left side that contains those elements. This bar divides the cover into two clearly separate areas, which allows the art to be centered with the logo without throwing things off.

02-Side

And since overlapping covers is a similar space-saving measure as displaying books, movies, or video games spine-out, why not make them look like spines? One advantage over thicker media is that you can make your faux spine as wide as you want, allowing you to display your company logo and other information nice and big for extra readability.

Which brings me to my next question: are the publisher logo and issue number really the best thing to place in the upper section of the bar? If you’re publishing a lot of new and untested titles and just want to build the brand, that’s one thing. But what about the following scenarios:

1) What if the title or character has more name recognition than the publisher?

It could be argued that in terms of general audiences, Batman is more recognizable than DC, Star Wars is more recognizable than Dark Horse, Adventure Time is more recognizable than Boom!, The Walking Dead is more recognizable than Image, and Spider-Man is possibly more recognizable than Marvel.

So why not list the title as text in the upper corner and move the company logo down (similar to Superman: Earth One above)? Not only would it free you up to put the larger title logo anywhere you want within the main image area, but you could even get rid of it entirely.

2) What if  one of the creators has more name recognition than the title or publisher?

In the same way that it’s not uncommon for novels to put the focus more on the author’s name than the book title, maybe sometimes it’d sell more books to give creator names top billing.

3) What if you’re an unknown creator with a new series at a barely known publisher?

This is where it gets tricky, isn’t it? Smaller shops that are able to display covers in full probably aren’t ordering your book, and the larger shops are only going to be displaying the left 20%. What do you do?

Without any other alternative, you could try getting someone’s attention with an eye-catching image that fills the upper left, or with a flat field of color that might make someone say, “what is this?” (I realized The Wake isn’t the greatest example, since they could’ve put Scott Snyder’s name there, or even a “From the writer of Batman.”)

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But that sort of thing can really only be done so many times before the effect starts to wear off. What then?

Personally, if you find yourself stuck in this scenario, my advice would be this: give up on the upper left corner entirely. Instead, just focus on designing an image that will grab the attention of the people who browse Previews looking for exciting new things. You need most of them to pre-order the book anyways, right?

Plus, if you’re able to design an image that works at a small enough size to catch someone’s eye in Previews, it’ll also work pretty well when viewed small on Comixology. But that’s a topic for another time.


Onward to last week’s covers:

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ALL-NEW X-FACTOR #7 

I’ve been really enjoying the stylish cover design for All-New X-Factor by Jared K. Fletcher and Kris Anka, and was a little disappointed I wasn’t able to featured the cover to #6 . I particularly like the way the issue number is centered under the title, and the quotes underneath are a cool idea. This time the quote is much more directly related to the image, which works even better. I love the contrast of the armed soldiers and the oblivious autographic hound.

 

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SUICIDE RISK #13

This was a week if contrasts. The contrast of this seemingly joyful image against the title “Suicide Risk” instantly got my attention. Maybe it’s just me, but Stephanie Hans’ illustration reminds me a little of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland with the floating stars and the visual idea of traveling between worlds via panels.

 

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 FAIREST #26

This cover by Adam Hughes is like the reverse of Suicide Risk, cutesy and colorful lettering laid over an image of terror and panic.

 

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 THE WOODS #1

Matthew Woodson’s alternate cover is mysterious and intriguing. Making the characters very small in the composition creates a feeling of their being dwarfed by a sense of the unknown. It also demonstrates another way to center the title logo while placing the company name in the upper left.

 

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ORIGINAL SIN #1

This variant cover by Ed McGuinness fills me with sadness. Not only has The Watcher been left to decay on the moon, with no one even realizing he’s dead, but it looks like he’s waving goodbye. Of course, this is nothing like how it happens in the story itself. And maybe I’m a little disappointed it didn’t.

 

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 HINTERKIND #7

I like the way the logo and image become intertwined in this illustration by Greg Tocchini. The way the horn overlaps the logo creates a sense of depth, and the placement of the logo helps put extra focus on the character up top by dividing the image in two. If I have one nitpick, it’s that the placement of the words “New Storyline” seems a little like an afterthought, not really tethered to anything.

 

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 BLACK WIDOW #6

This uncomfortable image by Phil Noto becomes something else when viewed from a distance or in thumbnail form, the angry fists becoming spider legs.

 

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THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1950-1952

The covers for the new paperback editions are just as sharp as the hardcover ones (does anyone know if Seth also designed the new ones?). I really like how a strip was used as the main cover image, but I do have one critique:

Which of the three squares did you look at first? I looked at the third square before reading the other two, and tried it out on a few people who said the same. While I understand why it would be most desirable to call out the punchline panel, the three panels together would read better if the first panel was largest, with the next two were along the left side.

This would also fix panel reading order issue. We read panels in the same way we read text in a paragraph – left-to-right and then down – and many readers get confused on where to go next when two panels are stacked to the left of a larger panel.

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Until next time.


Kate Willaert is a graphic designer for Shirts.com. You can find her her art on Tumblr and her thoughts @KateWillaert. Notice any spelling errors? Leave a comment below.

Comments

  1. Kate’s feature on The Beat only gets better and better. I totally *heart* that you addressed questions from the peanut gallery. Also, I like this week’s examples. It really makes me think. In fact… spinning off the X-Factor cover it made me wonder why don’t we see more quotes on the covers of comic books?

    If a smaller book gets a pull-quote from a bigger name wouldn’t that be something to put on the cover? When I’m looking at prose books I often check out the quotes on the dust jacket (front, back, inside cover). It seems comics could learn a thing or two from this. Instead it seems some publishers continue to rely on the fan base of the established who’s-who with little descriptive help… rather than touting what’s new for fresh readers.

  2. Erik Scott says:

    Just an FYI – The book is Hinterkind, not Hunterkind.

  3. These have been incredibly informative columns. Thanks for doing these each week.

  4. Earth-2 Chad says:

    It’s hardly a motivating factor in our current world of speedy trade collections and most stores declining to carry back issues, but putting all the important info about a comic at the top also makes it easy to know which issue you’re looking at when the comics are stores in a longbox. Marvel’s current habit of putting that info at the bottom is a recipe for frustration when organizing floppies.

  5. KentL says:

    I agree with Jimmie! These have been getting better and better.

    In response to this comment: “It could be argued that in terms of general audiences, Batman is more recognizable than DC, Star Wars is more recognizable than Dark Horse, Adventure Time is more recognizable than Boom!, The Walking Dead is more recognizable than Image, and Spider-Man is possibly more recognizable than Marvel.
    So why not list the title as text in the upper corner and move the company logo down (similar to Superman: Earth One above)? Not only would it free you up to put the larger title logo anywhere you want within the main image area, but you could even get rid of it entirely.”

    It’s all about branding. Marvel puts their logo prominently alongside their recognizable characters because those characters are recognizable. They want you to recognize a Marvel product, be it a comic, a video game, a DVD, or a package of underwear. The thinking is that if you enjoy Spider-Man, you might try one of their other characters. There for a while, Marvel even had a more generic logo that represented the “line” that the title went with. They would have an X for the X-Men line, a Spidey head for the Spider-Man line, etc. The thought is that this would entice readers of Uncanny X-Men to try X-Force or fans of Spider-Man would know that the Prowler mini series was linked to Spider-Man.

    (BTW, I’m using Marvel in my example here because they are very, very good at it. The same is true for a Dark Horse or a Boom! It may even be more important to them to emphasize that Star Wars is from Dark Horse or Adventure Time is from Boom! (or Kaboom!))

  6. KentL says:

    In regards to what Jimmie was saying, I think they don’t use quotes often for monthly titles, because they are mostly bagged and boarded on an LCS rack. The only thing really visible to the average shopper is the cover, and there is already a lot of stuff on the cover. If you notice, though, many trades have pull quotes on the back (and to a lesser extent the front), because those will be on a book shelf where a consumer can pull them out, skim through them, and check for quotes and other information just like you would a book. In the case of trades, you go beyond cover design and now spine design is important. My favorite spine designs tend to come from the indies these days. Usually love what First Second does. This is a discussion for a different day, though.

  7. When my wife and I merged comics collections, I was tasked with alphabetizing & bagging & boxing everything, and I remember having a hard time organizing some of her 2000s-era Vertigo books like AIR and THE UNWRITTEN because I couldn’t find easily find the issue numbers on the covers. That was *still* my first reaction when looking at these covers of HINTERKIND and THE FAIREST — I looked for the issue numbers and was relieved when I could locate them. Sense-memory kicking in.

    (This is a great ongoing column.)

  8. Another fine column. Love the discussion/comments as well.

    I really geek out over design stuff like this.

  9. Kate Willaert says:

    @Erik – Thanks, fixed!

  10. Rich Harvey says:

    A bit off-topic, but why is the Black Widow image “uncomfortable”? If all our heroes were in “comfortable” situations, we really wouldn’t need heroes any longer.

    Magazine and comic logos are usually at the top. I’ve noticed that paperback covers and movie posters (at least the classic posters) often had the title somewhere in the middle or toward the bottom, and often on a diagonal slant. I wonder how the different mediums developed their respective styles.

  11. Kate Willaert says:

    @Rich Harvey – While there have been plenty of comic covers showing a hero (male or female) bound or being beaten, it’s not very often that I’ve seen one with a hero bound AND being beaten.

  12. Kate Willaert says:

    In regards to diagonal text, that’s mostly a stylistic thing that goes in and out of fashion in different decades.

    If I had to speculate why titles usually appear at the bottom of movie posters, I’d say it’s for the same reason that titles appear at the very end rather than beginning of movie trailers — they know a title is more likely to stay in your mind after you’ve seen a striking image/scene connected to it (and we tend to “read” posters from top to bottom).

  13. Tom Mason says:

    Just a vote to say how much I love this feature. Keep ‘em coming!

  14. “1) What if the title or character has more name recognition than the publisher?”

    Like KentL said, this is primarily a branding issue. Associating “Boom!” with ADVENTURE TIME is good for Boom! and, in theory, helps to sell more of other comics (I mean, not really, but this is the theory)

    “2) What if one of the creators has more name recognition than the title or publisher?”

    As a bookseller, I have to say “this is actually rare”. WHEN it happens, sure, put creator first, but I’d say that at least 3/4 of the time that “creator first” is on cover/invoice the publisher is entirely wrong about what is primary sales motivation for that work.

    There are, perhaps, twenty names maximum in comics that sell work IN AND OF THEMSELVES. And it’s *really* probably more like 5, if I am being cynical.

    “3) What if you’re an unknown creator with a new series at a barely known publisher? This is where it gets tricky, isn’t it? …..The larger shops are only going to be displaying the left 20%. ”

    So, I think that IF only a limited number of stores are going to display your work, then you have to work twice as hard to actually sell those books that the minority of stores have ordered.

    I mean, don’t penalize me because I took a chance on you, right?

    Of the covers you picked this week, apply the “Marvel Cover Rule” to them (ie: only what would appear in a “Marvel Cover Box” as displaying), and I think that few pass the test. X-FACTOR might make it because of the giant “X”, but other than that, only SUICIDE RISK and ORIGINAL SIN and *maybe* Hinterkind come close to standing out on a truncated rack.

    Veritgo: CYAN is ENTIRELY DEAD on any rack that isn’t 100% full cover! And even those, it barely communicates what it needs to.

    If I had to pick a quote from my own column as the “nut graph”, it would probaly be this one:

    “That behavior — scanning — is key for the commercial prospect of many works, because “discoverability” is usually one of the major factors that a work needs to conquer. That is to say, look at that week of comics on my NCR, there are an awful lot of things competing for space, attention and the customer’s dollars, and if you’re something new and unknown to the customer, you want it to be as easy as possible for the customer to “discover” you on the rack. Racks and racking are, in fact, the one major sales advantage that physical retailer has over a computer-based one. If one knows exactly what they want it is often better/cheaper/easier to order something from their computer, however, if they don’t already know that they want it, it is significantly harder to connect consumer to work.”

    -B

  15. I have to say, I get your points (Brian) and you make good ones, but it’s been quite some time where I’ve been in a store that stacks books in that manner. Most dedicate space to showing entire covers. Every local store I can think of does it this way, and as I go out further it still remains the same. I understand space can be an issue for some, but most seem to be making space for how covers are marketed today.

  16. Torsten Adair says:

    The problem here is a bit of apples and tomatoes…

    Superman: Earth One is a book. Turok is a comic book/periodical.

    So two future columns:
    How do comic books compare to periodical magazines? (MAD, Time, National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post) How do magazines use trade dress and cover design to sell their magazines? How often do they violate that design?

    How do book publishers use book design to sell a book?
    How does Harlequin and Scholastic use book design to sell series (like Harry Potter)?

    How do the collected editions of Vertigo compare to the single issues?
    How has Vertigo changed their comics trade dress over the years?

  17. Kate Willaert says:

    @Torsten Adair: Earth One was included only as an example of using a wider bar. I could’ve used an single issue of a comic that used a wider bar (like last week’s Green Arrow), but wanted to show an example where the company logo wasn’t at top. I’m not sure I see why it not being a single issue would invalidate it as a visual example?

    Your topic suggestions are good, but sound more closer to 3-5 columns. ;-)

  18. Kate Willaert says:

    @KentL:

    “The same is true for a Dark Horse or a Boom! It may even be more important to them to emphasize that Star Wars is from Dark Horse or Adventure Time is from Boom! (or Kaboom!)”

    While I understand your point, I still don’t see why that means placing the logo in the upper left as opposed to…anywhere else.

    I was at B&N the other day and decided to look at how they were racking all their magazines and comics. I could instantly spot all the Dark Horse books, of course, but I had to actually pull one out to see what series it was.

    A random non-comics person glancing at that shelf might have grabbed the comic out of curiosity if they saw a Star Wars logo there, but they’re going to look right past the horse logo. Putting the company logo there rather than having the “S” and W” of the title visible (like most non-comics periodicals do) is hurting more than helping.

  19. Kate Willaert says:

    @Brian Hibbs:

    1) It sounds like we’re in agreement.

    2) When I wrote this point, I was thinking of your own example of putting Brian Stelfreeze’s name in the upper left of Day Men. I’m confused on why you’re going back on your own advice? Or have you since found that even that wouldn’t have worked?

    3) If the scanner has never heard of Suicide Risk or Hinterkind, why would an unfamiliar “S” or “H” sticking out be any more likely to grab someone’s attention than a box of cyan?

  20. “I was at B&N the other day”

    B&N is not the target for periodicals. Comic shops are. Thus, most cover design for periodicals (especially for smaller companies like Boom and Dark Horse) are going to aim at how an LCS displays rather than how the big bookstore retailer is going to display. For TPBs and HCs, that’s likely the opposite.

    Also, a bit surprised that B&N only displayed the upper left corner. I’ve not noticed that with the local Books-a-Million, and the B&N that I go to certainly doesn’t do that for its magazines (I tend not to notice their comics).

    Lastly, I would think that Marvel and DC are able to play a bit more with their cover layout because most LCSes (LCSs?) have dedicated racks for Marvel and DC, while most everything else (Image is sometimes the exception) falls under “Indie”. Smaller publishers should probably focus their design on the top half of the title, because it’s somewhat unlikely that they’ll have their entire cover displayed. Just using the “Suicide Risk” example above, if you were to obscure the bottom half of the title, you still get a pretty eye-catching image. Although I’m surprised that the Boom! Studios logo is towards the bottom rather than at the top like it is with The Woods cover.

  21. Torsten Adair says:

    B&N racks comics like all other magazines.

    There are tiers.
    Within each tier, there is space for magazines.
    If it’s a big title, it gets its own pocket in the front top tier, showing off most or all of the issue at eye level.
    If there are just a few copies (usually 1-3), then it is placed behind the frontlist titles, and fanned, so that only the left side (about two inches) is visible, and then just the top three inches of any magazine (the rest is hidden behind the front tier).

    In some of the older magazine shops in NYC, the magazines have vertical pockets. In this arrangement, only the top three inches (usually the logo) are visible.
    (Some might remember the comics spinner rack. Same layout.)

    My old comics shop in the 80s had tiered racks, so just the logo was visible.
    Now, it’s all wall shelving, everything faced out like a book, so the the entire issue is visible. I believe this is standard practice now in most comics shops.

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