Of course, it’s an age-old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. I’m a writer, and I read a lot of books, and one thing I’ve learned is that there’s not a lot of truth to that cliche. Oftentimes it’s fine to judge a book by its cover. For instance, if a book has a monochrome cover featuring a silhouette in the background and some gothic looking object in the foreground, it’s safe to assume it’s another Twilight-ish supernatural romance. I naturally skip such books and never regret it (although there’s some confusion now because publishers have started repackaging classics to resemble Twilight, such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights). If a book has a really impressive looking cover, I’ll avoid it also because, odds are, the content is not so great so the publisher decided to go out of their way to make it appear better than it is.
With comic books, it’s different. There are a lot of legitimage reasons to be wary of a cool looking cover. The major reason is this: most comic book companies release catalogues in advance featuring cover art to upcoming issues. The writer is expected to have a general idea of their story arc before they write the scripts, but not much is set in stone. When the writer has the script completed, he gives it to the penciler. The penciler is usually expected to finish three pages a day, then hand it over to the colorist, inker, letterer and so on so they can have a finished product by the end of the month. In this way, most comics are put together shortly before they are released. The covers are on the other hand released three months before publication.
In the intervening time, it’s very possible that the writer will change the story, and we’re left with a cover that doesn’t seem to pertain to the content. What makes things more misleading is that oftentimes, along with the cover images, brief summaries of the issues are released ahead of time, and those too won’t match up to the end product. For an example, look at the cover of Fear Itself: Avengers (above). Here it shows Hawkeye and Spiderwoman sharing an intimate moment. I could’ve sworn I saw on the Marvel website a description saying Hawkeye and Spiderwoman would have an unexpected romance during the crisis. No such thing happens in the issue itself. Hawkeye and Spiderwoman banter with each other for three panels. Am I upset they didn’t become romantically involved? Not at all. Superhero romances typically last a few issues then are phased out. I’m simply mildly miffed at being misled.
Another reason not to judge comics by their covers is that, in just about all cases, the interior work is by a different artist than the cover. Pencilers who work on the interior are often so busy it’d be too much to expect for them to also churn out an awesome cover while fulfilling a daily quota of three finished pages. In other cases, the interior artist is just lousy, and the publishers will pay someone to make cool covers to compensate for that (this happened a lot with Golden Age comics in particular–sometimes the covers would look like oil paintings but the interiors were schlocked together).
The cover art always has to hype up the issue. Every ongoing story needs to have pick-up issues where characters talk things out, but those don’t sell very well unless the cover art hides it’s real content. Oftentimes, you’ll see covers with Hal Jordan punching Guy Gardner when inside they only have a small altercation.
Some artists have found interesting ways to get around this. Alex Ross, one of the most popular cover artists out there, usually paints his covers which takes up a lot of time. To avoid problems, his covers manage to look awesome without looking too specific. For example, if you pick up Batman RIP and look at the covers, most feature Batman in iconic poses without telling you too much about the story. The covers of the mini-series are practically interchangeable. The same goes for the cover art of Dave McKean and Mike Mignola. By keeping things vague, they don’t disappoint.
Remember, comic book covers are trying to make the issue stand out. If you go to a comic book store or look for comics online, you’re going to see a lot of covers next to each other. Cover artists strive to make you pick up the book. If you want to avoid disappointment, skim through the first couple of pages. Most comic book stores let you do this.
–Once again I’d like to remind everyone to check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.
Read other opinions and essays about comics.