Since I started writing these articles for iFanboy, a few people have suggested that, as a professional graphic designer, it might be interesting to write about logos in comics, i.e. the way the title of the comic is written on the cover. Every time this came up, I avoided it, thanking the person for their suggestion, but dismissing it. I rarely notice comic logos on a conscious level, (unless they put me off buying the comic). It obviously isn’t that I dislike design, or don’t care about it (it’s my work and a passion), but when it comes to comics, I’ve always let the imagery speak first. I always chose to let my understanding and knowledge of design take a back seat to the simple comic-reader within me. On some subconscious level I was cutting off from the rationale of why I was attracted to something, and simply enjoying the ride, the feeling, to desire to purchase and immerse myself in a new comic.
As soon as I tried to explain all of the things that I wasn’t noticing, I realized that I was noticing them, but I hadn’t ever articulated my opinion, even to myself. While I was reacting to comic logos on a gut level (which, incidentally is how I think graphic design functions work for most people), somewhere deep down I was also analyzing why and how.
In the past I’ve done a fair amount of logo and identity development for various kinds of businesses and individuals. Just like a business logo, comic logos are designed to echo the characteristics and aura of what/who they represent. Visually, a logo must give a hint of what to expect, to entice the appropriate people to pay attention.
Personally, I have a strong preference for two kinds of logos; Old-school logos, and reinvention logos. The first is consistent, it has a permanence, is practically unchanging, and basically is just like the heroes it represents. The second genre has to be more flexible, like the heroes it’s designed for it has to be able to grow and adapt.
The strong, unbending, uncompromising logos of the superhero world, by the very nature of the solid and permanent heroes that they represent, the logos must remain similarly constant and unyielding. These are the IBM’s, the AT&T’s, the American Airlines of the superhero world. Most prominent amongst them of course, is Superman.
At their inception there were no computers to aid in the design of these logos, by necessity they were painstakingly hand-drawn, using every instinct of the typographer to create a line that simply felt right. Without graphics programs to help the designer build a mathematically balanced line, it had to come from the designers gut and training. The Superman logo is a great example of this, from it’s vaguely clunky beginnings 70 years ago, it’s been refined and cleaned up, but basically it has hardly changed. 70 years of being current, usable and balanced… do you know what that means? In all likelihood, none of the people who read this have been alive that long.
The idea of creating an effective logo form that (with small alterations over time), can work and be effective for over 70 years is insane. To give you some idea of how unlikely this is, most businesses change their logos every 10 years, out of necessity mind you, not choice (logo creation can be time-consuming and difficult). Hitting on a timeless design is rare, and in many instances accidental, or at least unexpected. An unchanging logo is able to not only maintain brand awareness, (i.e. people are so used to seeing it that they no longer question it’s existence. It just is, it’s become a part of our understanding of the very culture the logo is part of), but also to communicate stability, strength and reliability.
Naturally these are traits that large business desire, especially businesses who deal with large sums of money, or dangerous travel, places that need to inspire trust. When a logo doesn’t change for many decades, a strongly identifiable brand is created. For a business, this is gold, it means that people will perceive them as established, rock-solid, trustworthy. If you look at Superman as a brand, this image fits perfectly. He’s the original hero, you want to trust him, he’s meant to be solid and reliable. The tenacity of this logo massively reinforces that image, helping to create him and it as an expression of all things relating to what is intrinsically American.
Despite some comparatively superficial changes, in many ways the Superman logo is the perfect logo. It hasn’t changed and therefor it’s instantaneously recognizable, and has become an intrinsic part of the American vernacular. From any designers point of view, this is true genius; The ability to create something that will not only fulfill it’s original purpose to communicate the needs of the client, but go far beyond that and become part of our visual language. This is a Holy Grail for designers; We’re always trying to design something so simple and perfect so lacking in extraneous elements that it never dates, it is ageless, and will not only always be synonymous with what it represents, but be able to live beyond that. People will never be confused because the brand is always true to itself.
On the flip side of Superman, there is a second genre of logo, one that must be more mutable, and yet still be able to express the inner ideal of the superhero it represents. This works, and is in fact essential, because there are heroes who’re more sensitive to outside societal changes and technological advances. They are not archetypes of mankind, but instead have been developed to be intrinsic to the world they’re depicted in, as expressions of our advancing understanding.
While the logos created for these heroes must be as satisfying and effective (as a tool of visual communication) as the more stable and unchanging logos, these must be a little more amorphous. Designed to represent and speak to the implications of the changing character and fashion of the hero, these are logos which will, inevitably, be similarly forced to grow and adapt, in line with the superheroes they are made to represent. As emissaries in the world, these logos are just as important as the old-school logos, but as icons, as part of the visual language of our culture, they take far more of a back seat to the superhero.
Over time, with changes in the character of the superhero, the logo can begins to break, it can’t communicate well enough, and is forced to change. In this respect, Iron Man is an example that really stands out. It’s changed quite a few times over the years, and each time has been very identifiably as being fashionable in it’s context. Just like clothing or music, logo styles go in and out of fashion, the logos have come into (and gone drastically out of) fashion. This makes a lot of sense with a hero like Iron Man, who’s very powers are dictated by the current thinking in regards to science and engineering. How could he have an unchanging logo? How would that communicate the comics facility for change and growth? No, it is essential in this instance that the logo be able to be completely reinvented once in a while, so that it can still be an effective part of the Iron Man mythos.
As with any other kind of logo, there are numerous categories and interpretations of the comic book logo, these are just the first two which jump out as I begin to look. There is a tremendous wealth of information and history to absorb, and now that I’ve started, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop.
Sonia Harris lives, designs, reads and writes in San Francisco. As early as she can remember, she was reading comics, and being taught about design. If you’d like to, you can mail her about these, or any other things at firstname.lastname@example.org.