Cover Artist Conundrum

In many ways, they’re the best artists in comics. I’m talking about cover artists – the guys and girls that create the one signifying image to present a comic book to the masses. In almost all cases they become cover artists after years of doing interior comic pages – you know, actual comics. Names like Adam Hughes, John Cassaday, Dave Johnson, Brandon Peterson, Travis Charest and Joshua Middleton. And much to the disappointment of fans, some of these artists stop doing interior comics and just do covers…but why?

It boils down to three things: time, money and passion.

On average it takes about a day or more to draw a single comics page, while a cover might take half the time. Think about it – although it’s a bigger single image with perhaps more design concerns, a comics page is comprised of several individual drawings; each requiring its own time to plan, pose and present in a unique way, while also working in conjunction with the other panels to form the page. For some artists, this process takes even longer – while Erik Larsen or Mark Bagley might be able to knock out seven to ten pages in a week, someone with a style like Alex Ross or Travis Charest might take twice as long – if not more. Due to the very quick turnaround schedule of the Big Two, it’s hard for an artist who can’t knock out a page a day to get a consistent job drawing interiors – the math just doesn’t add up for publishers, who operate on a month-to-month basis.

On the money side, comics art is a way to make a living – and covers pay significantly more than interiors, especially when you factor in that they can be done quicker than interior pages. According to figures provided by two unnamed sources, cover art pays approximately 44% more than an interior page at Marvel and DC – with the covers rate at smaller publishers like IDW, Boom and Top Cow being 50% more than their interior page rate. You also have to factor in the secondary art market – original art sales. Original comics art demands a high dollar to collectors, sometimes more than the rate they’re paid by publishers in the first place – and pages with a single image such as covers and splash pages demand a much higher rate than a standard comics page.

The third comes down to passion. Although all artists come into comics out of a love and appreciation to do comics, being a full-time interior comics artist is a demanding position. It’s primarily a solitary existence, demanding far more than the standard 40 hours per week of a traditional job. Covers offer an opportunity to still work in the medium they love – comics – without the demands that a month-in month-out interior comics artist has to go through.

Some of comics’ top artists are only seen on covers these days, and in the rare occasion they might be scheduled for an interior artist it’s something special. It’s usually for a special featured issue or some project that is scheduled with months of years of pre-planning (such as the Jeph Loeb / J. Scott Campbell's Spider-Man series announced four years ago). But in this time of raising cover prices, how much would more would you pay for a regular series by one of these artists — and how many people would do the same?

Comments

  1. In economics we address the time component using the concept of opportunity cost.  What could I be doing instead of 22 pages of interior art?  5-10 cover.  What pays more one issue or 10 covers?  I think the answer is obvious.

    It is unfortunate in some ways, but you’re right, this is how the industry works. 

  2. How many years did it take Cassaday to draw Planetary #27?  

    Is that Spiderman series still coming out?  

    The only good thing about this trend is that they are still being paid to make comics, and sometimes they drop new material out of the blue(I was totally surprised that Frank Quietly had a story in DCU Legacies) and it is a great treat.  I’ve long since given in to the reality that some artists just can’t do a monthly schedule, so we just have to take it when we get it.

  3. I’ll admit the more and more I move my comic reading to trades, the less I’m aware I am of individual issue covers.  The original covers are typically included in a trade, usally in a covers sections (not unlike a spash page section), but they really lose their impact for me when this is done. There is still the actual cover of the trade itself which represents that attempt to pull a reader into the book, but I’ll admit I’m losing that “episodic” pull of a regular issue cover.

  4. Do you know if a variant cover artist possibly gets paid a different amount?

  5. @jonnyflash The Planetary 27 delay was Ellis’ fault, not Cassaday’s.  Ellis had a HDD crash and lost the script

  6. @powerdad  Great point! On trades I rarely look at the alternate covers.

    Also, I’ve noticed that when I buy digital comics,I couldn’t care less about the cover art.

  7. Beyond economics there is the level of prestige that feeds the artist and elevates his/her standing in historical contexts. Look through any book on the history of comics. That Taschen DC book comes to mind…covers are what are celebrated the most. Covers are all you see when you slab a comic. The interiors get lost and forgotten about, the cover is what becomes iconic. Also with cover art, the artist is a lot more free to pursue their own ideas. I mean how many times have we seen covers that are very loosely based on the story inside? The artist just want to make images, they don’t want to have to deal with editor/writer notes and all that. Its kinda of like a top of the mountain kinda thing. 

  8. When thinking about misleading covers, I always think of a cover to The Sensational She-Hulk #37. On the cover it shows Wolverine, The Punisher, and Spider-Man with the text, “WOLVERINE, THE PUNISHER, SPIDER-MAN STARRING ON THIS ISSUE!” And below show’s She-Hulk pushing this cover up (breaking the 4th wall almost-literally) and says directly to the audience/reader, “But you’ll notice nothing is said about them actually being IN this issue!”

    Dumb joke, sure, but it stuck with me; and I kind of like dumb jokes.

    http://www.she-hulk.us/Covers/062_37.jpg

  9. I’ll never forget Dave Johnson saying the reason he didn’t finish Red Son Superman was because he could make more money flipping burgers than doing pages. Especially with how many hours a week he was putting into the pages for that book.

    I wish he would do a book every so often, but sadly I don’t blame him nor do I any other great artist that mostly does covers. It makes more sense for them economically in the long run.

    Also I totally forgot about that Spider-Man story. I’m sure I’ll forget about it again. 

  10. @wallythegreenmonster  I definitely agree that the covers are the chief visual way the issue is presented in other contexts (such as pull lists here on the site).

    I don’t know if you listen to Tom Vs. Aquaman, but each podcast includes cover art from the issue Tom is “reading”/presenting, and the funny thing right now is all the Aquaman stories are back-up stories in Action Comics featuring Superboy. So all the covers have nothing to do with Aquaman, and it’s still a little “jarring” when I start playing an episode for Aquaman but see this Superboy cover image.

  11. @powerdad  — yeah its part of my podcast rotation at work…but i listen to them like 10 at a time. ha. yeah it is weird how that works with the covers and the backups. I’m always shocked when a cover has anything to really do with the story.

  12. I’m not a fan of having a cover artist that’s different from the interior artist, especially when the interior art is inferior to the cover. As much as I enjoy Morning Glories (story and interior art), it’s always a disappointment that the cover artist isn’t doing the interiors.

  13. @gobo I point you to the man himself, with his March 2009 Planetary #27 update: http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=7062

     

  14. Let’s have another story about comic artists lost to movie storyboarding!  Stephen Platt for one.  Remember when he was the “new MacFarlane?” Or maybe it was the “new Liefield.”  Either way, I thought Prophet #5 was a damn pretty cover.

    Say what you will, but at least we’re getting output from these cover artists.

  15. Certainly economics plays a huge role. But there’s proabably also another factor.

    I think every aspiring comic artist wants to draw sequentials. But after you’ve been grinding away at pages for years on end, you’re probably burnt out, or ready to try something different, or a combination of both.

    So it’s also the idea of career progression — wanting to dedicate more time to making one piece of art look perfect, vs. rushing through panel after panel to meet a deadline — that may get make people move on to covers only.

  16. @jonnyflash  Yeah Ellis got the script to Cassaday in 2009, it took Ellis over 5 years to get it to him.

  17. @NaveenM  –to add to your statement, as a creative professional there is a burnout that can occur with the grind of working in commercial art. That creative passion you brought in your early years quickly gets destroyed by working in real world concerns like clients, political desicion making etc. After a while you can become a cog in the machine, and your cool gig turns into a mundane job. Covers seems to be a way to get more artistic freedom. Reminds me of a guy i met who used to do corporate branding who quit to open a screen printing shop and design gig posters. 

    @jonnyflash  –or an article on how the top talent in comics can’t afford to keep working in comics exclusively cause the $$$ just isn’t there. 

  18. @gobo  Not to belabour the point too much, but Ellis says that he wrote the script “2 years ago” as of March 09, and he posted that he delivered the script on June 11, 2007.  He then posted that Cassaday finished interior art April 19, 2009.  So just shy of 2 years for a single issue.  Worth it, but still.

  19. @wallythegreenmonster it’s sad that neither writers nor artists can do comics full time for a living, unless they are uber-successful.  Just look at how quickly comic writers will jump ship to TV, or moonlight on video games and such.