Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover? How Can You Not?

imgres-16Comic book covers. There’s been a lot of discussion regarding covers in recent years, mostly because of the trend of publishers offering up comics with a covers that are often more pin-up than actual previews. Simply put, the cover that used to be a teaser of what the reader could expect to take place in the twenty-two pages bound within isn’t as standard as it once was. I guess it’s part a publication process where covers are often drawn and submitted well before the actual stories are written. That said, an artist can get away with drawing an all-purpose cover that captures the essence of the characters in a book, but doesn’t necessarily jibe with storyline. Depicting some semblance of what’s actually taking place inside the comic is no longer paramount. This bothers some folks; others seem to have no problem with it. My general feeling is that the real importance of great covers is getting lost in all this.

imgres-13I get that the sort of standardized cover is part of modern comics, but the fact that comic covers seem to have become almost perfunctory at times is troubling. All too often there’s a sort of style over substance approach to covers, an approach that’s designed to give the book a repeatable monthly look that I assume is supposed to give rise to repeat business. Call it brand recognition. The covers of Fraction’s Hawkeye come to mind as examples of a sort of stylistic cover treatment that, while certainly artistically serviceable and sort of cool, doesn’t really give the reader much insight into what Hawkeye is up to. In my humble opinion these covers are lacking in some ways, as they’re more about presenting the Hawkeye vibe than luring in potential readers with promises of Hawkeye’s adventures. I find it hard to imagine a new reader being drawn to a book whose covers tell you so little.

url-5I’d love it if I could press a button and go back to the good ol’ days of covers that made sense, covers that gave the reader a morsel of story and covers that were a flashy snapshot of a storyline. That would be great. I’d press that “travel back to the glory days of covers” button a lot, mostly because I’m an old school collector who has romanticized the past all out of proportion. It was better back then. I just know it was. Just take a look at Amazing Spider-Man #69 and tell me that wasn’t the golden age of Silver Age covers. You knew you were going to get. John Romita Sr. made sure of that. Admittedly, I wasn’t around when this book came out, but I like to imagine what it must have been like to see that cover on the drugstore spinner rack and to be drawn in to a story that you could rest assured was going to involve Spidey in the clutches of the freakin’ Kingpin. Not two ways about it. That cover told you what you were going to get…and you got it. Nuff said.

Sure, the old ways were a bit corny, but I happen to like covers that draw me in, covers that operate on the level of letting me know what I’m in for. I’m a huge fan of that classic Marvel cover look from the Silver and Bronze Age and I’m always happy when that look is revisited, even if it’s done as a retro homage.  Nowadays it seems like artists are making a concerted effort to hide the book’s title amidst a clutter of artwork. With some many Avengers books out there, I’d argue that clear title art might be something Marvel should think about prioritizing. I almost missed the first issue of Secret Avengers this week because the title was so cryptically contained within the art. There’s nothing wrong with a cover that shouts out the title in a loud and proud way. Screw subtly. Give me a big ol’ title and a well-drawn piece of the action that I’ll see inside and I’m good to go. And don’t get me started on Hickman’s Avengers covers. Not sure what good a bunch of covers that fit together do for someone who is collecting them digitally. I guess I’ll need a quintet of iPads to really see the big picture.


For me, great covers are how I remember comics and refer to them in grand checklist in my mind. Cover images are what come to mind when I think of seminal books and great artists. That being said, simply slapping a repetitive or all-purpose cover on a given series month-after-month seems to me to relegate the book to little more than product. I know there are soon-to-be classic covers coming out every month. There’s plenty of good work being done and no one can really know what covers will stand the test of time and rise to the level of “classic.” But I long for the days when a comic book’s cover literally reached out to the reader with promises of Spider-Man fighting the Lizard…and then actually delivered on that promise. I know I’ll probably be accused of being a nostalgic old codger for my thoughts on covers, but that’s okay with me. If it’s old-fashioned to want the covers of my comics to function as more than just standardized comic book wrapping wallpaper, then color me old-fashioned.

Gabe Roth is a TV writer trapped in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.


  1. There is nothing worse than a cover depicting something that doesn’t occur in any similar fashion in the book. Ripoff artists!

  2. There are some points I can definitely get behind. As someone who grew up on the Marvel Tales Spider-Man reprints from the Silver and Bronze Age, there’s definitely something to be said for a cover that accurately reflects the contents within. However, I absolutely love the covers on Hawkeye because that’s a book that I’m buying because of the vibe. That said, I do concede the point that based solely on the cover, I couldn’t tell you what happened in that issue.

  3. I agree with @kennyg that covers depicting something that doesn’t even come close to occurring inside the book is pretty annoying.
    I would also say that I don’t quite mind covers that are sort of pin-up style because in a way I would like to not know what is going to happen in the book. I want everything to be a surprise.
    Then again covers that tell you the general story that may take place is great as well. Something to the effect of “Spider-Man fired” and such.
    I do really like the blurbs on covers and I wouldn’t mind seeing word bubbles being used more often in covers as well.

    • I don’t mind a pin-up or fancy art. I don’t mind a cover hinting at the plot. I don’t mind something symbolic. I’m pretty much cool with anything except being lied to!

  4. Growing up on comics in the ’90s, I was used to seeing a lot of the “this is what happens in this book!” covers. Nowadays though, with so many books coming out every week, the publishers have to find a way to market each individual book on a rack full of competing titles. That said, books like The Manhattan Projects and Hawkeye generally grab my attention first because they’re so different from most covers.

  5. My favorite covers are ones that take a plot element or character from a given issue and portray it in an abstracted, simplified, or grotesque manner. “Preacher,” “100 Bullets,” and “Scalped” all had phenomenal covers that weren’t done by the interior artist that enhanced the book as a whole.

    Right now, “Saga” easily has the best covers month to month. They are both eye-catching and depict some aspect of the story contained inside.

  6. I simultaneously agree and disagree with you! =) Basically you’re talking about Art Direction and its interesting how comics is the one facet of publishing that has completely squeezed out this job despite is importance. (There is a reason why major book publishers spend A LOT of money on art departments and freelance AD’s and designers to make iconic book covers)

    I think that from a design and marketing perspective a good cover, whether its a comic, book or whatever needs to have a driving concept behind it, complimented with A+ design. Just showing a battle or interaction between characters in the story is kinda weak concept. A throwing drop shadow on some type to hit your sales points is always weak design.

    I kinda like the direction that comics like like Manhattan Projects, Comeback, and Hawkeye are going in that they have strong design elements that convey the essence of the story inside, a brand, and visually cool design that stands out from everything else around it.

    One thing lacking in comics is the roll of a strong designer especially on the covers. You often get the illustrators or letterers who dabble in graphic design taking a stab at it, but some of their lack of experience with design craft and concept shows through. Especially with some of the typographic finesse and attention to detail that a skilled graphic designer or art director could bring to the table.

    • I belong more to this vein of thinking. Admittedly, I’m a new comic book reader. [I visited my first comic store last May.] I continue to find the wall-o’-comics retail arrangement intimidating and difficult to browse, and I usually know exactly what I’m going to buy before I enter the store in the first place. But…I some comic covers have caught my eye and encouraged me to look into them, to peruse critical reception, and to research their creators. Almost none of these would qualify, I think, under Mr. Roth’s ideal. Most of them–Hawkeye, The New Deadwardians, Fatale, Saga, The Black Beetle, among others–manage to convey tone and a unique artistic vision without offering many, if any, narrative details. The only one that might qualify under Mr. Roth’s rubric would be Revival, and even it is more suggestive than explanatory, and can only be understood retrospectively. [It should also be noted that my favorite comic–Dial H–routinely has underwhelming covers and middling art work, but I would follow China Miéville anywhere. Indeed, into the comic store in the first place.]

      Very few of these–along with my reading tastes–are typical superhero comics, and that the rules might vary for their readers. But, like novels, movies, and music, a cover seems to be more about situating a work within its genre, flagging it within a community of artistic productions with a similar consumer base, and–especially in the case of comics–simply catch a potential purchaser’s eyes within a tightly organized and overly busy retail environment.

  7. I’m the other way really. I love the modern approach to covers and how cryptic and visually imaginative they can be. I don’t really want to see a scene that I know is going to be in the book, I like a cover that really deserves to be studied. Manhattan Projects, Fatale, Prophet all have fascinating covers for different reasons.

    A lot of superhero covers are so dull and generic nowadays. The basically just paste the heroes on the front in superfluous poses and it’s just gotten very boring. Those Avengers covers are a prime example. Instead of going for something interesting or potentially iconic for this new big event they’ve done that stupid 3 issue poster thing which just looks like a big metallic mess.

  8. I’m a bit disappointed in the avengers covers for the first three issues as well, they don’t look that great outside of the context of the three issue layout.
    The style of comic books covers has changed with the industry. Back in the 60’s there were no books like hawkeye, most of them were traditional superheros and not a comedy/design focused and light on story book like hawkeye. A cover still tells us what is contained within, I look at that wolverine one and know it was a fresh and engaging take on a character without getting any sense of plot. Spidey related the books focus on drama and action, just in a different way then a more standalone piece of art.. Hawkeye cover is eye catching, reminding me more of an in-flight safety manual than a still from a comic.

  9. Although there are some truly iconic covers that have come from the past decade or two (Fables, Scalped, Maleev’s Daredevil anyone?), I can’t believe that publishers actually believe they sell more books with pin-up art. The current state of the comic book cover is a joke for two reasons. First, as you said, you have no clue what’s going on inside a book with a pinup cover. I know that if I grab Amazing SPiderman #69 or any other number before 400ish, I get an idea of what the story was about, or I can find a particular story I enjoyed, to reread. I think the run in Amazing Spider-man, around the time Straczynski was writing is the best example of terrible covers (nothing against Straczynski). I suppose Marvel thought, “Scott Campbell’s hot right now. We can sell the books just on his pinups AND we don’t have to commit to anything we’re putting inside the books.” That’s all fine and dandy, but I challenge any Marvel editor to look at that run and tell me precisely which issue Spiderman fought the Morlun the first time (one of my favorite contemporary storylines).

    Second, it’s all about advertising. Somewhere corporate minds forgot what Stan Lee and his predecessors and peers, heck, any Marketing person creating movie posters, album covers, magazine advertisements – knew since humans made the first cave paintings – compelling images which provoke an person’s inner sense of intrigue and wonder will aways win over static shots. “Oh no! Batman’s tied to the front of a runaway train! How will he get out of this one?” vs. “Hm. A picture of Batman crouching on a roof. At night. His cape is flapping in the breeze.”

    ‘Nuff said.

    • Sorry, side note. I’m not saying there are pinup covers today that aren’t good. Hawkeye is a good example, but if they go with this same style for the next 20 issues, you’ve lost me completely. Scalped. I can’t think of a single cover in its 60 issues that WASN’T visually incredible – and most of them didn’t tell me a bit what was going on inside.

  10. Covers can be misleading but it doesn’t really bother me.
    Correct me if I’m wrong but as a Superman fan I have never seen a misleading cover on a Superman comic (if memory serves correctly).

  11. I only dislike covers that outright lie. The original ultimate covers were actually some of my favorites and they were little more than what you’d find on a trading card.

    Oh and I’m surprised you didn’t mention every 4-5 issues has to be a group shot now, otherwise your Avengers and X-Men trades all look like they aren’t about the whole team

  12. Hey DC, stop putting those Arrow banners on all your covers!

  13. I love great covers for just the art alone and it’s even better when it does connect with the issues interior.

  14. I couldn’t agree with this article more! As a kid I used to spend all my money on comics. I am an old school back issue bin diver. And the way I used to buy my comics was I would go to a series I liked, then look through the bin and take a look at the covers. Back in the 80s, covers usually gave you a sneak peek of what was inside. The comics were all sealed, all I had to go on was the cover. If the cover made me say “I need to see what happens inside!” I bought it. I can’t even imagine doing that today. All I would see are pinups of characters, with no idea what was going on inside. If I was just getting interested in comics now, there are almost no comics I would even be interested in opening up. It’s only because I’ve been reading comics for so long and know what I like that I am able to buy comics now. If I had to look at covers and decide what I wnated to try, I would read almost nothing that comes out today. Which is a shame, because there are a lot of fantastic comics being published right now. But I wouldn’t know that from the covers.

  15. To me a cover should work like a movie poster. It should, in some way, make you want to see more of the story. That can be done with an image of an event (like the mentioned Spider-Man issue), an eyecatching stylized abstract cover (like the Hawkeye or Manhattan Projects covers), or even a beautifully rendered iconic hero/group shot. Now a steady diet of any one of these grows stale, and I agree the industry has been leaning on the iconic image for far to long now as the standard. I think the iconic image works well for a first issue, or a line-up change issue for a team book, or even for the issue that is the climax on a long storyline where we DON’T want a spoiler for what happens right up front. But when every issue has a shot like that it becomes hard to tell when you walk in if you actually read that issue or not (huh, another issue of Batman brooding on a gargoyle, did I read this one or not? Oooh, look at that Manhattan Projects cover, what is THAT about?) That said I can understand why a big grouo shot image makes sense for the start of Hickman’s run, this particular image however, with a distorted fisheye effect that only makes sense when all three images are lines up, is just hard to look at for very long with out feeling fatigues. Now compair that to the huge group shot on Busiek and Perez’s first issue of the Avengers back in ’98. I love that image. It tells you nothing about what is in the book other than a lot of Avengers will be on hand (which is all this new image does does, and the new one actually give you most of the new team line up which is more than Perez did), but it is a much more fun image to look at.
    And sometimes you can have an image of an event that tell you what the story inside is about, even if the event doesn’t happen in the book. Take Fantastic Four # 583, the first issue of the “3” storyline that ended in the Human Torch’s death. We have an open grave and an unfished tombstone and the team looking in all direction like there is a threat surrounding them off panel. No part of the story takes place in a graveyard, but the story is about the impending death of one of the team. This image conveys the threat and the mystery of who it will be.

  16. Hey this image looked familiar