Comics Shop: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a comic book cover

What is a comic-book cover and what does it do? At a recent comics convention panel, artist Michael Golden talked about his job in terms of commercial art: He provides what the publisher wants, which is (in the case of a cover) persuading a shopper to pick up the issue.

Note: That’s the purpose of a cover.

Donald A. Wollheim (organizer of the first science-fiction convention) produced science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks starting in the 1950s. Among his many claims to fame was his discovery that a tiny cover detail could make a difference in sales.
Specifically: If the cover of a Gothic romance novel showed a woman running from a darkened mansion, sales were higher if there was a light in one of the mansion’s windows.

That’s the sort of realization that can lead to trends in cover design — and it’s the sort of knowledge for which editors and publishers seek all the time.

Once comic-book publishers expanded their contents beyond simple strip reprints, identified by the image of characters buyers already knew, many publishers had to explain what their publication contained.

Nevertheless, publishers whose comics featured beloved characters sometimes didn’t provide more than that identification.
As the comics industry and comics-collecting hobbies have evolved, so, too, have comic-book covers. Some typical cover designs fall into such clearly defined categories as:

  • The “What Is This?” Cover
  • The “It’s the Story” Cover
  • The “You Know Me!” Cover
  • The “What’s Going On?” Cover

Of course, those aren’t the only types to be found on comics of yesterday and today. Take a look.

What readers these days usually expect is a link between an eye-catching cover and an entertaining story in the issue. When Uncle Scrooge McDuck is shown digging for gold but being startled by an aggressive bear and an armed, angry, elderly lady duck — Well, that’s what the readers expected to find in the story “Back to the Klondike.” And those readers were not disappointed.

These days, if a wide variety of Lanterns (Red, Blue, Yellow — and, yes, Green) populate a DC cover, readers expect to find it covering a wild story involving, yes, lots of Lanterns. And, if the Red Hulk is on the cover, readers look for crimson coloring on a big guy.

Of course, that’s only the beginning of an exploration of what has appeared on comics covers since Famous Funnies #1 (July 1934) introduced the monthly 10¢ comic book.

For starters, there are many other categories of cover. Writer Kurt Busiek once suggested, for example, that there were enough covers featuring “Two Guys Hitting Each Other While Falling off a Building” to earn their own genre.

And, of course, there are the “Gimmick” covers. In fact, for a while, there were so many being produced that it was the Non-Gimmick covers that were unusual. The category of “Gimmick” covers surely includes:

  • infinity covers (in which there’s a cover in a cover in a cover, etc.)
  • gorilla covers (yes, it turned out that having a gorilla on the cover sometimes boosted sales)
  • ?lenticular printing (in which the image shifts depending on the viewing angle)
  • atomic-bomb covers
  • covers featuring a hologram image
  • ?covers to which the printer has added a fifth ink (in addition to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black)
  • ?diecut covers (with different dimensions than the usual rectangular binding)
  • ?sketch covers (with white space left so that an artist can add an original drawing)
  • and …

Well, what hasn’t been a gimmick cover?

And, hey, what type of cover — gimmick or not — makes you buy a comic book? It is, after all, another aspect of collecting. ?

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