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Design vs. Superheroes – FIGHT!

By / Posted on 01 November 2010

Invincible Iron Man coversFar too often mainstream superhero comics are plagued by their own poorly developed vanity. Writers try and try to make the books more mature serialized adult literature, but in order to sell they feel the need to keep their covers in the realm of teenage boy porn, with glamor shots of the characters, loud logos and plenty of T&A&E (tits, ass and explosions). Where’s the sophistication? Where’s the elegance?

In recent years, Marvel Comics has tried to solve this problem with more graphic trade dresses that speak to the book store demographic, most notably with major crossover events like “Civil War” and “X-Men: Messiah Complex” (see examples below). The problem here was that, when all of the issues of a single Captain America or X-Men comic book for a year were laid out, the crossover issues stood out like sore thumbs and looked nothing like the regular monthly issues of the books. The recent “Stark: Disassembled” arc of Invincible Iron Man has demonstrated spectacular design simplicity with duotoned graphics and clean Futura type, but again these stand in contrast with the other generic covers of the same series (as seen above). How does one make these “events” and storylines stand out in their trade dressings without disrupting the visual flow of the series?

New Avengers covers Uncanny X-Men covers

Crossover covers for New Avengers and Uncanny X-Men are more sparse and restrained. Standard issues are louder and prominently feature violence and breasts.

Green Arrow and Justice League of America covers

'Rise and Fall' tie-in issues and unbranded issues of Green Arrow and Justice League of America

Rising graphic design star Tom Muller may have come up with the best solution I’ve seen in years with his treatment for DC Comics’s current “Rise and Fall” Justice League event. Without going into details, the story of the comic deals with the repercussions of Green Arrow’s deciding to take a more proactive stance on superheroing and take the fight directly to the bad guys.

In order to brand the books tied in to “Rise and Fall,” Muller designed both a logotype and an incredibly basic ornament for the trade dress, a monochromatic three-layered tear along the left and top edges of the cover. The books involved in “Rise and Fall” are clearly connected by the similar elements, but the illustrative style and logos of the regular monthly issues are maintained as well, meaning these issues won’t stand out as markedly when held side-by-side with other issues of the same books. Fans of the crossover are happy and fans who only read Justice League and not Green Arrow are happy.

Will these issues still stand out because of their trade dress? Almost certainly, but nowhere near as badly as “Civil War” and “Messiah Complex” which look like entirely different books. Maybe I’m obsessing over nothing, but just look at the Fantastic Four issues below. Yes, the “Civil War” cover looks great, but it stands out to the point of making all other issues seem mundane, and that is a serious design problem.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.

There is One Comment about this post

  1. John McCarthy says,

    Beautifully stated, Derrick. I’m with you.
    And I can’t help but feel that we aren’t alone. These days, we have such a range of fantastic illustrative art, I am amazed how many times the design just falls by the wayside.


    on 01 November 2010 / 7:04 PM