Cover Me!

May 1, 2012

With the MCM Expo under a month away and a pressing need to make Branch into some kind of physical volume, I spent this afternoon investigating local print options. I’ve found a few good deals and have a pretty clear idea as to what format I’ll be going with , but while I was mulling over the details of exactly what I’ll be printing it occurred to me that I’ve neglected something important.

Currently I’m thinking I’ll be going with A5 colour books of some sort as I’d like to keep things modest and affordable, while I also feel that the lower number of larger panels I favour wouldn’t sit as comfortably in A4 format. Ideally I want to power through a few more pages before printing so that I can bring the plot to a satisfactory ‘to be continued’ point I have in mind, however first and foremost I realised that I need a cover.

I have my ‘ACT 1’ cover but I intentionally made it as a stand in and it feels somewhat inadequate for a printed iteration. Not only do I need art and text that will wrap around both covers but the importance of an appealing advertisement cannot be underestimated; people say don’t judge a book by its cover but quite honestly most of us do, particularly with comics where the visual aesthetic has such a major role in what’s being read. Not having a cover prepared for a comic strikes me as being like not having an outfit prepared for a dance ball – showing up naked is not the way to go with either.

Putting it bluntly a new cover is my most urgent priority right now. I’ve got some design ideas as to how it might look, but rather than simply charging into it blindly as I have every other time it seemed prudent to do a little homework and look for possible inspiration and pointers amongst my own comic collection.

So, without further ado here’s a small – though varied – cross-section of my favourite first volume covers along with why I think they work:

Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street – Cover art by Geof Darrow

Starting with something truly cyberpunk for the sake of relevance, Darrow’s first cover for Transmetropolitan is a fine representation of Warren Ellis’s grubby future and unhinged protagonist ‘Spider Jerusalem’.

Considering Spider’s portrayal first, he’s pretty much centre stage here much as he is in the comic itself, seemingly looking at the viewer while holding a confident pose; from this alone we already get a sense of his personality as the fearless gonzo journalist, his chain smoking also being openly displayed while his strange tattoos suggest a complicated and unpleasant history. The way his skin has been left largely uncoloured is another nice touch too, giving him an otherworldly kind of quality while creating a strong contrast with the backdrop – a indication of his charismatic presence perhaps?

The background itself meanwhile appears to be consciously muted in greys, greens and dark blues to keep the emphasis on Spider and thanks to the raised angle seemingly stands beneath him –another character hint – and is packed with litter, grime and filth of several varieties. This is evidently a used future and not a pleasant one at that.

The title format is a nice finishing touch I feel as it embodies a sort of trashy magazine look thanks to font and orientation down the side, a representation of the story’s news focus and once again its pervasive grubby atmosphere. The back cover is a little uninspired by comparison, being a recycled image of spider against and abstract backdrop, though points for quoting one of Spider’s best lines: “If you loved me, you’d all kill yourselves today.”

100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call – Cover art by Dave Johnson

A more stylised effort here; Johnson’s work captures Eduardo Risso’s high impact art for the series while emphasising the premise and neo-noir tone.

The whole character-collage thing with covers and posters can go horribly wrong in some cases but what pulls it altogether here is the fact everyone pictured falls under Agent Graves’ shadow. Connotations of control, conspiracy, mystery and evil are all present but most of all it neatly encapsulates the central premise; Graves appears offering someone the chance for revenge, a perfect murder with 100 untraceable bullets, in almost every case casting a proverbial shadow over their lives.

The restrained colour palette works in favour of the general look too, preventing the image from feeling overcrowded or messy. Almost everything is black and blue against a white backdrop, an echo of classic noir’s monochrome stock perhaps or least another way to help make the cover design feel cohesive. The exceptions of Graves’ orange sunglasses and the red title text simply help draw more attention to them initially, catching the viewers eye first before they assumedly look to the cast – a nice solid hook for intrigue and purchase.

Appleseed: Book One – Shirow Masamune

A resolutely old school 1980’s manga cover drawn by Shirow Masamune before his descent into a dark realm of underclad women and overbearing technophilia…

Ahem, anyway there’s nothing particularly clever about this one but for the most part the straightforward design works in its favour; Masamune is clearly confident enough with quality of his artwork to put it front and centre unhindered and since much of Appleseed’s appeal arises from its cool cyborgs, robots, mecha, vehicles and firepower, showing them off up front is by no means a bad idea.

Besides this, the focus is firmly upon two things: the relationship between Deunan (the lady) and Briareos (the big cyborg) along with a large scale struggle to establish a peaceful future on post apocalyptic earth. The close relationship between the two characters is made explicit by how Briareos literally carries Deunan here, while the background earth covered in lights and computer marks indicates the epic scale of the story and connected technological themes.

I suppose it’s pretty cheesy but it must have done something right to make me buy it…

Preacher: Gone to Texas – Cover art by Glenn Fabry

Fabry’s covers stand apart from my other examples in that they actually appear to have been painted, marrying uncanny realism with the supremely grotesque content Preacher explores. There have been ongoing attempts to get TV and film adaptations of the series off the ground but in most cases they seem to have stumbled due to the sheer level of controversy and gruesome material involved. Preacher may well be able to push so far since its impact is arguably softened through the filter of a comicbook, what I love about its covers is how they strip that away and display this world down to the last cringe inducing wrinkle, bringing if far closer than you’d comfortably like.

Preacher’s first cover is one of its best; our titular preacher Jesse Custer – looking very Michael Keaton – smirking over the flaming wreckage of his own church; the event which gave him his troubling new power ‘The Word’. Combining the elements of religion and gleeful destruction it’s a fair statement of intent for what to expect; suffice to say if you’re a devout Christian of the “ban this sick filth” persuasion then the awaiting orgy of violence, horror and gallows humour probably won’t be your bag, for most others the direct stare and grin are a morbid invitation: “Go on. Read me.”

Special mention should go to title and subtitle fonts too, both aspiring to an old west aesthetic, A fitting touch given that I’ve always felt Preacher is a western at heart. Besides having probably hundreds of references to the genre, take away the modern day setting and fantasy elements then there’d be absolutely no doubt; that and Jesse has John Wayne as an imaginary friend…

Top Ten: Book 1 – Cover Art by Gene Ha and Alex Sinclair

If I liked 100 Bullets for its conservative style then in the case of Alan Moore’s Top Ten it’s the sheer amount of little details which won me over. Gene Ha’s covers and art for the series are always packed with things to look at and small jokes, making it pretty much sublime to my mind in combination with Moore’s standard of writing. As should be evident from the pictured cover it’s an ensemble cast again, but with one crucial difference to what most would instinctively draw; It’s completely anti-dramatic.

To give a little context Top 10’s central conceit is that everyone in the world is a superhero, from top executives right down to the homeless, being special is really nothing special. As such, the ‘Top 10’ of the story are a police force tasked with keeping this burgeoning population of the super powered under control and frankly, having a hard time with it. While they are all super in some way, at the same time they’re all completely human and fallible, often to hilarious effect. At the end of the day they’re cops who just happen to have powers, so picturing them standing around talking over lunchtime coffee seems completely appropriate.

It’s a witty and somewhat refreshing twist compared to Marvel style WHAM BAM! covers, the appeal arising from the intrigue and humour of seeing the heroes being distinctly un-super… Still being completely honest I’m sure the part about ‘Multi-Eisner Award Winner’ and the name ‘Alan Moore’ probably went some way to helping.

Parasyte: Volume 1 – Hitoshi Iwaaki

What the hell is that?!

But seriously, I like this one and indeed all of Parasyte’s covers for the sheer weirdness factor. It’s a demonstration that a covering image doesn’t always need to feature attractive characters or stylised collages; if it’s genuinely bizarre and imaginative enough sometimes it’s enough to get people reading.

Aaaanyway, having run through a bunch of professional covers, returning to my own with fresh eyes what could be better?

Mostly, I feel like it’s too flat and too basic. As I’ve covered there’s nothing wrong with a strong simple cover but there’s really not enough here to make people care. A shadowy figure with their back turned tells us very little on its own; it might of cut it within a printed issue but not as the sole image promoting it.

Just about every example I’ve looked at suggests something about the characters and plot, so in this respect a viewpoint and rendering style showing more of Scratch in a more interesting pose makes sense, an emphasis on her cyborg features would also be a good move in relation to the human-machine symbiosis themes the story explores – It might even be worth getting her full figure in to so areas such as her hoofish feet can be shown for additional intrigue.

I’m of half a mind to include Curt on the cover as he is effectively co-protagonist but I wonder if this might be unnecessarily complicating things (e.g. including a sweaty, cyberphobe on the cover may not appeal as directly an ice cold cyborg detective).

There are things I’d like to keep though such as the alphanumeric title design, while I’d also like to reuse circuit pattern effect on the shadows as it adds a more original touch and adds further emphasis on the idea of a dependent relationship between people and technology.

Bottom line, I won’t know what works for sure until I try. Time to get experimenting!

The truth no matter what: Transmetropolitan

July 16, 2011

During my recent trip to Orbital Comics for the Jack Kirby exhibit I had an inevitable moth-to-flame reaction seeing their generous shelves and was pretty much set on buying something. So it was that I spotted Transmetropolitan going cheap and – recalling Cyberpunk review’s praise of the series – decided to give its first two volumes Back on the Street and Lust for Life a go in the name of research and entertainment.

I must admit that I’m unfamiliar with the work of the writer Warren Ellis but right from the first issue a firmly satirical tone is established. Garth Ennis of Preacher fame writes the first book’s introduction, which along with his summation that ‘Warren doesn’t like “nice” things’ gives you a fair idea what to expect. This is a cyberpunk future which plays out less like Blade Runner and more like an ultra-violent version of Futurama – naturally those easily offended need not apply.

With the story beginning ‘up a goddamn mountain’ we’re introduced to Spider Jerusalem; Transmetropolitan’s protagonist of colourful name and even more colourful personality, in his fifth year of isolation sporting an Alan Moore haircut which would have Robinson Crusoe green with envy. It’s cyberpunk tradition to have alienated, offbeat characters at the heart of their stories however that might be something of an understatement here.

An infamous gonzo journalist forced out of his mountain refuge by unfulfilled book contracts, Spider makes for a fascinating contradiction as the living, beating, hateful heart of the comic. His profession and reputation inevitably suggest involvement in culture, politics and the media – the issue being that he hates all three with a vengeance. Seemingly a complete misanthrope, prone to substance abuse and short-tempered outbursts he’s unpredictable at the best of times with the welcome knock on effect being the unpredictable course taken by the narrative.

To my mind at least the other major character is the sprawling metropolis suggested by the title (assumedly an amalgam of major American cities), a place which begins to seem less like a setting and more like a collective antagonist thanks to the views of our warped anti-hero.  Thrown head first into this world much like Spider, the sense of chaotic over-saturation is palpable but the real accomplishment is seeing the diverse groups, technologies and icons start to become recognisable facets of the series. Like most good sci-fi a sense of underlying cohesion and inner workings are gradually established within the universe without resorting to blunt exposition at every turn. Darick Robertson’s art is fairly straightforward in style but accomplished and packed with background detail featuring lots of humorous little touches, each adding something or at least giving you an unexpected laugh.

Following some aggressive bartering for his old job and an accident with a shower/’physical cleaning unit’ which fixes his hair problem, Spider almost immediately sets out to report on a brewing catastrophe; a pocket of social unrest revolving around ‘transients’, humans who have partially adopted a template of alien DNA in a bid for sovereign rights. As expected it’s with a cynical sense of opportunism that he approaches the group, his unimpressed stance towards the minority emphasised during the interview as he labels them “body perverts”.

Up to this point I had some growing niggles over the underlying themes or rather, lack there of. With the city and its culture portrayed unsympathetically as crass and chaotic alongside an equally unsympathetic narrator there are certainly plenty of parallels to modern life and dark humour to accompany it, but without reasoning or any form of moral focus it looked like the series was fated to slide into crude nihilism. Thankfully matters take a U-turn as the story climaxes. With the police moving in to brutally crush the transients, Spider impulsively enters the war zone and – taking to the roof of a nearby strip club alongside its employees – begins to write.

It’s here that his true colours shine through as we see an altogether different side to Spider Jerusalem; a man passionately obsessed with the truth above all else and infuriated with the hypocrisy and lies which surround him. As his furious report is transmitted live across the city formerly unseen sympathy for the transients crops up while an insightful reveal of police corruption behind the riot suggests a sharper mind than we’ve been led to believe. To make an analogy of it, Transmetropolitan turns out to be much like Spider himself – seemingly crude and heartless at first glance belying the intelligence and care that runs beneath. For all his unpleasant habits, illegal acts and sudden outbursts of violence our journalist isn’t quite the monster we’re initially led to believe.

Considering the two volumes I read as a whole (the aforementioned scenario being just one of the stories) so far it’s typically been episodic with Spider doing everything from reports on religious conventions and an ill-advised day watching future television to dodging assassination attempts. There are however characters and subplots which extend throughout, with the most notable one surrounding his assistant Channon and the crumbling relationship with her boyfriend. Other threads at the moment appear to still be building to something with the payoff assumedly further down the line, either way it all helps construct an intriguing worldview and suggests more interesting developments ahead.

Considering relevance to my own work beyond the obvious cyberpunk connection, I’m aiming to keep the tone of my own graphic considerably more muted but there are some technological ideas worth taking note of; familiar science fiction clichés are presented then deconstructed in interesting or humorous ways with cryogenic revivals becoming the new unwanted immigrants of the future, adverts subliminally beamed into the mind for dream playback and household fabricators with a taste for hallucinogen’s.

One page in particular caught my attention during an explanation from Spider about the process of “downloading” where through nanotechnology people can be converted into a cloud “foglets” free of conventional human form and its attached concerns. As he outlines:

“If a guy has a prosthetic leg, is he still human? Sure. It still does the same job, does what you tell it to. So how about if he had two artificial arms? A plastic heart? Carbon-fibre bones? Artificial neurons? Where do you stop being human? (…) You could put a human mind into an entirely artificial body and that person would still be a person. You could download a mind from out of its — let’s face it — eminently crappy, badly designed human body and into a seriously useful and functionally immortal artificial form.”

It’s this line of thought which is pretty much the driving force behind my own narrative, contemplating the humanizing of machines instead of dehumanization through them while it’s also another fine example of how the comic offsets its absurdities with genuinely sound ideas.

I can only guess where it’s all going but Transmetropolitan’s first two volumes deliver a sound introduction to a universe packed with satire, humour and ideas. It has no time for sensitivity but is far from being mindless having things to say about the society of today many would rather not acknowledge. It isn’t “nice” but it may just be brilliant.

And hey, why take my word for it? Vertigo has put the first issue online to read for free :)