Could digital comics spell the end of the cover artist?

There's an unfortunate career path in comics for artists lots of people like: the cover artist. It's very easy for a very popular artist to slip into this role. Usually, they gather a large fanbase through exemplary work on a monthly series or mini-series. Everyone wants a piece of them. Then they can't commit to more monthly work; they're often perfectionists who can't complete one monthly assignment in a timely manner, and so they succumb to the "cover artist" career.

The economics are sound. It's a one page art job that probably pays as well as doing three or five sequential pages, and usually with a much more lax deadline. You only need to do one or two covers a week, at most. Your name is splashed all across comics, you're making good money, and you have a better life.

As a comics fan, I hate it. I don't blame the cover artist for going this path. It's what's best for him as an artist and even as a business man. It just stinks that we lose so many great sequential artists to doing, essentially, pin-ups for everyone else, instead of one monthly title.

But is their time coming to an end? Everything about a cover right now is designed for the newsstand or comic shop rack. It's a big bold image meant to be seen from across the room. The "important" stuff is in the top third of the design, so the title and issue number can be read, even when another comic is racked in front of it. It's essentially an expensive advertisement for the comic story inside of it.

You won't even need space for a bar code on the cover, anymore! Count me as one of those people who miss the little drawings some artists would do for the blank white box on the Direct Market editions of many comics.s

If the comics industry were to move to the original graphic novel format, we'd see a lot less covers. Maybe companies would hire artists to illustrate chapter starters, but that gig wouldn't be as visible and would definitely pay less. Only the really big cover artists would make more money hacking those out than applying ball and chain to ankle to sit behind the drafting table to produce all the sequential work.

Now, if the comics industry went entirely digital, there's a case to be made that cover artists are completely unnecessary. Think about it: what need is there for a cover? At best, it would be reproduced small as an icon on a GUI to indicate a series. Think about album covers here. They've shrunk from the days of vinyl records to CD cases to, now, itty bitty pixilated messes on iTunes. Cover designers are just now starting to come to terms with this. Complicated and detailed designs like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" are out. U2's new album design is in.

This whole thing comes to mind because I bought a new Bluetooth earpiece for my cell phone via an on-line superstore last week. The box that came in the mail was hideously overproduced for a mail order product. It's a box meant to be placed in brick and mortar stores. There's a plastic hook sticking out of the top so it can be hung from a peg on a store display. The front of the box includes a picture of a woman smiling at you with the Bluetooth earpiece lodged in her ear. There's a lot of writing meant to sell the product to a consumer faced with a lot of choices laid out in front of him. All of this is completely unnecessary to me as someone who ordered it on-line and had it shipped directly to their home.

Camera lens boxes are notoriously stripped down things, and I have to assume it's because they're high-ticket items that aren't often placed out on store shelves for people to casually glance at. The lenses are on display behind the counter -- they're what's for sale, not the box. The camera boxes are glitzier, for sure, but only on the "entry-level" consumer-friendly cameras. Once you get into higher-end models, you're back to simple stark monochromatic boxes. The designs fit the most likely "display" point, or lack of display.

If standard "real world" products require a drastic rethink in the design department based on how they're sold (brick and mortar versus on-line), imagine what new design challenges we'd have with comics. The first thing that pops to mind is the cover -- that's the part of the comic most meant for the brick and mortar sellers.

When newsstand distribution shriveled up and blew away, we lost those little registration colors at the tops of all the pages. Remember those? They were meant, as I recall, to be color coded to the week or month the comic should be stripped of its cover and returned for credit by a newsstand operator. With no appreciable newsstand distribution scheme, those went away. Look at a comic from the early 90s versus one from the 2000s. You don't see those blocks of color on the top of a comic anymore.

Are comic book covers next? Are they necessary in a digital distribution scheme? I don't think we'd see them disappear right away; if nothing else, we've learned over the years that comic fans are very traditional in their formatting fandoms. The final determination will be who the "iTunes for comics" works. If they choose a shopping system for their site or their application that doesn't require cover images, then you'll see those blow away. You might see cheaper pin-up pages included in the backs of digital comics, but covers aren't necessary. In the worst case scenario, you could just blow up an exciting panel from the storyline and slap some lettering across it as a virtual cover. Companies might need to include that clause in their future contracts with artists, but that's easy enough to do, and still cheaper than a full-fledge cover artist.

Or maybe the comic cover artists of today are the Wallpaper Artists of tomorrow? Maybe the draw will be a new image from one of comics' top artists meant to be used as your wallpaper? Perhaps "cover artists" will be the ones drawing the promotional pieces you see in the comics, themselves, and beyond the Direct Market. Those, at least, serve the same purpose as the cover today -- to sell a comic in one image.

Or, heck, could cover artists become more valuable? In a world of "iTunes for Comics," search becomes a big thing. (You know what the second biggest search engine is, right? YouTube.) Maybe it's worth it for the companies to hire a Big Name Artist to draw a single page to give them something nice to show in the previews, but also to add SEO link juice to their comic. Someone looking for "Monkeyman and O'Brien" would likely see an Art Adams cover to "Marvel Apes" or "Avengers Classic," for instance, first. All of a sudden, their brand identity is very important.

What will today's cover artists do in a digital world? I hate to be wishy washy about it, but there's no way to tell just yet. It all depends on the delivery system for digital goods. But if the cover artist profession dies, I'd like to think they'd go back to illustrating interior stories. That wouldn't be such a bad thing. Odds are better, though, that we'd lose them to design work in Hollywood or the advertising world.

They will, of course, soon be followed by the inkers who are replaced by "digital inkers," i.e. colorists with an extra hour a day to adjust levels and clean up scans.

You may send your letters of complaint to your favorite series' letters page.



Is it a bad sign that new comics day was on Tax Day here in the States?

Nah, just a coincidence. It's going to happen every now and then. Still, paying taxes on comics as a "periodical" still grates on my nerves. I'm horribly old-fashioned.

In the meantime, a bunch of new comics arrives on store shelves, and a new edition of THE PIPELINE PODCAST hit the servers. Here's what the Top Ten list of new releases for the week looked like:

  • 10. Captain America #49
  • 9. Digital Prepress For Comic Books TP
  • 8. Alex Toth Goes Hollywood SC
  • 7. Firebreather TP Vol 2 All Best Heroes Are Orphans
  • 6. War Is Hell The First Flight Of The Phantom Eagle TP
  • 5. Perhapanauts TP Vol 1
  • 4. 100 Bullets #100
  • 3. Punisher War Zone Premiere HC The Resurrection Of Ma Gnucci
  • 2. Hulk Premiere HC Vol 2 Red & Green
  • 1. Dylan Dog Case Files TP

You can download the whole 19 minute show at this link for just 6.5 measly megabytes of bandwidth.

Next week: Back to reviewing comics of yesteryear. We jump up to 2000/2001 for that! Don't mean to play coy, but I'm not promising anything until after I've finished doing it. It's much easier that way.

That's also why I'm not telling you who I'm interviewing for the podcast show next week. . .

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com, will be switching over this week from pictures at Yankees Stadium to the first signs of spring. Time for a macro lens exercise

The Various and Sundry blog is recounting "American Idol" episodes.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, now with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

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