SDCC: Cover Story: The Art of the Cover

In one of Comic-Con International 2014's final programming showcases, legendary writer Mark Evanier hooked his iPad up to the AV system as he sat down to discuss the art of making cover images with a quintet of artists. On hand alongside Evanier were Amanda Connor ("Harley Quinn"), Fiona Staples ("Saga"), Mark Brooks ("Deadpool," "Avengers"), Jae Lee ("Batman/Superman") and Stan Sakai ("Usagi Yojimbo").

Evanier asked which comes first, the cover or the script. Staples said that the covers are done far in advance of the scripts and that she then chooses a character based image that is appropriate for the story in question.

Brooks said, "When Previews comes out, that's three months before the cover hits stands, and that cover has to be done a month before that. We're lucky if we have a one paragraph synopsis of what's going to happen in the issue. Maybe the writer sees your cover and says, 'This gives me an idea' or if it's a case where a new character's going to appear, you as the cover artist get to design that character." He said that sometimes an ornate character design on the cover can be challenging for whoever gets to do the interiors. "That's the beautiful thing about being a cover artist, I don't have to think about the guy who does the interior. For me, it's the five foot rule...it's selling the book."

Brooks continued, "I very much enjoy doing interiors, I like the art of storytelling. The last couple of years I've been pretty much exclusively a cover artist. It does allow me to stretch my storytelling genes with a...one panel story, I do enjoy the variety." Given the variance of guest stars on the books he works with, he said he is in no danger of getting bored with depicting the same character over and over.

Lee said, "I always think I enjoy doing covers, then I end up hating them. You're looking at a blank piece of paper, it's what's going to sell the book, and there's a lot of pressure on you. Covers do have to be done in advance, so you're not in the frame of mind for that particular issue. If it's the cover for #1, there's just immense pressure. At the same time, you can't start the book and then do the cover later. You'll end up rushing it. It's really, really stressful."

Sakai had a similar perspective. He said, "It's done months before the interior. I hate doing covers, I hate it with a passion. I detest doing covers. I've been doing covers with the same character for thirty years. It's hard to come up with something new. I don't know why I'm on this panel. Sometimes my writer, which is me, has no idea what's going to be in the issue. They demand cover images up to nine months in advance. After thirty years of drawing the same character, it's difficult to think of another pose."

Evanier had chosen a series of covers the artists did in the past so they could each give a kind of director's commentary. For Conner, he started with "Barbie Fashion" #42, a licensed book from Marvel in 1994. "They wanted them really postery," she recalled. "I actually enjoyed doing covers more than doing the interiors. A single image that doesn't tell you any story at all, they just look really good. This is before I really got into storytelling."

Conner described "Adventure of Bayou Billy" #4 more of a storytelling cover. "I knew what was going on in the inside, although now I don't remember. I wanted to do something that would reflect the inside. They put me as artist of the month, I wanted to do something with stuff you'd find on a table."

Power Girl dominated the image for "JSA Classified" #4, and Conner said, "Geez, look at her boobs. That's a cross between a storytelling cover and a pin up. This is when I started deciding that for covers I want to pull out a moment of time in between panels that you don't see and put it on the covers. She beats the crap out of [Psycho-Pirate], using his own mask. I've been doing that a lot more. It's something you don't see in the books, but it moves the story along. I penciled it and Jimmy Palmioti inked it." Connor was asked who designed the kind of starburst pattern in the background, and she said, "That would be Paul Mounts, he's my go to color guy, he lives in Chicago. If I trust him and I leave the background blank, he does a really nice design."

Next was "Warriors Three" #4. "I didn't know what was going on in the inside," she recalled. "It was like pulling teeth. I had to ask a lot of questions before I came up with that image. Even the story wasn't completely fleshed out yet. I like to tell a story on the cover, I had to get the general gist. They're Thor's buddies, and the girl and the wolf were already designed also. I really had to think a lot before I put it down on paper. I like to have an image in my head before I put pencil down on paper. I always forget about the UPC symbol."

The final selection for Conner was "Zatanna" #12. "That was a fun one. I don't always do big boobs, I do small boobs too. With Power Girl I try to make each one the size of her head." She recalled a story about artist Wally Wood, who was so insulted by the character that he said, "I'm going to make them larger every issue until somebody stops me. They just took him off the book instead."

In reference to the image, Conner said, "That's one of my favorite things to do, pick moments in time that you don't see. I've always wanted to climb the Golden Gate Bridge. That would be fun. I wondered what does [Zatanna] do in the morning? She wants to read the paper, have a muffin and have coffee. Even if you're a superhero, you're not immune to animals stealing your food."

Switching to Staples, Evanier showed the cover of "Done To Death" #1, which was her very first comic book cover. She said it was, "an oil painting that I did on a board before I started to do everything digitally. I think there's a little bit more. It was my call. I think it was a bad decision to crop it there. The writer Andrew Foley, his wife did the cover design and layouts. The idea was to make it stand out and not make it look like a standard comic book cover. Tina had me provide a bunch of scans of splatter that she could use in the designs."

For "DV8" #3, Staples drew a close up of a character blowing what looked like magical incense. "I'd seen the logo before, it was designed by Brian Wood. It was his idea to have each cover have a plain white background, a simple character piece."

Staples groaned when Evanier showed the cover to "Mystery Society" #5, which she called, "one of my least favorite covers. It looks really unfinished. I was drawing the series at the same time, and I was pretty behind."

A villain called the Iron Maiden was front and center on "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" #7, wearing what Staples called a "Boob warmer. Another Wally Wood designed character? Iron Maiden was going to make her first appearance in this issue. I wanted her to look, not completely evil but kind of cheeky, like she was having more fun than he is. A little bondage, because the two characters have a lot of sexual tension."

Lying Cat was front and center for the cover to "Saga" #18, "We don't give away much of the story for the covers, I usually do a cover before Brian even scripted the issue. I had a feeling something bad was going to happen in his issue, so Lying Cat has blood, like he's just taken a bite from one of our heroes."

Brooks selections began with 2004's "Amazing Fantasy #1, introducing Arana. It was Brooks' first cover, which he described as, "youthful and fun but action oriented. I really stunk at foreshortening, so her leg is really strange. Joe Quesada designed this character. I came up with the pouches around her wrist. I still to this day don't understand what purpose they would serve."

Brooks was critical of the cover to "Cable & Deadpool" #14. "I think the execution might be better. This was one of the first times I got to draw Cable getting one up on Deadpool. It was kind of a weird angle. I wanted to make one of them in front of the logo, but to do so, I had to keep them on the same angle." Brooks criticized his choice of how Cable is holding a rifle to Deadpool's head, which would have dangerous kickback, and noted that the only way a book's logo could be covered was with one of the main characters, as shown here.

Next up for Brooks was "Avengers: The Initiative" #20. "This was when I started digitally painting. Hank Pym is going crazy. He is in his apartment having dinner with Janet. You think it's a flashback issue, [but] it's happening now and he's going nuts. He's been having dinner with a ghost. I wanted to express a sense of misery. I wanted to give her a vacant look on her face, kind of like a ghost. In the late '90s, they used to have 'Saturday Nitro.' They had Nitro Girls, and the leader of the Nitro Girls was Spice. She became a physical therapist. She got married. She lives behind us and modeled for this cover."

Of the cover to a "Cloak and Dagger" one shot, Brooks said, "I obviously like Dagger more than Cloak. This cover I had to change the boobs on Dagger seven times. Every time I sent them in they'd say 'still too big.' I got 'em small enough that they let them publish it." He thought their insistence on making her seem young was out of character. "I know it's been years since they were teenagers. Dagger has matured a little bit." Brooks admitted, "I probably went a little too mature."

Brooks talked about changes to the cover of "Deadpool" #30. Deadpool was going back in time to meet with classic Dazzler. Deadpool in the original solicitations dressed completely like Jimi Hendrix. Marvel found out through their legal department that the estate of Jimi Hendrix is very litigious. "We flipped it so he's no longer playing left handed," as well as changing clothes to less directly resemble the legendary guitarist, said the artist.

Jae Lee groaned as Evanier showed the cover of "Inhumans #3." "I'm not a big fan of showing these covers in succession," he said. "I'm afraid the same reused images just popped up. Can we just show one and move on?"

He finally acquiesced, and said, "This was back in 1999 or something. I can't remember. This was a book I did when I came back to Marvel after doing my own thing from Image. They were just done in a mad rush just to get into solicitations. All the line work is always done on the paper, I don't do anything digitally. All the colors are done digitally by somebody else, in this case it was Avalon Studios."

"Batman Gotham Knights" #60 was next on the screen. "A piece that was penciled and inked by me. My wife colored this one. Again it was just done in a rush," Lee admitted, "I don't remember doing these," which got a laugh from the crowd.

"Age of Heroes" #4 was a tough one for Lee "because there are four characters that had absolutely nothing to do with each other. This was an anthology book" and he just had to put them on a cover together. "It's kind of like saying draw the Transformers and a Spice Girl and Darth Vader on a cover. Why? I did the best I could with this one."

Lee said there were challenges to the cover of "Before Watchmen: Ozymandias" #4 "On the cover, in the sketch, I had the Comedian pinning Ozymandias to the ground. These guys were supposed to be inside one of those cargo crates, and all around them are falling boxes, and the boxes are full of Ozymandias action figures. I couldn't draw all of that in time for solicitations, I cropped it and sent what I had and said I'll finish this later, and I never did."

Of "Batman/Superman" #8, Lee said, "This one was pretty tough. This was the second time drawing a car. I've been doing this 22 years, and I've managed to avoid drawing a car. It manages to be mangled. I was only able to pull it off because everything is broken. I don't know how you guys do it. This required a lot of digital manipulation. Power Girl turned out a lot bigger than Superman, but when we did that [made her smaller], her head looked too big. It's hard to look at it."

Conner noted that she can draw cars but not wreckage. Lee replied, "We should switch off."

Sakai was last up, first looking at the cover to "Usagi Yojimbo" #46, which was originally "a commission piece to do a kite festival. We also did a poster of this and it was used as two consecutive double page covers. If you connect the pages it keeps going around and round in rotation. Tom Luth is my colorist of choice, and is Sergio's colorist. We've known Tom for 35 years now. Whenever I need a color job, I always ask Tom. I give him very little direction unless it's cultural. It's always much better than I would have envisioned."

For "Furrlough" #50, Sakai said he "doesn't like the coloring. I would have preferred more flat colors instead of so much shading. When I do these covers for another publisher, I'm on my own. I did 'Rocket Raccoon,' and I asked, 'Can I do a dinosaur?' And they said, 'Sure.' The only criticism was 'Make the gun bigger.'"

Looking at the cover of "The Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters Massacre the Japanese Invasion" #1, Sakai said, "This was strictly a job for the money." Evanier replied, "I worked for Eclipse, I don't recall any money."

The cover of "Usagi Yojimbo" #101 featured a riff on how skulls appear over the head of people who died, as noted by one fan. "I drew as many as possible," Sakai said of the image, "He didn't write in. There's no big logo on the cover, I like this. Usagi by this time is pretty iconic. Tom did an excellent job at this."

Finally, they looked at "Donald Duck Adventures" #32, and Sakai said, "I hate working for Disney. I had to draw his head so many times. My mistake was following the European Donald, which I really like. In this story, Donald and his nephews go to Japan. I'm not credited on the cover, it's an inside joke that I'm doing this for them."

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