Can one really judge a book by its cover? Maybe not, but I love covers anyway. One can judge covers by covers.
Yes, that’s right. I said cover 4 times in the last paragraph. Moving on.
I listened, with relish, to a talk on creating cover art given by Vivek Goel at Comic Con India. It was one of the best things I did there, since it was brand new insight for me. I love learning about the technique and philosophy of comics, and a for-beginners introduction to cover art was delicious.
Cover art is not easy (and here I am not just talking about comics). They have to encapsulate as much of the story contained inside as possible. But how in the world do you do that? It is tough enough writing summaries and précises in 200 words, how do you reduce 200 panels into 1 cover, while retaining the right flavor and consistency? Well, often enough it doesn’t work, hence the old maxim about a book and its cover.
Comics covers are tougher in many ways because it is a part of what it represents. A written novel can have a photograph on its cover, or one illustration. But a comic cover art not only tell you the content of the succeeding pages, but is very much a bite of the comic itself. That way it will also tell you about the quality of the art to be expected inside.
John Berger wrote a book once, which you started reading from the cover itself. It was meant to show how communication began from the moment you have the book within eyesight, how we started perceiving signals right from the start.
So with comics this process feels amplified. Sample an example by one of my favourite comics artists, Will Eisner,
I haven’t read this book but the cover tells me it’s about The Spirit, and he faces non-human enemies. He’ll probably be trapped in a maze-like sewage system, and trying to battle his way out, outnumbered by the gremlin-likes on their home turf. And even if I am all wrong, the cover is still a story I’ve read.
A neat categorization was offered by Goel – three primary types of covers, being Mid-action Cover, Idea Cover and a Pose Cover. He further helped me out by letting me put his own work as samples of this division. So here are Vivek Goel’s 3 types of cover art, with his own works.
A Mid-action Cover is the most direct communication about the contents of the book – it picks a moment that best represents the story about to unfold. It is picked right from the action, and amplified.
The next is the Idea Cover which doesn’t represent the action, but the crux of the story inside. It won’t be an actual event, but will be like a metaphor.
And lastly the Pose Cover is one which is like a portfolio shot of the main character(s). It doesn’t represent any action, and instead is meant to attract us to the character. This works for the best superheroes as well as the deepest graphic novels.
Like with other categorisations, these three are also open to inter-mixing resulting in combinations. Take for instance Pose+Idea covers, like the last one. And maybe, if we try we can also come up with more than three categories other than these three. I’m sure it will be merrier.
And if you want to know more about Vivek’s work, he’s available here. He’s one of the most talented artists I’ve seen (and art is exploding in India, so that’s a great achievement for anyone), and what’s more, he a terrific person.