Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
The anatomy of comic book covers; or, how I ended up with a copy of ‘Fight Comics’ #48

The anatomy of comic book covers; or, how I ended up with a copy of ‘Fight Comics’ #48

A lot of older comic book fans are, to put it mildly, cantankerous about the new stuff. They sit on their porches, telling Rob Liefeld and anyone younger than he is (Liefeld turns 50 this year, just to make you feel old) to get off their lawns, even if they themselves are younger than Liefeld (like I am). And I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve been buying comics (29 years) that one thing people like to bitch about are comic book covers. Or maybe they bitch about those the most because they’re the first thing they see and by the time they reach the end of a comic, they’ve bitched so much that they need a cup of Ovaltine and a nap. Who knows?

I love current comic book covers. Many of them are stunning works of art, and I’m not surprised that people like Arthur Adams or Adam Hughes can make a good living doing covers and no interior work. The reason comic book covers have evolved is easy: they no longer need to advertise. Once comics moved from the newsstands to comic book stores, and once people began following the stories more closely and pre-ordering books, covers didn’t need to grab anyone’s attention anymore and they could be works of art, often completely divorced from the content of the book. They didn’t need to be advertisements, so they really aren’t anymore.

And I’m fine with that. HOWEVER, I still dig old school comic covers, partly because they needed to advertise. There’s something ridiculously fun about seeing artist trying to encapsulate what happens in an issue and seeing splashy text with exclamation points all over the front of a comic. One of my favorite all-time covers is the one for Avengers Annual #10, because despite the fact that Al Milgrom drew it (Milgrom is not a terribly good artist) and not the interior artist, Michael Golden, it’s such a fun cover advertising the many excellent things inside. “See!” “Witness!” “Observe!” “Behold!” “A shocking mystery guest!” How can you not want to buy that sucker? And it totally delivers on all its promises, too. It’s amazing.

So let’s talk about a few comics I have bought recently and the fact that I bought them because of their covers. I had no idea what to expect from these comics, but I couldn’t resist their covers. First up is Detective Comics #477, cover dated May/June 1978:

Look at that thing. First, the logo. Batman encircles the title with his cape, which first appeared on issue #461 and was therefore probably designed by Ernie Chan, although who knows (and I can’t figure it out just from the internet, sorry). This logo was used until issue #495, so a little over four years, but it’s still a classic even though it hasn’t been used since 1980. Our eye is drawn to the block of text in the upper left, because that’s where our eye tends to start on a piece of art, given that’s how most people read (this isn’t a Hebrew comic, in other words). We see this:

That’s probably the first text we really notice on the cover. Sure, we notice that it’s Detective Comics, but that’s almost white noise because it’s so common and the Bat-logo helps us along so we can ignore the text, almost. Especially because “Batman” is higher up than “Detective” (even though it’s smaller text), so we might not even notice the “Detective” part. So this text is the first thing we really notice, and it’s pretty effective. Alliteration is always smart (Stan Lee knew this, obviously), and “sinister” is a great word, so “sinister secret” set apart on the second line really pops well. Ellipses are always good at building tension, too, so even though it’s small in this box, it still works. Then we get the balloonish text for “The House that Haunted Batman!”, which is very nicely done. The blue fits the color scheme of the cover, the first three words are small but still legible, and then we get the “Haunted” and “Batman” on two different lines, because they’re the most important words in the box. The lettering is a bit cartoonish, but it works here because it’s simple and legible, which is all that matters. We’re already hooked.

The cover leads us down and to the right, because that’s the way our eyes want to go anyway, and Marshall Rogers, who drew this, knows that. Around the text box are bat wings pointing toward Batman, who stands in the center of the scene (because he’s, you know, the star of the book). Rogers leads us from the “front” of the cover – the text box – to the “back” – where Batman is – by angling the bat wings toward him and drawing the bats smaller as they get “farther away” from the viewer (perspective is awesome, you guys):

Check out my mad Paint skillz, yo

Batman is framed twice on this cover – once by the bats, and once by the door. The bats are more terrifying, obviously, because they’re alive and because Batman is MASTER OF BATS!!!!! (so why are they rebelling?!?!?), but they’re also fluid, swarming around him but also moving. The door provides a nice cage for Batman, trapping him more conclusively. He raises his ragged arm to shield off the bats, and Rogers implies that the bats have already done quite a bit of damage, as his sleeve is torn. There’s a nice look of terror on his face, and Rogers does a good job showing that his cape might be torn, too, as it partially obscures the Bat-signal on his chest, again implying movement and also a bit of metaphorical covering of the bright symbol of hope. Batman is also staggering a bit, as Rogers draws him not quite set on his feet, so we imagine him beginning to topple backward. The spider web in the bottom right corner of the door is a nice touch, too, as it’s yet another implication of a cage.

On the same level as Batman’s head, but down the angle that Rogers is leading us, is the next text box, which is an arrow pointing down to the gun. The text becomes more violent, so we switch to red, with the emphasis on “knew,” which links back to the question about the “sinister secret,” hence the bolding. Instead of an ellipsis, we get a dash, which is probably smart – there’s no sense of building tension, there’s a linking of the two phrases, so a dash works better than an ellipsis. Then, of course, we get the “kill” in large letters, bordered by black, which really pops with the red and sets it even more apart from the rest of the lettering in the arrow. The arrow points to the gun, of course, but it’s not like we really need it, because the direction of the page is leading us there anyway. It’s more of the superb design of the page by Rogers:

More great Paint work!!!!

This is a bit of a mess, but what I’m trying to show is that there’s an alley created by Batman’s body and especially his arm and the gun, which are the parallel lines over his eyes and at the bottom of the image. But the arrows show how our eyes can go – straight right to the arrow and then down to the gun, or down Batman’s arm, which leads directly to the barrel of the gun. It also highlights something in Batman’s hand – what exactly is he holding? It’s clearly a wooden rod, but what is at the end of it? We have no idea, and it’s not revealed in the issue, either (I’ll get to the story inside in a moment). Rogers is dead, so we can’t ask him. It’s a bit weird.

Finally, the curve of the gun moves us to the final element of the cover, which is the hand holding said gun. Obviously, it’s Robin. Who else wears green gloves in the Batman-verse?

I mean, duh

The question then becomes, What the heck is Robin doing? Why is the “sinister secret” so valuable that he would kill his best chum, Batman? The mind boggles! Even if you don’t immediately know it’s Robin, it’s still an very intriguing cover. Batman doesn’t look in any position to defend himself against the gunshot that is surely coming, so I guess Bats is totes screwed. So this is the final issue of Detective, right, because its main character is so dead?

Well, of course not, but here’s the funny thing: This issue is a reprint. Yes, at the top, it reads “Presenting a Batman Classic!”, but this isn’t DC engaging in hyperbole about the new story presented within, which might or might not have become a classic. They mean it, as this is a reprint of Detective #408, one of the Neal Adams issues. This was the issue right after Steve Englehart finished his brief run on the title, and Len Wein took over with Rogers continuing as penciller (for a brief time, at least – he drew issues #478, 479, and a story in #481, which was when the book switched to the “Batman Family” format for a while), but according to Bob Rozakis in the letters page, Dick Giordano was supposed to take over as inker, but he was still working on the Superman/Muhammed Ali book, so he couldn’t do more than a few pages, while Wein had to finish up his commitments to Marvel, so he couldn’t begin at DC soon enough, so they just reprinted a comic from 1970. Rogers drew a brand new cover, one that sucked me in, at least (I mean, I’m not complaining about getting a Neal Adams story instead of a Marshall Rogers one, it’s just that I didn’t realize when I bought it that it was a reprint), and that’s what a great cover can do. Today, this cover wouldn’t have been needed, but in 1978, it was important!

Then, just this week, I bought Fight Comics #48, cover dated February 1947, published by Fiction House. I have never bought a comic this old before, and it cost me a nice bit of change (not as much as I thought it might, but it’s not in superb condition, which knocked it down a bit). Why did I buy it? Check out this cover:

This has been on the wall of my comics store for a few months, and I just kept staring at it. It’s an amazing drawing, and I finally asked the owner how much it was. He sold it to me for $35, which ain’t bad (the price guide had it at $50). So let’s break this down a bit, as well. First, the logo is terrific. “Fight” is in big, bold letters, colored yellow and bordered with red, nice warm, striking colors that stand out in nice contrast to the blue of the train (Fight Comics didn’t always use this color scheme for their logo; they tended to color it so that it contrasted with the colors behind it). The speed lines on the logo are a good touch, too – no, fighting doesn’t necessarily imply speed, but it still adds a kinetic element to the cover, and when it’s combined with the actual image, it makes everything on the cover move “faster.”

Unlike the ‘Tec cover, this one is angled upward, so while we begin with the logo, our eyes then move to the shovel held by that unfortunate Mexican stereotype on the train. According to the Grand Comics Database, Joe Doolin (1896-1967) drew this cover, so let’s believe them, shall we? Doolin draws our eye down the shovel to the dude holding it, and look at the great evil expression on that guy. The wind ruffles his luxurious Hispanic hair, his blue eyes glint malevolently, his Snidely Whiplash ‘stache helps define his beautiful cheekbones, and his teeth are bared like he’s a wild animal. If he weren’t evil, he’d be dashing!

And check out the right side of his head (his left, obviously) – tubes lead directly from it toward the second evil dude, who comes equipped with a sombrero, because of course he does. Even though the tubes go behind the door frame, they still take our eyes toward that bad guy, who’s frantically trying to add speed because the heroine is about to lay down some justice. So we get the sombrero (sigh) and the terrified look on the dude’s face. The tube and his left hand lead us directly to his face, where we see the fear in his eyes and the agape mouth, as if he can’t believe that a woman rode a horse fast enough to catch up to them and is now hanging off the side of the train. Yeah, I’d probably look like that, too.

‘I believe I just had an accident in my pantaloons’

His eyes lead us back across the page to the heroine, who holds the bar at the level of the dude’s sombrero, so she is “linked” to him by the perspective of the cover. His eyes take us right to her face, which we see only in profile, but that’s fine. The way Doolin draws the woman is nicely done – we follow the curve created by her face, shoulders, and arm to the gun, but that doesn’t stop us from following her body back to the left, as her blowing hair and lithe figure create a good line for us to read. Naturally, she’s blonde while the bad guys are black-haired and swarthy, but such is life – those dudes aren’t really too bad considering what we usually get from comics in the 1940s and their depictions of ethnicities other than “standard white guy.” The horse at the bottom stops us from wandering too far down, so that we keep following her body to the bottom left, which is where the editor wisely put the text. Notice, too, that she’s wearing red, which is analogous with her blonde hair, creating a warmth to her that contrasts with the purple and dark green of the main bad guy. Yes, he’s wearing a yellow shirt, but it’s kind of overwhelmed by the darker, more sinister colors (hey, he’s the Mexican Joker!). The colors of the clothing are also not coincidental.

The text is simply the contents, but come on, how can you not want to read these stories? First, we have “Señorita Rio,” written in bold black letters with that fiery yellow border. It’s bigger and a bit more “spicy” than the other lettering, and this story is indeed the lead feature in the book. Then we get “Risks, Unltd” (unlimited), and that’s certainly how I want my risks, damn it! Everyone wants to read about “Tiger Girl,” right? I think we can agree on that. And then there’s “many others”! Holy cow, what a comic! Is it any wonder that after staring at this for several weeks, I would plunk down my ducats for it? I think not!

So many others!!!!!

So does the comic deliver on the promise of the cover? Well, I haven’t read it yet. I’m deathly afraid of touching this comic, to the point where just scanning the cover made my heart flutter a few times, so I haven’t sat down and read it yet. The art is beautiful, though – I did page through it carefully, just to get a sense of it. The Señorita Rio story is drawn by Lily Renée, who worked in comics briefly and, from what I can tell from this story, was really excellent. It’s too bad she didn’t stay in comics, but she apparently experienced a lot of sexual harassment, and who needs that shit? Trina Robbins tracked her down a decade ago and wrote a comic about her life, as she escaped from the Nazis and married another escapee, so it sounds like her life was pretty wild. I haven’t even been able to find out if she’s dead – it seems like she’s still alive, which would be awesome. Good for her! There’s also a story drawn, possibly, by Matt Baker (he drew some Kayo Kirby stories, but in these days, who the hell knows if it was him or just the Iger shop – there’s that Tiger Girl story in here, too, which Baker was also associated with, so maybe he drew two stories in this?). Jack Kamen and Al Feldstein may have worked on the book, too – the GCD is full of question marks on this book, which is a shame. It’s really a nice-looking book – at a time when Dick Sprang was butchering Batman (sorry, Sprang fans), it’s always fascinating to see great artists working on books that have been lost to time to a certain degree (I know that Craig Yoe and others have done a nice job getting a lot of this back into print, but there’s still so much that isn’t, and it’s not like these comics have the publishing power of DC or Marvel behind them). One day I’ll actually sit down and read the stories! Presumably while I’m wearing gloves and turning the pages with tweezers. Really, touching this thing freaks me out.

So those are a few covers of old comics that I’ve bought recently. The Fight Comics one is interesting because it doesn’t show a scene from one of the stories, at least as far as I can ascertain. Doolin simply drew a picture of a feisty young lady carrying a gun chasing down Mexicans. Is she even the heroine? (I mean, of course she is, but contextually, we don’t know.) Are those Mexicans simply the train’s engineers, and this crazed young woman is trying to hijack them? The mind reels! But the cover is so striking, I bought it. Cover-as-advertisements really do work!

I get why curmudgeons get grumpy about today’s cover art, I really do. I don’t really share it, but I get it. These two covers, one from 40 years ago and the second from 70 years ago, are wonderful examples of how to get people to buy your comics. Sure, back in the day you could flip through the issue as it sat on the spinner rack, but why would you pick up this one as opposed to another one? The cover, of course! And these two comics feature excellent covers. And that’s how I ended up with a copy of Fight Comics #48!

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