Classic comic covers feature high impact images full of energy. While the inside has pages of panels to tell a story, the cover suggests a story with one dynamic image. We inherently judge a book by its cover, otherwise we wouldn’t need advice telling us not to. Over the years the masters of comic covers learned tricks to compose the most powerful and eye-catching images. Modern comic covers tend to reject the lessons of the past for two three reasons 1) New hotness 2) They want to look like other art forms that have more prestige (somehow magazines?) 3) They commission a bunch of covers from artists that are so generic that they have a backlog of plug-and-play images that work for any comic featuring the character. It keeps things on schedule.
Personally, when I see modern comic covers I tend to yawn. Whether you agree with me or not, there are still some lessons to be learned from looking at the classic comic book cover compositions. I’ve grouped them into 14 different approaches. Each of them can be combined with other approaches for even more impact.
All of these covers I found at the Cover Browser. If you want to further explore the world of comic covers it is an excellent place to start.
Against the hard line rectangular frame of the comic book cover, the most dynamic shape to contrast that is the circle. You can use the circle as a graphic element, hide it within the image (like the monster’s mouth), merely suggest the circle by wrapping text or images around it, or just use it as a circular object in the scene. It has the effect of throwing a spotlight on the contents of the circle.
With American superhero comics focusing so much on combat between do-gooders and evil-doers it makes sense that one of the most common compositions is two characters locked in battle. Sometimes a third is added, though usually as a bystander. The figures are traditionally as large as they can be and still fit on the cover. Heroes might battle another person, animal, monster, machine or themselves. Characters are sometimes brought right up to the foreground to highlight the emotional reactions in their faces.
3. Many Figures
Especially with teams books, artists frequently needed to show a lot of characters on the same cover. Making them all the same height might feel like the least dynamic way to approach it. Yet it captures our love of toys, dolls, miniature figures of any sort. People like owning and seeing little representations of themselves and other beings. To underscore the smallness of the characters, they are often placed against an object or setting that suggests scale. It is also regularly combined with the Looming Figure approach so as to suggest some villain is collecting these heroes literally or metaphorically.
4. Looming Figure
What better way to suggest impending, unescapable doom than a large figure looming over a small one? The figures may appear like they are actually in the scene or as an implied threat. The last Daredevil cover shows even a logo can loom.
Another approach to team book covers is to have all of the characters engaged in battle. The characters might all be on the same plane, or distributed between foreground and background, but the important part is that there isn’t a clear focus that draws you away from the battle. This isn’t a fight between two people with a war in the background, it’s a scrum for everyone. The variations below demonstrate the moment right before a fight or right after work as variations on the theme.
6. Dynamic Depth
A favourite of horror comic covers, Dynamic Depth places something in the extreme foreground to draw the reader into the scene. It makes you feel like you are a participant, not just a distant witness. Favourite things to place in the immediate foreground included weapons and hands from otherwise unseen assailants. Some images preferred a distinct separation between grounds. Others tried to lead the eye through the whole things from front to back with a continuous object like a chain, rope, or bullet trail.
7. Comin’ Atcha
While Dynamic Depth relies on an object or partial person in the foreground to draw you in, Comin’ Atcha uses full-sized angled figures for the same. The dynamic perspective of an upshot or downshot is a favourite for showing a powerful punch. With this approach the reader sees danger racing towards themselves or into the cover towards our hero. While I’ve called it Comin’ Atcha it applies equally to dynamic figures going away from the viewer. This is one of the more dynamic ways to draw a group shot, with the heroes on different angles and different sizes based on their closeness to the viewer.
As a specific variation on Dynamic Depth, romance comics prefected their own formula for melodrama. These comics almost universally feature a cover with a person or two in the foreground (often immediate foreground) and another person, or couple in the background. This highlighted pretty and handsome faces, stylish clothes and the dramatic gulf of space between two would-be lovers.
9. Full Figure
Sometimes the artist wants to highlight one or two characters as the reason to buy the issue. Sometimes it was simply the appearance of a favourite character, or a change in costume. More often, it was to highlight the emotional state of one character. With characters almost the full height of the page they become the centre of attention.
Comic books are made up of framed images so why not recreate that on the cover? While some literally divided the cover with panel borders, many artists used visual elements to draw a stark line between figures. This allows the cover artist to show two scenes from the book, should they be torn between drawing two dynamic locations. A character not breaking the implied boundary creates tension. A character crossing the boundary can suggest an explosion of energy.
11. Picture In Picture
While the Framed approach breaks up an image into different zones, Picture in Picture show different images within one image. This can be accomplished with literal pictures (posters, paintings, photographs) or by methods like reflections and holes.
12. Group Shot
Probably the most bland approach is a picture of the super heroic team gathered together, without much variation in perspective, height or action. It mimics a class or family photo, implying these people are your friends. It seeks to emulate life a little more than the other approaches to composition. It also allows you to highlight a group of characters who may be guest starring in the book or a new line up of heroes taking over the mantle from the previous titular heroes.
Comics are combinations of words and text, yet text seldom takes the forefront in the composition. Normally text simply fills dead space to alert the reader of how earth-shattering and mind-bending the insides will be. Some of the few explorations include the text becoming a physical representation of a sound effect, a stark graphic element or to take the place of a physical object or setting.
The last approach is as genre-based as the Romance covers. Children’s gag comics universally feature one wordless joke with an absolute minimum amount of background and usually a bright colour palette. Teen gag comics use play on words rather than straight visuals so as to lure you to pick up the book for a better look. They also usually feature more extraneous characters to give the teen a feeling of community. These additional characters are often laughing, like the visual version of canned laughter, to suggest their jokes are more hilarious than you might think. Another way to nail home the message was to place the key words (usually puns) in bold, coloured type.
Of course the most dynamic covers will be ones that combine more than one of these elements with becoming too busy. For instance, the Picture In Picture cover of Iron Man facing Doctor Doom is also a Comin’ Atcha and Circle composition. I started this post with one of the most iconic covers of all time of the X-Men. It combines Circle, Picture in Picture, a sort of Group Shot, some text and a gentle Versus between Kitty and Logan.
I did an exploration of these cover compositions with my the drawings in my post “Shaft vs Scarface and other films that should’ve been adapted as comics“. You should be able see that The Gate is Circle, The Warriors is Comin’ Atcha, Mad Max is Framed etc.
I hope you find these approaches helpful in your own art work as well or at least give you a new appreciation for the old way of doing things.
If you enjoyed this tutorial, you may want to check out my book