Jan 04 2010

Popular Themes in Comic Book Covers

Published by at 9:20 pm under Art,Book Covers,Comic Book Art

Characters doing a usual activity in a way or setting that is unexpected.

  • For example, someone would look pretty mundane smoking a cigar, but what if he were smoking right next to a corpse?  Probably much more interesting.
  • Holding an iPod is boring, but Thor holding an iPod raises an interesting contrast between tradition and modernity.
  • Many badass detectives and criminals carry guns, but it’s distinctly more disturbing if it’s a kid holding a massive sniper rifle… with a Kennedy campaign button.
  • A guy holding a briefcase is the epitome of dullness.  But a guy handcuffed to a briefcase or a mutant alligator holding a briefcase is more striking.


  • Usually the protagonists are depicted as losing the fight (or right before the fight starts).  It wouldn’t look as threatening or exciting if the good guys were winning.
  • Try to present it in an unusual angle or perspective.   For example, it probably wouldn’t be too interesting to see a soldier milling about as a terrorist is setting up an ambush around a corner.  If it’s a “war is hell” story, I’d add more terrorists to increase the danger level and give the soldier a decidedly peppy German shepherd and use huge letters to display a creepy title like THE DOG DIES FIRST.
  • I don’t think that combat covers are as prevalent as they used to be.

Text portrayed in an unusual way.

  • Words scrawled in blood.  This is cliche but could be effective.
  • An advertisement for a product or campaign.  I believe in Harvey Dent!
  • A message formed with letters cut out of a magazine, like an old-school bomber or terrorist would use.
  • Alphabet soup would probably offer a quirky, offbeat style.
  • Spray-paint and/or graffiti are gritty and urban.
  • A street sign– I was toying around with an idea like 2600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a somewhat realistic detective story set in one of Washington’s worst areas.  Since I figure that most people will see “Pennsylvania Avenue” and think of the White House, I hope that the visual of the slum ten blocks away would be very striking.  (PS: If you ever get me inebriated, ask me about the time the Secret Service burst out of a wall to detain a wildly stupid tween).

Strike a pose!

  • A character (usually the hero or villain) does something that looks cool.  Sometimes the action in question is really important to the plot, like Captain America decking Hitler in the face.  But it doesn’t have to be.  In The Dark Knight Returns, it’s not particularly important where Batman is jumping.  It just looks helluva cool.
  • Unexpected emotions often make for cool poses.  For example, grimly looking at a person you just killed probably wouldn’t look too engaging.  But cheerfully smoking a cigar would probably interest more readers.  There’s obviously some overlap between striking a pose and unexpected actions.

Faceless characters

  • Removing the face tends to make a character more iconic.  It lets readers fill in the individual details on their own.  Also, faceless characters may be more mysterious and/or kickass.
  • These hoodlums look much, much more awesome with obscured faces.  (For additional examples, please see pretty much any issue starring The Hood).  

Characters using a superpower

  • This can be an effective way to establish the tone of the series in an eye-catching way, particularly if the superpower makes use of striking colors (such as Cyclops’ eye-beam or the Human Torch setting himself on fire or Ironman firing his lasers).
  • I would recommend using the power to put a character in danger and/or suggest what’s in store for the characters this issue.  For example, if the protagonist is on a stealthy infiltration mission and can go invisible, you could create a gritty and creepy effect by having him choke a guard with only part of his arms visible.

Cities in danger (or destroyed)

  • It’s more conventional to show the city merely endangered, but either one is a good way to show what is (or was) at stake for the heroes.
  • I would highly recommend against depicting events that don’t actually happen in the book.  (For example, one popular trope from decades past was to show something really exciting or sensational happening on the cover and then revealing in-story that it was just a dream or computer simulation.  Use your discretion on time-travel and imposters).  The point of the cover is to attract readers that will enjoy the product.  If you show something that doesn’t actually happen, your cover will attract readers that are not well-suited to your product.  For example, if you show a city cratered, you’re suggesting a rather gritty tone and will scare away ungritty readers.  If your series is relatively ungritty, that’s absolutely a mistake.

Seriously wounded or dead people

  • This conveys a sense of urgency/danger and usually presents a visually striking image.
  • For a more somber and less violent feel, you might use a coffin and/or scenes from a funeral instead.  (One of my favorite covers is from the perspective of a body being interred, looking up at a set of crying characters in funeral garb).

This is obviously not a comprehensive list.  What are some elements of the comic book covers you’ve enjoyed most?

Also, I recommend looking at Comic Book Resources’ list of the 50 best comic book covers of 2009.  I had only seen four of them!

One response so far

One Response to “Popular Themes in Comic Book Covers”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 30 May 2010 at 9:27 pm

    You forgot Superman being a jerk. 😉


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