A post from my old now-gone Marvel blog concerning the history of Marvel’s cover design. (One of the hazards of these reposts is that I often don’t have copies of all of a given sequence, and none of it is in the right order–hence, Part Four without Parts One, Two or Three…)
Part four of our series on the history of Marvel covers.
Marvel had been publishing super hero comics for a year and a half before the company finally got an identity. Starting on covers with a May 1963 cover date, Marvel got both a name and its first trade dress, in the form of the corner box seen to the left.
Reportedly conceived by Steve Ditko, the corner box was a masterpiece of design simplicity. In those days, the majority of outlets that carried comic books tended to rack them in one of two ways: either in spinner racks which displayed perhaps the top 1/4 of the cover, or on long magazine racks side-by-side overlapping, in which only the left edge of the cover would be visible. The corner box was designed to take advantage of this “magic inverted L” by being visible no matter which way the book was racked. That meant that a consumer could identify a Spider-Man issue or a Fantastic Four issue more quickly than a title belonging to the competition. With only minor variations, the corner box would remain a staple of the Marvel cover trade dress for the rest of the decade.
By this point, the early style of Marvel covers had crystallized. These tended to showcase an explosive or gripping piece of artwork, and come covered with assorted bursts and blurbs proclaiming the greatness of the contents of that issue, often with a heavy dollop of self-effacing humor. This established the Marvel style right off the bat, and made those books stand out among the competition—they tended to be funnier and more engaging than the average, while at the same time being more exciting visually. It seems like such an obvious approach in hindsight, but most publishers of the day were still tentative because of the Senate hearings of the ’50s, and so were reluctant to make waves by calling too much attention to themselves. Most other super hero covers focused on being pristine, almost sterile in a classy way. Rarely would a super hero break a sweat. The challenges tended to be intellectual and emotional, rather than physical. Not so on the Marvel covers of the day.
By the mid-’60s, this style had evolved further, refining itself. As the overall quality of the artwork rose, the emphasis moved more concretely towards having a strong, punchy, dynamic image. The amount of copy fell dramatically, typically only one box or blurb, most often highlighting the title of the issue or the central idea of the conflict. By this point, the Marvel books weren’t so obviously screaming for attention—sales were up, and Stan and Martin Goodman seemed content to let the artwork shoulder the burden of selling the magazine. Covers became a bit more graphic, propelled by the innovations of young artists like Jim Steranko and Neal Adams.
But around 1969, sales of comics across the boards began to slow, and partially as a result of that, Marvel began playing around with its cover approach in some significant ways—as we’ll see when we resume next week.