A post from my old Marvel blog, part of a series discussing the history of covers at Marvel.
Part six of our analysis of the history of covers and cover theory. We’re moving into the ’80s now.
At the beginning of the decade, things had hit something of a nadir with the addition of paid advertising to the covers, as seen on the left on the classic X-MEN #137 cover. Presumably the advertisers paid extremely well for this prime real estate, but nonetheless it meant that about a fifth of the cover was taken up by ad banners—and the most important fifth at that. This meant that the artwork wound up squished into a tiny space—shades of the “little box” days!
However, around this time, there was a marked change in the philosophy behind covers. Based on nothing other than a knowledge of the time period, I’m guessing this had something to do with Jim Shooter becoming Marvel’s EIC, and his own personal preferences when it came to cover images. Whatever the case, there was a pronounced and immediate movement back towards some of the thinking of the ’60s, but even more so. Now, simple, bold, graphic images were the name of the game. (Even the X-MEN #137 cover fits this mold, blunted though its effectiveness is by the huge ad banner.)
Probably the most influential artist in terms of graphic approach during this period was Frank Miller, who produced a series of DAREDEVIL covers that were at once simple and stark, but also immediately eye-catching. Frank and his contemporaries also made good use of the improvements in technology to begin experimenting with elements like color holds (areas or shapes or figures printed in a color or colored line, without a black holding line.) Miller’s influence could immediately be felt across the line, with other artists emulating his thought process and applying it to their own work.
Around 1983, Marvel switched up the trade dress once again, abandoning the Marvel Comics Group banner-bar that had characterized the line for the past decade in favor of a return to a streamlined version of the corner box. There was an ad produced during this period, touting this improvement, showing the difference in art space that was gained by eliminating that top-strap. There was also a bit more willingness to mess with the trade dress set-up when necessary, as on the DAREDEVIL #228 cover to the left, which compresses and virtually eliminates the corner box to make the composition work.
Copy was still an important part of the cover design, but now it was subordinate to the imagery, and used to support it and heighten the impact. Denny O’Neil in particular was expert at coming up with interesting, memorable cover copy that added punch to a piece, and improved it, and his approach was adopted and assimilated by the younger editors on staff, guys like Jim Owsley.
The eighties also saw the flourishing of the painted cover. Painted pieces had been regularly used on Marvel’s line of black and white magazines during the ’70s, but for the most part they’d stayed off the color comics. I don’t know if this was a concern that the crappier printing on these books would turn a painted cover to mud, or that there was an additional cost (or a perceived additional cost–sometimes people would avoid doing something because they thought it would cost more, without actually checking to see that it would cost more) involved. But especially as the Direct Market began to blossom, where books could be sold to a dedicated audience on a non-returnable basis, there was more of a willingness to experiment.
The guy who really broke barriers in terms of making painted coves popular was Bill Sienkiewicz. Bill was a popular artist of the period, having made MOON KNIGHT a surprise hit with his moody, Neal Adams-influenced artwork. but Bill’s style kept evolving, and he kept bringing in influences from outside comics, fine artists and commercial illustrators. By the end of his run on MOON KNIGHT, his work was less illustrative and more expressive—an approach he carried over into his painted works. The earliest of his painted covers I can recall were the ones he did on NEW MUTANTS, and they caused something of a stir (as did the interior artwork, which was unlike anything anybody had ever seen on an X-book.) And once the style proved popular, at least among the cognoscenti, others followed.