Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Some thoughts on two upcoming collections I'm not going to buy anyway

Two upcoming books that should have appeal far beyond the normal direct market readers. Two best-selling authors who have achieved popularity in prose and comics. Two remarkably similar and remarkably bad cover designs.

Let’s take an overly-, perhaps even obsessively-, detailed look at the trade dress for Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Tornado’s Path and Eternals. These images are both from the Baker & Taylor online catalog, which is where many libraries and retailers buy their books, so the trade dress and cover design may vary from what will be in your local comic shop (Marvel.com, for exmaple, lists' a "book market version," which seems to indicate the existence of an non-book market version.)

So this is what the cover of the first trade collection of Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes’ brief run on the newly relaunched Justice League of America series will look like:

It’s a hardcover that will be available in comic shops tomorrow, and, according to dccomics.com, it’s subtitled “The Tornado’s Path” and will contain “the first six issues” of the series. That seems a rather arbitrary number of issues, considering the first story arc was eight issues long, running from #0 through #7.

It’s an interesting to see the priority assigned to various elements of the series based just on the cover. Clearly, the selling point here is the creators, and not the team—their names are at least twice as big as that of the title (the volume number and actual title of the story doesn’t even appear on the cover).

I’m assuming that it’s the name of the writer here that is the actual selling point (Despite some well-received previous work, this is essentially Benes’ breakthrough title, and probably the first collection of a title he’s worked on that will be receiving this kind of big bookstore push), and that it would just look too silly if they blew up “Meltzer” to giant proportions, and had the pencil artist’s name as small as poor Sandra Hope’s there; a case in which not being on the cover at all would probably be better than the fine print listing she gets there.

Now, I’m not terribly familiar with Meltzer’s prose output, having never read any of it, nor ever having heard of him before he was announced as the writer of Identity Crisis (By the extremely subjective criteria of Prose Writers Who Caleb Has Personally Heard Of Prior To Their Comics Work, Michael Chabon, Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Lethem seem like bigger “gets” than Meltzer to me). But clearly DC thinks he’s a huge deal, and that’s the element of this collection that is going to best move it from bookstore shelves into the hands of browsers.

Presuming it’s true that the name “Meltzer” is more recognizable and attractive than the (admittedly clumsy and awkward to say) name “Justice League of America,” than it seems indicative of a major failing on DC’s part.

How is it that the Justice League of America, a team that includes Superman, one of the most recognizable characters in the world, along with Batman and Wonder Woman would have a lower Q Rating than a single author?

What really drew my attention to this cover in the first place, however, was the image. Considering the visual nature of comics—they don’t shelve these things under the title “Graphic Novels” for nothing—it’s strange to see one in which the imagery component is played down to such a degree in favor of the credits and text.

And why is that? Could it be that those at DC realize that cover artist Michael Turner is a terrible, terrible artist, but the direct market seems to like his stuff anyway, so they keep slapping it on their product to feed to fanboys, but, when the time comes to show their product off to the rest of the world, they’re a little hesitant to put Turner out front?

Remember, there have been two to three covers for each and every single issue of this series, meaning DC had plenty to choose from when it came time to put an image on this. They went with the Turner version of JLoA #2, removing the figures from that background-less image and reassigning it to another background-free space (which actually looks much better), and shrinking the team down so they are no longer the focus, and one’s eyes aren’t drawn to the lack of feet, or that weird toddler-who-has-to-pee pose that Vixen, Black Lightning and Red Arrow are all striking.

I probably would have went with the Benes image as a wraparound cover, as it features not only the whole team, but also a large swathe of DC heroes with which to dazzle newcomers (“Hey, it’s that Bat-Lesbian from the New York Times! And there’s Shazam from that shitty show I used to watch as a kid! And Supergirl!”), and the cheesy hand holding the membership cards reflects the cheesy (though affectionate) usage of nostalgia for 1960’s and ‘70’s Justice League protocol that permeates JLoA #7, the conclusion of “The Tornado’s Path” story (Although I guess that issue’s not even included in this collection…? For some reason…?)

And, most importantly, it’s by Benes, whose name is gigantic on the cover at the moment. Why not let browsers know what the interior art will actually look like on the cover?

I also find myself wondering about what the next collection, the inevitable volume 2, will look like.

The next story arc in JLoA is “The Lightning Saga,” which is one of those irritating crossovers that jumps from book to book, like “The Insiders” from Teen Titans and The Outsiders or “Checkout” from Outsiders and Checkmate. Since the two books it jumps back and forth between, JLoA and Justice Society of America, have will be collected in their own series of graphic novels, will “Lightning Saga” be JLoA Vol. 2, or JSoA Vol. 2, or a standalone, volume-less trade, simply entitled Lightning Saga or, perhaps, Justice League of America/Justice Society of America: The Lightning Saga (Jesus, let’s seem them fill all of that on a cover, and still have room for Meltzer and Geoff Johns’ names).

Does that mean the next volume, JLoA Vol. 2 will include #7, #11 and #12 and…that’s it?

Well, let’s turn our attention to Marvel’s upcoming trade of a series by a famous novelist, The Eternals. Here’s the cover for that:

Marvel does give top-billing to the stars of the series here, although seeing as it’s The Eternals, known primarily as the group of pseudo-mythic cosmic characters created by Jack Kirby who weren’t the The Mighty Thor’s Asgardians, the Inhumans or the New Gods. Considering that nobody outside of fandom knows who the hell the Eternals are—and an awful lot of people within fandom didn’t until this project was announced—it seems a little needless to give them top-billing, but then, the characters are what the company owns and trades in, so shouldn’t they always come first?

Marvel also makes the author’s name gigantic…even bigger than DC made Meltzer’s, choosing to accentuate his full name, not just his surname. This certainly makes sense; Gaiman’s name is probably equally well-known and appreciated equally among graphic novel readers and fantasy/science fiction readers, and it stands to reason bookstore browsers who may not have even read Sandman would see a big, bright gold “Neil Gaiman” and pick the book up just to see what this new work from the writer of Coraline is all about.

And poor John Romita Jr. Here’s a name that carries a ton of weight in the direct market, and, in the market in general, a lot more weight than, say, Ed Benes, and it’s like an afterthought on the cover, a disclaimer present just to let readers know that Gaiman did not, in fact, illustrate the thing himself). (If nothing else, most big bookstores will have all of JRjr’s issues of Amazing Spider-Man with JMS, as well as his The Black Panther: Who Is The Black Panther? and maybe the trades of his 12-issue Wolverine run with Mark Millar).

Like the JLoA cover, this one is curious in that it comes from a series in which every single issue has two-to-three covers to choose from, and Marvel ultimately decided to downplay the imagery as much as possible, coming up with a cover that is more than half text. In this case, I doubt it was any kind of embarrassment over the quality of the images, so much as a desire to accentuate Gaiman’s name as much as possible.

Personally, I find this a really unattractive cover, one that makes the whole package look really unappealing. If I didn’t know the name of the author, I wouldn’t look twice at this.

I didn’t care for the standard covers on this thing, the painted ones by Rick Berry. They not only weren’t representative of the interiors (it’s not like JRjr is a bad cover artist or anything), but they have a completely different aesthetic—JRjr is one of the industry’s more comic book-y comic book artists, and one who has at least a hint of Jack Kirby in his line and figure work. Berry is working in paint and in a highly representational style that is about as far from Kirby as you can get.

This image is a particularly generic one, and it looks like it could appear on just about anything in the science-fiction section. It doesn’t look like a graphic novel cover, it doesn’t look like a Marvel cover, it doesn’t look like the cover of a Gaiman trade or novel (that is, it’s not by Dave McKean), and it doesn’t look anything like 1602’s highly distinctive cover.

Based solely on these two covers, I wouldn’t read either of these trades. From DC and Marvel’s perspective, that’s a bad thing, but from a readers’ perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that. Neither of them are the best works from the company or the creators involved, nor are they the best stories featuring those characters.

Both have their bright spots, of course. JLoA has… Okay, well, there’s not much to like there, but Meltzer does finally put “Black Vulcan” in the Justice League, for which I’ll forgive him just about every other poor story choice he’s made in the process.

And Eternals is chockfull of beautiful, beautiful art and strong character work (even if it all adds to nothing).

And both will likely read much, much better in trade. “Tornado’s Path” was turgid beyond belief in a monthly format, and was clearly written to be read as a trade, and well, now’s your chance!

Eternals was likewise slow and written for the trade, more forgivable since it took place in a corner of the Marvel Universe and had little to do with the rest of the line (although the Civil War business that intrudes in the later portions will likely stand out awkwardly to newcomers here for the Gaiman, not the Marvel). There were also some odd, momentum killing delays in the release schedule.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I dunno. I think the Eternals cover makes it look like a generic sf/ fantasy novel rather than a comic book, but that seems fine if they're trying to hook readers of Gaiman's non-illustrated fiction.

The JLA cover seems strategiclly dumb (because, as you say, Superman's got to be a bigger draw than Brad Meltzer) and is also just ugly-- a bad picture badly presented, too much whitespace and too many huge letters at the same time.

Neither gets an A, but there's a big gap bewteen "eh" and "what the hell were you thinking?"

Anonymous said...

Eternals - bland, forgettable, boring cover. I'm okay with the design, but the image inserted between the title and the author's name needs to be stronger and more pointed.

Justice League of America - ugly. really, really ugly. Agreed, too much white space, too many huge letters, and no real design sense. Meltzer's name does have some draw; he's a NYTimes bestseller (though I'm not sure why - the one prose book of his I've read was hard to get through), so I can understand pushing his name. The Justice League name across the bottom looks clumsy, and the artwork is lousy also.