Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Vertigo Should Move Away From "Slickness"

This came up a few days ago when I looked at the cover for Vertigo's upcoming original graphic novel, Incognegro.

Now hey, this sounds actually like a very interesting book. But the cover design turned me off a bit. It wasn't that it wasn't designed nice. It was designed great. But it was too slick.

I don't see the trend in the packaging of current graphic novels (originals, now, not reprint trades) as going the way of Slick. Some of the most successful GNs from other companies have a much more original look -- sometimes rough-hewn, sometimes minimalist, sometimes pop-arty. But, the main factor in all these GN's is their originality.

Take, for instance, the cover to Persepolis:

There is nothing on that cover that screams to me a "house style" or the aesthetics of the publisher. It's just the book itself -- a original entity. It also intrigues the reader by its minimalism, the simple design elements directing the onlooker's eye to the book's main character and the "set" art style the book will be using. The cover design is an organic outgrowth of the book itself -- interior and cover working together to produce a whole.

By contrast, the cover to Incognegro itself looks like an ad. Not just an ad -- a DC house-ad. And it tells me nothing about the uniqueness of the look of the GN or its art.

Then consider the case of Sentences, another Vertigo graphic novel. I was enraptured and intrigued listening to the narrative of the novel's writer, M. F. Grimm, on NPR some months back. But, the cover for the GN once again totally turned me off. I see that they were going for an "old skool" high-school notebook/graffiti look, but again -- it's still too slick. It's "old skool" with a Slick brush, "rough edges" rounded out and prepackaged.

Compare that to First, Second's Notes For A War Story. That's truly rough edges; texture, the life and breath of that volume.

Lastly, there is the excellent Vertigo GN Pride of Baghdad. Now here's a book I recommend to people all the time. However, this cover would have really benefited from a less crowded, lush approach. In my mind's eye I see a far simpler cover with a wide shot of the lions from the book in silhouette walking across a war-torn landscape. It would have far better evoked a sense of their journey and struggle and isolation. But, most importantly -- I think it would have struck a greater emotional chord with the viewer.

I think in all these examples, what Vertigo tried to do was package & design these graphic novels as NOVELS. These designs take the works as far away from their "comic book" roots as possible. But, I think this is a bad strategy. People buy graphic novels because they want graphic novels. If they wanted novels, they'd buy novels. This goes double for the recent packaging of Jodi Picoult's run on Wonder Woman as "novel-like" in design.

To be fair to Vertigo, they do have books that far better reflect the current aesthetics in graphic novel cover design. Take, for instance, Gilbert Hernandez's Sloth. There is no mistaking this as anything other than an organically Hernandez work. It fits in well with offerings by companies like Fantagraphics & Top Shelf. Or Rick Veitch's Can't Get No, printed in a unique horizontal format.

There is also the topic of Vertigo's reprint program, which I think incorporates a very successful book design, one that benefits from more of a "Vertigo" branding and uniform "multi-volume" approach.

The bigger point is, beyond book covers: Vertigo's original graphic novel publishing program, especially in the face of competitors both in comics & traditional publishing, has started to develop a rep for being Slick. Cold, calculating in its creative aspirations. It really needs a rough edge, some juice, some excitement. Or maybe DC has that already someplace else.


  1. I don't mind Pride of Baghdad's cover; the eyes focus on the lion's eyes first and then when you move down you see the image of Baghdad with the lions moving across it. I think it comes off beautifully from an aesthetic point of view.

    Totally right about the "making graphic novels into novels" covers, though. Why in the heck is Jodi Piccoult's name larger than Wonder Woman's?!

  2. i actually really like the "slick" covers myself.

    and i like the novelly design, too.

    but I do agree Piccoult's name should not have been bigger than Wonder Woman.

  3. I was unaware until I saw that cover that Jodi Picoult's Wonder Woman run was a Civil War tie-in. It explains a lot.

  4. haha that Wonder Woman cover looks all Civil War-ish, don't it?

    And i agree with you, but I loove the MF Grimm/Sentences cover! But I mean in highscool I was a wannabe MC, scribbling lyrics and bad graffiti stylings into my notebooks, so that brings up a lot of nostalgia...

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  6. Regarding the INCOGNEGRO cover: I read a Mat Johnson interview where he said that Vertigo wanted a photocover in order to more plainly present the story's central theme of a light-skinned African American man passing for white. That's actually Johnson himself on the cover.

  7. I'm surprised you didn't mention 100 Bullets, as i've always though they do excellent work with their trades--strychnine lives and samurai stand out as excellent--but otherwise, great post. I definitely agree that a lot of Vertigo work is currently sandwiched in some really hideous trades--Sandman is one that looked wonderful in the original McKean designed trades, but then it turned into that ugly "Library" format.

  8. You know, I have to agree with Sammy above. I like how Vertigo has used "slick" covers over the years. I remember loving Richard Bruning and Gavin Wilson's photo collage covers on Sandman Mystery Theatre (which, I could argue, gave the book a cohesiveness that its interiors lacked in the early days of rotating artists). And Dave McKean's Sandman covers were also excellent. Neither gave any real indication of the art style on the interior, but what they did is set a mood and a tone.

    And although I understand your point about covers feeling more like ads, I guess I would say that this is sort of the point of a cover. When you consider how many new comics come out every week, it's always the cover that first grabs your attention on the rack. So using a photograph, or a lot of negative space, or something that is just visually and stylistically different may be just enough to register a pause and lead someone to pick up the book and flip through it. Ultimately, at least in my case, it's when I flip through a book, scanning the art style, layout, etc. that I decide whether or not to make the purchase.

  9. The Jodi Picoult book follows the trade dress of her regular novels. Given that they hired her and are promoting the book to the Jodi Picoult audience, not the comic shop audience, the design makes sense, even to having her name larger than Wonder Woman's. One of Picoult's recent novels had a main character who created comics and included a few pages of comics in it, so her audience may be more primed for this crossover than the general comics market thinks.

    but this is not disagreeing with your overall claims. Vertigo's OGN design has been slick recently, with all the negativity that that carries in a creative medium.

  10. Isn't this largely a function of the artists creating these graphic novels? You seem to have deliberately chosen non-Vertigo artists (Satrapi, Gipi) who have styles that I guess are "rough" and "authentic". Even the one Vertigo book design you praise is by Gilbert Hernandez who has a similarly "organic" or "not slick" style.

    Meanwhile, the covers to Pride of Baghdad and Sentences feature artwork by their interior artists, whose work itself is "slicker" than any of the examples of good design you mentioned. Is this really a problem with the cover designs in your mind, or the art itself?