What Makes a Good Comic Book Cover? (2023 Edition) | Comical Opinions (2023)

Most people assume what makes a good comic book cover is fantastic art. In truth, the artistic elements only make up a fraction of what’s needed to create a good cover. The best comic book cover layout must be designed for the cover to serve its first and primary purpose — as an advertisement.

A Comic Book Cover Is a Marketing Tool

Everyone loves a good comic book cover. There are artists working in the Comics Industry today who focus the majority of their artistic career on solely creating covers. There is an entire financial investment sub-culture of the Comics Industry dedicated to buying, trading, and selling comics solely based on their covers.

(We’ll get to the good, the bad, and the ugly of speculators in a later article.)

But as much as comics readers love to gaze at a well-crafted cover like it’s the superhero equivalent of the Mona Lisa, publishers know that the cover is an ad, no different than a billboard. It’s a fancier version of the flyer somebody advertising guitar lessons tacks up in the local supermarket.

In short, a cover’s job is to sell.

How to Make a Comic Book Cover Sell

Before we get into the nitty-gritty on how to make a comic book cover design that sells, let’s take a little psychological detour to talk about Open Loops

What’s an Open Loop?

An open loop is a subconscious question your mind asks that doesn’t get answered right away or at all. If you’ve ever asked yourself “How does that work?” or “What happens next?” because you saw something interesting, that’s an example of an open loop. Your mind is curious enough about something it saw or heard to want to know more.

But open loops aren’t just about asking questions. The unanswered questions create tension in the buyer’s mind that can become a source of anxiousness or even agitation the longer it’s left unanswered. It’s the proverbial itch you can’t scratch.

In a comic book, the easiest example is a well-constructed cliffhanger. If the creative team kept the reader engaged throughout the issue and ended on a humdinger of a cliffhanger, the reader should have a loop opened in their mind that keeps asking “What happens next?” Hopefully, the open loop is strong enough to keep going and entice the reader back for the next issue to scratch that itch.

What Does an Open Loop Have to Do With Comic Book Covers?

All the parts of a comic book cover design must work together to open up the biggest and strongest loop possible. The open loop must be strong enough to create an insatiable pull that says to the prospective reader: “You need to know what this comic is all about. You have to buy me to find out. Buy me!”

When a creative team is kicking around comic book cover ideas, at the top of the evaluation list should be how much the cover will entice a reader to pick up the issue and buy it. But to do a proper evaluation of a comic book cover’s effectiveness, we need to understand the three elements that go into opening the “Buy Me!” loop (plus, a very specific and risky exception we’ll get to later).

  • Contrast
  • Focus
  • Emotion

Contrast for the Social Media Generation

It’s no surprise that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have encouraged users to scroll, swipe, and click through massive amounts of content very quickly. According to the brand marketing firm Ogilvy, the average user scrolls through 300 feet worth of mobile content in an average day.

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Perusing the shelves in a Local Comic Shop (LCS) isn’t the same thing as scrolling through a busy Twitter feed when you’re following way too many people, but social media platforms are training people to scan choices very rapidly. Those 300 feet of posts, comments, and updates are not getting absorbed in equal amounts by the reader, so they only stop to pause when something catches their eye.

When a customer walks into an LCS with limited funds and even less time, those quick-scan scrolling habits kick in, and they stop to leaf through the issue that catches their eye first. That’s where Contrast comes in.

The best comic book covers must have at least one bold element that not only attracts a customer’s eye at a quick glance but makes it stand out from the other comics around it that are vying for attention. Let’s take a look at an old favorite, NEW MUTANTS #14 from Marvel Comics.

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We see in this issue all of the three key elements of a good cover, but Contrast stands out, front and center. Here the team of burgeoning mutants is barely holding their own against S’ym, a demon of Limbo. S’ym’s outline, muscular hatching lines, and sheer size make for a bold anatomical figure. His deep purplish skin makes him appear as solid and menacing as a wrecking ball.

The cover artist, Tom Mandrake, kicks the Contrast into high gear applying a gradient from dark to light on the background so that the background appears nearly all-white around S’ym’s frame. It’s a simple but effective technique of making the character stand out more against a white background without technically having a white background.

Contrast gives a cover pop. Contrast catches the eye when a cover has less than 5 seconds to grab a customer’s attention. Contrast is the first hook that gives the rest of the cover time to make its sales pitch. Contrast starts the open loop by causing the customer to say to themselves “Ooh, what’s that?”

Focus Tells the Story

Think about the three key elements subliminally instructing a customer how to read a comic book cover. Each key builds on the one before it, much like… fishing.

Contrast is the tasty worm on a hook. It wiggles and reflects the light to catch a fish’s eye. Next, you want that fish to bite down on the hook with Focus.

Focus is the most important visual element that gets to the heart of the story. If a cover lacks Focus, the customer’s eye wanders all over the cover randomly. Again, we want to open that loop in their customer’s minds wider with every step, and Focus adds the next question which is “What’s this comic about?”

Let’s take a look at another classic, SUPERMAN: FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND from DC Comics, drawn by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding.

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The first two elements (actually, all three) are clearly in place on this gorgeous cover. The long shadows of the crowd boldly stand out in Contrast against the light concrete, and the intentional muting of color for the following crowd makes the casket and pallbearers stand out in an even stronger Contrast.

The single line of reflected life on the Superman crest is the highest Contrast part of the entire cover and it naturally leads the eye to Focus squarely on the casket. The V-shape formation of the following crowd, the center-line symmetry of the shadows around the casket, and the bright, golden reflection off the casket tell the casual customer scanning the comic racks: “This is the most important thing about this cover. Superman is dead, and you DEFINITELY want to know how it happened and what happens next!”

The coloring work on this Cover creates a pop that catches the scanning eye.

*wiggle, worm. wiggle!*

The symmetry of the shadows and the V-formation of the crowd naturally lead the eye right to the Superman crest on the casket.

*bite, fish. bite!*

Now, it’s time to reel them in.

Every Purchase Is Based on Emotion

We’re talking about personal purchases where it’s your money. Every personal purchase is decided with emotion first and then justified with logic. According to a 2018 Harvard study reported by Inc.com :

Emotion is what really drives the purchasing behaviors, and also, decision making in general.

A cover catches a prospective customer’s eye with Contrast by making them ask “What is it?”

Next, the composition of the cover uses Focus to give the reader’s eye some hint about the story that makes them ask “What happened, and what’s going to happen next?”

Now, we want them to ask the most important question to open the loop as wide as possible and make it itch like crazy: “Will I like how this makes me feel?” This is the part where artistic skill closes the deal.

Let’s go back to the SUPERMAN: DEATH OF A FRIEND cover.

Focus brings you to the storytelling part of the cover, but the reader’s eye is not on a single dot. Their eyes are focused on a general area, encompassing a quarter to a third of the cover’s area. In this case, Jurgens and Breeding take the time to put overt expressions of grief on Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Ma & Pa Kent, and Blue Beetle in the areas surrounding the casket but not so far away that you have to look away from the casket to see it.

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The Emotions Jurgens and Breeding are projecting to the readers are grief, sadness, and pain. When a customer sees those Emotions on the cover, the natural thought is: “This is a sad comic. Will this make me feel sad? Do I want to grieve for Superman, even if it makes me sad?” If the answer is “yes,” the sale is a done deal.

*reel it in, fish. reel it in!*

Covers That Sell Using A Risky Exception

We’ve explained and used examples showing how Contrast, Focus, and Emotion are mandatory requirements for a comic book cover to do its job as a comics salesman. But it’s nearly mandatory because there is an alternative method that should only be used sparingly – using sex to sell a comic.

“Sex sells” is an axiom that’s old as time itself, and it works as well for a comic book cover as it does for selling a new car or the latest hair shampoo. A sexy cover can get a (*ahem*) reaction out of the buying audience, even when the cover composition has nothing to do with the contents. And here’s where the risk comes in.

If an artist uses sex in the cover to get attention and there’s no connection between the cover and the contents, eventually readers will pick up on the disconnect as a lie. And in the realm of sales, once you break trust with a customer, you have to move small mountains to win it back.

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Above are two examples going for the same effect for two different reasons.

In MARVILLE #1, a red-haired model wearing a very tiny bikini is used as the cover’s central focus, but readers have since learned the model and everything about the comic has nothing to do with the contents. In fact, the Marville series has been commercially and critically reviled for years. At best, the cover is the most memorable aspect of the series. This a perfect case of using sex to sell for all the wrong reasons.

In BETTIE PAGE: THE DYNAMITE COVERS, Bettie, her iconic outfits, and her iconic posing style are all central to the cover and the cover perfectly reflects the contents of the book. Here, sex sells for all the right reasons.

Use sex when it applies or, in very rare situations, as a promotional gimmick. But don’t make it a habit and don’t rely on it as a shortcut. The customer’s trust is more important than a short-term sales spike from a spicy cover.

Do the Keys to a Good Comic Book Cover Apply to Crowdfunding?

Yes. Crowdfunding relies on these key elements even more than a traditional print comic.

When an LCS owner puts out comics for display, a good comic book cover still has to work hard to get noticed in a shop with people milling around, cool statues, or any other distraction you can think of. On a crowdfunding platform like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, the probability that a casual site visitor will get distracted is significantly higher, and your campaign’s thumbnail only has a 96×96 pixel square to get noticed.

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Even if your campaign uses a promo video, the video’s thumbnail is no different than a comic cover and is beholden to all the same principles laid out in this article.

Final Thoughts

Comic book covers are just as important as the stories they introduce. But if they don’t do their job by enticing a customer to buy, the quality, skill, and talent of the artist are irrelevant. The greatest comic story ever told will go unnoticed if nobody bothers to pick it up.

Whether it’s a print comic in your LCS, a digital comic on Webtoon or Gumroad, or a crowdfunded campaign, make sure the comic book cover has the three key elements: Contrast, Focus, and Emotion.

We hope you found this article interesting. Come back for more reviews, previews, and opinions on comics, and don’t forget to follow us on social media:

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If you’re interested in any of the comics referenced in this article, remember to let your Local Comic Shop know to set it aside for you. They would appreciate the call, and so would we.

Click here to find your Local Comic Shop: www.ComicShopLocator.com

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