May 5, 2016

Gimmick Cover or More Awesome Cover?

Gimmick Cover or More Awesome Cover?
Travis Hedge Coke

We call them gimmick covers, because they each have a gimmick to make them stand out, but we also call them gimmick covers, to dismiss them. The word carries a sense of cheapness, of cheese, of kitsch.I love good gimmick covers. The ones that are fun, the ones that stand out are worth praising. And, even the ones that aren’t that interesting or don’t function as well as they should, there’s nothing inherent to the gimmick or novel nature that makes it worse than any other cover that doesn’t come together and do its job.

The nail that stands tallest gets hammered down first. The tree that breaks the rhythm or an orchard gets pruned back.

Another reason I love gimmick covers is that comics are becoming the last place you can find them. They’re a dying breed. The end of rental shops means that movies are now packaged much more uniformly. A cover doesn’t have to grab attention or promise at least one fun night, outside of a flat visual, because a flat visual is all you’ll see on a Redbox screen or a Netflix catalogue, an Amazon listing. Inside a theater, the big advertisements can still involve novelty and eye pulls, because there, you are looking at a physical object. We forget, because these are primarily a visual representation of other things, that they are objects, but they are. A gimmick cover cannot, generally, be reproduced on a computer screen, the same way the pop-out standees or life-size x-wings can’t functionally be simulated in an advertising banner running across an unrelated website.

That extra oomph that a sparkling cover can give you, or the curiosity that a diecut cover invokes, that hunger to know what is underneath, only partially revealed by the holes in the shape of a familiar emblem or claw marks, these are more than enough to make some of us buy a comic. A textured cover stands out because it pops. This is as true of a comic as it is a novel or the packaging of a toolkit. Why do you think those mass market Michael Crichton, Scott Turow, Anne Rice paperbacks have raised logos and physically textured covers? They catch light different than a flat image, they encourage us to touch them.

But, gimmick covers have a secondary beauty, too. Catching your eye in the store is good. Impulse buy! That’s the solid commercial argument right there.

Not all gimmicks can shout that way, though, and some just aren’t meant to. If you want a glow in the dark cover to be a selling point, you have to say somewhere on it, “glow in the dark” or how can we tell in a shop, under normal shopping light?

A glow in the dark cover you did not know about, though, a soft, vaguely greenish illumination on the floor in the middle of the night, waking gently and seeing it slowly focus, realizing it’s not a reflection of light from the window or the alarm clock but something self-illuminating and wondering, still lying in bed, what is it? That moment is a gift.

When your nephew takes the punch-out cardstock mask out of a cover, that you never did because it would not fit you, anyway, is a gift of a moment.

I fought off getting the Invisibles omnibus. I already had a big chunk of the single issues, all the trade paperback collections, a couple critical texts on the series. And, it cost a hundred and fifty dollars. Less, via Amazon, sure, but still. Money. I am cheap. And, it’s a big book, heavy, destined to be awkward in my hands.

I bought it as a gift to myself, had it shipped over. By the time it arrived, I was feeling guilty for wasting the money. Would I be able to hold it comfortably and read enjoyably from it? But, I unpacked it, took it out of the box, peeled the transparent plastic away, and set it down on the table to get it away from the dog, who was sure it was his.

On the tabletop, standing with the dog in my arms, the overhead light shone across the cover, revealing a familiar silhouette, not in shadow, but in reflection. It was pretty. It surprised me. Hidden atop the the easily scannable, flat image of a colorful hand grenade and the logo, was an outline of the main characters, simulating the cover of the first paperback collection years before.

Surprising me, giving me something fun will always have value with me. I have never felt tricked into a purchase because of a novelty cover. Even if I bought it for that cover, well, I bought it for that cover. What we should be more critical of is not covers that are trying new or interesting techniques to get your attention, but the generic, lazy, poorly laid out cookie cutter covers. The situation where you can’t tell the difference between any of the covers in a line or imprint, and none of them jump out at you. A month of seven to twelve covers where Spider-Man is swinging across the city in nearly the same position at generally the same distance, probably with the same cityscape behind him, and at best the presence of a particular villain, though probably in the same place as every other villain on each of the other covers. The same standing heroically or standing haunting shot, month after month. Identical naturalist Punisher covers where he stands, maybe with a coat, maybe without, in front of a bullet-ridden wall, over and over and over again.

I don’t care how good some of those are, after awhile, they’re proof that nobody is trying. They ought to make you wonder if anyone really cares.

Taking every single copy of your comic out to a shooting range and putting a thematically-relevant bullet through one stack after the next, so they no two are exactly alike, but all share that cover to cover penetration? Adding peel-off stickers or gatefolds, embedded holograms, those are, at the very least, work to an end.

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