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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cover Matters

Before I start, here's something you can do. When you've pinpointed that special something your graphic novel has to offer, as well as a possible potential audience, head for the bookstore and dive into the fiction books section.

Find books that more or less match your graphic novel, and pick out the covers you like, but ignoring those books that have big-name authors. Relative unknowns or debuting novelists are your targets. Read the description on the back cover, then return those books that don't appeal to you that much.

The remaining books you have can serve as your template for the kind of cover your graphic novel will have.

For the aspiring graphic novelist who's contemplating on a cover design, there's one overall principle to designing an effective cover:

A book cover is a promise.

And that's the most fundamental idea to keep in mind when you design your graphic novel cover. This is why we pick up books. We see the cover and the images, or colors, or titles appeal to us in ways more than other covers. These appealing covers make us curious, giving us enough reason to pick them off the shelf. Saying, "It spoke to me," applies strongly here.

We look at the back cover, and read what the book is about. The description offers a premise, more often with a simple description of the lead character. These descriptions contain a form of magic--the words tickle and entice, intrigue and mystify. They're telling you subliminally, "Have we got the story you want to read! Buy me! Buy me!"

Front cover and back cover work together to form the book's promise.

Book designers go over the book contents and talk to editors, searching for that one aspect of the story that will appeal to an intended audience. Romance novels succeed by displaying images fulfilling a women's deep fantasies, while horror novels love to use dark colors with generous servings of red or silver. Sometimes a cover will feature a mysterious object, or the facade of an ancient structure, or a landscape, all suggesting certain moods. Other covers make heavy use of a special typeface, the titles covering up most of the front cover, meant to stand out from a bookstore shelf.

Of course, the results of the above exercise shouldn't constrain you in exercising creative freedom. But do note that your cover is like the face of a person, and the expression of on that face tells the world what lies in the heart and soul.

Going to superheroes as an example. There was a time when comics readers complained about that trend of painted covers, featuring a character (more often female) in some superheroic or pseudo-erotic pose. While these images looked good they defeat the purpose of the cover. While the character is indeed in the book, the book itself is not painted. And a simple pose gives little hint to what's going to happen in the story. This strategy may have worked for fans, since they'd pick up a book no matter how the cover is rendered, but in principle it fails to attract newer readers who only have so much money to spend.

Some of the better graphic novel covers I've seen are Blankets, Maus, and 30 Days of Night. Each have their way of presenting their contents, and they make a promise that the stories keep. So when you're contemplating a cover, make several options. Because the so-called cool covers are pointless if they don't serve their purpose.

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