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You’ve seen his covers, now hear how he did them. In a rare web interview, X-Men Phoenix Endsong’s Greg Land tells Comic Foundry the secret to how he makes a successful cover, and more important — how you can too.
Can you briefly take us through a history of recent trends in comic covers?
Comic in the ’60s, a lot of times, they show you a scene from inside the book, actually depict something you can expect to see. I know Marvel seemed to do that a lot, like in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I know DC seemed to do a lot of stuff with a fantasy cover that never really actually happens on the inside. I remember thinking you’d be able to see a lot of crazy stuff with Batman and Superman. Nowadays, as opposed to actually capturing something that actually goes on in the story – you used to see word balloons and splash-type lettering to announce what’s going to happen inside the issue. Current graphics tend not to do that so much, if at all. You usually get a dynamic image that’s in a lot of cases an iconic shot of the main character in the book – something that can actually go on any number of titles. They just like to depict the hero in all his glory.
What caused the change?
It’s just how times changed and how people expect to see something different. If you still tried to do the covers with a lot of word balloons, I don’t think people would be quite as interested in it. Right now it’s neat to see the big, cool, splashy type of image of your favorite character on the cover.
What is your definition of a successful cover?
The first thing I’ll try to do is go over it with the editor. What are they looking for? Sometimes they want more of a theme cover that matches the storyline, and sometimes they just want the iconic cover. So the first thing I do is discuss it with the editor to see what direction that want to go.
What should a cover do on the newsstand?
The one thing that you really want to try and do is try and catch somebody’s eye, whether that ends up being the simple iconic image or a montage that throws several images that may be in the story together. Maybe you do a more design-oriented type of cover, and by that I mean you’d use graphics to go along with the figures that are there. For example, like cropping a center band of skulls behind Red Sonja, which is something I did for a recent cover for Dynamic Forces. For that, I wanted the iconic shot of Sonja but then behind her, as a graphic, that doesn’t go the full page so we could have some stark white on the cover, there’s this band that runs behind her in the middle of all these different skulls, of these humans and animal – some have helmets on – just as another point of interest to go along with her.
Do you think the iconic route has been more successful for you?
I know that I’ve done quite a few of those in the past year or so, and they seem to be pretty well received.
Do you get sales back at all?
Actually, no, I haven’t. I think you can get some of that off Web sites, but I haven’t asked any of the editors for any hard numbers.
What dictates how you tend to go with different styles for different stories?
Usually, it boils down to the conversation with the editor to see what direction they’re looking for. Obviously if you’re doing six covers in a row, they can’t all be the same type of iconic shot.
I try and change it up – we’ll do one featuring the main character on one, then I’d like to do something character and the whoever the villain may be in the story, then I like to do a montage/movie poster type of a cover that features the main character, possibly in a few different settings and locations or actions that may be going on in the story. So, when you’re doing a series you try and bounce it around so you don’t create something that is too similar to what you’ve done before. Each month when the reader picks it up they’ll see something totally different.
How does the proofing process work?
If they’re pretty clear on what they want, it’ll just be a couple of sketches. If they’re more up in the air and looking for an iconic shot, or possibly if I’m doing a series of covers, I’ll give them as many ideas from my roughs that I come up with. It could be anywhere from two to half a dozen.
You do a lot of inside panels as well, especially for the Phoenix Endsong series you’re doing. How is working on the cover different from inside pages?
With the cover, you’re not concerned with storytelling. You don’t have to set something up on the previous page or the previous panel. You’re not having to worry about how you’re going to deal with that on another page or panel. With the cover, you can just deal with that one specific image. Say in the Phoenix story, Wolverine is in his street clothes at the beginning in it, and then through the fights with the Phoenix he’s had his clothes burned and torn up, so basically through this whole series in street clothes and then half-naked. Whereas on the covers, we wanted to depict him in his costume – and that’s something you can do on a cover that doesn’t have to exactly follow what’s going on in the story. And by having the traditional costume on the cover, it creates a point of interest for the reader and try and hook them into picking up the book and flipping through it to see if they like what’s on the inside.
How does the genre of the comic play into it? If you were going to draw a cover for Strangers in Paradise and one for X-Men, what would the difference be?
Well, I’d feel out the editor to see what direction they want to go in. Sometimes they’re specific, and sometimes they’ll say, “Let’s see what you come up with.” So in that case, I’d try and get an understanding of who the characters are, who the heroes are, who the villains might be and who the visually interesting ones are.
For me, I enjoy featuring the females on the covers whenever I can, so if it’s an X-Men story, I’m likely to try and feature Storm or Emma Frost as the main character on the page, if it works out that page. I’d probably have a similar approach to that for another title. Like for some Cross Gen stuff I did I tried to make sure the female character was on the cover as much as I could.
Would you say featuring females on the cover is a dependable device?
It’s something that people seem to like – the way I draw females, and it’s something I like to draw anyways. I like the female form, so I try and incorporate that any time I can.
Are there any other devices or hooks that you know of that work as well?
The main thing is to try and make it an interesting composition. And that’s whether you go in close on the character or you pull away, whether it’s an action scene – the positioning of the characters on the page is really important. I guess to me that’s not really a hook, it’s design.
How long does it usually take you, start to finish, for a cover?
By the time you add up time spent on the thumbnails and the cover is finished, it can go anywhere from eight to 16 hours. It all depends on how many figures are involved on the cover and how detailed the background may be.
What kind of relationship do you have to maintain with the inkers and colorists on covers?
The guys that I’m currently worked with, I’ve worked with for a while. I like to develop a working relationship with these guys because if they know what I’m looking for or get what I’m after – like if I want dramatic lighting I can jot a note down to Justin or give him a call. I’ve worked with him for a while so I’m sure he’s going to know what I’m talking about. It’s nice to develop that relationship and have people I’ve been working with for a while. My inker, Matt Ryan, actually comes in and fixes the pages at my house or I take them down to him. And then we can over things, which is nice to actually sit down with someone in person and show them on the page. On the phone it’s like, “Well, do you see what’s going on in this panel here?” So it’s nice to have it right in front of you.
You mentioned this earlier, talking about design, do you see that as being popular for a cover? Why do you think that’s not as prevalent as covers like the iconic shots?
It all depends on the artist himself, what he’s comfortable with. Some guys are more comfortable showing the iconic figure with a cool background – like Spider-Man swinging across the cityscape. Some guys are come more from an advertising perspective where they have studied design and know how to use simple shapes and coloring for emphasis. It all comes down to the actual artist’s influences.
What would you say your influences are?
They’re pretty varied. Straight (out) of college I worked in the screen-printing industry for 13 years. We would do all types of sportswear. One day I’d be doing art designs and lettering to go along with it, and the next day I might be doing a cutesy teddy bear type of design with a heart and that type of thing. We’d do sportswear for licensed college T-shirts and sweatshirts, so not only did I get an education in school I also got an education in the screen printing because I was constantly trying to learn different ways to create these designs that would sell for the owner of the company, so we’d constantly be doing new stuff.
As far as influences comic book-wise, I was always a big fan of Gil Kane and John Buscema, John Romita and Jack Kirby. Those are four of the main guys that I always remember picking their stuff up.
But I also like to look at illustrators like this guy named Amsel that used to do a lot of TV Guide covers, and I remember he did Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare” album cover. He’s a guy that would always do these realistic figures, but he’d always incorporate graphics. If I remember right on the album cover, Alice Cooper is coming out of this triangular shape against this stark white background. So, things like that have always stuck in the back of my head because I’ve always thought they were pretty strong images.
When you work on a cover, is there anything technically that you do that’s different from an inside page?
Since you’re not having to deal with multiple panels and just one strong image, you’re probably able to put a little more emphasis on the faces and the overall composition, as opposed to when you have to break everything down into seven panels. You’re just able to focus on this one image and spend more time on it in terms of your design, so it’s something that will pop off the page more.
Do you have a say as to how much text will run on a cover, or at least where it goes?
No, generally that’s up to the graphic design part of the studio.
So it truly is a very collaborative effort.
Oh yeah, they design the logos, everything. Basically you know where the placements are going to go as far as the logo and the UPC code box, so you try and allot for that. But they put everything together in final production.
Is there any advice you’d give to amateur artists who are drawing covers to their own books?
Think about what they’re trying to show with this. What is the impact that they’re wanting to make? Is it a cool image? Is it a shocking image? What’s the purpose, what’s the effect they’re going for?
If they just sit down and figure out what they want to do with it, do several thumbnails, even though you’re not going to end up using a lot of them. But through the thought process in figuring out what you want to do with it, that’s when you’re going to come up with that one really nice looking image that you’re going to want to go with.
What types of backgrounds do you try for?
It really all depends on what we’re looking at. If it’s a superhero swinging across the city, I’ll try and detail out the cityscape as much as possible and show a lot of detail. If they’re in an alleyway, I’ll have maybe a fire escape or a gritty brick wall, maybe windows with chipped paint. I just try and get as much detail on that as I can.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the business?
Well, it is a business. You have to be diligent and get the work done because the editors are relying on you to have these pages done by a certain time because they’ve already set up a certain printing schedule and everything else, so you have to make sure you hit those marks. And that makes it a double-edged sword because the artistic side of you wants to keep working on it until you get it just the way you want it, but then there’s the business part of it that says, “OK, you no longer have time to work on this; you have to have it done.” So you have to figure out that nice combination of the two so you can meet those deadlines.
HOW HE DID THEM: Greg Land was also kind enough to give Comic Foundry a behind-the-scenes look at some of his recent covers. Click on a cover to see how he did them;
—Interview by Tim Leong