Saturday, December 6, 2008

Coventry Covers # 1

For the very first Coventry cover I wanted something that would stand out starkly on the comics racks, compared to every other comics cover out there. So I went with lots of negative space -- the white part of the cover. That way the logo and small frog painting would simply pop out at the casual viewer.
        Coventry had just about everything going against it. It was going to be a black and white comic book at a time when black and white books were retailer poison. This was well after the big black and white comic boom (started, for the most part, by the surprising success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), when any piece of crap in vaguely comic book form was ordered heavily and sold well -- not because of any value in the story, but because of the frenzy surrounding the latest funnybook trend. Black and white comics were hot, HOT, HOT. Anything in that format was selling big time! When the bubble inevitably burst many retailers, caught with thousands of unsalable crap-books, rather than blame their own excess, blamed any publisher who ever did, ever will, or ever thought of publishing a black and white comic book. Many retailers flat out refused to carry any black and white comic, period. So Coventry had that going against it.
        It was also coming out from a small and not too popular publisher -- Fantagraphics -- and from a cartoonist (moi) who, though he might have had some limited success in the past with Elementals, wasn't exactly a household name, even in a comics reading household.
        And it wasn't going to be a superhero book.
        With all of those strikes against the book, even before issue one was published, I thought I'd better come up with something truly dynamic for the first issue's cover. Since I couldn't hope to compete with the great comic cover artists working at the time, and since a real "action" cover would get lost in the sea of all-out-action covers every week, I decided to go a different way, creating a very static and unusual image.
        Mostly it worked. Judging strictly from anecdotal evidence -- there's no money at any level of the funnybook publishing field for detailed readership research -- it did exactly what it was intended to do, looking nothing like any other comic on the stands that week. Many claimed to pick it up strictly because the cover caught their eye.
        Oddly enough, in order to do the cover my way, I had to work out a deal with Fantagraphics where I wasn't paid for the covers. Well, of course I was paid for the covers, but not separate from the pay for providing the full issue of the book. With Ironwood, I got paid a separate (small, tiny, wee) fee for the cover of each issue. As a result, whichever underpaid brand new "this is my first job out of school" editor they had running the Eros comics imprint that week would try to "art direct" the covers as they came in. They would look at any given cover as a separate artifact from the book it was intended to accompany.
        Since I wasn't about to take any art directing from anyone where Coventry was concerned -- especially not from the "all book learning, but not an iota of experience" Eros editor idiot du jour, it was necessary to work out a pay structure where the cover had no particular status apart from the entire issue -- all of which was "hands off -- if you want to fiddle with this story in any way, then you better be prepared to pay a ton extra for that privilege." Fantagraphics couldn't afford to pay well, so they had to agree to let me to do what I wanted, which included a cover that was almost entirely composed of negative space (though they did squawk about it at the time, until they started getting in the initial retailer and reader reaction, at which time everything was fine).
        Someone once said -- and I apologize for not recalling who, since he deserves the credit -- that "a magazine can't survive the mistakes of more than one person." He (whoever he was) was talking about a slick monthly magazine -- like a fashion mag or something in that species -- but I think it equally applies here. I believe that is true in comic books and it's a lesson the publishers will never learn. One person has to be in charge, and though he will certainly make mistakes, they will be his mistakes and a story can survive those. What a story can't survive is a dozen or more people all second-guessing each other, until what finally comes out is a bunch of bland, unreadable pablum.
        I think that's at the heart of many of the terrible comics today -- including many of those I've produced recently for (and from) the DCU. Everything is second guessed from dozens of sources, and ultimately, though my name was in the credits, those were committee comics, and it showed -- especially since the committee handing down changes couldn't (or wouldn't) keep track of its own decisions, handing down contradictory instructions day by day.
Here's a slightly expurgated version of an actual conversation:

Editor: Bill, why did you put those members of the Suicide Squad through the Boom Tube and on the prison planet?

Bill: Because that's what I was told had to happen. That was one of the essential details that was handed down to me.

Editor: Who said that?

Bill: Everyone did, at that big meeting in New York, when we all had lunch while going over the things that had to occur in the first or second issue. You were there.

Editor: Yeah, maybe, but it interferes with something that's going on in another book.

Bill: Not my problem. This is one of the many last-minute changes that were handed to me, mere days after everyone up there swore this would be a series without any last-minute changes.

Editor: Well, what were you planning on doing with those characters there?

Bill: I have no idea. As I said, this came from you guys in New York. I assumed, since they had to be sent there, that you guys had some idea of why and what they would be doing.

And so on. I could relate dozens of similar conversations with many different editors. I trust I've made my point. Comics that are the result of a single guiding vision -- preferably of the poor sucker actually tasked with telling the story -- aren't guaranteed to be good. They just have a fighting chance of it. Committee Comics are broken from conception.
        Back to the first Coventry cover: This is one of the few pieces that I can still look at today and be fully satisfied. It came out exactly as I imagined it. I like the small painted frog enough that I keep using it -- here for example, as the art bullet for any blog item that wouldn't otherwise have anything visual to go with it. I do like that frog.


Eric Reynolds said...

It's a great cover, Bill. I still wish ya could have continued the book!

Ian Westhoff said...

This cover is what made my one friend buy the book. I wasn't into indy books yet, and this was one of the very first ones I ever read. I really enjoyed this comic.

odessasteps said...

I loved the book. The comics store I worked at really pushed the book hard because we loved it so much.

I am fairly certain I have told you this the four or five times I have seen you in person over the years either at SD or SPX or Baltimore.

And now I'm saying it again. Anything to hope it maybe will come back someday.

Anonymous said...

Ouch! It hurts to even read a conversation like that. I'm so sorry you have to go through that in the simple endeavor of telling funnybook stories. And, I wish I couldn't relate as well as I can.

You are right--that is a great frog. :)