Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Separated at Birth - a comic covers interlude

SOMETHING THAT'S ALWAYS FASCINATED me is the way comic artists have re-used various conventions and imagery from what has gone before. I'm not judging. Having worked in the Business, I know that it's a hungry beast, gobbling up ideas faster than most can provide them. So now and again, it's entirely forgivable if an artist might have cause to "reference" earlier ideas - his own or those of others - when a dreaded deadline looms.

And sometimes, ideas can be thrust upon an unfortunate artist (or writer) by an over-enthusiastic editor. Goodness knows, I've found myself on both sides of that particular fence.

Sometimes an editor would recycle an idea over and over - for example, a hero behind bars, and sometimes an artist would re-use something that had been especially effective for them in the past, like a "camera" angle or a particular layout.

Here, then, is a quick dash through several examples of ideas that have cropped up on more than one comic cover over the last 40 or 50 years ...


COVER TROPES AND OTHER CLICHES

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, king-of-the-hill DC Comics used to use a system whereby their editors would dream up a cover idea and have their chosen artist render it. Then, they'd have a story conference with their writer and end up with a story based on the (hopefully) dynamic and intriguing idea depicted in the cover. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn't. And nowhere was this more evident than in the Superman line of titles edited by the infamous Mort Weisinger.


One of Weisinger's obsessions was with the idea of his characters evolving into "Future Men". When I
was a kid, I was convinced that this was the true future awaiting the human race - giant, bald domed heads. These three covers from 1957, 1959 and 1961, respectively.
Over the 20 or so years that Weisinger ruled over the empire of Superman, he would often commission covers then have a story written to fit. It's probably this process that contributed mightily to the recurring themes and ideas that cropped up time and again in the Superman family of titles. 


Another device that was used more than once was the giant insect motif - though to be fair
giant insects - while scientifically impossible - have long been a staple of science fiction. And sf was Weisinger's background, before he got into comics. Covers dated 1957, 1961 and 1965.
By today's standards and sensitivities, some of the ideas behind the covers and stories might  seem a tad ... inappropriate today.

In DC's world, it seemed perfectly acceptable to make obesity a laughing matter. The 1958 Lois Lane
was the earliest I could find,
The Flash cover is 1960 and the JLA one is 1961.
In a way that Stan Lee would never do with his Marvel characters, DC editors thought it was fine to turn their heroes into figures of fun on a regular basis. Or at least, what passed for fun in the late 1950s and early 1960s.


In fact the weight card must have been pretty successful for DC because they played it over and over 
again. Jimmy Olsen and Adventure Comics from 1962, and Superman from 1969 (yep, 1969). 
It seems to me that the creators were trying to play on the primal fears we all share. I think using the overweight motif was quite inconsiderate, even for the early 1960s, because there would have been kids who were overweight and probably already had to put up with teasing and worse from their immediate circle of acquaintances. The DC editors should have known that and been a bit more responsible. But there were other fears to play up in order to generate dramatic threats for the heroes. Premature ageing was a common one ...


Getting old is something we all worry about, but I wonder if it wasn't more of a concern to the DC editors than it was to their ten-year old readers. Action Comics from 1959 and Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane both from 1963.
And rejection and alienation is something we all understand ...


Heroes being rejected by the citizens they're trying to help was a common cover trope in 1960s DCs.
Pelting with rubbish seems to be a common way of expressing dissatisfaction back then.
These covers from 1964, 1969 and 1970.
But Superboy seemed to have to put up with rejection more than most. In fact, rejection was a prevalent theme in the Superman mythos, stemming, I assume, from his "rejection" by Jor-El and Lara when they shot him off into space in a small rocket.


There are numerous other examples of Superman/Superboy being rejected by those around him,
but these three are most in keeping with the other examples here. The cover layouts are all quite
similar, too. Cover dates 1967, 1969, and 1970.
Pointing out these recurring themes in DC comic covers is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. So let me leave further examples for another post and finish up with a look at a cover concept that has been used by almost every player in the comics business across several decades ...


IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS

There's no doubt that dinosaurs fire the imagination of every kid. So it's no surprise that comics editors have never been shy about putting dinosaurs on comic covers since the genre began. But putting the hero, literally, in the mouth of the dinosaur is a pretty common cover design. Here's a few I've come across on my travels ...


During the 1960s, DC Comics and Dell would return often to dinosaurs in the series and on their covers. 
But in the 1970s, it was Marvel who dominated the dinosaur stakes.
In the 1980s, the hero-in-the-dinosaur's-mouth situation could
happen in the distant past or in the far-flung future.
In the 1990s, there were Equal Opportunities for heroines and heroes to be devoured.
And by the time we reached the 21st Century, it was open season on comic characters.
There's probably other examples of cover cliches and tropes that you can think of. I have a couple more to share in some future post. But until then, I'll get back to the main theme of this series ... Marvel in the Silver Age. 

Next: The Mighty Marvel cover corner box


2 comments:

  1. I haven't got around to making that cup of tea yet - your posts are far too compelling.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The obvious one cited as actually selling covers (was is Julius Schwartz?) was apes and gorillas

    ReplyDelete