Sunday, 25 September 2016

I said, Don't Mess with the logo!

BACK IN THE LAST CENTURY I earned my living in the magazine business ... and the prevailing wisdom at the time was that you didn't ever - under any circumstances - mess with the magazine's logo. In fact, any kind of change to the magazine's masthead was frowned upon, and even re-branding exercises were viewed with much suspicion. In the last entry in this blog, I looked at the many times that Marvel Comics changed their magazine's logos during the 1960s ... it all seemed so much easier then.

But even less acceptable was the idea that you could transform the comic's logo for just one issue for, oh I don't know ... Dramatic Effect. From a marketing perspective, that's an even bigger risk than changing the logo as part of the natural evolution of a magazine's masthead

Strangely, though this blog focusses on Marvel Comics, and I've always maintained Stan Lee was far more willing to experiment with different approaches to comics and storytelling than his rivals, it was DC Comics that seemed more willing to confound the marketers' expectations. Yes, DC's logos had evolved over the decades (admittedly, not much) since their wartime inceptions in the late 1930s and 1940s, but the character logos seemed sacrosanct, not budging one jot during the intervening quarter century. The exception seemed to be Batman.

The Detective Comics logo remained essentially unchanged from its first 1938 appearance right through to the earlier 1960s, when editor Julius Schwatrz was drafted in to give the allegedly ailing title a facelift, beginning with issue 327 (May 1964). (Click on image to enlarge)


Legend has it that Batman was on the edge of cancellation back in 1964. Details are hazy and it does seem very unlikely that DC would have considered shelving their second biggest character. Perhaps they were thinking about shutting down the Batman title and carrying on with Detective Comics? Anyhow, it's easy to believe the legend when you think of all those dopy "Batman in an alien zoo" type stories that Jack Schiff was pushing out during the early 1960s. The facts, however, don't bear that out.

Like Detective, the Batman logo had also stayed the same since its 1940s beginnings. Not even Schwartz's revamp extended to the logo - at least, not at first. Batman 164 (Jun 1964) was the first of the New-Look, but the old-school Batman logo remained for the next five issues until 169 (Feb 1965). With Batman 170 (Mar 1965), the Bat emblem was altered to a more dynamic version, though the calligraphy remained unchanged.
It's certainly likely that the sales on both books were on a downward trend, as DC wouldn't have sidelined long-serving editor Schiff unless the situation was worrying the DC brass. Given that Julie Schwartz had done such a bang-up job with revamping the Golden Age characters Flash and Green Lantern for modern audiences, it seemed a no-brainer to see what Schwartz could do with one of DC's biggest stars. And given the numbers on both titles, there's little doubt that Schwartz achieved what was required of him. But cancellation? I don't see any evidence for that ...

What is known is that DC wasn't that happy with Bob Kane's stranglehold over the title. They were keen to renegotiate the deal Kane had with the company, where Kane did nothing and his team of "ghosts" - Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris - did all the work. Perhaps Schiff was having trouble getting Kane and Co away from the dreadfully old-fashioned and clumsy tales that were being spun in the main two Bat-titles. So perhaps the cancellation story was told to Kane to get him to release his grip and allow DC to move the character in a new direction. Certainly, Kane himself has repeated the cancellation story over the years, for example in Les Daniels' "Batman the Complete History". But if you look at the published sales figures for the two core Batman titles in the first half of the 1960s, the facts don't support Kane's tale.

Batman sales figures
Detective Batman
1962 265,000 410,000
1963/4 - -
1965 304,414 453,745
1966 404,339 898,470

Yes, in 1962, the sales, especially on Detective Comics, were sagging. But still, at over quarter of a million, the title is a long way from being cancelled. There are no figures for 1963/4, but 1965 shows the effect of Schwartz's revised Batman - Detective up by 15% with Batman showing an 11% increase.

Regardless of the background, Julius Schwartz, along with artist Carmine Infantino, managed to revive the fortunes of Batman and though he was permitted to change the style of the Detective Comics logo, the Batman logo - at least at first - remained as it was when the title was first launched in 1940. The thinking behind this is now lost in the mists of history, but looking at the timing of it, I'd speculate that once the DC leadership saw that the new-look Batman was enjoying improved sales, Schwartz was given the green light to give the old Batman logo the makeover it needed.

By the time the Batman tv show had arrived in 1966, it seemed that no one was standing in the way of Schwartz and Infantino and they committed the cardinal sin of messing with the logo. The cover of Batman 194 (Aug 1967) pretty much omitted the masthead altogether and incorporated the word "Batman" - hewn from stone - into the cover art.

A lot of stone would get hewn over the next few years ...

The cover of Batman 194 dropped the traditional bat-shaped logo altogether, so artists Infantino and Murphy Anderson could incorporate the word "Batman" into the artwork. The effect is attention-grabbing, but I doubt that DC Publisher Jack Liebowitz would have allowed this bold experiment without the Batman tv show.
When I saw it in the 1960s - even though I was by then a confirmed Marvelite - I thought it was a pretty cool and striking cover ... and it's pretty much the earliest example I can think of where a comic logo has been altered, or dropped entirely, for dramatic effect. Yet, right on the heels of that, Schwartz did it again with Flash 174 (Nov 1967).

The cover of Flash 174, also by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, did away with the traditional logo for a single issue to present cover art that incorporated the hero's name as part of the image.
Whether either change affected sales, it's now impossible to say. I wouldn't seriously suggest that Batman or Flash fans had any trouble finding these issues on the newsstands. Nevertheless, this wouldn't happen again at DC for quite a number of years. Marvel Comics, on the other hand, started messing with their logos on a more-or-less regular basis.


The earliest instance I can recall of a Marvel Comic that departed from the regular logo style would have been on the front cover for Hulk King-Size Special 1 (on sale Jul 1968). That one really messed with the logo in epic style.

This striking cover art was drawn by Jim Steranko. The logo, such as it is, is part of the artwork. But the Hulk's face is not Steranko's. "My Hulk head, they said, was too brutal for the cover," Steranko later reported, "so they had Marie Severin replace it with one of her cute, teddy-bear heads."
Tyro artist and designer Jim Steranko had burst through the "glass ceiling" at Marvel comics as essentially the first new new artist Stan Lee hired during the 1960s. All his previous recruits had been either alumni of the old Atlas Comics or creators from other companies he thought might fit in at Marvel. Steranko was neither. Yes, he'd had a little experience at Harvey, working under veteran editor Joe Simon on Spyman 1 (Sep 1966), though it only lasted three issues before Steranko was out of work again. But not for long.

Steranko's next professional work saw publication in Strange Tales 151 (Dec 1966), just three months later. Working over a Lee/Kirby plot and Jack Kirby layouts, Steranko provided finished pencils and inks for his first episode of Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD. Three issues later, Steranko was doing all the art himself and plotting, with Roy Thomas adding the dialogue. With Strange Tales 155 (Apr 1967), SHIELD had become the Jim Steranko show, with only the lettering being provided by other hands.

JIm Steranko's run on SHIELD - 18 episodes of 12 pages each and four issues of 20 page stories when Nick Fury was spun off into his own comic in May 1968 - was a genuine game-changer. Suddenly, every aspiring artist wanted to draw like Steranko - Barry Smith, Jim Starlin, Paul Gulacy - all owe a larger or smaller debt to him. Neal Adams even included a Steranko tribute in his Deadman strip for Strange Adventures 216 (Jan 1969), where if you squint at the art from the bottom of the page, some pink flames coalesce into the message, "Hey! A Jim Steranko effect!"

It doesn't really work on a computer screen - but if this were a comic book (or you're reading this on a tablet), hold the book out in front of you and squint up the page to fore-shorten the image drastically and you'll be able to read the subliminal message.
Fearing he might miss his monthly deadline on the full-length SHIELD book, Stan Lee had Frank Springer produce a fill-in issue of SHIELD, issue 4 (Sep 1968). Steranko abandoned the strip that had made him famous and cast around for something else to do. He did the cover art for The Hulk King-Size Special 1 overnight when scheduled artist Dan Adkins was unable to take on the assignment. Then he jumped ship to X-Men, pencilling, inking and colouring the cover of issue 49 (Oct 1968), before pencilling the interior art for issues 50 and 51, both inked by John Tartaglione, and redesigning the cover logo. The Steranko X-Men logo would become the standard for the next 30 years.

By 1968, the X-Men logo was looking a little tired. Steranko's revised version is simple, clean and elegant. It was such a strong design that it continued to graced the masthead of the title until March 1998.
After X-Men, Steranko took over Captain America from the departing Jack Kirby, again redesigning the cover logo (covered in the previous entry in this blog), and providing some of the most iconic art of his career.

Right after Steranko's striking and iconic Hulk Annual cover, the regular Hulk comic also broke with tradition to change the logo for a single issue. As noted last time, the Hulk cover masthead was a little uninspired for the first few issues of the run. It took incoming artist Herb Trimpe, possibly taking inspiration from Steranko's Hulk cover which had gone on sale just a month earlier, to incorporate the logo into the artwork for the cover of Hulk 109 (Nov 1968).

The logo used on the first seven issues of The Hulk's own title in 1968 was a rather dull re-working of the one used on the Tales to Astonish masthead. Herb Trimpe's rock-hewn version was a good deal more eye-catching, but was toned down a bit on the logo of the following issue.
The final result was a weird hybrid of the logo that appeared on the very next issue, Hulk 110 (Dec 1968) and the later - and in my opinion less interesting - version that would grace the cover of Hulk 129 (Jul 1970).

There would be other instances of messing with the logo on Hulk down the decades. The rock-hewn masthead would return a few years later with Hulk 340 (Feb 1988), which allowed scope for the artists to once more make the logo part of the cover scene.

As with many new artists, Todd McFarlane evidently wanted to make his mark, as other star-in-waiting artists had, by messing with the logo. This one's okay, but nothing special. I never much cared for McFarlane's monstrous hulk, very much a product of its time. The same idea is explored to even lesser effect in Bill Jaaska's cover art for Hulk 378 (Feb 1991). And as for the cover for Hulk 400 ...
I don't think the cover for Hulk 400 (Dec 1992) really works, as it actually is quite hard to see what the cover logo says. Perhaps if the figure of The Hulk had been stronger they might have gotten away with it. What do you think?

The year following Steranko's ground-breaking Hulk Special 1 cover, DC Comics superstar artist Neal Adams was invited to draw for Marvel. When asked by Stan what title he'd like to work on, Adams recounted, "I asked, 'What‘s your worst selling title?' Stan said, 'The worst selling title is X-Men. We‘re going to cancel it in two issues. So I said, 'I tell you what. I‘d like to do X-Men.' He said, 'But I told you we‘re going to cancel it in two issues. Why do you want to do X-Men?' I said, 'Well, if I do X-Men and I work in the Marvel style, you‘re pretty much not going to pay too much attention to what I do, right?' He said, 'That‘s true.' I said, 'Well, then, I‘d like to do that.'"

It reality, it didn't really turn out that way. Adams completed the interior pencils without incident, then turned his attention to the cover. His first attempt was rejected out of hand by publisher Martin Goodman. Any idea why?

Neal Adams' first version of his cover for X-Men 56 had the main characters lashed to the cover's logo. Martin Goodman felt that this obscured the logo too much and rejected the art. Adams then had to redraw it. Though the logo is still rendered as an object in the final art, no one had a problem with this and the cover made it into print.
Despite the early wobble, as it turned out the X-Men book wasn't cancelled a couple of issues later. Adam's art re-invigorated the title and it trundled on for another year, faltering only after Adams left the title.

Later artists who tried to mess with the X-Men logo had more success, though not always from an artistic standpoint, especially once we got past the 1980s and into the 1990s. Perhaps the Marvel editorial staff felt that the X-Men title was big enough to take the hit, but whatever the reason, the X-Men masthead went on to be come one of the most messed-with in the company's stable.

There was messing with the Uncanny X-Men logo during the 1980s, but it all seemed a bit half-hearted, like someone was waiting to get told off for committing the cardinal marketing sin.
There's three good examples in the 1980s of the artist messing with the logo. Uncanny X-Men 176 (Dec 1983), by John Romita Jr, is a little timid. The logo is rendered as an object being shattered by Cyclops' eye-beam, but it's not especially striking. It probably sounded a lot better on the phone to editor Louise Simonson, but I wonder if the result lived up to the description. JRJR's cover for Uncanny X-Men 181 (May 1984) does exactly what Adams did back on X-Men 56, to less effect and Uncanny X-Men 184 (Aug 1984), doesn't exactly set the logo on fire ... well, it does, but only in the literal sense.

Shattering the logo seemed to be a trend in Uncanny X-Men logo fiddling between 1990 and 2006. Marvel should have been able to come up with more than a single idea in sixteen years, shouldn't they?
The next tranche of logo fiddling came in 1990 and in 2000, where we were treated to some simple logo breaking. Jim Lee did the same trick two issues running as part of the "Extinction Agenda" storyline. Then, on Uncanny X-Men 377 (Feb 2000), Adam Kubert also pulled that stunt as part of the Apocalypse saga. Six years later, Roger Cruz trotted out the same - by now, tired - gag with Uncanny X-Men 474 (Aug 2006).

A bit more rooting around in my back issue box turned up further examples of shattered Marvel logos. Thor offered a couple of examples for your consideration. When Walt Simonson took over the scripting and drawing of Marvel's Mighty Asgardian, on Thor 337 (Nov 1983), the title was in dire need of a shot in the arm. Walt delivered just that and had the new "Thor" shatter the logo on the magazine's masthead. But unlike other applications of this corny old idea, there actually was a reason for it this time. Simonson was signalling his intent to completely re-write the storybook on Thor. Few will argue that he didn't do that. So in this instance, using the image of the logo being shattered actually does work.

Walt Simonson's run on Thor was heralded by this - literally - striking cover. The three year run is considered one of the best in the character's history. The idea was cribbed later on Thor 451 and yet again on Thor 459.
What's especially clever about Simonson's cover is that he doesn't just depict the logo being shattered, but all the "furniture" of the cover. And on the issue immediately after, the old-style Artie Simek designed Thor logo was replaced by a sleek, contemporary design that still managed to evoke the ancient, epic style of Asgard, the calligraphy credited to Alex Jay.

A later issue of Thor, 451 (Sep 1992), repeats the layout of Thor 337, though I haven't read the issue, so I'm not able to say whether there was a reason for this. Then, just a few months later, also for no reason that I'm aware of, the Marvel editorial trotted out the same idea again on Thor 459 (Feb 1993).

The Amazing Spider-Man also had its share of shattered logos. On Amazing Spider-Man 237 (Feb 1983), it works especially well, as cover artist Ed Hannigan has the blast from Stilt-Man's gun shattering not just the logo, but all the other "dressing" on the page, pre-dating the Thor 337 cover by almost a year. Todd McFarlane's cover art for Amazing Spider-Man 328 (Jan 1990) actually pre-figures the same idea he used on Hulk 378 (Feb 1991). It's okay, but as I said, I never cared much for Todd's version of The Hulk. And the idea was used once more on the cover of ASM 382 (Oct 1993), though this is probably the lest effective of the three.

How many ways can you shatter a Spider-Man logo? Not many it would seem. This trope turned up three times during the original run of Amazing Spider-Man, each time slightly less effective than the time before.
And finally, Captain America also got in on the act, using the cliche twice in less than a year. Curiously, the shattered logos on Captain America 354 (Jun 1989) and Captain America 379 (Nov 1990) are identical, barring the colour design. Was there a reason for that? Or was it just the production department taking a short-cut? I wouldn't know as I didn't collect Cap this far into its run.

The only connection I can see between Kieron Dwyer's design of Captain America 354 and Ron Lim's for Cap 379 is the identical logos. Maybe I'm missing something.


I think if you're going to do something smart and bold with a magazine's cover logo, then the surprise effect will work well. The Batman and Flash covers I talked about at the start of this blog entry are exactly that. But Carmine Infantino was a talented designer as well as artist, so he knew how to break the rules effectively. Likewise with Jim Steranko, whose graphic design skills were a big part of his success, both in his comics of the 1960s and his later publishing efforts in the 1970s. But after a while the messing just falls under the law of diminishing returns.

The list here of messed-with covers not exhaustive, but it is a little exhausting. In many ways, the Marvel editorial made the marketers' case for them. There's probably fewer benefits to be had from messing with the logo than there is from consistency. Evolve the logo, by all means, if it's looking old-fashioned or has just become too familiar. But messing with the logo for dramatic effect - especially when the drama is a bit lame - can only be counter-productive when the same idea is trotted out time after time.

Next: A "mess with the logo" interlude - 2000AD


  1. Talking of logos, Al, I see The Beano has a new (sort of) logo. I saw it on the cover of the 2017 Annual in Glasgow today. Thing is, it's not too different from the previous one, and isn't really an improvement on it. I remember when Tom Paterson took over drawing the Buster strip in the mid-'80s and Buster comic was given a new logo, but it didn't have the same impact as the previous one. Can you imagine Coca Cola changing their logo? It would be sacrilege. There should always be a compelling reason for changing a logo, and I'm not convinced that it's always been the case. Interesting post as always.

    1. Yes ... there should always be a compelling reason for changing a logo, if we're talking about evolution. But I still think it's okay to change the logo as a one-off for dramatic or comedy effect. I wouldn't compare the Coca-Cola brand logo to a magazine masthead, as they're two different things. Magazine logos regularly evolve as fashions and tastes evolve. The key consideration should always be whether the new version is an improvement. As you observe, Mr R ... not always.

    2. I agree about changing the logo for a one-off dramatic effect, Al, no problems there. However, I'd say there's not as much difference between the Coca Cola logo and a comic's logo as you suggest, as, in either case, it's all to do with establishing the brand. The only difference is that the Coca Cola logo eventually became iconic through long-term use and most comic logos aren't around long enough to become so. The exception would be Superman, although even that's had a few subtle tweaks down through the years. That small observation aside 'though, I agree with pretty much everything else you say on the subject.