Judging Comics by Their Covers: Comic Books, Text, Paratext and Context

Anyone who reads monthly comics from American publishers on even a casual basis is likely familiar with the various adornments that come with a typical issue in a popular series: reader letters, columns from writers, artists, and editors, publisher and third party advertisements and, of course, the covers. In literary theory, these kinds of materials, which are arrayed around or attached to what would be considered “the text”, are often referred to as “paratexts”.

The term “paratext” is credited to Gérard Genette who, in “Introduction to the Paratext”, translated from French by Marie Maclean for New Literary History , vol. 22, no. 2 (1991), argues that “the paratext is for us the means by which a text makes a book of itself and proposes itself as such to its readers, and more generally to the public” (261). In other words, there’s a distinction to be made between a primary creative work (the text) and its packaging (constituted by the paratext).

What’s important to note here is that the materials that constitute the packaging are often made by someone other than the author of the text. So, while one can distinguish between text and paratext, the relationship between the two forms is complicated. How a text is made into a book can affect how a reader, or potential reader, approaches the work. In some cases, how a text is packaged may result in attracting certain readers and repelling others (as Genette puts it, the line between text and paratext is a “threshold” that “offers to anyone and everyone the possibility either of entering or of turning back”).

In comics, covers are a vital part of the paratext and, arguably, can be treated as their own form of text, as well as being an adjunct to the “issue”. With works of prose, it seems obvious that cover art would be produced by someone other than the primary author. However, this is often also the case with comics. There are artists, like Jenny Frison and Jo Chen, who are primarily known as cover artists in American comics. Issues may come with multiple covers that are valued differently by readers and collectors depending on artist and availability. Comics covers are part of the book that contains the text, but also have value and meaning independent of the work to which they are attached.

Affecting the economic and artistic value of a comic is one consequence of the cover’s relationship to the text. Another is that a cover may or may not have a clear relationship to what it encloses. In other words, the cover image may include characters that are also featured in the text or it may not. Cover images may show scenes that will be found in the text or they may not. The style of the art on the cover may be indicative of the style of the art in the text or it may not. As a reader, you come to accept that in comics, it is, in fact, a good idea to not judge a book by its cover.

And yet it’s also difficult to entirely separate the two.

As implied by Genette, there’s always already a material connection between a text and the elements of the paratext; they are part of the same thing: the book. This material connection is also related to the economics of texts as commodities. Ideally, a cover will invite readers into the text or, to put a finer point on the matter, they are meant to invite consumers to buy the book. The materiality of the relationship between text and cover is why comics publishers can spark anxiety, disappointment, or rebuke from readers when the two either seem too far apart in intent or when cover art suggests content that is different from what readers want from a book.

Last summer Marvel released previews of a variant cover by Milo Manara for the then forthcoming Spider-Woman series written by Dennis Hopeless with primary interior art by Greg Land. Manara is primarily known for art that is not merely erotic, but expressive of a heterosexual male gaze. The cover he drew for Spider-Woman #1 is essentially what you would expect from him.

However, featuring art bv Manara on this title necessarily gave rise to questions about the text, and the publisher’s intent for the series. Further demonstrating the fluidity of the relationship between text and paratext in this case was how the announcement of Greg Land on interior art amplified concerns posed by the Manara cover.

In one sense, Land and Manara could not be more different in terms of their art styles. Greg Land produces work that is cold and digital, verging on photo-real. Milo Manara’s art is more stylized and is typically lush and organic. His figures tend to the soft and fleshy rather than the hard and electronic.

In another sense, though, Land is an artist with a reputation for relying heavily on photo references taken from pornography (there is even a website dedicated to criticism of Land’s work on this basis). So, like Manara he often renders characters in ways that suggest a primary appeal to male heterosexual desire.

There’s a third “text” to be addressed in this discussion and that is context. The announcement of a new ongoing series featuring Spider-Woman came after Marvel’s successful and notable launches of the female-centered Captain Marvel, lead by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, and the subsequent re-imagining of Ms. Marvel by G. Williow Wilson, editor Sana Amanat, and artist Adrian Alphona. More quietly, but at roughly the same time, Marvel also started a new Black Widow written by Nathan Edmonson and drawn by Phil Noto, and a Brian Wood-penned X-Men featuring a version of the mutant super-team dominated by female characters.

What ties these otherwise very different titles to together is a commitment to taking female agency and subjectivity seriously. Character design and art, whether entailing a major re-working (e.g., Ms. Marvel) or not (e.g., Black Widow), followed accordingly, with characters being drawn in ways that suggest an individual who makes her own choices of how to dress, and how to pose, rather than, say, being dressed by a costumer, or posed by a director, of soft core porn on premium cable.

Those other titles, and what they appear to signify regarding Marvel’s plans for their female characters, provide the context for the reception of Spider-Woman (the text) and the Manara cover (as part of the paratext). And in that context, what could be seen of the paratext, and what was promised by the text, was a book that appeared to be taken in a different, less progressive, less authentically female-centered, direction than the other titles to which it was being related.

Genette recognized the paratext as not only constituting a threshold between text and reader, but also between text and context. As he puts it, the paratext is a “border” or “fringe” that lies, “between the text and what lies outside it, a zone not just of transition, but of transaction …” (261; emphasis in the original). Comics covers, because of their particular value and place in American comics culture, are powerful forces in mediating, or transacting, the relationships between readers, contexts, and texts. Context and paratext, together, serve to frame the text for readers.

In that regard, it’s worth noting that following the preview (and cancelation) of the Manara cover and the actual release of the new Spider-Woman, Marvel announced a full character re-design (by Kris Anka) and also a change of primary interior artist (from Greg Land to Javier Rodriguez). These changes, whether directly related to the initial reception of the book or not, nonetheless represent a realignment between text and context, giving Spider-Woman the same kind of visual updating and treatment that other female characters in Marvel’s property list have recently received.

It may not be advisable to judge a book by its cover, but both will always be judged in context.

Splash image: Marvel’s variant cover by Milo Manara.