Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Comics Journal #301

The Comics Journal #301 doesn't hit stores for a little bit yet, but I thought this was worth posting now in honor of last week's long-overdue and very promising relaunch of TCJ.com.

This was such a monster of a project, I'm worried this post doesn't do it justice. But for the sake of sanity, I'll stick to the initial concept/cover design here... you'll have to buy the magazine to see the interiors. (Which I highly recommend doing, by the way... last time I checked Amazon was selling the thing for like $16.50, which for 624 heavily-illustrated pages is nothing short of crazy.)

I was pretty excited when Jacob Covey emailed me to ask if I might be interested in re-designing the venerable Comics Journal for its upcoming relaunch as an annual (rather than monthly) publication. Then I found out it was going to be 600-something pages. But by that point it was too late to say no! (I'm kidding... mostly.)

Since this issue was to be something of a change in format, my initial impulse was to do something expansive, that related more to the Journal generally--or even comics criticism generally--than to any specific content-related story. To get away from the idea of a "cover story." I had a cover concept in mind that I *almost* sent but didn't, but I'm not going to share that idea here because I will absolutely use is on something, someday... (If anyone has a book on Wally Wood they're putting together? Call me.)

BUT, the issue in question was to be very R. Crumb-centric: a 50-page interview with the man, plus a 100+ page critical roundtable on his recently released Book of Genesis Illustrated, and another article on Crumb in the '60s besides. So obviously Crumb is a major selling point for this issue, and since he's just about the biggest-name "alt"-cartoonist out there, it seemed crazy to use anything but Crumb on the cover. So, starting from that foundation, here's the pitch I sent to Gary Groth and the other editors of the Journal, with a few added notes in italics to clarify some things that might otherwise be unclear):

Some thoughts on TCJ...


It sounds like the fact that the ads are already in [ads had been sold for the issue before they decided on the format change, and so the advertisers submitted their ads in the same size/proportions/etc as previous issues.] is probably going to limit us to keeping the same size/shape as the previous issue.

If we COULD change formats, I had been planning to suggest something a little less magazine-y and more bookish; something closer to 6.25" x 8.5", not unlike that issue of L'eprouvette that Kirsty was kind enough to send over. I think it's enough of a shift from what's come before, and it would accommodate the sketchbooks and comic reprints perfectly. If there's any way to adjust the ads or make them fit in a new size, that's the size I'd recommend.

BUT, if we CAN'T change the dimensions of the book, we're left with the problem of how to differentiate the new, bigger, annual Journal from the old, smaller, monthly magazine. I know cost is an issue but if we're stuck in the same size, I think switching from softcover to hardcover is a pretty solid way to signal the shift, and hopefully bring a little extra attention to the relaunch. If that's not an option, then hopefully the designs below will do enough good work to differentiate the new format on their own.


I think these are relatively self-explainatory--big pretty Crumb art, tough to argue with, right? The only real formal conceit is to basically shunt all of what would normally be the magazine cover copy onto the spine, which serves a few purposes: (1) it highlights the thickness of the book, just how much is in there; (2) it totally separates the art from the words, which I think has a nice, subtle resonance for a book that is, after all, writing about art, and (3) it reflects the shift from a magazine-style scenario, where everything's displayed cover-out because nothing has a spine, to a bookshelf scenario, where the majority of the time the book is going to be displayed spine-out on a shelf.

(And of course the current spine copy is not final; we can highlight whatever stories you want to highlight.)

I'm envisioning it printing as 3 colors--black, orange, and white--on a brown kraft paper, so that the texture of the paper really comes through and gives it a nice tactile sense. I think the same basic idea would work as either a softcover or a wrapped-board hardcover.

I quite like the Sodom and Gomorrah image, myself--it has a nice, "hide your children, Comics are coming!" vibe to it, and it's probably the best single drawing in Genesis, for my money--but since that one kind of needs to wrap around, I'm also including a second option, in case we wind up needing to print an ad on the back cover (which would be a shame)...

I should note: the comps above were made at 6.25" x 8.5", but either would work fine at 7.5" x 9.25" as well... here's the Sodom & Gomorrah one resized:


The other big open question, of course, it how to treat the reprints and sketchbooks. As Gary and I talked about, I don't really like the idea of printing them as separate booklets shrink-wrapped together. [Which was an idea that had been floated by the Fantagraphics folks.] The shrink wrap keeps people from browsing in the store, and then once you've got it home it's not really part of the same magazine any more... the "text" goes on your bookshelf and the "comic" probably goes in a box somewhere. Which isn't the end of the world, I suppose, but if you're publishing it as one product it should stay one product, right?

So, I don't see any reason we can't reprint the McBoing Boing [Gerald McBoing Boing is the name of the comic being reprinted] stuff within the body of the magazine.... my preference would be to set it off by printing those signatures on a different paper stock (ideally something like that nice newsprint-y stock DC's been using for their Kirby reprints), but if that turns out to be a difficulty for the printer, we could certainly achieve a similar effect using a very light 5th color to "yellow" the relevant pages slightly, thus setting them off from the rest of the book at a glance. (It's worth mentioning: the reprints and sketchbook pages would fit pretty perfectly in the 6.25" x 8.5" size (which is why I was suggesting it), but of course we can make them work in the other size if need be).

The sketchbook stuff: I still haven't seen the Dixon or Woodring sketchbooks, but I'm told they're not dissimilar to the Hensley stuff, format-wise. We could certainly use a third paper stock there, something a little heavier and extra toothy, that would feel like sketchbook paper... Or again, we could set them off with a 5th color on the same paper as the rest of the book.


Hopefully we'll be able to get the ads/format issues sorted within the next few days so that I can get started on the interiors. Let me know what you think of all this, and thanks again for getting me involved in this.

So... thoughts?

So. They dug my cover idea and I reformatted it to a size that was the same proportions as previous journals but slightly smaller. Then came the interiors, and taking you through that process would probably take 600 pages! Suffice it to say, budget and space concerns caused me to scale down a few of my loftier aspirations, (as is only fair), but overall I'm pretty happy with how the book came out. (Or, how the design came out--I haven't seen the printed book yet, fingers crossed it'll look great.)

One last thing to point out, which is the lettering on the spine: I felt like mixing Crumb's artwork with hard-edged computer typography would do it a disservice, so I set it in Yoter, then printed out that type at something like 400% size in a very light blue, and traced that with my trusty Sharpie markers. I then scanned that in and placed it in the file, and hopefully that gives it the feeling of being hand-drawn, but with the even-handedness of typography. (Plus it provides a bridge to the typeset interiors, which use Yoter for headlines and such.)

Anyway, here's the final cover with approved copy from the TCJ folks:


Ed Howard said...

I'm pretty excited for this, and you did a great job with the cover design, Eric. I was subscribed to TCJ before the format change, so supposedly I'm getting one of these, and it looks like a ton of great content (Crumb, Sacco, Woodring, Cerebus!). I'll be interested to see how you decided to set apart the sketchbooks and comics reprints - did you go with different paper stocks as suggested in your pitch?

One problem with the last format of TCJ was that it had all these nice comic strip reprints that were squeezed into a page way too small for them. I haven't checked the proportions of the new book, but I hope it's a bit bigger so those reprints and sketchbooks have some room to stretch out.

Eric Skillman said...

Thanks! The new Journal is actually slightly smaller than the old format, but the nature of the reprints is such that I think you'll still be happy with the change--the sketchbooks were all originally Moleskine notebooks, so they're approximately actual size, and the McBoing Boing stuff is of a style that reduces really well.

rico said...

That's a gorgeous job you did sir! I can't wait to see the interior stuff.

Jason Latour said...

Looks great, Eric. Enjoyed a peak into thought process too--

Eric Skillman said...

Thanks, Jason, Rico! I wouldn't want to build up the interiors too much, though... I think they came out looking nice, but it's not super-flashy or anything. It's mostly oriented toward the content being the star. (As it should be, of course.)

bart said...
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bart said...

As a fellow designer (f.e. I do The Frontiersman for Broken Frontier - and yes, cover credits have been added to your issue! editorial oversight due to cramping deadlines), I admire the idea of tracing over the fonts to give the computer typeface a hand drawn look. It's those details that no-one notices that make or break a design.

Can't wait to see the end result.