At first, comic book cover art seems simple to understand. At a glance, they are marketing tools that inform us of the contents of the story or stories that occur in the interior of the comic. Additionally, they are often used to showcase more artistically ambitious depictions of the protagonists of the comics, since cover art is often painted (or, at the very least, is much more detailed than the pen-and-ink interiors), and cover artists are often given a good bit of (but of course not total!) freedom in terms of what they can depict on the cover.
This tension between the role of cover art as advertising, and the freedom that cover artists are given in what exactly they depict on the cover, however, is what leads to the puzzle I am highlighting today. Given the role that covers play in the marketing of particular issues of comic books, and the role that they play in our purchasing choices, one would expect there to be at least some pressure for the creators of comics to insure that the cover art accurately depicts the actual content of the comic in question. In actual practice, however, this pressure seems to have minimal effect, since there is often little connection between the content of the cover and the content of the comic.
Of course, sometime comic covers are misleading merely to drive sales: the cover will depict some shocking event that doesn’t really happen in the story (see, e.g. the Supergirl issue reproduced here). But often the cover art is just tangential to the actual storyline without being sensational in the sense just described. The question in such cases concerns how we are to understand the content of the cover as a part of the overall story told in the comic.
Comic books, and comic book series, are narratives – they describe fictional events that happen to fictional characters in fictional worlds. Of course, the way that we understand what is (fictionally) true in such narratives is particularly complex in comics (one of the reasons I find them so interesting), given ret-conning, canon/non-canon distinctions, and the complex interaction between pictorial and textual information that takes place when we read comics. But covers add to this complexity: Are we to take the content of covers as providing genuine information with regard to what happens within the fictional worlds described by comics? For example, is it (fictionally) true, in some sense, that Captain Britain wore a clown nose? If not, then why do we take cover art seriously at all (at least, why do we take it seriously as a part of the comic)?
Of course, some comics artists are very aware of the complex role that cover art plays, and the narrative conflicts and tensions that can arise as a result. For example, John Byrne’s cover to The Sensational She-Hulk #37 notes that the Punisher, Spider-man, and Wolverine appear on the comic (but of course not in it). But do they appear on it? Presumably, to say that Spider-man genuinely appears on the cover of this issue of She-Hulk is to say that it is (fictionally) true of Spider-man that he (fictionally) carried out the actions depicted on the cover. But it is not clear that this is, in fact, the case.
So how do comic book covers work narratively?