Logo design is an important element of comics, both creatively and from a sales standpoint. A strong, memorable logo helps sell the product, and will help buyers identify more comics like ones they already enjoyed. Here’s an overview of comics logo design, above is one of mine, and more about how it was designed is HERE.
Comics logo designs began in comic strips, but were not as important there because those strips appeared inside newspapers. Buyers might have purchased any paper, especially Sunday ones, for the comics sections inside, but specific strip logos were not the selling point. Some creators didn’t use them at all, or used them rarely, like George Herriman on Krazy Kat. Some did new logos for every Sunday page, like Winsor McCay on Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Richard F. Outcault on Buster Brown. Most strip logos were by the artists themselves as far as we know, though in the samples above, Hal Foster’s letterer Frank Armstrong might have had a hand in the Prince Valiant logo, and the Terry and the Pirates logo was by Milton Caniff’s studio-mate Noel Sickles. Strip logos did prove useful for marketing and branding when the strips were licensed for other kinds of products, or reprinted in book form. The Tarzan logo above, designer unknown, might be the best-known today, and it’s still being used, as are the Prince Valiant and Peanuts logos.
A more important precursor to comic book logos were those on pulp magazines in the early 20th century, with slick, bright covers enclosing cheap pulp paper and black and white type and illustrations, all competing for reader attention on newsstands. They were flashy, colorful, exciting and enticing, calling to buyers from the racks where often only the top third of the magazine was showing. Even before the cover art, the logo was the draw, and if a reader had enjoyed previous issues, they’d be looking for that distinctive logo again. The skills used by the unknown designers often came from show card lettering, the kind of work seen in signs and advertising. All magazines and newspapers needed a good logo, and there were all kinds of pulp magazines, but most pulps were meant to appeal to the common man and provide the kind of action and thrills they were getting in movie theaters and on the radio. Other magazines of higher paper quality and perhaps more sophisticated editorial content also needed strong logos, but they tended to be more conservative and sedate, generally done with type or type-based logo designs.
You’ve seen these logos before, but take a moment to study them. They’re just as bright, bold, and exciting as the pulp magazines they were directly competing with for reader attention. Notice that the titles were often short so the logo letters could be large. Some publishers had art directors or designers on staff to provide logos, but in the new field of comic books, that assignment was more likely to be given to an artist or letterer, and once again the names of those people are often unknown. That’s true for all of these. Early logos designed for Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson’s National Allied Publications like DETECTIVE COMICS might have been designed by artist staffers Vincent Sullivan or Whitney Ellsworth, but that’s a guess.
By the time of SUPERMAN #6, When the company had become National Comics, Ira Schnapp created a newly revamped logo based on the earlier designs of artist Joe Shuster, but he said he didn’t do any before that. In the early days it made sense for artists to design logos, as they understood the properties and characters, but artists didn’t always have the graphic design skills needed for good logo design. That’s when letterers were brought in. As comics changed over the following decades, those changes were reflected in the logos, as we’ll see.
Other early comics logos relied on similar tactics of bright, colorful, large letters, short titles, and exciting graphics, with perhaps MYSTERY MEN COMICS being the least impressive in this group. Speed lines and angles for FLASH COMICS and WHIZ COMICS add motion and energy, the flames in THE HUMAN TORCH and the notches in HIT COMICS add interest. CAPTAIN AMERICA, designed by Joe Simon, adopts a memorable patriotic flag theme, and BATMAN, designed by Jerry Robinson, uses a sinister bat shape to intrigue buyers. Drop shadows add depth to many of these logos, and Art Deco design elements, popular at the time, are included in BATMAN and ALL-AMERICAN COMICS. The use of elegant open script in Harry G. Peters’ WONDER WOMAN logo gives it a softer feel, perhaps attempting to appeal to girls. Open letters were common to allow a contrasting color. Like the pulp logos, early comics were all about standing out and selling the product. Many would have been readable from across the street! While some comic strips were aimed more at children and some toward adults, (many families were reading the newspapers), comic books most often targeted readers in search of action and adventure, like the pulp magazines. Superheroes were all the rage in the first decade of comic books, and their colorful costumes and impressive powers played well on the bright four-color covers and pages. Other genres were represented, including humor, but many companies saw the success of Superman as the pointer toward profits.
After the end of World War Two, superheroes began to lose their appeal, and a wider range of genres came into the field. Logos followed the same general plan as before, but the colors were sometimes muted, the names started to get longer, and new design effects were used to try to make titles stand out from the crowd, and it was an ever-growing crowd! Al Feldstein designed memorable logos like WEIRD SCIENCE for EC Comics, Ira Schnapp was heading into space and tackling Hollywood humor for DC, and Ed Hamilton was getting creepy at ACG. At the company now known as Marvel Comics, Artie Simek was designing conservative logos like TWO-GUN KID, and more creative ones like BATTLE. Otto Pirkola’s CASPER logo and cover design appealed to kids, as did the Walt Disney titles from Western/Dell, and JUGHEAD and other Archie books were popular too. Notice the vertical smoke spelling Fantasy on WEIRD SCIENCE, the grungy, ragged edges of FORBIDDEN WORLDS, the round humor of JUGHEAD, the impact of bullets on BATTLE, and the dollar sign in UNCLE SCROOGE. For a while graphic violence and adult subject matter flourished in crime and horror comics, but push-back from parents, distributors and the government led to the self-censorship of the Comics Code Authority, and the industry had to be content with gearing most of their product to children.
The 1960s and 1970s saw comics striving for more thoughtful writing and making end-runs around censorship. While many comics logos looked back to the styles of the past, some were pushing into new territory. At Marvel, Sol Brodsky and Artie Simek designed logos for the new line of Marvel Comics with nods to non-comics advertising styles like THE FANTASTIC FOUR At DC, Gaspar Saladino was bringing new energy and artistry with logos like SWAMP THING. Artists Joe Staton on E-MAN and Jim Steranko on X-MEN integrated their unique styles into their logos. Marvel was pulling anti-hero stories from pulp writers like Robert E. Howard, beginning with CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Underground comics avoided the mainstream distribution system completely, and were able to handle any topic, no matter how adult, with Robert Crumb leading the way on titles like ZAP COMIX. Harvey Pekar and Mike Friedrich were two of the new voices in small independent publishers, and their books like AMERICAN SPLENDOR and STAR*REACH, the latter with a fine logo by letterer Tom Orzechowski, were finding new audiences. Overseas, 2000 A.D. in England and MÉTAL HURLANT in France were capturing the attention of young fans outside the usual comics channels. Variety was flourishing in comics and logos.
By the 1980s, the comics distribution system was changing from the dying newsstand model to comic shops geared to collectors. In the new model, logo identification by readers became less important. Buyers in comics shops tended to follow favorite writers and artists as much or more than particular titles, and covers were reflecting that in several ways. First, creator credits on covers were becoming common. Second, logos no longer needed to stay in the top third of the cover, and also no longer needed to be prominent enough to be seen from a distance, though many still were, like Jeff Smith’s BONE. Artist Dave Gibbons and type designer Richard Bruning broke the mold with their WATCHMEN design, the strong logo running down the left side, and cover art featuring extreme close-ups that were essentially the first panel of the story. Dave McKean’s cover designs and logos for THE SANDMAN series used photography, mixed media, muted tones, and mysterious images that intrigued readers and ranged far from traditional comics. Frank Miller’s BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS made the cover all about the art, with the logo in small type, more like a movie poster than a comic cover, a trend that would continue in the coming years.
Small press publishers and creators like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were having surprising success with their long-named TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, following in the footsteps of The Hernandez Brothers on LOVE AND ROCKETS (with a retro logo by myself). New publishers were making inroads at the comics shops with books like Howard Chaykin’s AMERICAN FLAGG! (logo by Alex Jay), Todd McFarlane’s SPAWN (logo by Tom Orzechowski) and Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s NEXUS. At Marvel, a new approach to their characters by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross allowed Joe Kaufman and Alex to bring their unique design skills to the logo for MARVELS, making great use of negative space. Comics readership, once in a steady decline, began to rebound with all this new creative energy and output, and continues to do so in the 21st century, with every year seeing the launch of new titles, new publishers, and new fan-favorite creators. And comics and comics characters are no longer a niche genre in the media: comic book movies and TV shows are bringing the characters to much wider audiences. A few of them have even used logos from the comic books.
What goes into a good comic book logo? I have suggestions.
Above is something I put together for a logo design workshop, with a few updated examples. Most logos I design today are finalized on my computer with Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, but they usually begin with hand-drawn sketches, as described here.
One thing that has changed a lot since 1994 is the amount of information and reference material available online. If you can’t find it there, it may not exist, but on the other hand, there’s so much it can be overwhelming. Sometimes a good look around at things you own and love will be a better starting point. Note that this information applies equally to story titles, sound effects, and any display lettering, though logos take the most time and require the most attention, as they will hopefully be used often and placed prominently.
In 1994, I wasn’t advocating the use of desktop computers for logo design, even though I’d begun doing that myself. Today, it’s a given, but I still recommend starting with traditional art tools and hand-drawn sketches.
When you begin your design with existing fonts, you’re missing out on part of the creative process, one that can lead to completely new ideas if you’re lucky. Someone else made the initial design decisions, you’re just adding on your own tweaks. Try actually creating letters, it can be rewarding.
Perspective and three-dimensional shapes are another thing computers can do for you, but understanding the basics will help you come up with new ideas.
Okay, I admit that computers are often a time-saver for adding different effects to letters. You can knock out a half dozen versions of your first idea quickly. But some of these effects are still hard to do well digitally, though others are available that can’t be drawn.
Another thing that has changed over time is the idea that comic books should have a logo with some kind of visual reference. A man who is super. A man with spider powers. An Amazon warrior. A woman with hulk-like strength. A master of the mystic arts. I’m sure all the good visual title ideas are not used up, but titles today are often non-visual and therefore more difficult to create a design for. Words like “Coda,” “Excellence,” “Commute,” and “Crowded” have all been used as comics titles with hardly a visual idea among them. Yes, it can be done, but it’s easier with something visual to start with. One good thing about all those titles is that they’re short!
Each upcoming generation of comics creators and letterers finds new approaches to logo design, or new inspirations from old ones that may have been overlooked, forgotten, or simply not appreciated enough. The hardest thing to do in any creative field is to be original, and if you’re going to make comics, it’s the most important. If you’re on that journey, good luck!