The other day I was organizing one of my bookshelves, which just happened to contain a trade paperback copy of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s New X-Men: E is for Extinction. I’d never noticed this before, but the New X-Men logo is arranged in such a way that it reads the same upside down as it does right side up—an ambigram!
New X-Men: E is For Extinction cover – 1999 (Source)
Though I certainly enjoyed the comics, I’d never noticed that before (though as I soon found out, most everyone in the comic book community wasn’t as oblivious to the logo’s dual nature as I was). That caused me to think about comic book logos, both their composition and what they can teach designers about good design. In this post, I’ll go over the value of readability, innovation, integration and relevancy as they pertain to logo design and comic books.
As with all logos, the single most important aspect of a comic book’s signature emblem is its readability. Unless it’s the logo of a black metal band, a design instantly fails when the consumer cannot immediately read what the logo says. Comic book logos have to function in and around their cover art and various other information, and they also have to stand out among every other element of a book’s cover. They need to look good in color, in black and white, in print and on the web. They succeed by being assertive, being bold and being easy to decipher from a distance. After all, a comic has to stand out from a ton of other, similar books to grab a reader’s interest.
Think about it—Superman’s logo is instantly recognizable and instantly readable. Its three dimensional styling is complex but easy to read. Add that telescoping effect to the mix and it’s instantly familiar to children, adults and senior citizens alike. Even a great designer is going to have trouble replicating the success of the classic Superman logo, but there’s a lot to be taken away from it. Readability is the first step towards a great logo, and innovation builds on it.
Superman #233 cover by Curt Swan (Source)
A logo is a major factor in a comic book’s identity, which is also true for a logo of any brand. A comic book might have the greatest, edgiest and most clever name and tagline in the world, but if the logo isn’t interesting then no one is going to grab it from the shelf. Just like a catchy pop song, a logo needs a hook to reel its intended audience into its waiting pages. For instance, the font for Wolverine has a lot of elongated letters with pointed edges, which evoke the hero’s deadly claws.
Wolverine #1 cover by Frank Miller (Source)
Let’s take a look at the Superman logo again. Joel Shuster hand drew the logo until a professional logo designer was brought in to replicate it. Never be afraid to draw a logo by hand—fonts don’t always produce the best results. If you do use a font, try to modify it a little bit to suit your needs.
Superman: Man of Steel #18 cover by Jon Bogdanove (Source)
Never be afraid to integrate subtle icons into your design—Spider-Man’s logo is often surrounded by webs, for instance. Your logo needs to be readable, but it also needs to perfectly convey the brand it’s representing.
Spider-Man #52 cover by Tom Lyle (Source)
We already talked about integrating Spider-Man’s webbing into the design for his logo, so let’s pick up right there. A good logo has to form a symbiotic relationship with the very essence of the brand it’s representing in order to be successful–comic books frequently excel in this area. If a comic book is action-packed it might contain sleek, bold lettering that slants toward the right. It conveys movement and the sense that something is happening. DC’s The Atom incorporates; you guessed it, an atom, into its logo. While it’s certainly not the most memorable logo of all time, it gives you the idea of what incorporating an icon can accomplish.
Brightest Day: The Atom Special #1 cover by Mahmud Asrar (Source)
Comic books take this a little bit further than most brands are able to, but there are still some lessons to be learned here. In many cases, the characters depicted on the book’s cover actually interact with the logo itself. The Incredible Hulk might be holding the word ‘HULK’ up on his back or Cyclops might be eye-lasering the ever-loving crap out of the X-Men logo.
Hulk Special #1 cover by Jim Steranko (Source)
Uncanny X-Men #176 cover by John Romita Jr. (Source)
In Doomsday’s debut in Superman, the familiar logo was broken and crumbling as the alien menace punched it into submission. Also consider the fact that many comic book logos have to function along with their prefixes and taglines, such as ‘Uncanny’ and ‘The Man of Steel,’ which they usually manage to pull off quite effortlessly. A great logo can be adapted to whatever surrounds it to create an even bigger impact with an audience.
While some logos remain largely unchanged over the years, many have to undergo alterations in order to adapt to the times. There are very few timeless designs in the world of logos, and comic books are no exception to the rule. For instance, Jared K. Fletcher was tasked with rebranding Marvel’s giant stable of X-Men titles recently, and he needed to give them a unified look. He made an ‘X’ extremely prominent in all of the titles, and he arranged it in much the same way in each. Even books like New Mutants benefited from the ‘X’ design due to clever thinking. His designs and a brief interview can be found here.
X-Men Family rebranding by Jared K Fletcher (Source)
There’s always room for improvement and creativity. The 90s Spider-Man logo, with its jagged edges, is still used in some Marvel branding today and certainly brings up vivid images of stories from that era to fans. Some logos are truly timeless—they represent rock-solid branding and are recognizable for decades. It’s hard to create one, but when a logo can stay relevant for more than 20 years you’ve stumbled upon something superhuman.
A good logo is usually the key to a noteworthy brand, and the world of comic books gives us plenty of great examples. Though chances are your brand doesn’t sell the violent adventures of men and women in spandex, there’s probably something you can learn about logos from comic book design. They teach us ways to keep logos bold and legible, ways to innovate in logo design, ways to integrate logos with the material around them and ways to keep our logos relevant to our audience. It’s difficult to design a perfect logo, but there are many great lessons to be learned from the world of comic books—after all, they’ve been in the branding business for nearly a century.
About the Author
Adam Farwell is a writer, blogger and designer. He generally blogs about design, marketing, small business branding and the various creative projects he’s involved in. He is an online publisher for the funny t-shirt retailer funnyshirts.org.