Axel-In-Charge: Navigating the "Civil War II" Landscape, Bringing DMC to Marvel
Valiant Entertainment does nothing by half measures, so it’s no surprise that when they were thinking about a new look for their relaunch of four classic Valiant series from the 1990s, they went with a top designer: Rian Hughes, whose credits include not only design work for corporate clients such as Virgin Airways and Penguin Books but also comics design and illustration; he drew a number of series for 2000AD and designed the UK edition of Love and Rockets, among other projects.
We talked to Hughes about his redesign of the Valiant logo and cover elements for this year’s new series. Hughes also talks about some of the other covers he has designed, including Iron Man and Howard Chaykin’s Challengers of the Unknown. And font freaks (you know who you are!), check the end of the interview for a special challenge!
Robot 6: What is your association with Valiant Comics—did you read them in the 1990s? If so, when did you start reading–what “era” seems the most important to you?
Rian Hughes: I confess I didn’t pick up many comics at all in the ’90s, as I was going through a period where comics simply weren’t one of my main interests. I’d become a bit burned out working on 2000AD for several years, and was pursuing work in mainstream illustration, advertising and graphic design, so the ’90s are a bit of a blank for me. I’d follow the work of fellow Brits who happened to be friends and acquaintances—Morrison, Milligan, Moore and co—but outside of that, a lot passed me by. Which is no reflection on Valiant, of course!
Robot 6: How do you think your work as a comics artist affects your approach and your methods?
Hughes: I’ve always been equally interested in both illustration and design, and see them very much as part of the same continuum—the imagemaking process. I’ve done work as an illustrator, on book covers, for instance, which have been very poorly served by someone else’s typography. An elegant and well-thought out idea can be absolutely ruined by some lumpen and inappropriate design. So, when I’m operating as a designer, I’m aware that I need to treat the artist with respect, and think the best work comes out of a close collaboration where possible. I’ll try and include them as part of the process. To this end, I’ll often rough out some ideas, mock up an issue or two, to show them what I intend to do. Working with Salvador Larocca on Iron Man, or Dustin Nguyen on Wildcats, for example, I sent them some ideas, which they enthusiastically embraced, and by the time we’d got to the third or fourth cover in the story arc, it had all meshed beautifully and they were taking my layout concept and running with it, turning in art that fit the design perfectly.
Of course, a good design comes primarily from articulating the writer’s themes—so on Iron Man, we have Tony Stark disassembling his mind, wiping it clean—and this is reflected in the clean design, where we show this internal struggle with vignettes dropped into the Iron Man helmet. On Wildcats, I chose a branding style reminiscent of corporate brochures from the tech industry, again to communicate Joe Casey’s script. Matt Fraction and Joe Casey are writers with a highly developed sense of the pop aesthetic, with an appreciation of design in the wider sense, which is why they’re enjoyable to work with—they get a more conceptual, design-led approach.
For Challengers of The Unknown, Howard Chaykin sent me standing poses of each character, which I cropped and arranged, and added colour to.
I’d contrast this approach with designing a masthead for an ongoing book, where you don’t have any input artwise. In these cases, a logo is more of a standalone piece. It has to serve as an icon, a symbol that communicates the character of the book.
This was more the case on the Valiant books, where the editors are commissioning art and my job is to beautifully (I hope!) set it off with a framing trade dress and logo, consistently applied across subsequent issues of a title, and across all the titles of a line. Having a cohesive design across all the titles in terms of company logo placement and character logo placement really helps build a solid brand, makes the whole larger than the parts.
So, in general, I think having worked as both illustrator and designer on many projects gives me an appreciation of how to cohesively marry the two.
Robot 6: What sets comics design apart from the other work you do?
Hughes: It’s not that different. In most of the other work I do, I am the main imagemaker, so will use my own photography, as I did with the Ultravox sleeve I did recently, or I will design around my own illustrations, as on the Geri Halliwell books, or the Philip Pullman covers I did for the BBC. It’s probably less collaborative than comic design.
Robot 6: What sort of a balance were you looking for between the old logo and the new one? What did you think it was important to keep and what did you know you were going to change?
Hughes: Design is often about knowing what to keep, not just wiping the slate clean, especially when you have a brand which has a heritage and history that the audience expect us to build on. If you look at the first Valiant logo, there is the V in there, in the compass. So, I took that idea and clarified it, simplified it—made it more iconic. The type on that first Valiant logo doesn’t sit neatly with the compass; it bears very little stylistic connection with it, so the next stage was to bring type and image together cohesively, bolt them up in a strong combined unit. Now the type has the same pointed angularity as the compass does. They are stylistically in keeping with each other.
Robot 6: What sort of constraints did the publisher give you?
Hughes: Warren is open to all kinds of ideas—he was the editor on those Iron Man covers, and somehow let those through. For Valiant, the brief was to reference the history of the company, to not to take it too far from the mainstream, but to freshen and sharpen the design.
Robot 6: In the roughs, I see you playing with symmetry and asymmetry (an eight-pointed compass versus letting one direction dominate) and also switching between the dominant direction of the pointer being up or down. What sorts of ideas were going through your head as you changed those elements around?
Hughes: A designer will try many ideas, and only a small percentage of these will get shown to the client. It’s the process of finding out where the parameters of the idea lie, how far you can stretch an idea before it breaks or evolves into a new idea.
And the idea, the concept comes first—if you find you’re merely moving shapes around or trying random fonts in the hope that something “cool” will magically appear, it’s time to step back, ask yourself some basic questions about what the logo needs to communicate, and then once you have a solid conceptual understanding find graphic ways of expressing that.
Robot 6: What about color considerations? I noticed you used different colors for the logos on the variant covers of X-O Manowar. Why did you decide to do that route, and what do the colors have in common?
Hughes: The logo is designed to always have a black background, but the colour elements can change from issue to issue to key into the art. This helps create variety and tie the cover together.
Sometimes a colour will be associated with a logo—Marvel’s red, for example—and sometimes a logo can have different colourways, as DC’s swoosh logo did. As the Valiant branding was to be quite prominent on the covers, it made sense to build in some variation, so the covers didn’t become to samey. I hope the logo design is strong enough to be immediately recogniseable in whatever colour we choose to use.
Robot 6: With regard to the logos for the individual comics, were you looking for some quality that ties them all together, or did you see them as independent?
Hughes: The logos for the individual books reflect aspects of each character or characters, and again look where possible to the heritage of the brand. All of them have been designed to sit within the same rectangular area. There is a transparent panel across the top of the books, which can be changed in colour and degree of transparency from issue to issue. This nifty trick means that I can use a predominantly white logo on each issue without readability problems. I wanted to avoid all the horrible clichés of comic design—the drop shadows, the outlines—that are employed to lift a logo or type out of a busy illustration. The transparent panel allows the art to be seen clearly, but also means we can adjust the area behind the white logo to successfully throw it forward in the mix. We don’t have to resort to those ghastly drop shadows and outlines to solve readability issues. There are also little elements of each logo that will be picked out in a secondary colour, again keyed to the art—the bird in the Harbinger logo, for example. Finally, the fonts are all consistently applied—the credits along the top are a considered and integral part of the design, not just dropped in somewhere on the cover in a different position each issue. The vertical lines that separate out the creator names and the information in the barcode box are also colour keyed to the art issue to issue. We are using two font families and two only—Korolev and Rogue, both of which I designed—that have the requisite range of weights and italics. If I can put my typo pedant’s hat on for a moment, there’s nothing in typography that makes by eyes bleed more than artificially distorting type, stretching or condensing it to fit. Well, other than having ten random fonts in ten random sizes at ten different alignments or spacings all together on one cover. Which I have seen. I counted them. I’ll refrain from saying which cover that was, though—and maybe someone can better that count?
Actually, there’s an idea for a competition—I’ll offer a Typo No-Prize to the person who can find the comic cover which uses the highest number of different fonts/different point sizes/different leading/different letterspacing (tracking)/different applied effects like drop shadows. One point for each, cumulative total. Don’t forget, count all the type elements on the cover, including the tiny throwaway ones like price, rating, website etc. On your marks, get typeset… GO!