ByMichael Nelsen, writer at
Graphic Designer and Web Developer by day, Comic Book Mastermind by night.

Everyone has a different process for creating artwork. There is no right or wrong way, and there are a thousand different solutions to any given project. My philosophy in art, and life, is "It doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to be cool."

With commercial art and design projects - a comic book cover illustration for example - there are preset conditions and limitations. There is a set size, there must be room left for credits and logos, and it must either encapsulate the story within the book, or at least present a striking image that intrigues a reader to pick it up, to wonder at the contents. To me these limitations are a set of puzzle pieces to be solved. To me, the most important part is that it also has to stand out on a comic rack amongst a hundred others.

So when I was developing my newest comic book, SUPERNAUT, I wanted something that immediately presented the feeling of the book, with a bold graphic quality, bold colors, and bold typography. For the first issue I wanted an image that creatively summed up the book, but also the entire 5-issue series I had written.

SUPERNAUT is dubbed a 21st Century Cosmic Hero Myth, so I had a lot to live up to with this self-proclamation. Originally envisioned as a Green Lantern or Nova Corp style "Cosmic Cop", who would be gifted with the advanced technological devices that were a badge of his office and that gave him powers to fight cosmic badguys or something, SUPERNAUT quickly evolved as I went. As it stands, the story is more a metaphysical journey than a traditional one; the powers given are more transcendental. This was now a story about life, and death, and the structure of our minds and reality - this was no longer a simple superhero story; this is not a typical comic book - and I was going to need a method to illustrate that to the reader in a manner that was quickly understood..

To begin with I needed to create a logo. In my opinion, most comic book logos seem like an afterthought. The big comics can rely on the characters on the cover to sell their book, so the brand identity is baked in. The "MARVEL" or "DC" icons can be more important than the actual book title. For a little, start-up book like mine, name recognition is much more important. I'm not only creating a universe and a story that takes place there, I'm also creating a Brand, for the book and for myself as a creator.

I wanted the logo for SUPERNAUT to be simple, easily legible, and versatile. Though the story is a trippy, sci-fi super-hero-y adventure yarn, I wanted to avoid any cliché genre trappings. Thought it includes those genres, it also transcends them. I knew early on that it would be a fairly simple, text-based logo - especially considering the imagery and graphics I intended to place around it.

I tried out a bunch of different fonts in Illustrator with the word SUPERNAUT, including my all-time favorite, Futura (a font used heavily throughout the series), but in the end I went with a modified version of a free font called Kautiva.

With that established I created a logo box to contain all the credit information, price, and issue number, along with the logo. This would showcase the logo, while making sure it stood out against the layered artwork I had in mind to go behind it.

Normally for a cover this is where I would start sketching. That is the easiest way to figure out placement, forms, and images that are to be used for the final product. In this case, I had a very clear image in mind for the main focus, and I went straight to drawing. The image was simple, but spoke volumes: An astronaut - representing the main character, Stephen Haddon, an astronaut who is transformed into the SUPERNAUT after an experience on the Moon - in a position of floating in space. This pose is meant to mimic the fetal position, emphasized by the umbilical cord lifeline. This astronaut represents a birth - or a rebirth in this case, just as the character experiences.

Ink over rough sketch, color flats in Photoshop.
Ink over rough sketch, color flats in Photoshop.

Now I had my centerpiece, I would build around him. I placed my previously created logo in Adobe Illustrator. I knew I wanted to mix traditional art with vector graphics, so I laid in some grid textures, and graphic icons for the Earth and the Moon where the story would take place. The moon itself is an important aspect of the series, so it appears as the focal point. Other graphics for the other planets (including Planet X - Nibiru, a mystery planet referenced in ancient texts and conspiracy theories as the home or interstellar planet-sized spaceship of alien civilizations that have visited earth - also an important part of the story, and a subtle hint that this is an unusual story setting), and some textures added in Photoshop.

Rough cover layout. Mixed media.
Rough cover layout. Mixed media.

I knew early on I was doing a five issue story, and each would build on the last. My gimmicky theme-setting idea here was to have each issue follow the traditional 4-color printing process: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. This is a process strongly linked with comics, and represents parts coming together to create a whole, also a theme in the book. So I had established a color palette to carry through the books with each issue focusing on those four key colors, and the fifth combining them all. The first issue then would be heavily Cyan, but I wasn't set yet on the other colors.

I played with different color variations until settling on the red-orange of the final image. This red color would end up featuring heavily in the color palette of the series. At this point it was all about building and layering and feeling my way, discovering the solution as I went. Uncovering the design that was always there.

At this point I wanted to add a bit more layer to the image. I added some stars, and a nebula image, and then finished it off with a public domain image of the Hindu God Vishnu - a representation of Life, and another public domain image of a skull to represent Death. There were heavy ideas going on in this book, see? Life, Death, Rebirth, Evolution of Consciousness, that kind of stuff. :)

Almost there!
Almost there!

At this point I sent it off to my group of trusted friends - a mix of comic fans, comic creators, and graphic designers - for some honest feedback. This is a crucial step for me, as I've looked at the image too long at this point and objectivity becomes difficult.

My graphic designer friend has the best feedback: The central astronaut figure was simply too large. There was no sense of hierarchy. If everything is the same size, the same importance, then nothing could be important. it was visually overwhelming.

So with a simple adjustment to my figure drawing, I had a completed cover image! Yay. Now the figure was dwarfed by the God figure, and the Moon - metaphysical and cosmological figures that would dominate his character. This made him appear even more childlike - a cosmic fetus waiting to be reborn into transcendence. Waiting to hatch into a SUPERNAUT.

Final image, ready to go!
Final image, ready to go!

This is the point where I got to add the crazy awesome quote from comic book legend, and novelist Mike Carey. He is a Facebook acquaintance of mine and I was able to show him the completed issue for review. That's about it. Any questions? :)


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