Anatomy of a Cover: Archaia’s ‘Americatown’ #1 by Mike Choi
Have you ever wondered how an artist settles on the right image to place on the cover of a comic? Which elements to include, what's important, and how to show it?
Americatown is a new Archaia series from The Americans screenwriter Bradford Winters, Borgias screenwriter Larry Cohen, and newcomer artist Daniel Irizarri, which tells the story of Americans fleeing a collapsed economy to build new lives in a Buenos Aires slum. It's a story about family, politics, and poverty, and the challenge of devising a single image to capture the mood and intent of that tale fell on cover artist Mike Choi. In this feature, Choi reveals his process in putting that cover together.
I was excited to get the chance to work on the covers of this title, because Boom has been very kind to let me explore different styles and directions in coming up with these. My first work for Boom was a variant cover to Escape from New York #7, and instead of using my normal drawing and coloring style that I've used on pretty much everything in my comics art career up until this point, I decided to do a collage-style piece, which I had a lot of fun doing.
The idea for the covers for Americatown was to have each one showcase a different character in the book. I liked that idea a lot, not just from a marketing standpoint, but also because my favorite things to draw are portraits. The first character I had to depict for the first issue was Owen, the main protagonist. We didn't have a design yet, and since I wanted to leave that for the interior artist, I just spent some time exploring different concepts and directions for the title as a whole.
The concept was, as the title's editor Ian Brill put it, about a near-future world where America has had an economic collapse, and citizens are emigrating to different countries for opportunities. I thought it was an extremely interesting idea, and relevant today. I think covers should draw you into the book first and foremost, and make you wonder what the book is about, so I tried to incorporate lots of imagery that would feed into that concept, some subtle, some really heavy-handed.
The next thing I think a cover should do is give a hint as to the style of the book. Is it super-in-your-face with the art, or is it subtle? I really like the myriad styles and tones of the lineup that Boom produces, and the dichotomy of the books that Boom (there's an exclamation mark in the company title; 'Boom! Studios') makes with its Archaia (the name just oozes sophistication, you can almost picture it stamped on a humidor) imprint. So I tried to make the direction of these covers more artsy, for lack of a better term.
I was trying to incorporate more symbolism, and things that were more evocative than literal, which is why I explored a lot with the silhouettes and imagery. I'm on a major modern art kick right now after not having liked it at all until maybe last year, after my first visit to MOMA in New York. I really liked the work of Jasper Johns, so I incorporated a similar depiction of the Stars and Stripes as a backdrop, with overlays of different textures and graphics, including US currency.
The US flag as a backdrop with different overlays, colors, and textures became an ongoing theme of the covers for Americatown. I liked the idea that underneath everything, the Stars and Stripes would still be a strong focal point, which I think is something that is evocative of the immigrant experience. I also tried to shoehorn in a lot of my modern art influences as well, like Rothko in issue #4 and Mondrian in #5, because I'm super pretentious and want the readers to see how cultured I am!
Seeing the designs by the book's artist, Daniel Irizarri, as well as the script of the first issue written by Bradford Winters and Larry J. Cohen, helped a lot in getting an idea of who I was meant to be drawing. When doing portraits I try to capture the personalities of the subject; even when drawing famous comic book characters, I try to draw the character, as opposed to someone cosplaying as the character, if you know what I mean. I felt that it would be doubly important for this character-driven book.
I went for a stenciled-graffiti-style depiction of Owen for what would be the final layout of the cover, keeping the design simple and high-contrast, and blurring some of the edges. I also incorporated the design of the John Hood immigration sign that you see along the border between the US and Mexico, and overlays of the original Declaration of Independence and the last two lines of the sheet music of “The Star Spangled Banner,” with the word "home" redacted. Heavy handed, yes, but I thought it worked.
It looked a little messy, so Ian suggested that I simplify it all a little. When working on something like this, trying to make things work in a deliberately hodge-podged methodology instead of one driven by a singular vision, it's easy to fall into a trap where you no longer see it objectively. I was so focused on seeing how the individual trees were incorporated, that I needed my editor to come in and tell me that the forest needed some corralling. So some elements were pruned, and it works so much better.
Given that this was the first issue of the book, the editors and I decided to really flesh out Owen for the cover. I remember bristling at first because I liked the graffiti motif, but realized that it was the right call to make, because we needed to really give the prospective reader and retailers something to relate to; in our case, the protagonist, and not some design motif. I also liked that it gave the overall image a lot more focus, which helps measure out the impact on the reader of the individual elements.
I had a lot of fun working on this cover, and I really enjoyed the process on the other covers, too. I really hope you check out Americatown. It's an amazingly well-written and drawn book, and I'm honored to have drawn the covers for it.
Mike Choi was recently named one of the 20 Best X-Men Artists in history by Kotaku.com because (in his words) there is no accounting for taste. He is currently working as a cover artist for Marvel, Valiant and Boom, at very reasonable rates.
Here are the solicitation details for Americatown #1, on sale Wednesday 12 August:
Americatown #1 (of 8)Publisher: Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! StudiosWriters: Bradford Winters & Larry CohenArtist: Daniel IrizarriCover Artists:Main Cover: Mike ChoiBOOM! 10 Years Incentive Cover: Sonny LiewIncentive Cover: Daniel IrizarriFormat: 32 pages, full colorPrice: $3.99On sale: August 12, 2015Synopsis:
What’s to Love: Part social commentary, part family drama, Americatown asks: What if the American Dream gave way to the American Nightmare? In their inaugural comic series, screenwriters Bradford Winters (Oz, Boss, The Americans) and Larry Cohen (Netflix’s Borgia), give us a story great for fans of Transmetropolitan, Children of Men, and the TV show Black Mirror.
What It Is: After an economic collapse and other disasters in the near future, Americans are now the legal and illegal immigrants living abroad. They find work in cities like Buenos Aires, where their very own enclave known as “Americatown” has taken root. Owen, a recent arrival, begins a journey to support and save his splintered family divided between the enclave and home back in the U.S. His struggle is just a small part of the hardships and conflicting agendas in an immigrant community trying to build itself in the shadow of a once great nation.