Tom Muller on the "Rise & Fall" of Design in Comic Books

Tom Muller Talks Comic Book Design

Design has a unique place in comics. In many cases, the design is orchestrated by the main artist for the book – or in tandem with the book's letterer. In the case of books coming from major publishers like DC or Marvel, they each have designers on staff specifically tasked with designing logos, trade dress, interior pages and ancillary material to make the art sing.

In recent years, there have been several designers who have made their way into writing comics – such as Brian Wood, Jonathan Hickman and Antony Johnston – each making a stamp on their own books with not only their writing but their unique design aesthetic. Sometimes publishers bring in outside designers with some of the more recognized being Riann Hughes, Chip Kidd, and Shepard "OBEY" Fairey, who contributed logo design to Dark Horse's "Rocket" line several years ago.

Also among that latter select group is Tom Muller. Muller stands out as one of comics more prominent designers, doing extensive work with creator Ashley Wood, being the principal designer on Tori Amos' Comic Book Tattoo and also the recent miniseries and hardcover editions of Viking. In recent months, he has contributed designs to DC's "Rise & Fall" crossover series as seen on the covers of Green Arrow, Justice League of America and The Rise of Arsenal.

Newsarama talked to Muller about his design aesthetic and the current state of design in comics.

Newsarama: You’ve been making sizeable contributions to comic shelves for some years now, from MamTor with Liam Sharp to collaborations with Ivan Brandon on 24Seven and Viking as well as the Comic Book Tattoo design. What led you to comics, Tom?

Tom Muller: I've always been reading comics ever since my dad bought me a copy of Amazing Spider-Man when I was 7 years old (a Ross Andru issue featuring the Vulture). That meant that pretty much during my teenage years and all the way through college I was an aspiring comic artist, but then I got bitten by the design bug and switched directions, even though I've always hoped I could combine the two. Then in 2000 I started chatting with Ashley Wood online which led to me designing his website. Everything kind of took off from there.

Nrama: Image recently released the hardcover for the first season of Ivan Brandon & Nic Klein’s Viking, for which you did the logo & cover design for. For this, you essentially threw out all the work from the issues to develop a new design motif. What led to the decision to do that?

Muller: It was kind of a 2-way attack. One the one hand we (Ivan, Nic, and myself) wanted to push the design forward and do something special for the hardcover; while on the other hand I felt that the design and logo for the single issues had run its course — I felt I had taken it as far as I could — so I suggested to Ivan to redesign the logo and create something that would keep the intention of the previous logo alive, but make it more fitting with the book and Nic's art.

Nrama: The cover design for hardcover seems dramatically different than the issues – by doing a collection of images in a design framework, instead of the traditional comics approach of a single image with trade dress added later. What was behind that?

Muller: For the hardcover we switched tactics. Up until that point I'd receive the cover art from Nic (or a very detailed sketch) and design the cover, which obviously has its limitations. Most comic covers are designed that way, which leads to a very homogenized look on the shelves.

This time around I led the direction of the cover — partly because I was also redesigning the logo — and came up with the design & structure, the framework motif that Nic then took as a guide to create the cover art. We then worked together to tweak both the design and the art to make sure it all fitted together to create this 4-color sucker punch that’s now on the shelves.

Nrama: For the hardcover, I noticed the design part of it relied exclusively on cyan, magenta, yellow and black… the four primary colors in any print design work. Why’d you do that?

Muller: Partly because it’s a subtle nod to the '4 color world' of comics, partly because it creates a very bright, powerful POP! culture object — its a modern take on a classic theme if you will. Its comics through the bright prism of pop culture/electro.

Nrama: Did the larger print format of the Viking issues play at all into the thoughts you had for designing the single issues or the hardcover?

Muller: No not really. It was only near the end of the series (I think just after, or during the design of issue 5) that Ivan mentioned he wanted to do an oversized hardcover. It was only when I was redesigning the logo that I was thinking about the design of the collection.

Nrama: Will this new design aesthetic you developed for the hardcover carry on to future issues of Viking?

Muller: That’s the idea, yes. Of course its up to Ivan and Nic when they start the 2nd season of Viking — but the new look kind of signaled the end of the season and the start of something new. The new logo is in my opinion a much more flexible design solution than the previous one, and it reinforces the rebel/punk vibe I get from the book, while meshing really well with Nic's art style.

Nrama: You recently got your first gig working for the Big Two in comics, doing logos for the “Rise & Fall” crossovers in the DC books. Can you tell us about that assignment, and working with the in-house design staff at DC?

Muller: I got contacted by Ken Lopez (Art Director/Cover Editor at DC) back in January with this project. He was looking for something modern (he mentioned he liked the Viking logo) for the Rise & Fall crossover. He sent over some cover sketches of what they had in mind (i.e. the areas where the R&F trade dress would be applied) and then basically left me to it. I created a few proposals and mechanics on how the covers could work, from which Ken/DC picked one. After finalizing the designs I sent Ken the files, and the design team at DC then applied those to the covers of the books. It was an interesting experience and I think the final covers put together by DC look great. There's always this fear that people will alter your design after you hand it over, but not in this instance! I hope there's more DC work in the pipeline (of course, Marvel if you're listening: I'm not exclusive).

Nrama: [laughs] Is this something you’d been angling to do for some time, doing work for DC or Marvel?

Muller: I'd be lying if I said it wasn't on my agenda to do work for DC and Marvel. I think one of the interesting things is to try and inject a much more design-led sensibility into comics, and while its fairly straightforward to do that with independent and creator-owned properties where you have total control and direct contact with the creators, its a different thing to apply that rhetoric to the bastion of mainstream superhero comics, which oftentimes repeat the same visual language over and over again without really innovating new things and being Modern.

Nrama: One of your biggest projects to date in comics seems to have been designing Comic Book Tattoo. In addition to the logo, cover design and book itself, you also did various marketing materials like posters, stickers, temporary tattoos and bookmarks. How was this project for you?

Muller: It was great working on the book and the whole project. Rantz [Hoseley, the book's editor] was luckily clever enough to realize that to keep everything coherent it all had to be designed by the same person, so to have that level of control over the visual output of the project and design everything from web banners to POS displays, bookmarks, stickers etc was a very thankful — if big — project to have been involved in. The only thing I didn't get to do was the website.

Nrama: Did the unique nature of this project (a comic based on music) allow you to take more latitude with the design than had it been a more common theme like superheroes?

Muller: Yes and no. Since it was such a huge and high profile project, we had to make sure that it would appeal to both comic, music, and Tori fans — so there had to be a certain level of recognizability to the whole thing, i.e. it had to feel like a graphic novel, a comic, a music book, something that could sit on a coffee table etc. So in that way the design had to be accessible to all, which in a way restricts you (my initial logo designs were quite out there, and my initial 'giant CD' idea was too specific), but frees you up to design an object that looks fresh.

Nrama: For this, you worked with four other artists – Jason Levesque, editor (and artist) Rantz Hoseley as well as Tori Amos – who’s an artist of a sort. How was it balancing it all to create something you could all get behind?

Muller: It was pretty easy actually. Rantz was the ring leader so I'd speak primarily with him (I still have all 600 emails) about the visual direction of the book and we worked pretty much in tandem. While Jason was working on the cover he'd send over sketches so I could get a sense of the layout and work on the logo. These ideas were sent to Tori who would add her opinion to the mix and we'd tweak it from there. All in all it was a surprisingly smooth process.

Nrama: The designs carried a real unifying identity, nailed down by green hues throughout. Why’d you lean towards green?

Muller: Because both Jason and Jock (who did the endpaper illustration) both used green hues in their artwork. It made sense to use those colors to unify the whole project.

Nrama: Comics has been known for its own “unique” design style that’s developed over the years, which you’ve both taken into consideration and thrown out the door at times. What do you think of the classically known comics aesthetic that exists today?

Muller: Well. To be honest, I think that comics' "unique" design style has become quite insular over the years and decades, certainly in mainstream comics where the visual language applied to books is incredibly self-referential without moving forward. I mean, what is the comics' aesthetic? Is telescoped, beveled, outlined text? Is it playing on overused visual tricks? Don't get me wrong, there are some great classic logos out there, but when I scan the shelves at my local comic store I don't see a lot of innovation happening, just repetitions of the same concept over and over again. In one way comics can be incredibly innovative in storytelling, art, etc… but at the same time it’s incredibly shut off.

I think what Jonathan Hickman did with the Nightly News was great, but it proved — to me at least — that comics don't really look outside their little bubble. Similarly Rian Hughes' recent Iron Man covers got people talking. In essence they're an homage to 60s Modernism, and a smart wink to record covers of an independent label. It’s a design approach that is quite common but unheard of in comics, so in a way it’s therefore incredibly easy to be regarded as innovative in comics: by simply injecting it with something current.

I'd love to see comics develop an attitude similar to specialty magazine publishing (which comics actually are) where you see constant innovation in order to stay relevant and current.

When I see those O.M.I.T. ads from Marvel I cringe. It’s Trixie (a faux typewriter font) that is beveled. Why? What is the thought behind that creative decision? The font isn't suited for that effect, it doesn't even need it. Its stuff like that that cheapens design in comics I think, and a lost opportunity to do something really nice. Sometimes I think it’s such a shame that a wonderful piece of comic art gets ruined by inconsiderate design. It’s something I feel very passionate about as a designer. To me the design of the comic is as important as the art and the story. They're one thing.

I'll shut up now.

Nrama: No no… Besides your own, can you point to some other designs and/or designers working in comics that you pay particular attention to?

Muller: I think Rian Hughes and Brian Wood are doing some excellent modern, relevant design work in comics.

Nrama: Back in 2005 you did a short story in the first Mam Tor title. Do you plan on doing more comics work?

Muller: I'd love to. It’s just a matter of time really.

Nrama: Rounding out our discussion and letting you get back to work, what’s your stimuli for design – to get your blood flowing?

Muller: The idea of doing something new and interesting.

 

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