Cover Volume 1
Brian Michael Bendis (creator, writer), David Mack (creator, writer, artist), Carlos M. Mangual (letterer), Zu Orzu (digital colourist)
Cover Volume 1 was not what I expected it to be.
David Mack regularly speaks about his work with the State Department as a cultural ambassador, and does so again in the introduction to Cover, where he touches on his teaching in Tunisia with the Countering Violent Extremism program to counteract the agenda of Libyan extremist groups looking to recruit susceptible youth. Though he’s unable to offer much detail, he does mention a particular event that he shared with long time friend and colleague, Brian Michael Bendis, where a speaker was shut down during their presentation by militia, and several of the organizers were taken prisoner. Given how creators like Tom King—who is quoted on the cover of Cover as “a former spy type”—have spoken about and used their experiences in the CIA to shape their work, I came into Cover expecting something a lot more serious and spy thriller-y. Instead, I found something delightfully amusing that I wish I had grabbed sooner.
This is not the story of Mack’s State Department work and experiences, though he hopes one day to work with Bendis on such a story. Instead, as described on its back cover, it is “their conspiratorial love letter to the comics industry.” It’s a little bit slice-of-life, a little bit satirical, revealing what it’s like for high profile comic creators hopping from one exhausting convention to another, then sequestering themselves in their hidey holes to churn out comic pages. There’s a lot less spy thriller going on than the initial promotion implies, and a lot more stumbling into and around the industry when you suddenly find yourself caught up with an intelligence agency. Comic creators spend their time imagining grandiose adventures for their characters, but given their actual lifestyles and work habits, just how successful they’d be if thrown into a career of international espionage is left to be seen.
Max Field is an artist who very much resembles Mack in both appearance and lifestyle as he busily works on comics and sells his work at conventions. He is most well known for Ninja Sword Odyssey, the story of a young boy who is honed into a weapon through his masters. Given Mack’s background and his own major work, Kabuki, the similarities are obvious. Ninja Sword Odyssey even comes to life through interludes drawn and painted within the main story of Max’s adventures. Opening with a busy convention hall packed with cosplayers and customers, with snippets of chatter scattered around, the scene is set with familiar sounds and shapes any convention-goer can understand.
At one particular convention, Max meets a fan with deep-pockets named Julia. She appears several more times in his travels, until she reveals herself as a counterintelligence recruiter who happens to have recruited the unwitting Max into becoming a spy. Given the recent upsurge of intelligence agencies, including CSIS and the CIA, actively tabling at conventions, this doesn’t seem at all implausible. Julia’s logic is that, based on the amount of travel comic pros do to promote their work, it serves as the perfect cover for other kinds of work. Where I expected Max to either embrace the role and become a spy extraordinaire, or be a well-meaning but bumbling comedy show, he instead spends a lot of time passing through events much like a deer in headlights—with Julia pulling the strings as needed, then disappearing for long stretches of time while Max goes back to the mundane routines of his life, including time spent with his good friend Owen. Just how personal these moments get in comparison to Bendis and Mack’s real life is left for the reader to decide.
It’s impossible to get bored with the panels when Mack’s art is involved. Incorporating various techniques and colour schemes, from watercolour pastels to monochromatic, thick-lined inks, Mack hops back and forth with each page feeling like an experiment in pushing the envelope of white space versus what’s allowed to fit within each panel. Michael Avon Oeming and Bill Sienkiewicz join the party to amusing and epic effect, representing the other comic pro characters depicted in the story.
Riffing on the title, the variant covers for Cover Volume 1 are something truly unique: each variant cover artist was tasked with creating a cover featuring themselves as a spy. Those covers again promise that Cover is the spy thriller it tricks us into thinking it is, but the reality is a much warmer, funny, and a little bit melancholy insight into the life of comic book pros just trying to tell the stories they love.