Illustrating comic book covers is an art form. Its presentation needs to grab a reader’s attention on a shelf littered with hundreds of different titles. For a licensed property like Star Trek, cover art becomes even more important to generate new fan interest as well as keeping regular readers hooked.
Luckily for IDW Comics, one of its Star Trek variant cover artist, George Caltsoudas, is more than up to the task.
No recent cover seized fan’s attention more than Star Trek: Boldly Go #4, depicting Kelvin Timeline Spock in the process of being assimilated by the Borg. If fans were not yet reading the newly launched ongoing series, it was hard to “resist” as Caltsoudas cover revealed all bets were off in the new title written by Mike Johnson and illustrated by Tony Shasteen.
“I was told to play with the idea that Spock might be turned into a Borg,” Caltsoudas explained. “But, I wanted him as only half-Borg, to show him in a transitional state so you don’t know exactly what will happen in the issue.”
Discovering comic books at the age of 10, Caltsoudas’ grandmother allowed him to check out a nearby comic book store as she dropped of dry cleaning. He was immediately drawn to Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #50, but it wasn’t until he flipped to the page with a Jim Lee pin-up of the Dark Knight that Caltsoudas knew comic book artist was what he wanted to do with his life.
Combining his marketing sensibilities from his full-time graphic designer job and desire to remind fans of how comic book covers used to appear 50 years ago, the Greek-Canadian artist is producing some of the most striking art on shelves.
“Why aren’t covers more like how they used to be when you got a sense of what the story was going to be,” Caltsoudas posited. “I love those covers from the 60s and 70s; there is something missing today. However, now that I am inside the industry, I understand why it’s difficult as covers are due so far in advance. Despite that, IDW’s Trek team and I made a strong effort to accomplish that goal with the first 12 covers for Boldly Go.”
Comic books are solicited to retailers at least three months in advance of publication, which means the cover art needs to be ready prior to the listing. That is a lot of lead time for a story that can ultimately change before it arrives in reader’s hands. Caltsoudas takes part in a discussion each month with Sarah Gaydos, IDW Group Editor, and Johnson (among others), throwing around ideas that also considers the issue’s plot as well as how to market the comic.
Often, Caltsoudas will focus on the issue’s central character for the cover theme.
“We will do a character study because Mike knows the issue will be about that character. I try to figure out what that character would be doing, so they are not just standing there. With Bones (for Star Trek: Boldly Go #6), I just came up with the idea.
At first I thought I was going to put him on a forest planet, but decided I wanted something more Mad Men. Karl Urban has something 1960s Mad Men about him, and I always loved the Ten-Forward bar Whoopi Goldberg hosted in The Next Generation. Plus, McCoy is very much like this cover in the Kelvin Timeline – cool and stylish.”
Prior to joining the Star Trek comic book team at IDW, Caltsoudas worked with an agency on the marketing for Star Trek Into Darkness. His experience brainstorming promotional material allowed him a unique perspective when it comes to selling each issue with one image. Currently with genre posters, montages are all the rage as companies attempt to pack the one-sheet with as many characters featured in the film.
However, Caltsoudas prefers more action-based images like his already iconic cover to Star Trek: Boldly Go #1 with our heroes beaming onto a planet ready to go.
“Boldly Go suggests action and I had never seen them teleporting midway, ready to bounce into a new adventure. I try to make every cover feel like a story in progress. You don’t know what happened before or what will occur immediately after.
“It’s a nice challenge to find ways to make things fresh. When drawing the ship, what is exciting? I look for an angle that has not been seen before. On the marketing campaigns for Star Trek, we always see the ship head on, but what would it look like if we see it from a different angle – it’s all about presentation. What does it look like piercing through the clouds? What does it look like crashing towards Earth?
“I remember doing a lot of sketches for Into Darkness in the shape of the logo in the rubble. There were a lot more edgy things, like Khan appearing in the captain’s chair and crew dead around his feat. I like the more hopeful and optimistic campaign for Star Trek Beyond. That image of the ship bursting through the clouds into the psychedelic colors is more what I am about. I like the hopeful attitude that’s Star Trek stands for.”
One other area Caltsoudas must consider when illustrating his Star Trek covers is approval from CBS. Licensed characters need to reflect the actor images and the artist’s highly-stylized work could have become an issue. He is very conscious of not just producing photo realistic images (otherwise, why not just have photographs on the cover).
“CBS has been really open to explore. Artists in general portray the characters in a more iconic way. With my style, when I’m drawing characters in portrait or close up, I add more details so it’s more realistic.
“I’ve done covers for Mirror Broken, and I felt I had a really good likeness for issue three with Dr. Crusher. Fans have such an admiration for the the Next Generation characters that you want to get the likenesses, but still make it look cartoony for a comic.”
Support from fans on Caltsoudas’ work has been vocal, so much so that the response to his first Star Trek cover, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy #2, garnered him the opportunity to work on the first six issue of Boldly Go, which turned into the first 12, plus six covers for Star Trek: Mirror Broken, and now the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery comic, debuting this month.
While he enjoyed coming up with the concepts and finished product for the Spock-Borg and McCoy bar issues, his favorite might surprise fans.
“Starfleet Academy is still my best Trek cover art to date. I think it’s my best work.”
Caltsoudas’ Star Trek origin story is typical of professionals hired to do a job. While he enjoyed watching reruns of the Original Series and remembered Guinan in TNG when he was younger – “that lady in Sister Act,” he admitted as a six year-old at the time, its idea went over his head at the time. Yet, like everyone who eventually works intimately in the franchise, Caltsoudas appreciates the ideas Gene Roddenberry presented.
“You see that theme of family a lot in the Kelvin films – it does seem like that theme is recurring when Kirk is trying to do what’s right for his crew/family. Those films seem to be about tackling complicated social political relationships within the human race instead of with other alien races.
Which maybe says more about relations in America today, than what Roddenberry was trying to say about international relations back when TOS was being made.”