Everyone has seen and perhaps loved these types of covers, but didn’t know what they were called, or where the unusual graphic technique comes from. The concept has been around for over a century, showing up on advertising posters and magazine covers, but it was a watercolorist working for Life magazine (an earlier humor publication, not the later pictorial magazine) named Coles Phillips who refined and made enormously popular the technique that is still attached to his name today.
When asked if he had a fresh, new visual idea for the magazine’s covers that would attract attention and improve sales, Phillips knew exactly what graphic gimmick he would use. His first cover featuring this trick was the May 1908 issue of Life. The cover featured a woman in a white dress on a white background, feeding white chickens. Her shape was defined only by the black polka dots on her dress. He called the technique “The Fadeaway” and it was an immediate hit.
The Fadeaway typically features a foreground figure in solid colored clothing, placed on a solid background the same color as the clothing. The colors merge seamlessly, causing the figure to “fade away” into the background, with the figure’s edges defined by surrounding objects or sometimes by a contrasting pattern on the clothing. The fool-the-eye approach does what great advertising design is supposed to do: grab your attention!
Soon, Phillips was so in demand for his talents, he was producing Fadeaway covers for The Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and even The Saturday Evening Post. From 1908 until his untimely death in 1927, the “Coles Phillips Fadeaway” made him not only nationally famous, but famous worldwide.
Books are still being produced on his innovative technique. He is included in graphic design and poster design history books, and aspiring graphic designers and illustrators around the globe still learn about him in art school.
So, it’s no surprise that Phillips’ influence is still evident 100-plus years later, as his technique pops up often on comic book covers. It’s still being used today and is still as eye-catching as ever. Hopefully, it will never fade away.
More examples of Fadeaway comic covers are shown below...