What kind of superhero is Eli Manning for beating the Packers?

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Today's tabloids, Jan. 19, 2012. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

Daily News: We'll do this quickly and get to the meat of the matter after we've talked about both covers. The News ordered up a Superman theme, even bringing in the old comic-book lettering to dub Eli Manning, the Giants' star quarterback, "SUPERMANN." The words are spread across the bottom of a shot in which Manning is celebrating. A not-particularly helpful dek, floating in space in the upper right (and somehow not quite "locked in" to the composition as a result), reads "Eli's Giants one away from big game." Well, actually, they just had a big game; if the paper wanted to just inform with this text, why not "one away from Super Bowl"? As the weeks wind down toward that big game, the News reminds us that they have "N.Y.'s #1 SPORTS SECTION." This is in a blue dot at the bottom of the page.

New York Post: We get closer to Eli in this shot, which is of Manning with his fist clenched in a "yeah!" position. (Although actually his mouth looks like it's saying "all right!") "AMEN!" reads the giant, huge, enormous knockout-white text at the bottom; in the upper right, "Eli tosses 'Hail Mary,' crushes Packers." Unlike the News front, this page looks battened down: The dek doesn't look like it could fall down or float out of the frame of the front page, Eli gets a nice tight crop, and the word AMEN! literally anchors the page.

Observations: Before we get to substance: Sometimes the Post crams its page with stuff, and it feels a bit like it's about to explode. In the case of the News, there are sometimes too many stories, all sold in little boxes. But the front page, I was thinking this weekend, is a bit like a tackle box. You kind of want things to fill their compartments, without a lot of room to jostle around.

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Increasingly, the News front looks airy to me, like it was designed not by tabloid designers but by book-jacket designers. Why isn't "SUPER MANN" bigger? Why so much space between the left and right margin and the graphic? Why the medium, up-and-down type on the dek, floating in the middle of that blankish crowd-blur space that is taking up the upper right-hand quarter of this picture? Basically the News looks a bit like if you put it in your trunk and drove somewhere, when you took the paper out again the headlines and pictures would have spilled all over; the Post looks tightly packed. Is this a purely personal obsession?

OK, now for the substance: Last night's defeat of the Green Bay Packers by the New York Giants was pretty much a guaranteed front-page takeover. (And, anyway, nothing much very newsworthy happened over the weekend except maybe the Italian cruise-liner?) The question was always one of subtle shadings: How will the forward-looking story of the Giants' march to their last game before the Super Bowl (whether they're to be in it or not) and the story of last night's game be swirled together into a forceful front page?

Imagery was never an issue. Sports imagery has its complications, of course: A front page demands a face, but in football in particular, faces are just what you usually don't get in dramatic close-ups of game-changing moments. On the other hand, post-game "celebrations" on the field, where you might get faces, all look the same in still photos, and it's hard to feel like you're ever getting the kind of victory photo that isn't already burned into readers' retinas from endless sports covers of the past. Look for yourself at the general type of material the tabloids had to work with, here.

Then there's something else: What if a certain player's expression says it all, somehow, about the game, the feelings of the team's fans, or of the city, but it's a picture of the punter? The papers also have to crown one, or two, or a maximum of three players the "face" of the team. So that's a restriction, too.

Now beyond question an "elite quarterback," Eli Manning is the face of the team. Manning's big dramatic role in a game, as quarterback, is to find another player way out there and get the ball to him. The longer the pass the more dramatic. The catch is much more likely to make for a dramatic picture than the throw is. 

So it's unsurprising that the two tabloids chose photos that were similar.

The question is what we're saying about the Giants today. And the answer is that both papers are basically saying the reason the Giants may well go to the Super Bowl this year is because it's a team of stars. Manning is essential, but he's not the team's hero; it's a team that doesn't need a hero. The team is an organism, and it's functioning very well right now.

So, "SUPER MANN," with the lettering that labels him a hero, and the old news that they are "one game closer" to the big one? Or "AMEN!", which describes the reaction to the Giants' beating last year's championship team but seems to be applied to a pass that, while amazing, was not the decisive play in last night's game?

I appreciate the News' broader take: I think it more accurately conveys what the paper has to say inside. But finally, even if it's not quite true, picking your moment and making it carry everything is often going to be the way to give the cover impact.

Winner: New York Post.